Tuesday, March 14, 2006

The Adventures of Flannelgraph Jesus

Flannelgraph Jesus has been reading some new books and visiting some new blogs. He heard something about a “secret message” he was supposed to have, and he wants to make sure it gets shared with all the people.

Flannelgraph Jesus is not sure he has the “secret message” down yet.

Saturday, March 11, 2006

“Dear Ish”

Lately I’ve been receiving emails from concerned lurkers who find themselves facing unique personal issues with respect to their relationships with the Emerging Church. One of the issues that’s been on the minds of some is complex and multilayered. But before we jump the gun and declare a five-year moratorium on dealing with it, let’s at least read the emails:

Dear Ish,

I find myself strangely attracted to the Emerging Church, despite the fact that I’m African-American. I was introduced to it by one of my fellow students here at M.I.T. and I find it quite stimulating. I’ve even skipped meetings of the campus chess club on more than one occasion just to be there.

Some of the cultural adjustments I’ve had to make to fit in with the EC have been challenging, however. For one thing, I’ve had to learn to avoid expressing my opinions in matters of aesthetic taste. Don’t get me wrong: Green Day’s music isn’t as bad as it sounds. But I’m not sure how much further I can stretch.

Lately I’ve been living under the shadow of a brooding cloud of angst. Do I have to wear a goatee to really belong in the EC? At first it seemed that only the leaders wore them. But on the last two Sundays I looked around and it seems like everyone's growing one (or trying to)! I’m not sure if I can take that step. What should I do?

—Misgivings in Massachusetts

And then there was this:

Yo, Ish!

Like I gots me dis problem, dig? First wuz dat I couldn’ fine none of deez e-merging places in ma hood, so I hads to jet somewheres else. Den, when I gets dare an’ starts kickin’ it its like—’sup wi’ all deez crackahs wearin’ mohawks on der chins an ever-thin? Like, I don’ mine all da candles, cuz I tries to keep da lights down in ma crib anyhow. An’ deez “eye-kons” o’ whatevah—it's like, if yo’ wanna get yo’ crayola thing on, dat’s cool. But dat south-pole fuzz dat blows around on a windy day—to me it jes looks wack. But den I’s wond’rin: is dat what da thugs in dis hood wear o’ what? Cuz like—I don’ wanna mess wit no body’s turf—uh-uh! I’s already gots me ’nuff problems with da stuff ’round ma own crib! You down wit’ dis?

—Tryin’ to Chill in Philly

Believe it or not, I can strongly empathize with the plight you’re both enduring. The first time I saw a goatee on an emerging college sophomore a few years ago, I nearly shot a mouthful of Starbucks out my nose. You see, in my mind, goatees will forever be associated with the character of Maynard G. Krebs on an old TV show called “The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis,” which had been in re-runs for a few years by the time I was old enough to notice it. By that time (the mid-to-late ’60s) Jack Kerouac, beatniks, and the “beat generation” had been replaced by the Beatles, hippies, Yippies, and the SDS, as the youth culture’s new avant-garde—a term that isn’t used as much today as it was back then, but it’s fairly descriptive of how the Emerging Church thinks of itself.

All this creates the odd dynamic of something being already passé for an older group of people while simultaneously considered cutting-edge by a younger group. But none of this solves your problem, and it probably doesn’t even address the precise reasons for your discomfort. And now that I think about it, it probably doesn’t even convince you that I can empathize with your plight.

But I digress. Is there a way around the issue?

First of all, our friend in Philly can relax. The only turf wars fought in Emerging Churches are over things like the color schemes for outdoor worship experiences, and whether to use Macs or PCs for multimedia Stations of the Cross. The presence or absence of hair on your chin is totally unrelated to any drive-by shootings that may occur. But what about the pressure to conform that our friend with the misgivings senses?

Well, the Emerging Church has no canon law—at least not yet (although the best-selling volumes of its “conversation” are approaching canonical status in some quarters)—and it hasn’t come up with anything remotely resembling a book of church order, so there’s no way of knowing its exact position on the issue of goatees. But it is, at least, interesting that Brian McLaren felt compelled to sport an appropriately middle-aged stubble for the cover of A Generous Orthodoxy. So we should not rule out the possibility that the EC may eventually break into two branches: the “FHR (Facial Hair Required) Emergents” and the “NFHR (No Facial Hair Required) Emergents.”

Meanwhile, take heart. When’s the last time you saw some white guy do something new or start dressing funky and millions of black people suddenly tripped all over themselves trying to act or dress the same? (Why do you think all those white beatniks started wearing goatees in the first place?) If you two found a way to grow your eyebrows long and tie them in bows behind your heads, most of the white guys in your churches would be Googling for hair-growing chemicals within the next half-hour.

So keep your chins up—and groomed however you please.

Sunday, March 05, 2006

The Downside of Foundationalism

René Descartes is sitting in a café not far from the the intersection of Faith and Culture.

He’s just finished a cup of his favorite Surabaya Johnny Half-Caf Arabica-Cappucino Blend.

The waiter asks him if he’d like another.

Descartes says, “I think not.”

And he disappears...

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Be afraid. Be very afraid…

For as long as I can remember, I have been haunted by the following three questions:

1) “Is ‘anal-retentive’ supposed to be hyphenated?”

2) “What if the Hokey-Pokey really is what it’s all about?”


3) “Just who are these culturally imperialistic + insular/evangelical + sectarian/protestant + knee-jerk/conservative + concrete/prosaic + hermeneutically/insensitive + blah/blah/blah + yadda/yadda/yadda + prefabricated CHRISTIANS that Brian McLaren has labored so hard to warn us about?”

