November 10, 2007
November 7, 2007
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?
The 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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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)
- 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
November 6, 2007
Speakerguy, my friend I posted about last time, spoke on campus.
Things were going fine until a student during Q&A asked him what he thought about all the attention devoted to fighting gay marriage in American churches.
More details after i catch a little rest.
photo from flickr by porkfork6
November 1, 2007
This week a guest lecturer is coming to my campus to speak about Christian mission. I work at a small private Christian liberal arts college in the Northeast, and I think this guy plans on talking about things I’d expect the students around here to be into: social justice and serving the poor. I know this because the “speaker-guy” (as I used to call him) is a friend of mine. I rented a room from and hung out with him and his family years ago before I was married.
I’m a little anxious. He’s been speaking publicly in recent months about ideas he’s previously kept to himself. Stuff about biblical interpretation, judgment and eternal damnation, gay people. In fact it’s a lot of the things I hear discussed by emerging Christians (and the traditionalists who loathe their theology).
But maybe it won’t be so bad. The students (and faculty and staff) at my college are pretty good examples of people without a 100% buy-in to the comfortable cultural system that rationalizes the hoarding of wealth at the expense of others. A lot of the students coming through my classes plan post-graduation lives of service. It will take many of them a long, long time to pay off their college debts because they will be working for development organizations that don’t pay jack (at least in dollars).
All of this is central to my friend’s typical message. Other Christian colleges that have been canceling his speaking engagements, even asking him to leave early in one case, probably don’t have the commitment to radical service to the poor that Speakerguy calls for in his sermons and lectures.
I mean, I hope not anyway.
October 27, 2007
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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.
October 25, 2007
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.
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!
October 21, 2007
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).
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:
- identifying the theological history of Anabaptism,
- and some robust new thinking and interpretation by contemporary Anabaptist theologians.
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.