Thursday, December 16, 2010

Unmasking politics in the Science Guild

From Eastern Mennonite University, 1200 Park Rd, Harrisonburg, VA 22802, USA
My last post contained a sizable (for the web) theological academic paper, in which I quote James Davison Hunter who says that “politics has become a 'social imaginary' that defines the horizon of understanding and the parameters for action” and “is the way in which social life and its problems are imagined and it provides the framework for how Christians envision solutions to those problems” (To Change the World, 168). Both Hunter and I are writing within and for the Church.

Perhaps a helpful comparison could be drawn to other disciplined community traditions, say, the hard sciences. Daniel Sarewitz has an article up on Slate that piqued my interest in this regard: Lab Politics: Most scientists in this country are Democrats. That's a problem. Here's the final paragraph:
...there is clearly something going on that is as yet barely acknowledged, let alone understood. As a first step, leaders of the scientific community should be willing to investigate and discuss the issue. They will, of course, be loath to do so because it threatens their most cherished myths of a pure science insulated from dirty partisanship. In lieu of any real effort to understand and grapple with the politics of science, we can expect calls for more "science literacy" as public confidence begins to wane. But the issue here is legitimacy, not literacy. A democratic society needs Republican scientists.
Similar dynamics are going on in the Church in America, which Hunter explores in-depth. How's this for a revision for comparison?
...leaders of the [Church in America] should be willing to investigate and discuss the issue [of partisan politics shaping the imaginations of Christians]. They will, of course, be loath to do so because it threatens their most cherished myths of a pure [religion] insulated from dirty partisanship. In lieu any real effort to understand and grapple with the politics of [Jesus], we can expect calls for more ["Christian literacy"] as public confidence [in the Church] begins to wane. But the issue here is legitimacy, not literacy.
Is the scientific community in America at risk of becoming marginalized in the imaginations of the broad public, as the Church has over the past century? Is this necessarily a bad thing? For the Church, the Anabaptist critique of Constantinianism says "No," this is actually an opportunity. Could it be an opportunity for the hard sciences to become more self-reflective about their Enlightenment philosophical sacred cows, thereby becoming less beholden to American-political discourse?

How might this interdisciplinary/interfaith discussion be carried out?

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Radical Biblical and Cultural Interpretation and World-changing

From Harrisonburg, VA
Many of my friends at seminary and on Facebook are no doubt tired of me whining about the paper I'm posting here via Scribd (impressive service, btw). Taking shape in my head for over two months, it's finally done and I'll turn it in to my professor this afternoon. The paper is a review/synthesis and attempt at integration of two significant books which I read this fall, the latter of which I've recently mentioned here:
The primary presupposition for the paper is that it was written by a Christian (me) within and for the Church. Non-Christians might find some interesting material, especially the contemporary philosophical and sociological material, which challenge prevailing Western and American views and practices. Another presupposition that I point out in the paper is that I'm working primarily with the Church in America. Global concerns are important and named but are not the focus of the paper.  The paper can be most succinctly summarized by saying it deals with one working assumption that leads to two consequences explored in the paper.
  • Assumption (later unpacked): Christians operate with a limited understanding of culture
  • Consequence 1: Christians operate with a limited understanding of the biblical text
  • Consequence 2: Christians set off on quixotic engagements with culture
Finally, a note on how this is posted. An academic paper does not "copy and paste" well into the blog format. The nature of the two media are far too disparate. Academic papers have footnotes, blog posts have hyperlinks, and trying to shoe-horn one into the other is a nightmare. This is why I'm so impressed with my first use of Scribd as a publishing platform. It allows both to be true to themselves while offering the best of social media for papers and publications like this.

So read on after the break if you're ready for a big 20-page exploration of Christians and culture in America...

[Update, Jan. 11, 2011: Just uploaded an edited and revised version of the paper below, which was submitted for an upcoming symposium in February.]

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Review: Anabaptist Preaching

From Eastern Mennonite University, 1200 Park Rd, Harrisonburg, VA 22802, USA
Anabaptist Preaching first caught my eye when my friend, Brett, took preaching class last fall, the last time former EMS dean, Ervin Stutzman, taught it before his transition to executive director of the Mennonite Church USA. It was assigned reading at that time and so for a while it was laying around Brett's study carrel which is right next to mine. My church tradition, the Church of the Brethren, has historical Anabaptist roots but as I've recently observed, those qualities have mostly bled out of the denominational consciousness and expression. So I've been going through a process of happily reclaiming Anabaptism these past two years at seminary.  Given, then, my high interest with anything Anabaptist-related, the title to this book itself was enough to get it on my mental “to-read” list, filed away for later. When our new seminary dean, Michael King, was brought on this year I was pleasantly surprised to learn that he was a co-editor of this book, as well as contributing the second chapter. So after a year's wait I've finally had a chance to read it and have put down a few quick thoughts in review...

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

The Social Media Gospel

From Eastern Mennonite University, 1200 Park Rd, Harrisonburg, VA 22802, USA
Arianna Huffington has an interesting piece up over at her online namesake: Facebook, Twitter and the Search for Peace in the Middle East. In the article, she names a handful of examples from the Arab world where digital, networked technology and the social media that ride atop it, are creating new opportunities for social change (under the familiar banner, "Peace in the Middle East"). While she does name social media's and other technologies' roles in contributing to terrorism, the tenor of the piece of mostly optimistic, best summed up in the final two paragraphs:
And though, as we've seen, technology can be used to terrorize and divide, social media, by its nature, tilts toward bringing down barriers and connecting people. Which is what is starting to happen in the Middle East -- a powerful tool in the crucial battle for hearts and minds being waged between the terrorists and the moderates.

No longer is our best hope for change in the region the far-too-often failed process of our government pressuring their governments. If fundamental change happens, it's going to come from the bottom up -- with social media fueling the transformation.
Read on for a few questions I have about Huffington's assumptions about technology and social change...

Saturday, December 4, 2010

A musical eschaton

From Eastern Mennonite University, 1200 Park Rd, Harrisonburg, VA 22802, USA
Nearly 15 years ago a handful of high school buddies with some modicum of musical talent came together and formed a band called “Honnold.” It's an odd word, “Honnold.” It's a German family name, as well as the name of the eponymous street in Monroe, Iowa, our hometown. Yes, I was in Honnold, which existed as a proper rock band for just two years before college scattered us across the country, far from each other and our childhood homes in small-town Iowa. As our lives have taken shape since then, Honnold has lived on in various ways, both musically and otherwise. The former drummer, Kyle, and I, with a few other friends along the way, have managed to record three albums, the most recent one in 2008. Especially for Kyle and I, the songwriting and recording bug has never stopped biting, so I suppose we'll continue to periodically come together and do that for years to come.

Writing lyrics has been my least favorite part of songwriting since day one. It's never the first thing that comes to me and it's often pushed to the absolute end of my creative process. I fancy myself a wordsmith but there's something about lyrics that I've never gotten the knack for. There are a few Honnold songs, though, whose lyrics seem to have hit the mark and continue to have particular poignancy vis-a-vis my spiritual journey. The purpose of this post is to explore the lyrics of one such song and let them be a bidirectional lens for reflection on aspects of my spiritual/religious formation. So let's begin at the end.

First, take a listen to the song in question:
Last Song by Honnold

Now read on for the extended reflection...