Okay, so I haven’t been thinking about the third question for quite as long as the first two, but that doesn’t diminish the threat of imminent catastrophe these people bring to western civilization, which, as we all know, will reduce each and every one of us to Amway distributors. But in the (admittedly small) circles in which I travel, actually encountering one of these people seemed about as likely as an American G.I. triggering a nuclear holocaust by accidentally putting out a cigarette on one of Sadaam Hussein’s hidden A-bombs. They had apparently all masterfully blended in with the legitimate population.

Until now.

Actually, it was several months ago. I had come to the conclusion that I didn’t get out enough, and had fallen completely out-of-touch with what my fellow church goers do when they’re not in church. So when for the first time in my life I was able to attend the annual “Rebuking Your Mind” conference, hosted by D.C. Scrolls, I just had to see what it was like. It wasn’t the same as joining the church bowling league, but it would have to do for the time being.

It wasn’t cheap, and I didn’t get a very good deal on the airfare, but a friend at my church put me in touch with a guy in that area who was also attending the conference and had a spare room, so that made it affordable. His name was Cary, and when I called he agreed to pick me up at the airport.

It was a dark and rainy night. At least when I departed it was. When I arrived at my destination it was just dark. I called Cary on his cell and he met me outside. As soon as we got into his car its speakers started blaring some talk-radio program called “Barbarous Nation,” hosted by a hypertension-inducing ultra-right-winger whose actual name really is Joe Barbarous. Cary appeared to enjoy the program, but he thankfully turned the volume down as Joe launched into a loud, dyspeptic rant about moderate Republicans, “Islamo-Nazis,” and the haircut on his neighbor’s poodle. This allowed us to start making the customary small talk as we headed into the city, which was awkward at best because Cary struck me as a little odd from the get-go.

“I’m really looking forward to this conference,” I told him.

“Well—” his voice lingered a bit, and then: “I wish I could say the same.”

“Why’s that?”

“It’s just the theme they chose this year.”

“Apologetics?” I said, “That’s one of the things that attracted me to it.”

“Yeah, well I think the whole enterprise is entirely wrong-headed,” said Cary.

“Then how do you go about answering non-believers’ questions?” I asked.

“Tell ’em they shouldn’t be asking such questions in the first place!” he retorted, already getting a little heated so soon in our conversation. “The Bible is the ultimate authority! Like it or lump it!”

“Hmm,” I observed, already beginning to experience déjà vu. That seemed to settle that!

After about 20 minutes he suddenly pulled the car over up to the curb in the middle of a block, shifted into park, and turned off the engine. The street was deserted and quiet, and probably for good reason. I personally interpreted the gang graffiti spray-painted on the brick wall near the car as the equivalent of the local surgeon general’s warning to not hang around too long.

“This will take just a second,” he said, opening his car door.

“Can I help you with anything?” I asked.

“I’ll be right back.”

After the door shut behind him I listened to the sound of his shoes hitting the sidewalk and echoing off the buildings. My eyes followed him as he approached a man I just then noticed standing under the corner streetlight, and who occasionally looked over his shoulder during his brief chat with Cary. After exchanging a few words the man handed him something in a brown paper bag. As he opened his car door upon his return he tossed it into my lap with a grin.

“What’s this?” I asked, feeling more than a little leery.

“Take a look,” he said, turning the ignition, shifting into drive and pulling away.

So I turned the bag upside down and out slid a book titled, Yo! JC2!, and subtitled Chillaxin’ wit My Homey Calvin. It seemed to be some sort of on-the-street version of Calvinism. As I paged through its chessboard diagrams showing God arbitrarily knocking some of the pieces off the board into a fiery furnace labeled “Hell” I was tempted to remark on how different this was from the version of Calvinism I’d heard on D.C. Scrolls’ tapes, but a little voice in my head urged caution.

“So, uh—what church do you attend?” I asked while turning the pages.

“Well, for the last few years I’ve been going to the Church of the Absolute Foundation,” he said, “but I’m thinking of switching to Bucketseat Canyon Community Church.”

“Why’s that?”

“Well, I like Absolute Foundation’s emphasis on personal salvation,” he said, “but after a while it didn’t seem centered enough on my needs. So I figure it’s time to trade up.”

“Trade up?” I queried.

“Yeah. Find a church that that provides better goods and services,” he replied. “Besides, I always felt a little duped by all the emphasis at Absolute on evangelism and missions. I mean, like, what’s in that for me?”

I still hadn’t figured out why Cary’s opinions sounded so strangely familiar. I was a little preoccupied over concerns about his possible military assault weapon collection. So I pretended to continue paging through the book, but out of the corner of my eye I was checking to see if Tom Bodett had left the light on for me at the local Motel 6.

It’s not that I hadn’t already come across my share of oddballs in my evangelical wanderings. How can I forget Bill, who felt the constant need to interject his insights from a huge copy of the Septuagint he carried to our Bible studies after taking a semester of Greek? Or Nick and his traveling model Tabernacle show that took up half the church auditorium, and actually looked pretty cool, but unfortunately was accompanied by his nearly-incoherent, meandering, 40-minute messages in which he managed to find profound spiritual insights in virtually every color of thread in the Old Testament Tabernacle’s fabric? Or Angelo, who took a part-time job in a local parking garage while attending Bible school, and when the lines got long and people leaned on their horns because he was explaining the Four Spiritual Laws to the guy parked at the gate, he’d cup his hands and yell, “Hey! Can’t you see I’m trying to witness to this guy?!” (These stories are all true. Hmm. I wonder if I should have changed the names?)

