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?