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Jesus Christ the Apple Tree

From Eastern Mennonite University, 1200 Park Rd, Harrisonburg, VA 22802, USA
My friend Matt, who handles music for chapel worship at EMS, sent me a last-minute request this morning to help out on a few songs. Happily agreeing, I walked into Martin Chapel 30 minutes before worship having never heard two of the three songs. The one song I'd like to share here is called "Jesus Christ the Apple Tree," whose lyrics are attributed to an unknown 18th century New Englander (thx, Wikipedia; though my prof said 17th century). Anyway, the arrangement we used in worship, and the one used for the video below is by Elizabeth Poston, a 20th century British composer. The video below is a performance in the 90s by the Choir of King's College, Cambridge. Check it out...

After the break you'll find the lyrics, which are as beautiful as the music, and theologically vivid and rich. Because of the echo in the recording, it is helpful to look at them. Give the song a few plays, both watching the video but also going over the lyrics as they're sung. Ethereal and moving...

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Wikileaks and societal tectonics

From Eastern Mennonite University, 1200 Park Rd, Harrisonburg, VA 22802, USA
As I was reading the article/interview of WikiLeaks' Julian Assange by Andy Greenberg at Forbes, suddenly the analogy of plate tectonics popped into my head. This whole WikiLeaks phenomenon strikes me as just one instance (but a pretty significant one) of what is analogous to the earthquakes that occur topside as a result of our planet's very deep structures shifting more slowly and far more significantly than we can probably imagine.

We are living in a time of significant social change on a global scale and there are rift zones creating a lot of pressure these days, and issues that are visible to us cluster around these rift zones. One significant source of pressure is the nation-state, an Enlightenment idea given concrete political expressions starting roughly in the 18th century. One concrete political expression of this idea of the nation-state is, of course, the United States of America. So read on for a few quick reflections on this and how theology comes in...

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Giving thanks for what, exactly?

From Eastern Mennonite University, 1200 Park Rd, Harrisonburg, VA 22802, USA
Turkey fried! (by Lily Gicker)
James K.A. Smith put a great post up over the Thanksgiving weekend: The Secularization of Thanksgiving and the Sacralization of the Military. It's a quick read but he does heavy lifting in that short space. His analogy of the American soldier as the "warrior-priest" protecting our materialistic freedom has some resonance with me, especially if filtered through the lens of country music.

In the song "Chicken Fried" by the Zac Brown Band you'll find the following lyrics toward the end:
I thank God for my life
And for the stars and stripes
May freedom forever fly
Let it ring.
Salute the ones who died
The ones that give their lives
So we don't have to sacrifice
All the things we love
Like our chicken fried (the chorus goes on to list: cold beer, blue jeans, etc.)
Let me be frank: I'm no fan of contemporary country music and this song is probably the most shining example of why that is. My bellyaching has less to do with my being a pacifist vis-a-vis the song's referencing of military service than it does with this song being crassly materialistic and idolatrous. Heaven forbid that we'd have to stop eating fried chicken and drinking beer.

I don't want to sound like a complete jerk about this so, yes, over Thanksgiving I enjoyed many of the same things that Zac Brown holds so dear in the song: Poultry, football, and even cold beer (on a Friday night, no less). Heck, I was even wearing a pair of jeans that fit just right! That's all nice stuff that I don't want to take for granted, but to signal an unwillingness to sacrifice those things? Indeed, the logic of the song implies that God doesn't want us to sacrifice our creature comforts, which is far outside the fence of orthodox Christian teaching. Jesus' call to those who would be his disciples is to "deny yourselves, take up your crosses, and follow me" (paraphrase of Mark 8:34). Also note the use of the word "love" in the lyrics. Biblical love looks much different than the song's list of great American leisure activities and culinary delights.

I realize I'm putting a lot of freight on a pop culture artifact, but it's worth questioning the pop theology that pervades public life and always has some formative influence on our faith and discipleship, whether we know it or not (more often not).

Monday, November 22, 2010

More on the neo-Anabaptist take-over and Brethren ramblings

From Eastern Mennonite University, 1200 Park Rd, Harrisonburg, VA 22802, USA
Back in early October I made a quick post directing people to the blog of John Fea, professor of American history at Messiah College, who was responding to an argument from Mark Tooley that neo-Anabaptists were trying to take over America. Fea's was a fun conversation in which I made a few comments. Well, apparently, Tooley's argument is still a bur in the saddle of a few Mennonites because in the past few weeks, two more posts showed up:
Both men make some good points and I'll not restate them here. What's happened for me since early October is having worked through 2/3 of James Davison Hunter's new-ish book, To Change the World. A professor of religion, culture, and social theory at the University of Virginia, and a confessing Christian, Hunter's is a fascinating book that's written (in some sense) within and for the church, particularly in America. It's a wonderful mix of sociology and theology, insightful cultural description and a constructive argument for faithfulness in the world, which he terms "faithful presence."

In sequential chapters of section 2 of the book, Hunter goes after the Christian Right, the Christian Left, and neo-Anabaptists, essentially saying their respective pet concerns are valid ones based on real societal conundrums, but their animating political ideologies lead them into all manner of "adventures in missing the point" (which may turn McLaren's and Campolo's clever book title around on them). I join others in not being completely convinced of Hunter's critique of neo-Anabaptists, but also find much to be humbled by.

What strikes me from this conversation about neo-Anabaptists, both in Hunter and the response to Tooley's (flawed) argument, is that, within the Church of the Brethren, there really doesn't seem to be much Anabaptism (neo or otherwise) left. At the denominational level and at the Brethren seminary, the animating ideology seems to be the Christian Left, while at the congregational level prevailing attitudes seem to be driven by the Christian Right. Hunter even aludes to this phenomenon in his footnotes, citing the work of Brethren sociologist (and his peer at UVA), Carl Bowman.

So while Mennonites are seeing these Left/Right ideological dichotomies emerge more and more in their North American institutions, the Brethren lead them in this regard by a few decades. It's almost as if Anabaptism isn't even an option anymore for Brethren, at least not at the institutional level where the power is most concentrated (and most contested). All this considered, taken with my recent historical studies of Brethren beliefs and practices, seems to paint a picture for me that looks like this: In their rush to respectability in the late 19th and through the 20th centuries, the Brethren drank too deeply from the cultural wells of a rapidly changing American society. Now all we're left with is the political culture setting the terms of conversation.

I've heard this painful analogy used with respect to the above: The Brethren are the "canary in the coal mine" for Mennonites. Obviously all analogies have their limits and this is no exception, but it does have some weight in my assessment. It hasn't been enough to scare me away from the Brethren (far from it!), but I've found that it puts me in a relatively fringe position, not quite feeling at home in many if any active Brethren circles. Heck, I'm at a Mennonite seminary and that in itself is telling.

Friday, November 19, 2010

A (Wimpy) Facebook Theology

From Eastern Mennonite University, 1200 Park Rd, Harrisonburg, VA 22802, USA
Virtual divine encounter?
In his post, "A Facebook Theology," practical theology professor, Bruce Epperly, encourages his readers and fellow believers to approach Facebook as "an altar on the Internet and a place of spiritual awakening." Advice is given on how to pray for friends both new and old while scrolling through status updates, as well as how to take the occasional Facebook page-loading delay as an opportunity for a quick prayer rather than being annoyed and frustrated that you're not getting your fix as quickly as you'd like.