I tried to stay off topics that might set Cary off. I went down a mental checklist that seemed to suggest itself to me: “Roman Catholicism?” I thought, “Scratch that! The writings of Karl Barth? Better not. Hillary Clinton? Uh, I haven’t paid this month’s life insurance premium yet…” So I decided the best course was simply to let him take the initiative in the conversation, which he was more than happy to do.

“And where do people get off with all this sissy hermeneutics baloney?” he demanded as we were pulling up his driveway. “Just pick up the Bible and read it! Take the book of Hosea: boy finds girl / boy loses girl / girl turns up on flea market clearance rack. What more do you need to know?”

He popped the trunk, we got out, and as I wheeled my suitcase into his house and passed his kitchen table I spotted a piece of mail showing his full name, Cary K. Chure, which I knew would come in handy if I needed to call 911. He pointed me upstairs to my room and invited me to come back down to his den for some coffee. When I got up there I checked under the bed to make sure there were no alien pods under it. After a few minutes I came back down and we walked into the den together.

And then I saw it.

It caught me totally by surprise. Of course, I’d read about it in A Generous Orthodoxy, but it didn’t look anything like I thought it would.

But there it was: captured, stuffed, and mounted on the wall. I struggled to find words as I stood transfixed before it in disbelief.

“That’s—! That’s—!” I slowly lifted my arm to point at the nameplate at the bottom of the huge wooden plaque on which it was mounted.

“Yep!” he said proudly, laying a gentle, avuncular hand on my shoulder. “That’s ‘Truth!’”

I turned to him in wide-eyed incredulity.

“So you’re the one McLaren was writing about!”

He just smiled and reached into a drawer to pull something out and thrust into my hands.

“Here ya’ go: one to take home!”

It was a nailed-down, freeze-dried, shrink-wrapped version of what was on the wall.

Saturday, January 14, 2006

Emphatically Apophatic

“You see it all started,” said my friend, Berkley Spence, “when western Christianity forgot its eastern roots and relinquished the apophatic.”

“Gesundheit!” I said, and offered him a Kleenex.

“Uh, I’m fine,” he replied, looking a bit puzzled, and leaving an awkward pause in the conversation.

“So this, er, apophatic thing,” I recovered, “did the early Christians, uhm, wear it? Or did it come in some, er, handy applicator or something...?”

“Uh-uh,” said Berk, shaking his head, although not too impatiently, “No. It’s a way of doing theology.”

“Oh. Okay.” I was starting to warm up to the subject now.

“And the reason that today’s western church is so impoverished spiritually is because we’ve virtually abandoned it.”

“So then, this approach goes all the way back to the apostles?”

Another awkward pause.

“Well, not exactly,” replied Berk. “It was discovered by Dionysius the Pseudo-Aereopagite.”

I resisted the temptation to offer him a zinc lozenge at this point, and instead I said, “So how does it work?”

“Well, Dionysius identified two ways of talking about God: positively and negatively.”

“And,” I interrupted, “since the negative way involves a higher risk of lightning-strikes, he probably concluded—”

“No, no, no,” said Berk, for the first time sounding just a tad impatient. “Dionysius showed that the negative way is actually better than the positive way.”

“Kind of counter-intuitive, wouldn’t you say?” But I figured it was like getting a negative test result back from the doctor or something.

“Perhaps it’s more helpful to call it ‘the way of negation.’ It assumes that any positive statement about God is actually impossible, and so all we can really say about God is what He is not, instead of what He is, because His being is so ineffable. And so it’s only by unknowing that one may know Him.”

Berk went on to say a lot more after this, but with so many unfamiliar terms and names coming at me, like “apophatic,” “cataphatic,” “Vladimir Lossky,” “ecstasy,” and so on, I kind of felt like Hans Solo trying to navigate the Millennial Falcon through an asteroid field. It’s the same feeling I get when visiting many postmodern theology web sites. On such occasions I don’t know if I’m living with the consequences of my own inability to digest huge libraries of information before I turned 30, or if I’m actually experiencing something I once read about called “the Dopeler effect” (not to be confused with the Doppler effect), which is “the tendency of stupid ideas to seem smarter when they come at you rapidly.” But since I rarely feel qualified to distinguish between stupidity and pure genius in these conversations, my tendency is to clam up and peer deeply and profoundly into the other person’s eyes—perhaps even massaging my chin thoughtfully with my thumb and forefinger—so as to give the impression that I’m not only tracking very closely with every word being said, but that I’m already developing brilliant applications of my own even as he speaks.

Looking straight back at me, Berk must have noticed the “Space For Rent” sign behind my retinas, and so he stopped talking and waited for me to say something.

“So...no positive statements—only negative ones?”

“Right,” said Berk. “It’s not about knowing God, but mystical union with Him.”

“Oh,” I said, wondering if anyone’s told J.I. Packer about this.

I didn’t want to change the subject, but since I’d forgotten, I asked, “What did you say the name of your church was again?”

“The Church of the Inarticulate Conception.”

There was another brief pause as Berk seemed to allow all he’d said to settle in.

“Well, I will say this: it sounds like a very clever way to get theologians to shut up,” I observed. “I mean, like, how much can you not say about God?”

“Uh, yeah,” said Berk, “maybe.”

“But what about all those Scripture texts that make positive statements about God. You know—like ‘God is love,’ and what-not?”

“You’re missing the point,” Berk said, with an expression that seemed to indicate he’d somehow covered this objection already.

“Which is—?”

“It’s only what we can’t say about God that has any ultimate meaning.”

“You don’t say!” I said.

“Exactly!” said he.

