menno ideas


mouthSomething I quickly discovered about myself when I became part of my Mennonite fellowship is what a blathering loudmouth I am.

Friends have responded to this observation mostly with a heartfelt: “Duh.” So, yeah, as an adult I’ve had to periodically face the fact that my own opinions are not golden coins showering from heaven on grateful fellow humans (marriage also has a way of bringing this into clear detail).

But previously, I never considered facing this fact to be an act of discipleship.

Mennonites try to be really good at conversation. Careful listening is critical to spiritual growth and community life. Lots of time at church is spent listening to each other. We’re encouraged to keep our mouths shut if someone else has something to say. We’re encouraged to not do that thing that people do – that I’ve developed as a practiced skill – to listen at half-attention while preparing my next statement for whenever I can make an interruption.

This revelation may seem like simple manners, but growing up in the church this had never been presented to me as part of the Christian life. “Letting others speak” and “being respectful of other points of view” were far down the list of Christian virtues, far behind “making sure you have the right answer” and “making sure everyone knows it.”

earPROCLAIMING THE TRUTH was our highest call in communicating, and I remember many people cut off for the sake of God’s supposed need for Christians to be constantly proclaiming stuff and never listening. I was rewarded for that kind of behavior – until I became the one asking the wrong questions, and being shut out of conversation.

So I’ve been enjoying cruising the archives of Scot McKnight’s blog Jesus Creed. I’ve revisited last January’s posts about “Conversation” (part 1, part 2, part 3). He explains why emerging Christians value genuinely open and listening conversation in exploring faith, as opposed to the one-way didacticism many of us are familiar with.

But the “art” of conversation can’t be learned in such a context when everything is dominated by right vs. wrong or when it becomes whoever knows the most becomes the teacher. This isn’t conversation; this is lecture or information exchange.

I believe that the emerging movement wants “conversation,” and I believe evangelicals by and large are nervous about it because it has not learned to converse.

I see this as another intersection between the way of life in the Mennonite church and the kind of spiritual life many emerging Christians are looking for.

The Mennonites are not particularly fond of “committees.” But one committee structure involved in difficult community decisions is the “listening committee.” These committees are not engaged in controversy to debate opinions, but to pay careful attention to what people on all sides are saying. Then before the conversation moves toward resolution, everyone turns to the listening committee for their report: they simply report what they heard.

They tackle the most controversial issues in this way. There are listening committees for homosexual concerns, immigration issues, Catholic-Mennonite relationships, congregational diversity, or any kind of topical exploration dealing with multiple perspectives.

We live in hope.

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[continued form yesterday’s post]

C. Wess Daniels (Quaker-aligned, Mennonite-lovin’, recent Fuller Seminary grad) responded to McKenna’s post with his own observations, supportive of the idea that Anabaptism is a wide tent capable of organizing diverse emerging traditions, while connecting new movements with a powerful historical witness:

I too have witnessed in my interactions with people from various traditions that many … are looking for some kind of new (or different) lens from which to understand our faith …. Anabaptism as a tradition is all encompassing and contains within the intellectual framework to bear the weight of an influx of many traditions into it’s vision.

I particularly agree that new emerging Christians would benefit by articulating some connection with a specific tradition so rich in historical integrity. I know it’s been extremely helpful for me.

Legendary emergent blogger Tall Skinny Kiwi chimes in with a post around the same time reviewing the contributions he’d like to see from multiple international Anabaptist flavors. He’s especially enthusiastic about Canadian Mennonites. His post is also helpful because of the books (real, paper books!) he references.

Anabaptist-friendly minister and prolific Brit blogger Graham Old disagrees! Responding to McKnight’s original post in summer ’05, he asks:

What of being a church for the poor? Or radical ecclesiology and anti-Constantinianism? Or communal hermeneutics, or a genuine committment to peace and nonviolence? What about being a church on the fringe, in a long line of such marginalised groups? (And not because it was cool to be “radical” and fly below the radar, but because you weren’t invited to the party.) I would have to say that such features are far from characteristic of the emerging church.