Before I continue, I should say that I'm not categorically opposed to what Epperly is saying in his post. In fact, I approach Facebook in similar ways, as a ministry opportunity to some (I would say limited) degree. So read on after the break for where Epperly and I may like to mince theological words; lovingly, of course, for the edification of the body...

Friday, November 12, 2010

New Brethren blogger: Carl Bowman

From Eastern Mennonite University, 1200 Park Rd, Harrisonburg, VA 22802, USA
Just a few weeks ago, Brethren sociologist, Carl Bowman, started blogging at Brethren Cultural Landscape, and Brethren seem to have taken notice, actively commenting on his posts. Right now he seems to be making posts based on his 2006 Brethren Member Profile survey research, which went into the book, Portrait of a People: The Church of the Brethren at 300, which I read over the summer.

Having been familiar with his work for a few years now, I was recently surprised to find that his PhD advisor at the University of Virginia was James Davison Hunter, whose book, To Change the WorldI'm reading now. Both Hunter and Bowman are involved in the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at UVA.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

New background: Ephrata chapel window

From Ephrata, PA, USA
Click for high-res
Despite having been Brethren all my life, I had never been to Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, what I've recently been affectionately referring to as the "Anabaptist motherland of the U.S." Well, this past weekend, I finally made it up there with my family.

One of the places we stopped was the Ephrata Cloister, an 18th century monastic community that was started by Conrad Beissel, who I'll simply refer to as a Brethren mystic. He was much more than Brethren, but I'll go ahead and claim him. Just one tidbit I learned while there: We share the same birthday (March 1).

The excuse my family had for heading up to Lancaster was to finish some Brethren studies I'd been doing with Jeff Bach, the director of the Young Center for Anabaptist and Pietist Studies at Elizabethtown College (and also my childhood pastor). Jeff, as it turns out, literally wrote the book on the Ephrata Cloister! Voices of the Turtledoves: The Sacred World of Ephrata was published by Penn. State Press in 2006 and sits in the gift shop at Ephrata, where one guy from the tour bought a copy and sheepishly asked "Dr. Bach" if he would sign it. This gave me a chuckle, but it was super-awesome to wander around the grounds with the guy who probably knows more about Ephrata than anyone else in the world at this point.

So the new background for the blog, which I've also linked to a high-res pic in this post, is from the building called the Saal (see map), which originally served the sisters of the community. It was taken on my little rinky-dink Kodak ZI8 videocamera, which does't typically take good stills, but this one came out pretty cool. The old stock photo of mountains was slick and all, but this new background has some personal and traditional meaning. Also, the high-res pic makes a great desktop wallpaper!

A graceful dictionary of faith

From Eastern Mennonite University, 1200 Park Rd, Harrisonburg, VA 22802, USA
Kathleen Norris' book, Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith, is a wonderful narrative dictionary/lexicon for the Christian language (in English, anyway). She approaches the task by taking "church words" that always made her uncomfortable - even helping drive her away from the church for a few decades - and re-narrating their meaning in light of Scripture, Church tradition, and her own experience of re-entering the Christian life. As part a class assignment, but also because I think these tidbits are worth sharing, here are a few snippets out of each story/definition:

  • From the preface: "Our words are wiser than we are. And that's a good thing. Language used truly, not mere talk, neither propaganda, nor chatter, has real power." (p. 9)
  • Anger: "I wonder if holiness is not the ability to apply one's anger in quietly working against systemic evil, taking care not to draw undue attention to oneself." (p. 126)
  • Antichrist: "Each one of us acts as an Antichrist...whenever we hear the gospel and do not do it." (The words of a pastor, p. 15)
  • Apostasy/Heresy: "The Christian church has always co-existed with heresy, and with any luck it always will. Contending with heresy is what helps keep orthodoxy alive. But good will and sanity are essential, as Christian history is full of evidence that the vigorous rooting out of heretics is a cure worse than the disease." (p. 202)
  • Idolatry: "Maybe God addresses the problem of idolatry at the outset of a new relationship with Israel because human beings are incurable and remarkably inventive idol-makers. And it is all about resisting love. We can even make that resistance an idol, walling ourselves in, physically or emotionally. We can become so safe that, as far as other people are concerned, we might as well be dead." (pp. 91-2)
  • "Organized" Religion: "I have begun to wonder what people mean, exactly, when they say they have no use for 'organized' religion. They mean to reject Christianity in an intellectual sense, or to resist what what they perceive as the power structures of Christendom. But as it is the ordinary church congregation that most Christians dwell in, and that defined Christian experience from the beginning, I have come to suspect that when people complain about 'organized' religion what they are really saying is that they can't stand other people. At least not enough to trust them to help work out a 'personal' spirituality." (p. 258, emphasis mine)
I'm naturally drawn to storytellers like Norris. It's the same reason I loved reading Brian McClaren's A Generous Orthodoxy a few years ago. He said he entered the ministry "through the back door of the English department," and at the time I was working on a BA in English and dreaming of seminary. Norris' Amazing Grace is no seminary/lit nerd book, though. It's eminently approachable for a wide audience, churched or otherwise. I'd probably quibble on fine theological points but she's on the right track to correct Christians who have misappropriated the Christian language while simultaneously offering an olive branch to people still wary or downright afraid of it (i.e. the Christian language/"church words").

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Casting the web of ministry

From Eastern Mennonite University, Harrisonburg, VA 22802, USA
Photo by Chris Bainbridge
The work of faith in my life popped up on the web in a few places last week, that I'll just quickly point to:

It's worth checking out the whole November 2010 issue of posts on the Work and Hope blog, where the various authors and the editors wrestle with the important and ever-fresh question: What is Church?

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Polling us apart?

From Eastern Mennonite University, Harrisonburg, VA 22802, USA
Photo: Ken Wilson, under CC lic.
It's mid-term election day and I'm astounded by the amount of Facebook swag being proudly displayed by many of my friends exercising their civic right to do so. There is no such digital reward for people like me...

After having voted in all presidential elections since I was eligible to do so (2000), I've spent a good healthy portion of this year thinking about - to use a phrase borrowed from a small John Howard Yoder book - the Christian witness to the state. Early on, for a complex of reasons I won't get into in this post: I decided not to vote this in this year's mid-term election. I feel a profound sense of peace about this (not just today, but over the course of the year).

To keep this post short, I'll simply point to an excellent 2005 essay by Mennonite historical scholar, John Roth, which was written in the wake of the 2004 presidential elections. (Thx to my seminary friend on F'book who pointed me here...)

Polls Apart by John Roth

Roth's four points are worth quickly listing here:
  1. Not voting in the presidential election might be understood as a practical expression of our pacifist convictions.
  2. From the perspective of an Anabaptist Christian, differences among the presidential candidates are illusory.
  3. Voting our faith represents “Constantinian logic.”
  4. The individualism and privacy of voting is in sharp tension with our communal understanding of faith.
  5. Not voting in national elections may have a symbolic and pedagogical value.
Did you vote today? Why or (more interestingly) why not?

Monday, October 25, 2010

Dipping the toe to the jacuzzi that is Philosophy

From Eastern Mennonite University, Harrisonburg, VA 22802, USA
Come on in, the water is fiiiiine.
Over the course of this year, which has consisted of the end of my second year of grad school and now the beginning of the third, my theological studies led me ever-closer to the discipline of philosophy. Philosophical writing has never been far from any of my post-secondary education - whether in literature or theology - but I've never taken a formal philosophy class.