Thursday, January 05, 2006

A Pause for Reflection

Every once in a while I need to take a time-out from all the emerging hubbub of my life for some quiet little devotional reading. This morning I was in the book of Third Drafts, chapter 1, which reads:

[1] These are the generations of evangelicalism in the land of North America.

[2] Now congregationalism begat Pilgrims who sailed from Leiden to Massachusetts and were soon joined by their brothers, the Puritans. [3] Pilgrims and Puritans begat theocracy, which in the days of Hutchinson, also called Anne, and Williams, also called Roger, begat discontent. [4] Discontent begat Baptists, and soon all manner of church polities and creeds prospered in the land, while prosperity itself begat spiritual apathy and slumber. [5] Then came a day of Great Awakening, which begat New Lights. [6] And thus did the Old Lights squint, and great was their outcry throughout the land, [7] but the sons of Edwards and the sons of the Wesleys and the sons of Whitefield did not heed their cries, [8] for they saw the mighty works that God wrought among them.

[9] Then the sons of men listened to the Paineites, who spoke of “Common Sense,” and “The Crisis,” and [some mss. read “later” here] “The Age of Reason,” and the kings of the earth took sides and waged war, and the Montesquieuites and Rousseauites rose up in the land, [10] and they said, “Let us be called the United States of America, where no king rules from New England to Florida, and west to the Mississippi!” [11] And so every man believed that which was right in his own eyes, and thus it was even after the warring ceased.

[12] In the turmoil of those days a great darkness fell upon the land, and men looked for light, both old and new, but could not find it. [13] The sons of Calvin and the sons of Arminius cried out, and behold, the land was soon filled with Taylorites and Finneyites who imagined that they created the light themselves. [14] But nevertheless the light spread, and a Second day of Great Awakening came, which begat revivalism, and revivalism begat manipulative evangelistic techniques, and manipulative evangelistic techniques begat many verses of “Just As I Am.”

[15] Now in those days, a son of Africa was counted as three-fifths of a person, and could be owned by a son of Europe in the region of Dixie. [16] And for two generations the Foxites and the Wesleyites stirred up many of their evangelical brethren to cease this abomination, crying, “Abolition! Abolition!” [17] But before the reign of Lincoln could commence, the cries went out from Dan, Virginia, to Beersheba, South Carolina: “Secession! Secession!” [18] And, lo, 600,000 men were slain on the field of battle before the rebellion was ended.

[19] Soon after, when every man had returned to his house, behold, Moody said to Sankey, “Let us sing great hyms to large crowds in spacious halls on both sides of the Atlantic!” [20] And thus revivalism, which had begotten manipulative evangelistic techniques, now also begat mass evangelism, [21] and mass evangelism begat interdenominational cooperation, [22] and interdenominational cooperation begat organizations, and agencies, and publishing houses, and Bible conferences.

[23] But while the sons of Darby gathered in Niagara, the sons of Schleirmacher said to the sons of Darwin, “Let us circumscribe the truth of Scripture according to the limits of our scientific presuppositions.” And it was so. [24] And when the sons of Luther, and the sons of Calvin, and the sons of Arminius, and of Wesley, and even of Moody and of Darby—when they heard of these things—each one said to the other, “If the foundations are being destroyed, what should the righteous do?” [25] And thus they took up pen and ink, and each man flew to his printing press, and each man contacted his colporteur, they did great battle against the sons of Schleirmacher and the sons of Darwin, and all who would come against them. [26] Now the rest of their acts, and all they did in defense of the propositional truth of Scripture, are they not written in the books of The Fundamentals?

Oh, for those simpler times!

Thursday, December 29, 2005

New Year’s Resolutions for 2006

I remember many years ago when I made a bunch of New Year’s resolutions about doing open air evangelism, going door-to-door with surveys, plastering my car with Christian bumper-stickers, and destroying all my rock-and-roll albums. It didn’t work out too well. Nowadays I’m tempted to heckle outdoor preachers, I ignore the doorbell when I think a religious survey-taker may be ringing it, and my rock-and-roll CD collection barely fits in my house. (That reminds me: I need to renew my subscription to Monster Chops guitar magazine!) But it dawned on me as I noticed 2006 approaching that resolving to have some goals for the New Year might help me update my image. So here goes:

This year I resolve to find something crucial to evangelicalism, re-define what it should mean, and then write a book about it that will hack a lot of people off, but also get me invited to speak at conferences and such.

I resolve to season my writing with self-deprecating remarks transparently designed to disarm critics while emboldening sycophants.

In my writing I resolve to make a lot of outrageous-sounding statements calculated to make certain people’s blood boil, and then make them read a ways further or examine the footnotes to find all my disclaimers and qualifications.

To make myself feel better about the previous resolution, I’ll rhetorically shrug that—hey!—even I find some of the stuff I write a bit offensive, so how can I blame anyone who stops reading?

I resolve to compare opponents who keep reading beyond my warnings to some sort of nasty insect. (How about hornets? ... Seriously—I’m not bitter. Really!)

I resolve to brush with broad strokes, and when somebody points out that I painted over the truth, I’ll just say, “Oops!” and refer them back to my disclaimers.

I resolve to build an army of straw men and then defeat them in a monumental battle between sloppy caricatures and gross over-simplifications.

I resolve to reduce some major doctrine to its biblical metaphor, and then exchange that metaphor for one more to my liking the way people get rid of eyeglass frames that are no longer in style.

I resolve to completely dismantle the central tenets of someone else’s orthodoxy and call it a “slight revision.”

I resolve to de-emphasize the personal, individualistic aspect of salvation. It would probably help if I simultaneously de-emphasize the doctrine of hell.