And then later, following up in his comments he clarifies:

I just completely disagree with the idea that the emerging church has an emphasis upon the poor. It may be that particular churches and/or groups of churches do – but I don’t see them doing so because they are emerging. That is, I don’t think it is characteristic of the emerging church.

Of course, I delight in those aspects of the emerging church that do seem anabaptist-ish, but I don’t think there’s enough of them to suggest that the two movements have a similar spirit.

This has been a summary of conversation I’ve found interesting and helpful. More of my own opinions at a later pint in time.

I’m not the first to consider the idea that emerging church finds particular resonance with Anabaptist traditions. This has been a topic discussed and debated in the last couple of years. I’ve been checking out the archives of bloggers I read and have found a rich and interesting conversation about this. I’ll try to summarize and link to the various threads in this post, and maybe comment myself on the points raised in them at a future date.

Back in 2005, Scot McKnight (beloved emerging academic brainiac from North Park) proposed the following in the conclusion to a blog post reflecting on the Brian McLaren book A Generous Orthodoxy:

Now I wish to make a proposal that changes the title of this post: the sort of evangelicalism the EM is striving for is anabaptist. As we in the EM seek to fashion a label and a category for what is going on, perhaps the only genuine label that comes close is “anabaptist.”

Great idea, right? The blog conversation resulting from this post has been rising and falling over the last couple of years.

In May, Jerrod McKenna did some blogging about movements of radical peace witness he’s encountered, and found the phrases “emerging peace church” and “open anabaptist impulse” to be helpful describing what was going on with this spindly branch of the emergent family sapling. He names emphasis on community, an invitational character open even to enemies, elevating non-violence as an essential expression of the spirit of Jesus, and a withdrawal from political forces that employ coercion. He concludes:

In a post-Christendom setting their may be no more important stories to draw on than this ‘Open Anabaptist impulse’ and other similar traditions such as the Early Friends. A witness to the reality of the early churches “power” not being found in positions of prestige but with those in a position of need.

Part 2 tomorrow!

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about theology lately, exploring Anabaptist ideas amid Emerging church controversies. Much of the rageblogging done against people like McLaren and Tony Jones is filled with accusations about believing the “wrong” things about the atonement. So I’m glad that Josh Brown’s blog tipped me off last month to North Park professor Scot McKnight’s book in Abingdon’s series on emerging theology, A Community Called Atonement.

In evangelical churches for generations, the penal substitutionary theory of atonement has held a privileged position over other possible interpretations about why Jesus “had to die.” Not that I was ever told about it growing up evangelical, but there are a number of other, quite different, explanations of what could possibly explain Jesus’ execution (theologically speaking).

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An easy spot for traditional church folk to pick at Emergents’ claims of “orthodoxy” (more on this weaponized word in a future post for sure) is to press the issue of penal substitutionary atonement – which Emergents are not particularly fond of (Lord knows, I’m not!). See Tony Jones’s recounting of his lunch with John Piper to get a sense of the conflict.

So I’ve been trying to learn something about Anabaptist theology’s work on the atonement. I’m happy to discover once again that there’s probably a reason why an emerging church-flavored person like me is so comfortable with the Mennos. They have a broader theological view of atonement, and don’t seem to equate penal substitution with the gospel.

It seems like the theological work being done these days is in two broad areas:

  1. identifying the theological history of Anabaptism,
  2. and some robust new thinking and interpretation by contemporary Anabaptist theologians.

The History

It’s not easy to get a clear picture of Mennonite theological history, for many reasons outlined in this helpful Frances F. Hiebert article from Direction journal. From my reading of Hiebert’s historical survey, I think emerging Christians would be right at home with Anabaptist thought on this subject. While most Mennonites (but by no means all) recognized some truth to penal substitution, this was by no means the whole story for them. Early Anabaptists understood this “forensic” model as only one facet of a complex and mysterious culmination of God-human relations. From Hiebert’s article [emphasis is mine]:

But to them, that model was inadequate or insufficient. It concentrated chiefly on Christ’s death and had been reduced to a passive or forensic doctrine which concerned only a change in humanity’s legal status before God….To the Anabaptists, however, atonement meant much, much more. According to Pilgram Marpeck it was far more than a legal transaction in the heavenly court. It … referred to all the ways in which God and humans have been reconciled through the work of Jesus Christ. It points not only to Christ’s death, but to all the various phases of his activity on behalf of humanity including his ministry, his death, and his resurrection…. This comprehensive view of atonement is in contrast to both Catholic and Protestant traditions that have held a forensic doctrine of atonement in which “all that is really necessary for the salvation of humankind is a qualified (pure) victim.”