For the past few months, I've been following the writing of James K.A. Smith, who is a philosopher by trade, teaching the discipline at Calvin College. He is a self-described "theological philosopher," which basically means that he does his work in the academy making no bones that the Christian faith (in)forms his craft. The reason I've been following Smith so closely has a lot to do with the fact that he's an amazing blogger. Some of his blog posts have been seeds for essays that eventually get published in book form. So he's a line-blurrer in that regard: I don't see any of the other scholars I'm paying attention to doing their work in this way (which by virtue of this blog is obviously a way I love to work). Further, Smith's public blogging does a great job of translating the highly technical "shop talk" of philosophy into something that makes sense to someone like me. He's a fantastic Christian thinker and writer who knows his various audiences well, and speaks to them each appropriately.

So read on after the break for some quick musings on my (mis)adventures with the discipline of philosophy and how James Smith has helped me inch along...

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Recovering the Love Feast

From Eastern Mennonite University, Harrisonburg, VA 22802, USA
The seminary careers of Paul Stutzman and myself overlapped for one year at Eastern Mennonite Seminary. He was finishing up his last year of an MAR degree while I was starting my dual degree project at the seminary and Center for Justice and Peacebuilding. So now two years later, his master's thesis work has been picked up and published by Wipf and Stock, and it has profound relevance for Brethren!  Check it out...

Recovering the Love Feast: Broadening Our Eucharistic Celebrations
by Paul Fike Stutzman

The foreword is by Eleanor Kreider, who has done considerable work on worship practices at the London Mennonite Center and is now - with her husband, Alan - at the "other" (to me, I say that lovingly) Mennonite seminary, AMBS. The endorsements include a word from Bethany president, Ruthann Knechel Johansen; Brethren sociologist, Carl Bowman; and Brethren historian (and my mentor and former pastor), Jeff Bach!

Paul said it should be available directly off the Wipf and Stock website linked above, and on Amazon within a few weeks. Definitely on my list...

[Note: Cross-posted on the FWFS blog.]

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

The Avett Brothers' narrative doctrine of Love (and Hate)

From Eastern Mennonite University, Harrisonburg, VA 22802, USA
While in sunny Florida this past spring, my friend and I - together with our wives and together without our children - crashed a small hotel room on the beach for three days. We were in town for a wedding, so the clothes strewn around the room were a mix of sand-filled swimming apparel, suit jackets, and dresses. Flip-flops and dress shoes, sunblock and makeup. Late one night, we sat down to share with each other the music that had been tripping our respective triggers in the two years since we'd moved away from each other.

One of the bands my friend introduced me to was The Avett Brothers. They ended up being a sleeper hit for me. The songs he showed me didn't really fit the celebratory mood of weddings and beaches of the moment, but into my collection they went (not them, personally, rather their latest album, I and Love and You). There they waited. Well, this past summer their moment came, and into my heart they walked.

The past two summers have been rough for me. The rigor of graduate academic work has remained, but without the structure of the academic year. These experiences have patterned a physical response of guttural despair at the words..."independent study." Juggling that work with trying to help support the family and be a good husband and father produced some stressful, maybe even depressing, moments. In one such moment, I found myself driving up to Winchester, VA to meet with a professor. The song "Ten Thousand Words" came on and spoke to me at a level a song hadn't done for years. I must have listened to that two or three times on the way up the interstate, tears welling up from the sorry bottoms of my feet.

The rest of my family has also fallen under the Avetts' sway since then. So this past weekend, all three of us drove down to Charlottesville and saw them perform live in an outdoor venue on a beautiful fall night. During the show, Seth Avett performed a song by himself that I hadn't heard before: "The Ballad of Love and Hate," off the Emotionalism album. Here's a very good quality video of the same song performed in 2008 (It's worth switching the vid to HD and going full-screen for this one)...

Now, there are a ton of Avett Brothers songs that are just ripe for theological dialogue. In fact, I've wanted to make this post for months and had a few songs from I and Love and You in mind before hearing "Ballad..." at the show. So in the remainder of this post, I will put the lyrics out for your consideration and then do some theological dialogue with this beautiful song's doctrine (teaching) of Love and, conversely, Hate. A hint at my conclusion: It's very biblical teaching. (I don't want to load that conclusion of mine up on the Avetts; I have no idea what their faith convictions are, and I intentionally didn't go trolling around the web to try and find out, either.) So read on for more!

Monday, October 18, 2010

A Dunker's love for Reformed theology

From Eastern Mennonite University, Harrisonburg, VA 22802, USA
Brethren scholar, Dale Stoffer, has noted the Reformed influences on the early Schwarzenau Brethren - especially Alexander Mack - that have often been overlooked in Brethren scholarship (focusing primarily on Anabaptism and Radical Pietism). This Reformed dimension to my own tradition as a Dunker perhaps explains a bit of my warm regard for some aspects of Calvin's theology and the Reformed tradition more broadly. (I also have Dutch Reformed culture in my family and home community, to further muddy the waters.)

So despite having some pretty fundamental disagreements with "flaming Calvinist" pastor/author/theologian, John Piper, I do hold a tremendous amount of respect for the man, have followed his online musings for a number of years (until he went on sabbatical this year), and found many moments of devotional and theological resonance with his writing.

More recently I've been turned on to the self-described "Reformed Pentecostal" philosophical-theologian, James K.A. Smith, whose new popular-audience book, Letters to a Young Calvinist, was just released by Brazos. Smith's range as an author is staggering. I've read a bit of his scholars-only philosophical writing alongside his more popular writings, and regularly follow his blog...and it's all great. He's very clear and effective in articulating his thought to various audiences. It would be interesting to see some folks in my home community in rural Iowa, the Dutch Reformed and Brethren especially, take up this book (perhaps along w/ Stuart Murray's, The Naked Anabaptist) and see what percolates. I'd love to read both of these books myself, but the chances of that happening are pretty slim. So I commend them to the blogosphere...

(Via: Fors Clavigera.)

Thursday, October 14, 2010

One Step Closer to Awesome!

From Eastern Mennonite University, Harrisonburg, VA 22802, USA
Music is a topic that I haven't written much about on this blog, and that's too bad. It has been seated deep within my being for the whole length of my life. My eyes see the lyrical nature of the world before me. It is mostly through my ears, by hearing stories told in spoken and sung word, that I'm often penetrated to the very core. Music sends my spirit soaring and music evokes my darkest moments, when tears are the only thing left.

And sojourning with me for more than half my life has been the band, U2. I can picture clearly the first few times I heard The Joshua Tree around the age of 11 or 12, sitting on my brother's waterbed, wearing huge headphones plugged into his new CD player (the first in our house), listening to the ethereal and bowel-shaking organ that opens "Where the Streets Have No Name," followed by the Edge's angelic guitar riff that opens into a sprint toward paradise. Indeed, since that time I've consistently felt that in that song, "Yes. This is what heaven sounds like."

Simple put: I LOVE U2. A lot. The remainder of this post therefore feels like I'm selling them short, as it will be intended to fulfill class requirements to extract five "golden nuggets" from an assigned book: One Step Closer: Why U2 Matters to Those Seeking God by Christian Scharen, a Lutheran pastor and scholar (and huge U2 fan). But I've spent years with this band and will spend many years more, so perhaps I can come back to them in another way down the road.

A lot of the books I've been talking about lately have been intended for seminary nerds, but this was a refreshing change of pace. It's intended for a broad audience, both in and out of the Church. So read on for a few tidbits from this very cool book about theology through the life and music of a very cool band...

