November 2007


We live in hope.

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I was thrilled to discover this month that one of my favorite emerging bloggers, Tall Skinny Kiwi (whose identity I still don’t quite understand beyond “some really smart shane bookBaptist dude with a blog everyone reads”) gave a positive review of menno pastor Shane Hipps’s book, The Hidden power of Electronic Culture.

I discovered the book this fall and it rang all my bells. Shane Hipps has a background in marketing and advertising, and left it all behind to follow the call. But he took with him his expertise in applying Marshall McLuhan’s genius for media studies to the life of the church.

Since I teach communication and digital art at a Christian college, this book is a treasure of insights and challenges for my classes, my students, and my own professional development. All the better that Shane Hipps understand emerging church and the cultural forces shaping and being shaped by the movement from within a Mennonite context. And this guy went to junior high with Tony Jones? What’s that about?

I plan a more extensive series of blog posts about Shane’s book and his Web site, and how this might all connect with Mennonite theology. So I’m thrilled the book is getting more exposure. I think it’s important.

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old car jpeg

“Speakerguy” is that guy who came to speak at the Christian college where I am on faculty.Because Speakerguy and I are old friends, we spent a lot of time together catching up during his visit to campus.

In the local coffee shop, I asked him about the evangelical leaders he knows: celebrity authors, megachurch pastors, evangelists and non-profit CEOs. I wanted to know what he’d observed doing so much traveling to churches and colleges and religious organizations around the country.

I’m going to try to paraphrase what he told me. This isn’t an exact quote or transcript, I didn’t record our conversation or even think about writing it down. But now a couple weeks later, this is the best I can recall the gist of what he said:

“Dave, people with the theology and commitments like the students you’ve described, people who worship a perfectly loving God who wants them to be radically devoted to making the world a better place, people who aren’t afraid to change their theology to a theology of love and hope – those people are the future of Christianity in the West.”

When I expressed skepticism, because those in power at influential churches and Christian colleges and publishing houses seem devoted to a way of expressing our faith that seems narrow, exclusionary, vengeful, and uncritical of things like empire. He responded by saying,

“The best horse drawn carriages were built after the invention of the automobile. Many people looked at these new cars and laughed them off – they couldn’t possibly represent the future of transportation. But we know how the story goes. You and me and your students are the cars in this story: right now we’re a mess, and we’re loud, and we keep breaking down, and we don’t know where to get gas. But we’re the future, I’m as sure of that as I am that I’m sitting here.”

The statewide MC-USA “conference” (regional association of churches) our fellowship belongs to is an old conference, with close ties to some of the oldest conservative Mennonite leadership structures in the country.

Most of the other Mennonite churches we’re affiliated with are made of middle aged and senior citizens folks. They are comfortable in a traditional congregational church structure: a head pastor and pastoral staff, board of elders and deacons, a gentle mix of hymns with a few praise choruses on Sunday morning, sermon-focused worship service. Steepled building. Parking lot.

But my congregation is different, both in demographic and ecclesiastical practice.

  • First of all, we don’t meet Sunday morning. We gather for worship late Sunday afternoon.
  • Our chairs are arranged in a close circle, surrounding some kind of reflective visual element: a bowl of sand, candles, a vessel of water, or maybe just a brightly colored cloth-draped table.
  • hymnalWe sing from the Mennonite hymnal, a.k.a. “The Blue Book,” like many other menno churches. Singing is very important to us, and the congregation picks the songs ourselves, calling out page numbers and then accompanied by guitars and violins.
  • We have no pastoral figure-head.
  • No sermon.
  • Our prayer is kind of liturgical, incorporating visual and tactile artistic objects.
  • The young children stay with us until contemplative prayer time, crawling from lap to lap, making a fuss, or not, and requesting songs or asking for explanations for what we’re doing.
  • We discuss together. We read a scripture passage, or magazine article, or look at a projected slide show, or listen to a personal testimony. All voices are invited to respond if they have something to say.
  • Our building is a dilapidated storefront. Our money is spent mostly on mutual aid and service projects. We’re mostly in our 20s and 30s; the eldest is 50, the youngest are infants.

So what does the rest of the conference think of us – the state leadership, men in their 60s and 70s, and the other congregations with traditional worship services and conservative dress, still influenced by “ethnically mennonite” history and identity? How do they treat our ragged band of misfits and experimenters?

They have ever only been 100% affirming, supportive, and deeply encouraging.

At multi-church gatherings, they ask us to share our ideas or lead worship. They encourage our college students to go on to seminary and take leadership positions, especially our young women. They visit us and participate in what must seem to be weird ways of doing church. We’re invited to conference events. Leadership never offers advice unless asked. We feel welcomed and mentored.

Since joining with the Mennonites as a last try at organized religion before maybe giving up on it altogether, I’ve been inspired by the number of white-haired, plain-dressed, sometimes slightly baffled (by me!) church people who let me know that if I’m a follower of Christ working for Christ’s kingdom, they’re glad to have me and seek my growth and maturity as a reconciled child of God.