I resolve to bring together mutually-contradictory positions by using the slash key (“/”) on my keyboard, and before anyone has a chance to point out that they’re utterly irreconcilable I’ll start talking about “moving beyond” both options to “a generous third way.”

I resolve to generously sprinkle positive-sounding words and phrases like “generous,” “enriched,” and “less rigid” into descriptions of my opinions, while spiking contrary views with words like “defensive,” “preoccupied,” and “nauseating.”

I resolve to be more like my friend, Chester.

I resolve to be more embarrassed by traditional evangelicalism than I have been in the past.

I resolve to forget or distort a lot of recent church history in order to fulfill the previous resolution.

I resolve to watch more “Christian” television so I know what I’m supposed to be embarrassed about, and then go around suggesting to evangelicals that that’s what they actually look like.

I resolve to be generous with my orthodoxy, but never to the point of giving it away in the form of a tract, because then someone might confuse being missional with making absolute truth claims.

But knowing me, by mid-February I’ll have blown every one of them. (Sigh!)

Saturday, December 24, 2005

The Twelve Days of Christmas 2005

On the first day of Christmas my pastor gave to me—
A generous orthodoxy.

On the second day of Christmas my pastor gave to me—
Jesus and God B
And a generous orthodoxy

On the third day of Christmas my pastor gave to me—
Three reasons Jesus wouldn’t be a Christian
Jesus and God B
And a generous orthodoxy

On the fourth day of Christmas my pastor gave to me—
Four discomforts with Jesus as personal savior
Three reasons Jesus wouldn’t be a Christian
Jesus and God B
And a generous orthodoxy

On the fifth day of Christmas my pastor gave to me—
Four discomforts with Jesus as personal savior
Three reasons Jesus wouldn’t be a Christian
Jesus and God B
And a generous orthodoxy

On the sixth day of Christmas my pastor gave to me—
Six concentric tree-rings
Four discomforts with Jesus as personal savior
Three reasons Jesus wouldn’t be a Christian
Jesus and God B
And a generous orthodoxy

On the seventh day of Christmas my pastor gave to me—
Seven Christs that he’s known
Six concentric tree-rings
Four discomforts with Jesus as personal savior
Three reasons Jesus wouldn’t be a Christian
Jesus and God B
And a generous orthodoxy

On the eighth day of Christmas my pastor gave to me—
Eight or so modernistic-looking charts and diagrams
Seven Christs that he’s known
Six concentric tree-rings
Four discomforts with Jesus as personal savior
Three reasons Jesus wouldn’t be a Christian
Jesus and God B
And a generous orthodoxy

On the ninth day of Christmas my pastor gave to me—
Nine things he means by “incarnational”
Eight or so modernistic-looking charts and diagrams
Seven Christs that he’s knownSix concentric tree-rings
Four discomforts with Jesus as personal savior
Three reasons Jesus wouldn’t be a Christian
Jesus and God B
And a generous orthodoxy

On the tenth day of Christmas my pastor gave to me—
Ten cool things about Anabaptists and Anglicans
Nine things he means by “incarnational”
Eight or so modernistic-looking charts and diagrams
Seven Christs that he’s known
Six concentric tree-rings
Four discomforts with Jesus as personal savior
Three reasons Jesus wouldn’t be a Christian
Jesus and God B
And a generous orthodoxy

On the eleventh day of Christmas my pastor gave to me—
Eleven reasons for taking prozac
Ten cool things about Anabaptists and Anglicans
Nine things he means by “incarnational”
Eight or so modernistic-looking charts and diagrams
Seven Christs that he’s known
Six concentric tree-rings
Four discomforts with Jesus as personal savior
Three reasons Jesus wouldn’t be a Christian
Jesus and God B
And a generous orthodoxy

On the twelfth day of Christmas my pastor gave to me—
Twelve-and-a-half pages explaining how he could be both liberal and conservative
Eleven reasons for taking prozac
Ten cool things about Anabaptists and Anglicans
Nine things he means by “incarnational”
Eight or so modernistic-looking charts and diagrams
Seven Christs that he’s known
Six concentric tree-rings
Four discomforts with Jesus as personal savior
Three reasons Jesus wouldn’t be a Christian
Jesus and God B
And a ge-ner-o-us orthodoxy!

Thursday, December 22, 2005

Goldie Lox & the Three Evangelical Options

Once upon a time, there was a little girl named Goldie Lox who left her little postmodern condo to go for a walk in the forest of worldviews. Pretty soon, she came upon what looked like a shopping center, because, in fact, it used to be one, but had recently been converted into a mall to accomodate three evangelical Christian churches. As she looked around for a sign showing the hours of operation she tried one of the doors, and since it was unlocked she walked right in.

The place was huge, and the fact that it was pretty much deserted at this time of the morning made it look all the more so. She eventually wandered to the food court, but since she had already had her porridge that morning the first things she noticed were three books, laying open and face down, on three separate tables. Goldie Lox was an avid reader, so she immediately started reading the first book.

“This book makes too many absolute truth claims!” she exclaimed, since even one absolute truth claim was a bit too many for Goldie.

So she started reading the second book.

“This book makes similar absolute truth claims,” she said, “but it sounds like it was written by someone in marketing.”

She then turned to the third book.

"Ahhh, this book is just right!" she said happily, and read the whole thing, writing ample notes in the margins that didn’t necessarily relate to the text, and even ripping out a page to put in a collage she planned to make.

Not far from the books Goldie noticed three unattended MP3 players lying on one of the tables. So she walked over and picked up the one that said “Memorex” on it, and stuck the ear buds in her ears.