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Deus ex Matrix: Embodied Knowing and Love

From Eastern Mennonite University, Harrisonburg, VA 22802, USA
(or: Toward a "Balls to Bones" Christian witness.)

When I first saw The Matrix just over a decade ago, it seemed like a movie that was made especially with my interests in mind. I was (still am) a life-long techno-nerd: The first kid in my class with a computer at home (Commordore64!), the first kid to get online, an avid reader of sci-fi novels and comic books of all sorts. When the movie was released in 1999, I was 20 years old and just finishing up an associate's degree in computer information systems. I worked for a software company. My buddy and I hung out until all hours playing video games and writing computer code, dreaming of becoming game developers. I had a problem with authority. So as I watched in early scenes of the movie, as Thomas Anderson/Neo slept with his head on his computer keyboard, or got chewed out by his boss for being late to work the next morning, I felt a deep sense of connection to his character. And when the final credits rolled before my eyes for the first time, as Rage Against the Machine's “Wake Up/Rock is Dead” blared, I could only echo Neo's words upon seeing Morpheus jump a chasmic gap between two skyscrapers (I realize this is cheesy): “Whoa.” This movie stuck a chord, the same year that Star Wars: The Phantom Menace struck out in the eyes of this (and many another) life-long Star Wars fan.

Four years passed before the final two installments of The Matrix trilogy were released. Like the Star Wars prequels, I was nonplussed. A brooding, cerebral story seemed to have been replaced by a fetish for over-the-top CGI action, horrendous “love scenes,” ridiculous philosophical conversations, and an overly complicated storyline with too many characters. The first movie was tight, sparse, and full of breathing mystery. The final two shot everything they had all over every scene, nothing left to subtlety. Disappointed, my DVD copy of the original has sat in my dwindling collection for the better part of a decade, collecting dust. Until out of necessity, this project gave it another lease on life to me.

In this post, I will offer reflections on what I'll call “The Doctrine of the Matrix” and then will put the movie into dialogue with Christian theology. After re-engaging with this movie, I've discovered that 1) I still love it, and 2) it has some very interesting biblical imagery/references alongside what I observe as a philosophical tension between knowing and being, or epistemology and ontology. With this latter tension, there may be some surprising parallels to Anabaptist or post-Christendom ways of knowing/being in the Christian faith. So read on for more Deus ex Matrix...

Monday, October 11, 2010

Blogging about blogging

From Eastern Mennonite University, Harrisonburg, VA 22802, USA
"Art and transformation!" -Ryan B.
Last fall, this blog - Restorative Theology - was born. It came into the world in the context of a class called Research as Art and Transformation, taught by Howard Zehr and Paulette Moore at Eastern Mennonite University's Center for Justice and Peacebuilding, where I'm working on an MA in Conflict Transformation. Well, Paulette has asked me to come back to the class this year and talk about the RT blog and how I used it for my research project last year. I'll be going into their class this afternoon to do just that for about 45 minutes. To get ready for that, she sent me a list of questions which I typed up bullet-style responses to, but then thought it would be fun to put the questions and answers about the blog here on the blog itself.

This post isn't about the content of the research project itself (For that, see all other posts related to this class: PAX 524). Rather it's about the question, "Why a blog?," since blogs were just one media/platform option for doing research in this class. So read on to get a feel for the how's and why's about the project that helped give birth to this here blog...

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Neo-Anabaptist Constantinianism?

From Eastern Mennonite University, Harrisonburg, VA 22802, USA
John Fea, associate professor of American history at Messiah College, offers up this interesting post in response to a tirade against neo-Anabaptists and their supposed takeover of America:

Do Neo-Anabaptists Want to Take Over America?

The tirade goes after fellow Christians, scholars whose work I respect a great deal, namely John Howard Yoder, Stanley Hauerwas, and Greg Boyd (also having a pretty good appreciation for Shane Claiborne). Fea offers up a comment on the historical tendency of Anabaptists toward anti-intellectualism, something I work with in the comment I posted. So head over to his blog and check out the interesting conversation...

Monday, October 4, 2010

A pastiche tribute to Art Gish

From Eastern Mennonite University, Harrisonburg, VA 22802, USA
Photo credit: Sahal Abdulle
On that day this past July when Art Gish was tragically killed on his farm in Ohio, I was on another farm a few states away in Iowa, reclining on a porch swing at my in-law's reading Gish's 1972 book, Beyond the Rat Race. It was my first substantive engagement with Gish's writing, and that it was being done on the day he died was sobering and sad. Those two concurrent realities will forever be fused in my mind.

In the ensuing months I've been thinking of a way to honor Gish's life, which I see as deeply resonant with traditional Brethren attempts at living "the simple life" as disciples of Jesus Christ. Art and Peggy Gish have let their lives narrate their faith and theology. In this post, which will be somewhat lengthy and mishmashy, I'll do a few different things that attempt to honor this legacy.  First will be a video that I had nothing to do with, but stands as a great snapshot of Art and Peggy from earlier this year, just months before Art's death. Second, I will do a Gish-inspired social/technological critique of the digital age, which I wrote as part of my Brethren studies over the summer (the occasion for reading Gish's book).

Here's a little Gumm family connection to Gish before I get going: My paternal grandfather and Art were both at the Brethren seminary in the late 60s. One of my dad's little brothers thought Art was Jesus, as he was often seen walking around Bethany's campus with long hair, a beard, and sandals. Finally, as my wife and I have recently been dreaming about what we want to be when we grow up (or at least graduate), the witness of Art and Peggy has had an impact on me. I've recently been thinking that I'd like to be a farmer/peacebuilder/theologian when I grow up.

So read on as I add my little voice to the many who have lamented Art's passing and how Gish's ongoing witness may be relevant to the digital age we find ourselves in...

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

The walking death of hypocrisy

From Eastern Mennonite Seminary, Harrisonburg, VA 22802, USA
Here's a little sermonette I preached yesterday to a "congregation" of two classmates in a preaching class.  We were pushing the lower limit of Jesus' words in Matthew 18: "For where two or three are gathered in my name, there I am with them." (NIV) First, here's the biblical text we were working with, Luke 13:10-17 (also NIV):
On a Sabbath Jesus was teaching in one of the synagogues, and a woman was there who had been crippled by a spirit for eighteen years. She was bent over and could not straighten up at all. When Jesus saw her, he called her forward and said to her, "Woman, you are set free from your infirmity." Then he put his hands on her, and immediately she straightened up and praised God.

Indignant because Jesus had healed on the Sabbath, the synagogue ruler said to the people, "There are six days for work. So come and be healed on those days, not on the Sabbath."

The Lord answered him, "You hypocrites! Doesn't each of you on the Sabbath untie his ox or donkey from the stall and lead it out to give it water? Then should not this woman, a daughter of Abraham, whom Satan has kept bound for eighteen long years, be set free on the Sabbath day from what bound her?"

When he said this, all his opponents were humiliated, but the people were delighted with all the wonderful things he was doing.
Read on after the break for my short sermonic reflections...