How is it that this very, very old tradition is a welcoming place for me and my friends and our kooky new ideas? This is a holy mystery.

Still reeling a bit from “Speakerguy’s” visit to the Christian college where I work.

Have had some great conversations with a group of students who recognize that his purpose in hitting the road to speak at colleges like ours is to (in the words of Heather the biology major), “Call us to work for justice for the poor and oppressed, DUH!”

Unfortunately, some here continue to call for rejection of his message and, ultimately, of him– apparently believing the wrong theology somehow disqualifies him from speaking about Christian mission as a call to radical service and counter-cultural living.

I’m still kind of stressed out about this, but instead of blogging my anger against this narrow, exclusionary religious perspective, I’ll instead praise the invitational and welcoming perspective of the Mennonite church I’m part of. I’m working on a post and will hopefully get it up tomorrow.

Postmodern expressions of traditional faith. We believe even this is possible!!! 🙂pacpeace

What should I post about my friend’s (whom I’m calling here “Speakerguy”) invited series of lectures at the evangelical Christian college where I’m on the faculty? Why have so many here reacted with shock, anger, or offense? Why are members of the religion faculty throwing around words like “heresy,” “cult leader,” and “unorthodox?”

This is a guy who has devoted his life to calling Christians of privilege to reorder their lives toward working for social justice and solidarity with the poor. This is a message that resonates around here. It’s one of the reasons I like working here: for all of our inconsistency and hypocrisy, we still take these ideas seriously. What went wrong?

jesus dinoThe problem as I see it is theology. Speakerguy’s final evening lecture touched on a challenging and surprising theological idea, prompting further questions from students in the follow-up Q&A. Then everyone went crazy. A few walked out. Students clustered together around the auditorium afterward, confused and angry. Our New Testament prof’s head looked like it might burst like an over-ripe tomato. My teaching assistant, who loved Speakerguy and made a big deal over our history and friendship, texted me from her phone: “Too bad about your doomed tenure review. It was nice knowing you!”

The dismissive accusations I’ve heard the last 2 days of “classical liberalism” and “old social gospel dressed with new arrogance” sound absurd to me. This is a man who wrapped up his lecture by declaring allegiance to and inviting worship for the resurrected Christ, God incarnate, savior of humanity from our sins. This covers a minimum of 2 or 3 creedal affirmations that would make a classical liberal choke.

I think what it really comes down to are four boundary-crossing theological opinions. They are not tightly held by my friend, and he never once invited anyone to abandon any theology of their own to accept his. As far as I can tell, in the eyes of many in my community, he simply believes “wrong” about the following 4 areas:

The Bible

  • clip bible Speakerguy said that all Christians find the God they are looking for in scripture. Whomever expects to find a vengeful, capricious, bloodthirsty God will find scriptural passages that describe this God. Anyone who needs a non-violent, all loving, perfectly forgiving God will find that God in the same book. He says most people simply ignore the parts of the Bible that contradict the God they want. He included himself, and didn’t seem bothered by this.

Sovereignty

  • clip hand string He said the idea that God controls everything that happens in the world is observably false. It’s obvious to him that all kinds of things happen all the time which are in direct opposition to what God wants to happen. And he went on to say that the reason God doesn’t stop these horrible things from happening is because God can’t. God’s love for everyone prevents God from forcing them to make different choices.

Hell

  • 1hell-thumb.jpg Speakerguy thinks there’s a Hell. He thinks he’s seen glimpses of it in the neighborhoods where he ministers to the sick and abused people of society. But he thinks one day Hell will be empty, that God’s love will never stop trying to save everyone, everywhere, living or dead, no matter what. He says the kind of God who would turn his back on people in Hell is not a God who deserves his worship.

“The Gays” (TM)

  • clip men Speakerguy says to stop obsessing about homosexuals, to just give up these unimportant battles. Homosexual people can’t live whole lives if they’re required to cut off all hope of connecting with a lifelong, loving relationship. Speakerguy says he would bless the marriage of a gay couple without a moment’s hesitation.

Provocative? Oh yes. Challenging and flamboyantly stated? For sure. But heresy? Outside the bounds of creedal Christianity? Give me a break.

This kerfuffle speaks directly to my earlier posts about what theology is for. When did we elevate believing the right theological propositions so far above the work of following Christ? We’re saved by faith through Christ, not by our theology. The evangelical obsession with narrow theological boundaries to the exclusion of people transformed by the saving grace of God expressed through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus (this describes Speakerguy perfectly) has really got me down today.

Not just because Speakerguy is my friend. He spends his days facing down drug dealers and working with kids in some of the worst situations a human being can experience. An indignant, judgmental college professor is not going to leave any marks on him.

Rather, I’m frustrated and discouraged because I live and work here. The people at this school are my friends and colleagues. And although I disagree with some of what my friend argued here this week, I don’t disagree with very much of it. Naturally, this worries me.


Picture by The Searcher via flickr

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