The New Thinking

Some of the contemporary work on this subject I’ve read is from J. Denny Weaver, a professor from Mennonite school Bluffton College, in Ohio. This article outlines a modification he’s made to another historical atonement theory called “Christus victor.” Weaver’s so-called “narrative Christus victor” theology removes the contradictory blood-thirst from God’s role in Christ’s death, and sets the entire enterprise in an against-the-empire context that I hear leaders in the emerging church speak about often.

In my previous post, I tried to explain the anxiety and restlessness I sometimes feel working at an evangelical Christian college. It’s frustrating to me that people around here judge me based on my theological beliefs. What they are usually saying is that they think I’m not really a Christian, and therefore some kind of threat to the cohesion of this Christian community.

Next month a friend of mine is coming to speak on my campus who has been drawing controversy lately by publicly espousing theological beliefs that identify him as outside the boundaries of what many of the colleges he speaks at find acceptable for Christians.

I was telling this to a colleague at lunch this week, and he responded by saying that the word “orthodoxy” means “right belief,” and Christians have been protecting the faith by making judgments about one another’s theological beliefs for two thousand years. He said “If your friend finds it too hard to believe the right things, maybe he’s in the wrong religion. Being a Christian is easier than that.”

Obviously, I took this personally, because I’m assuming my colleague would say the same thing about me if he knew that I hold a theology that probably fails parts of his litmus test for believing the right things.

I don’t care how easy people say it should be for me to follow Christ; in my personal experience I find it very hard! I struggle with weak faith, confusion about the Trinity, laziness and bad character, the existence of evil, injustice and suffering. I work out my theological conclusions in response to these struggles, so that I can remain faithful. If I believed some of what people tell me I should believe about (theology buzzword alert:) soteriology, eschatology, divine ontology, etc., I wouldn’t be able to stay a Christian at all!

I’ve found tremendous hope and help in the Mennonite church. Fellow Mennos care about and frequently ask me about my mission. “Following Christ and building the Kingdom of God!” is my usual answer. They ask me what I need in order to do that. There are many things I need: discipline, humility, meditation, good advice, submission to God’s will, community support, and more. And also I believe theological ideas that people judge me for.

Parts of my theology is awkward, and unpopular, maybe even incorrect or incomplete. But what those beliefs do is help me be a better, more faithful Christian.

This is “what theology is for” in my life. It’s to help me understand and follow and serve and submit to the will of Jesus. Not to draw boundary markers for club membership. I care very little for the theological opinions in the heads of most of the people I work with at my college. I simply care if they are healthy and at peace following Christ and building the Kingdom.

I wish I had more of a sense that people around here could look at me that way if they knew all that I believe.

I take comfort in the confidence that the Mennonites will let me stay in their group if ever the college I work for tells me to leave. I’m still working out what this means in the long term.

“Mennonite Poster Boy and Baptist Girl” is a comic strip by Mel Pritchard, a Southern Baptist college student who ended up at a Mennonite university, and made the comic in response to her culture shock. The story follows the cartoonist’s alter ego and her love/hate affair with the earnestness and contradictions of Mennonite youth culture.

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Evangelicals and Anabaptists are equally skewered by Pritchard’s satire over the 3-year run of the strip which appeared in Eastern Mennonite University‘s campus paper.

I won’t spoil the end of the allegorical plot for you, but yes, the 2 iconic characters have to eventually make a decision about their irresistible mutual attraction. These strips are © Mel Pritchard, and I think it’s funny stuff.

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