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Economics is ALWAYS a morality play

From Eastern Mennonite University, Harrisonburg, VA 22802, USA
Whose image is on this? (Mt. 22)
Let me preface this post with a few things:

  • I am not an economist. For better or worse, I dropped out of the one economics class I took in my undergrad because 1) I changed my major (from journalism to English) and didn't need it anymore and 2) the teacher was terrible.
  • I don't know who Paul Krugman is other than what the page whose link I'm about to post tells me. He's a self-described liberal, has a blog on the NY Times site (a column in the paper too?), and writes about economics.
  • My reflections will not be coming from the field of academic study categorized as "Economics" with its various competing theories that are then put into practice in the world.
Now on with the post! In Paul Krugman's NY Times blog, "The Conscience of a Liberal," he posted something whose mere title gave me pause: Economics Is Not A Morality Play. In this short piece, he makes a few subsequent statements that also make me scratch my head. Namely these:
  • "(E)conomics is not a morality play. It’s not a happy story in which virtue is rewarded and vice punished. The market economy is a system for organizing activity — a pretty good system most of the time, though not always — with no special moral significance." (emphasis in original)
  • On our current economic situation, demanding what he describes as "depression economics": "This is a situation in which virtue becomes vice and prudence is folly; what we need above all is for someone to spend more, even if the spending isn’t particularly wise."
  • "(I)t would have been much better if the Depression had been ended with massive spending on useful things, on roads and railroads and schools and parks. But the political consensus for spending on a sufficient scale never materialized; we needed Hitler and Hirohito instead."
Read on after the break for more on why I'm scratching my head...

Monday, September 27, 2010

Post-Christendom theologians and the craft of lightbulb-changing

From Eastern Mennonite University, Harrisonburg, VA 22802, USA
So two Dunkers and a neo-Jungian psychoanalyst are having an e-mail conversation about postmodernity and one Dunker (my pastor) cracks a joke that gets the other Dunker (me) thinking of a fun little project involving humor and theology.

The question: How many post-Christendom theologians does it take to change a lightbulb?

I put this question out on Facebook and asked fellow theology nerds there to respond. In the process I hooked one professor at EMU into answering and thought it would be cool to try and get some more scholarly opinion surrounding this question. So I sent groveling e-mails to a few scholars I respect and actually got a few bites!

Read on after the break to see the responses and some commentary from yours truly...

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Fluorescent Buzzing Silence

From Harrisonburg, VA, USA
The smell of pot strikes me in passing
Simultaneously out of place
But whispering, familiar, and lost.

Words spit into a cellphone:
"Our bikes have been stolen."
Not a good sign.

Settling in, now the chalkboard imperative:
"Leave this room as you found it."
Fine with me. Empty I entered.
Empty I will depart.

Through the slats in the blinds, and glass,
More percussive words punch through
A story between me and the setting sun
Behind the slouching mountains across the valley.

In this fluorescent buzzing what?
Like it's just what I need today.

Myths and fairy tales; Truths for all times.
Except tonight. Tonight they wait.
Tonight we pause, and in the silence...

Friday, September 24, 2010

Let's call him Carl

From Granger, IA 50109, USA
"You should be doing that at home."

The elderly store clerk looks up from the trash can she was emptying and spots the source of this unsolicited comment: He's just a few years younger than her - maybe 70 - and dressed in ragged blue jeans and an untucked dark blue polo shirt, unbuttoned at the neck. The clerk blows him off and returns to her work.

The obnoxious old man (let's call him "Carl"), meanwhile, has strolled over to the beer cooler and grabbed himself a 40 oz. bottle of Busch Light. With a donut in one hand, I look at my phone in the other: 8:30 a.m. on a Thursday. I chuckle to myself and fall into line behind Carl, who's just grabbed the morning paper. At the register he asks for a pack of GPC's, pays for his beer and smokes and struts out the door, the scuffled hair on the sides of his balding pink-splotched head whipping around in the breeze.

The clerk and I stand inside at the register, but we're both gawking out the window at glorious Carl as he hops into a spotless Cadillac SUV, the morning sun gleaming off the shiny silver rims. Our jaws drop a little lower when Carl pops the cap off his 40 and takes a few swallows off the top. Finally, he lights up a GPC before driving away, probably off to enjoy the best day ever.

Monday, September 20, 2010

DFW, James K.A. Smith-watch!

From Eastern Mennonite University, Harrisonburg, VA 22802, USA
This is a toss-off post just to mark yet another moment of convergence in a year in which two men have ignited my intellectual and religious imagination: David Foster Wallace and James K.A. Smith. I came to each of them through separate social channels over the course of the year, but found out not too long ago that Smith is a DFW fan.

Well, now Smith is shouting out more DFW love on his blog, Fors Clavigera:
I feel some of the same sense of gratitude for DFW that Smith expresses in his first post, and in the latter, Smith is referencing a brilliant 1990 essay, "E UNIBAS PLURAM," published in Wallace's A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again, which is easily the most funny+brilliant book I've ever read. I mean that.

Side-note: James K.A. Smith bears an eerie resemblance to my brother, Matt, with whom I was just talking to last night on the phone about (amongst other things) both DFW and Smith.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Enter the Religious Imagination

From Eastern Mennonite Seminary, Harrisonburg, VA 22802, USA
There must be something about engaging the arts that makes me want to blog. Last fall I took an arts-based research class at EMU's Center for Justice and Peacebuilding and blogged at various points along that journey, including the submission of my final project as a number of posts. This fall I'm taking a class called "The Religious Imagination in Contemporary Culture," taught by EMU visual-communication arts professor, Jerry Holsopple (who periodically blogs at Into the Window and writes on things media-related for Third Way Cafe). We just finished our second class session today and I'm already loving the class. It was a good sign when he started off last week with clips from U2 concerts and this week talking extensively about The Lord of the Rings trilogy.

One item of class business that Jerry is asking for is the submission of what he calls "Golden Nuggets" from our assigned readings. Rather than turning these in on paper or even over e-mail, I thought it might be fun to post them here throughout the semester, along with a few other blog-friendly ideas I have for assigned class work. Read on after the break for the rest of the inaugural post in this class-inspired series...

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Progressive-Conservative leapfrog in the national narrative

From Eastern Mennonite University, Harrisonburg, VA 22802, USA
A few of my peacenik friends on Facebook posted this article from Slate, which I'm thankful for in a sense but also suspicious of.  First, the article:

It's Good To Be King: Don't ridicule Glenn Beck's tribute to MLK. Celebrate it
by William Saletan

I'm thankful for the article because it helps me deal with some of the frustrations I was having with Glenn Beck's rally in D.C. this past weekend. These were small frustrations for me because I was avoiding all media coverage of it like the plague, not wishing to witness the options of either 1) joyful adulation/approval or 2) righteous indignation/fear the media was presenting and hoping to elicit in their loyal customers. This article attempts to cut through those options, which I think it does rather well. The thesis of the article is nicely summed up by the author himself:
This [i.e. Beck's rally] is how conservatives embrace progress. First they resist it. Then they lose to it. Then they assimilate it. They frame it as a fulfillment of longstanding values. They emphasize common threads between reformers and founders. They reinterpret the nation's origins to match the new ethos.
The article does a nice job illustrating how this playing out at the Beck rally, especially in its use of the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and so helps take a longer sociocultural view of what's going on at this rally, or in the Tea Party movement in general. So read on for why I'm still suspicious...