"Yuck! It’s just some guy talking," she exclaimed.

So she picked up the second one, which was a Rio.

"Huh! Music. A bit too perky, though," she complained.

So she tried the last player, an iPod, which was playing a song that juxtaposed Jesus with suburbia in a tritely (and somewhat rageful) quasi-deconstructive fashion.

"Ahhh, this player is just right," she sighed, hanging it around her neck as she continued to listen.

Goldie then noticed that various people had entered the shopping-center-turned-church-mall, and were making their way to the churches of their choice.

“It must be some kind of day of worship,” she thought, and followed the first group she saw into their church.

She found a place to sit in a padded pew, but when she plucked the earbuds out as the sermon began she found the reasoning far too linear and dependent on un-deconstructed binary opposites.

So she quietly excused herself and proceeded to the second church and sat down in a comfortable theater seat. But when the speaker at this church began speculating about what Jesus might say to Osama bin Ladin she was put off by the reliance on a heremeneutic of authorial intent implicit in his epistemology, and she left, not noticing that the iPod’s earbuds got stuck in the seat when it flipped back up.

Making her way to the third church she found a nice floor pillow on which to sit, and it was soon clear to Goldie that this church would be just right. She was a bit concerned about the words that the speaker initially read out of some book—something about plucking out your right eye and cutting off your right hand—but that was followed by an enigmatic and delightfully disconnected narrative that put Goldie fast to sleep.

While she was sleeping, members of each of the three churches arrived at the food court.

“Someone’s been reading my Bible,” noticed the fifty-something man.

“Someone’s been reading my Purpose-Driven Life," said the thirty-something woman.

“Someone’s been reading my Blue Like Jazz—and they scribbled in it and ripped out a page!” cried the twenty-something man.

They turned to the other table.

“Someone’s been listening to my R.C. Sproul lectures,” remarked the fifty-something man. “Look at that earwax!” he said, holding up the earbuds.

“And someone’s been listening to my worship music,” said the thirty-something woman. “Eee-eewww!” she exlaimed, holding up her earbuds.

“Hey! Where’s my iPod?” cried the twenty-something man.

So they decided to help the young man look for his iPod, starting at the closest church in the mall, where the fifty-something man soon growled, “Someone left a mess here in my pew. Look—it’s the ripped-out page from your book!”

At the second church the thirty-something woman said, “Someone’s been sitting in my row. Are these your iPod’s earbuds?”

At the third church the twenty-something man exclaimed, “Someone’s been sitting on my pillow—and she's still there!”

Just then, Goldie woke up and saw the three church members. As she rubbed the sand out of her eyes they fell on the fifty-something man’s Bible.

“Have you read the non-narrative didactic portions of that?” she asked.

“Of course,” replied the fifty-something man. “We all have.”

“You all have?” asked Goldie, as the thirty-something woman and the twenty-something man both nodded.

Goldie shrieked loudly, jumped up and ran out of the church screaming. She fled down the halls, opened a door to the outside, and ran away into the forest of worldviews. And she never, ever returned to the shopping-center-turned-church-mall.

The three church members just stood there incredulously, although in a few moments they were secretly blaming each other for Goldie’s panicked exit. Then the fifty-something man noticed something on the ground.

“Hey—your iPod! She must have dropped it.”

Thursday, December 15, 2005

Writing Old Wrongs

For some time now I’ve been trying to get a handle on what my missional apologetics friends mean by “combative” or “confrontational” apologetics. Fortunately a friend of mine has begun to educate me on this matter with the following email he just sent me:

FROM: Johan Olums
DATE: Wednesday, December 14, 2005 9:00 AM
TO: Ishmael
SUBJECT: Combative Apologetics Example

Pulled this out of my file & scanned it this morning - a classic example from a while back. The problems with this approach should be obvious to anyone educated in the tools of cultural exegesis. Now if we could only get those countercultists to stop spreading false caricatures of the missional approach! --Johan


Yes. If only...

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Deconstructing Starbucks

Well, it’s the Christmas season in the good ol’ U.S. of A., and here at Starbucks I’m cuddling up to my appropriately cross-cultural and yet seasonal Ethiopia Sidamo Komodo Dragon Eggnog Latté as I sit in on a conversation between staffers from the new emergent church and a local realtor.

One nice thing about the intersection of Faith and Culture is that there’s a Starbucks on every corner. It didn’t use to be that way. Back in the ’80s they were all McDonald’s.

But we’re not at one of those corner Starbucks. We’re at the one several doors down, inside the food court of one of the local megachurches, Arbor Stream Community Church, where the realtor is a member, all of which really peeves the emergent church staffers, especially my friend, Jean Plus de Tête, the Director of Missional Recontexualization, who just burned his finger on a Tazo tea-bag.

Realtor: “Gene, why don’t you just get over that for now?”

Jean: “‘Zhawn!’ My first name is pronounced ‘Zhawn.’ It’s French, like ‘Zhock’ Derrida.

Realtor: “My apologies. I have a hard time reading these new postmodern business cards.”

Me [thinking]: “What if Derrida had written Hamlet...?”

Realtor: “But my point is, there isn’t any land zoned for churches left in this neighborhood. The new mosque and Hindu temple took the last of it. Look—your church is really into artsy stuff, right? So why don’t you consider that parcel down by the corner of Faith and Aesthetics?”

Other staffer: “We don’t want to be confused with all the liturgical churches concentrated down there.”

Me [thinking]: “‘To be or not to be—binary opposites in which being oppresses non-being…’”

Jean: “Besides, we actually belong here at Faith and Culture. No offense, but churches like Arbor Stream are aberrations. They can’t speak to postmodern culture the way we can. Twenty years from now when all the Baby-Boomers are doing the Hustle in Depends undergarments they’ll be closing their doors faster than people dumping WorldCom stock.”

