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.