Monday, August 30, 2010

Justice on the healing edge

From Harrisonburg, VA, USA
Earlier this year, my mentor & friend, Howard Zehr, told me about an organization that had reached out to him for help in their formation: the International Guild of Visual Peacemakers, whose website just went live last week. Howard guest-blogged one of their first posts on the site. He nicely describes his cross-disciplinary and arts-infused work in both fields of restorative justice and photography. This approach is one that I seek to embody in my work. Here's a snippet from his post:

Photography at the healing edge
One part of me is a photographer. I’ve worked internationally as an NGO photojournalist. I’ve done marketing and magazine stories. I love landscapes and portraiture (see  But what I like most is doing documentary work. In my experience, documentary photography can help bridge the chasms that separate people. If done respectfully and collaboratively, it can also provide a way for people to share of themselves. My vision, like that of the IGVP, is to use photography as a way to work on the healing edge.
The other passion, and much of my career, has been in the criminal justice field, and specifically a field that I helped found called restorative justice. Unlike criminal justice that tends to divide, restorative justice is essentially a peacemaking approach to justice. Restorative justice is justice on the healing edge. (emphasis mine)
See also Howard's Restorative Justice blog at Eastern Mennonite University's Center for Justice and Peacebuilding.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

This Is Water in the Church

From Eastern Mennonite University, Harrisonburg, VA 22802, USA
There has been some very strange and wonderful synchronicity emerging in my social/intellectual life over the course of this year. Read on after the break to catch some glimpses inside my head and social life, as I talk about friends, literature, barefoot running, and good, contemporary Christian philosophy...

(Note: This post contains no mention of the excellent album pictured to the right.)

Friday, July 30, 2010

Pass the Pepper, Please

From Vining, IA, USA
Here's a piece I wrote up in my diary this past Tuesday after hanging out with my wife's granddad who's 83. He's not been in the best of health for a while and I wanted to have some quality time with him before we head back to Virginia (we've been in Iowa the past week). We went to his favorite hangout, played cards and drank coffee for a few hours. It was amazing. Read on after the break for my impressions...

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Provisos to Why I'm [Still] Brethren

From Eastern Mennonite Seminary, Harrisonburg, VA 22802, USA
Back in May, during a wonderful 3-week biblical book study course on Isaiah, I was approached (in the 2nd floor seminary men's bathroom, at the sinks if memory serves) by my friend Jeremy, who had just walked at the seminary graduation and was finishing up his last course in the MDiv program. He was working with Laura, on staff at EMS, on starting a new blog edited and published by the seminary, targeted at young adults in the church trying to make sense of the crazy world around us and the crazy stuff going on within the church itself, hopefully contributing thoughts and reflections to equip and nurture faith and discipleship. Knowing my interest in the web and writing, he graciously asked if I would contribute a 500-word essay on the question of "Why I'm still Brethren," with a due date of July 1. I gladly accepted. Well the new blog is now live.  It's called Work and Hope (subtitled: "finding Christ in the church"), and here is my answer to the question:
Why I’m [Still] Brethren – Love
First, let me say something rather unremarkable: I’m Brethren because I was born that way. My parents, my congregation and its pastors, and church camp and youth leaders all did a marvelous job of not running me out of the church. In fact, it was at times me that was running out of the church, and everyone else working together to lovingly keep me in. So as I begin to answer the question of “Why I’m Still Brethren,” it starts with that life-long relationship with followers of Jesus Christ who have called themselves “Brethren.” From that faith community, I also heard from a young age that the church needed me and was eventually called by them into the ministry. So formed the first 28 years of my life…
[read on for the rest...]

Well, it turns out that 500 words is a very brief space indeed to answer such a weighty question! I'd like to pick out a few statements that I had to pack a whole lot of weight into but wasn't able to contextualize in the original piece. Read on after the break for a few more reflections...

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Iroquois rights and liturgical re-imagination

From Eastern Mennonite University, Harrisonburg, VA 22802, USA
This is a shout-out post to two sister blogs, Story Doula and Traveling at the Speed of Bike. The former is authored by Paulette Moore, who co-taught my arts-based research class last fall with Howard Zehr. She's a filmmaker and is also doing some teaching in the undergraduate program at Eastern Mennonite U.

The Iroquois Lacrosse Team and Why I Hold Back on Reclaiming My Mohawk Rights - I won't explain her post here, read it for yourself (plus the title is pretty self-explanatory), but it woke again thoughts and experiences within myself in relation to the power and legitimacy of the secular, liberal-democratic nation state (of which the U.S. is an example). So I made a few comments on that there post. She also mentions working with Robb Davis in exploring her personal/family narrative. It just so happens Robb is the author of the second blog mentioned above...

Liturgies of Autonomy/Liturgies of Dependency (Liturgies of “the Street”) - Robb caught my attention right off the bat by mentioning postmodern Christian philosopher, James K.A. Smith, who I just discovered this week and whose work I'm now officially totally jazzed to read. I've already dug into a few of his reflections on the collaborative blog, The Church and Postmodern Culture: Conversation. Robb goes on to reflect on Smith's writing on liturgy as "rituals of ultimate concern" and how they may be contextualized to work in his own community. So I threw in a few comments on that post, too.

It's been a productive day for blogging, because I also posted this piece over at Feetwashing and Foursquare, based on some of my Brethren studies today: Ethnic diversity predictions for Brethren from 20 years ago.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

So two Dunkers walk into an Episcopal church...

From Winchester, VA, USA
...and the elder brother says to his student, "Now you see the things our people left behind." Here's something to help set the atmosphere...

Monday, July 5, 2010

Three Brethren and a beautiful creative tension

From Eastern Mennonite University, Harrisonburg, VA 22802, USA
For the past few weeks and continuing on through the rest of the summer, I've been working with a Brethren scholar up at Elizabethtown College. The title of this study is: "Brethren Beliefs and Practices." It is best described as an historical theology course. (I would argue that all theology is historical, but...) One thing I've grown to appreciate about Brethren is their ability to sit in creative tension within their Christian faith. Listen to the balancing act Alexander Mack, the first leader of the Schwarzenau Brethren, is doing:
That which the Holy Spirit ordained for the faithful was written outwardly. All believers are united in it, for the Holy Spirit teaches them inwardly just as the Scriptures teach them outwardly... Therefore, when a believing person whose inner ears are opened reads the Holy Scriptures outwardly, he will hear as the Lord Jesus intends his teaching to be understood. He hears that which the apostles want to express in their writings. He will also be impelled, through his inner hearing, to true obedience which makes him obey even in outward matters. Outwardly, he reads the Scriptures in faith and hears the inner word of life which gives him strength and power to follow Jesus.
Here's a guy in 18th century Germany that doesn't want to drift into stifling legalism (the danger of their nearby Mennonite friends) but simultaneously wanting to steer clear from willy nilly subjective spiritualism (the danger of their theological forebears, the Radical Pietists). Now here's Vernard Eller, a 20th century American Church of the Brethren scholar, weaving this together nicely:
The two emphases check and balance each other. When the Radical Pietist tendency would slide off into subjectivism, private inspiration, mysticism, enthusiasm, or vaporous spiritualism, it is pulled up short by the demand for concrete, outward obedience to an objective Scriptural norm. Conversely, when the Anabaptist tendency would slide off into formalism, legalism, biblical literalism, or works-righteousness, it is checked by the reminder that faith is essentially a work of God within the heart of the individual believer, an intensely personal relationship rather than a lega one. Thus, within Brethrenism, Anabaptist influences discipline Pietism at the same time that Pietist influences inspire Anabaptism.
All this I found in the work of a Brethren Church (different denomination, long story, don't ask) scholar, Dale Stoffer, in his excellent (but HIGHLY was his doctoral work, I think) Background and Development of Brethren Doctrine. I've started to dig deeper into my own tradition this year in my academic work, and I'm finding some real golden nuggets. This creative tension has always been implicit in my approach to the faith, so in that sense I'm Brethren inside and out. It's just fun to bring the implicit at least somewhat out into the open through historical and theological work.