Realtor: “I see. So it’s a demographic thing. Then why don’t you consider a spot up by the intersection of Faith and Commerce?”

Other staffer: “Then people will think we’re a Word-Faith church!”

Me [thinking]: “Right. We can’t have them planting their ‘seeds of faith’ willy-nilly into the collection plates.”

Jean: “Look, I don’t expect a realtor to understand the complexities of recontextualizing the missio Dei for a post-Christian society.”

[There’s a brief, awkward pause, and then—]

Realtor: “My, uh, Th.M. thesis was on the application of postmodern intertextuality concepts to the urban evangelism passages in the book of Acts.”

[Jean’s face flushes slightly during another awkward pause.]

Me [thinking]: “Yeah! What’s he talkin’ bout, Willis? Two-thirds of the seminary grads in this town sell insurance, and the other half is in real estate!”

Jean [back-peddling as though he just saw his future flash in front of his eyes]: “What I meant to say was that there have been some new developments in recent years. We now know that a lot of people are interested in Jesus, but aren’t interested in the traditional church.”

Realtor: “Okay—enough with the news flashes. I’ve been trying to forget my hippie Jesus commune days for 30 years now.”

Me [sipping my latté and thinking]: “Yep! Been there, done that, bought the t-shirt!”

Realtor: “You guys know you can’t keep holding services right in the middle of the intersection every Sunday. The police are already beside themselves directing traffic in and out of our church’s parking lot, and it’s only going to get worse over the holidays. Your worship dancers knocked over the nativity scene the ACLU fought so hard to keep us from setting up on the corner. And your insurance rates have skyrocketed ever since
that fellow from Grace Reformed was hit by one of your SPAMD trucks. Face it: you need to move into a real church building soon.”

[Jean stares pensively into his tea, and then—]

Jean: “Look, we just want to bring the fruits of a scholarly approach to evangelism in the postmodern context.”

Realtor: “Then why, pray tell, don’t you consider that nice spot I showed you down by Faith and Reason?”

Jean: “The one by the Kingdom Hall?”

Realtor [nodding]: “You’ll only be a block away from Our Lady of Perpetual Motion on the corner of Faith and Law, which dovetails nicely with your emphasis on the New Perspective on Paul.”

Jean: “True.”

Me [thinking]: “Yeah, but there’s no Starbucks there...yet...”

Realtor: “And you know how you guys are really into those missional apologetic methodologies for Mormons?”

Other staffer [with a sudden burst of enthusiasm]: “That’s right!

Jean: “What?”

Other staffer: “We’ll be within eye-shot of the new Mormon temple!”

Jean: “Down on Faith and Fable?”

Realtor: “Right!”

Jean: “Wow!”

Sunday, November 20, 2005

Is Everyone Set?

So I decided to take this missional apologetics course from the most popular professor on campus, Dr. Addlefinger, because, as you know, I’m both missionally and apologetically challenged. And this prof is, like, so cool that he has 1 Corinthians 9:19-23 tattooed around his neck in Yiddish. Of course, you can only see it when he isn’t wearing a Roman collar, and even then Jewish people have to keep turning him around counterclockwise to get the whole thing. He also has a tongue ring with one of the Stations of the Cross inscribed on it, but since he eats a lot of garlic (because of all his Wiccan friends) I’m not sure which one it is. What really convinced me to sign up for his course, however, was when I found out that he had his first name legally changed to J-Dog Thugnasty. Other people talk about recontextualization. Dr. Addle—er, I mean, The J-Man—has recontextualized himself right into the wallpaper of the postmodern global living room.

Anyway, we’ve been dialoguing for the past few weeks (The J-Man doesn’t “teach students,” he “dialogues with colleagues”) about all the latest cutting-edge missional approaches, and I must admit that I’ve been struggling with the new relational inculturation methodologies—mostly with how to spell them, but also with how to mine them for good conversation-starters for the heathen I meet at Starbucks. (“Is that a pentagram on your forehead? Did you know that there are technically five gospels, if you include Q?”)

Take all this buzz about applying mathematical set theory to missions. I mean, like, I stunk at math in school so bad that I was one of those kids who whined, “But when will I ever use this in real life?” when the teacher was showing us how to balance a checkbook. I’d rather diagram every sentence in the textbook than try to figure out how a centered set model is more suitable to a postmodern context than a bounded set model. And it seems I’m not the only one.

Anna: “This idea sucks!”

The J-Man: “Well, I’ve come to expect that kind of shallow response from a Baby-Boomer.”

Anna: “But I was born in 1972!”

Phil: “I think what Karen’s trying to say here is that this particular application of centered set theory to evangelism and ecclesiology inappropriately applies the criteria for inclusion in the invisible church to the mode of inclusion in the visible church, simultaneously resulting in an unbiblical methodology for the place of doctrinal catechesis in the life of the local church.”

Anna: “Are you saying I look like I’m over 40?!

The J-Man: “Phil, I think you’re missing the inherently problematic nature of the traditional paradigm. But you might be more persuasive if you use words with more syllables next time.”

Anna: “Wait a minute! You’re the only Baby-Boomer in this room, except for Ishmael!”

Following my entire life’s primary working presupposition that the more inscrutable an idea is, the more an instructor will like it, dialogues like this one convinced me that it was in my best academic interest to get on board with this New Missional Thinking if I wanted my degree program to go smoothly. Besides, I finally figured out that it wasn’t so important what another person actually believed, but only what “direction” they were heading.