Monday, June 28, 2010

FWFS: Brethren & Mennonites and the national anthem

After accepting the invite to blog about things Brethren on Feetwashing and Foursquare last week, I've just made my first contribution there...

Brethren & Mennonite attitudes toward the national anthem of the U.S.A.

If you're Brethren and/or Mennonite, head on over and check it out, and please comment!

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Basket-weaving the biblical narrative

From Eastern Mennonite University, Harrisonburg, VA 22802, USA
My introduction to Douglas Rushkoff was the excellent Frontline special, Digital Nation, which Rushkoff helped produce and appears in. This post isn't about that Frontline special, but I'm serious when I say everyone who uses digital, networked technology (and if you're reading this, you do) should watch it. I also saw him in a scary/awesome documentary called We Live in Public, which is about an eccentric visionary in the early days of the internet (whom Rushkoff knew personally). While poking around on Rushkoff's website, I found that a few years ago he wrote a four-volume comic book series called Testament.

Comics were a pretty significant part of my childhood. So were computers. I grew up going to church, too, so the Bible was also in my awareness (although not as prevalent in my consciousness as the other two). I stopped reading comics regularly back in high school but I never lost my love for them. So when I discovered Testament, it immediately caught my attention: Old Testament biblical narratives (Rushkoff is Jewish) are told and then re-told as near-future cyberpunk narratives. A cosmic spiritual battle that happens outside of time (and outside the actual frames of the comic's pages...very clever) rages, with ripples being felt in both time-periods. Spiritual warfare is a topic I've done some thinking and writing about this year, so it thrilled me to see it depicted so interestingly here. The cyberpunk narrative folds in the rampant expanse and corporatization of technology in society, which is a special interest of mine. To top it all off, at the end of each volume, there is about 8 to 10 pages of biblical commentary from Rushkoff as it relates to the comic! Basically, this comic felt like it was written especially for me. Thanks, Douglas Rushkoff!  So read on after the break for a few comments on this amazing comic...

Thursday, June 17, 2010

A nod to sister blog: Feetwashing and Four Square

A few weeks ago I started following a blog moderated by Nick Miller Kauffman called Feetwashing and Four Sqaure, which is described as "A blog that examines life, God, politics and everything from the perspectives of young people in the Church of the Brethren." All of those things have relevance for me, so I was thrilled to find it. Nick (and I believe the other authors who contribute to the blog) is studying at Bethany Theological Seminary in Richmond, Indiana. Bethany is the single Church of the Brethren seminary in all the whole world (or at least the U.S.), so it's "my" seminary in the denominational affiliation sense, despite my actual academic home at present, Eastern Mennonite University (Seminary + Justice-Peace studies).

I've made a few comments on FWFS and threw it up on the "In conversation"/blogroll here at Restorative Theology, and I'm looking forward to getting to know Nick and the crew. As I've commented on their blog, being the only Brethren student in a Mennonite academic institution has its ups and downs, and can be lonesome at times, so I'm grateful for the digital connection.

Check them out:

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Consider the Wallace

The American author and college English professor, David Foster Wallace, committed suicide in 2008 after long battles with depression. After finishing my first Wallace book, Consider the Lobster and Other Essays, this fact makes me very sad indeed. What American literature lost was a hilariously brilliant and articulate social critic with the ability to immerse himself in any number of disciplines and vocations, and observe, listen, and absorb, before finally letting it all back out in his various works of fiction and nonfiction, novels and essays appearing in a diverse array of magazines. I miss him already, and with every intention to read more of his work, I'm anticipating that sense only growing deeper. So read on after the break for a bit more reflection on this great book from an even greater author...

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Lamenting a Season of Service

From Eastern Mennonite University, Harrisonburg, VA 22802, USA
Back in March, I re-posted a paper which I wrote in 2007 for my senior English project, called "A Season of Service." It was based on experiences amassed from late 2005 through the summer of 2007, especially my volunteer work with the Iowa Dept. of Correctional Services. As I mentioned in that post, those experiences became a catalyst for dramatic life changes in 2008, moving my family from Iowa to Virginia to start graduate studies in seminary and in peacebuilding/conflict transformation.  These are my butterfly stories. They're pretty. Like butterflies.

When I saw Howard Zehr speak in Des Moines in March of 2008, he told the crowd that butterfly stories are good. But so are bullfrog stories. The stories that aren't so pretty. The stories that end in sadness or failure or tragedy. Well, I was reminded today that there are some bullfrogs hiding amidst the butterflies of my Season of Service story.  Today I received a letter from Jan, the woman who helped me facilitate the writers' workshop program three years ago. While it lifted my heart to hear from her, and she offered some encouraging words, the primary tone of the news she shared with me was sad. It took me a bit to adapt this news to the sun-shiney story I've been walking around telling for the past few years. So read on after the break if you're up for a dose of the dark side of reality...

Monday, May 24, 2010


(Photo by calico_13/Flickr)
[My brother called me up one night in 2007 when I happened to be working late at the office. At that point, I was a Software Quality Assurance Engineer and on this particular night that meant I was babysitting some critical jobs that were running, making sure they were completed successfully by the start of business the next day. I don't miss that part of my former career, but it was fortuitous this night. When my brother called me, I was bored. And the story he told me, which had just actually happened to him, captured my imagination. With a few hours to kill, I gave the story the creative writing treatment.  This is probably my favorite piece of my own writing. The only theological reflection I have on it is that I'm grateful for my brother's and my imaginations, and I'm grateful for interesting people in the world that we're blessed with encountering, if only we place ourselves at the ready...]

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

U.S. politics catch up to postmodernism?

From Eastern Mennonite University, Harrisonburg, VA 22802, USA
[Note: a different version of this post appears on my other website,]

So far I've only written about politics one other time on this blog, and that's an intentional move. I've never been too cracked up about politics as they're conceived and practiced in my home nation, the good ol' (although not that old) U.S. of A. For most of my voting life, I've been a registered independent, although had to declare an affiliation back in 2008 to participate in the interesting Iowa caucus system. Recently, I've avoided most news outlets that primarily focus on politics and that's been nice. But today, I got the bug to just peek at and read this top story: Activists seize control of politics.

So read on after the break to catch some of my thoughts on politics and more...

Sunday, May 16, 2010

The world from atop the shed

From Prairie City, IA, USA
One of the things I thought of while reading through my journal a few weeks ago was to take some of my meager creative writing efforts captured there and stick them somewhere else for posterity. This thought continued to percolate as I read Donald Miller's excellent book on stories and life. So here's one of those pieces, which I wrote one February evening in 2006.

I'll classify it as a word picture and not a story. There is a character (me) but no plot. Just a description of a shed and the backyard of the house where I grew up in tiny little Prairie City, Iowa. My author self speaks to the reader (which also appears to be me) with the benefit of not being time-bound. There is a rooted period of time in the account but it shifts to the past and the future based on the full sweep of my memories as a then-26-year-old. My immediate family and a few of my childhood friends might also register some recognition by reading this. I've made only a few editorial changes from the original, so the style should be fairly true to what I was feeling four years ago, while still working on my BA in English.

So read on after the break for a short piece from the pages of my journal...