Whew! What a load off! Now I don’t have to worry about telling people whether they’re “right” or “wrong.” Instead, I can just say stuff like, “You’re getting warmer…warmer… Okay, now you’re getting colder…”

Anna’s big mistake, on the other hand, was dropping the course before she looked ahead in the syllabus to discover the group field activity later in the semester at a totally rad local watering hole called Slammers, which we were to visit as a group of fully-inculturated missional Christians while avoiding undue syncretism with the bootylicious babes and smooth operators who frequent the establishment. This is one of those places evangelicals do not normally enter unless either (a) their car breaks down at 2 a.m., their cell’s at home, and there’s no other place to call for help in that area code, or (b) they’re on a mission from God to replace its coasters with “4 Spiritual Laws” tracts. Even though both of those pressures were off in our case, our thinly-veiled titillation at the thought of “witnessing” (to use an obsolete term) at such a place quickly turned to very awkward slumping over imitation martinis (at least mine was) punctuated by brief attempts at cross-cultural communication.

Eventually a few of us spotted The J-Man taking in the view near an unused pool table, and we congregated over there next to him, attempting to put the best possible face on our thus-far blundering encounters with the natives.

In a transparent effort to impress the teacher, Drew spotted the pool balls racked up on the table, and blurted, “Look! A bounded set!”

To which Liz added, “Well, we can fix that!” And she removed the triangular rack from around the pool balls.

Unfortunately Jonathan decided to pick up a stick, and taking aim at the cue ball he said, “Watch out, here comes a Mormon missionary,” and shot, scattering the balls around the table.

“But none of the balls are heading back toward the center,” observed Liz.

At which point it suddenly it got very, very quiet, and we became intensely aware that most of the silence was coming from the general direction of The J-Man himself.

I don’t think any of us got a very good grade for that night’s assignment.

Monday, October 31, 2005

Missional Apologetics Means Never Having To Say You’re Sorry

Okay, I think I’m finally getting it. We can’t rely on “old methodologies” anymore because they just “don’t work.” According to the Institute for Creative Explanations, several thousand “counter-cult ministries” around the globe have logged approximately 120 gazillion hours of “confrontational apologetics” since Walter Martin first started wearing “crosses” in front of his “ties,” and what do they have to show for it? Even though more people than ever are using Watchtower and Awake! Magazines as reefer wrappers, far fewer Jehovah’s Witnesses are becoming Christians today than they were shortly after midnight on December 31, 1975. To make matters worse, even though not a single Mormon institution of higher education offers a course in Reformed Egyptian Hieroglyphics, you can now find copies of the Book of Mormon right next to Gideon Bibles in hotel rooms. So it’s painfully obvious that all our outreach efforts have failed, and we must thus completely forget about everything we’ve ever done to bring these cultists (uh, New Religious Movement members) to Christ and come up with a completely new strategy.

Now I’ll be the first to admit that as I try to even skim the surface of the impressive body of literature that has been accumulating on What To Do About This Major Disaster, I soon become so overwhelmed by all its technical terminology that my mind drifts back to the “Green Acres” theme song, and I start seeing Eddie Albert bouncing on a tractor in a three-piece suit. But despite being totally out of my depth here, I think I’ve gleaned just a few basic principles that separate the old way from the new way, and upon which I think we would all do well to reflect. And as part of my unceasing effort to boil down exceedingly complex issues so that even a counter-cult apologist can understand them, I present them as follows:

Talking to pagans the way Christ spoke to the Canaanite woman (“It is not good to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs” Matthew 15:26): BAD!

Talking to pagans the way Paul did on Mars Hill (Acts 17:15-34): GOOD!

Pointing out that Paul essentially called the Athenians “ignorant” and openly contradicted their most basic metaphysical assumptions: BAD!

Using very big words to convey very small ideas: GOOD!

Depending solely on special revelation (i.e., Scripture) to convert people: BAD!

Depending on general revelation (including pagan texts, practices, etc.): GOOD!

Fearing syncretism, or even being a little too cautious about it: BAD!

Re-theologizing away undesirable portions of the Protestant Reformation: GOOD!

Accusing anyone who opposes these procedures of being a knee-jerk reactionary who really needs to educate one’s self by reading all the missional literature on this subject before opening one’s big, fat mouth: ALSO GOOD!

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Things Jesus and the Apostles Never Said While Defending the Faith

“He’s not the brightest candle on the menorah, is he?”

“If you believe that—then you’re a few matzoh balls short of a Passover meal, my friend!”

“He’s riding his chariot without a horse.”

“Is that your head, or did your toga throw up?”

“He’s not casting with both lots.”

“Cretans are always liars, evil brutes, lazy gluttons.” (Oops!)

Sunday, September 11, 2005

Converging Traffic and the Emerging Church—Watch Your Step!

As I was crossing the intersection of Faith and Culture the other day, I narrowly avoided being run over by a truck belonging to the Society for Polysyllabic Advanced Missional Development (SPAMD). The guy walking next to me, however, was not so fortunate. I tried to warn him, but he was so absorbed in whatever he was listening to on his headphones that he didn’t hear me. (It turned out to be a book-on-tape edition of Calvin's Institutes.) At first I thought the truck driver didn’t notice the loud thud produced by the collision. But when I called SPAMD headquarters they advised me it was actually a part of a planned “worship experience” conducted by an “emerging church” that meets at that particular intersection, which it considers its ceremonial cross, and that the guy who got hit simply failed to adequately contextualize his own mission in that cultural setting. I guess now they have their representation of the corpus Christi. I hope the chalk lasts.