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"We have nothing to offer each other, except a haven." — K. Nafziger

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Theology

Amos the Farmer

This blog post is a confession…

At church this morning, the message was based on Amos 5, a passage which includes these well-known words:

Let justice roll down like waters,
and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.

Amos 5.24

There is quite a bit that one could say about this passage (and I’d like bring it up again later this week), but for now I’d like to focus on something our worship leader said…

Amos was a farmer…

Yes – in passing, she simply mentioned Amos’ “other” occupation, the one that paid the bills when he wasn’t being prophetic. He was a farmer. Check it out:

The words of Amos, who was among the shepherds of Tekoa…

Amos 1.1

I am a herdsman, and a dresser of sycamore trees…

Amos 7.14

So here’s the thing… I’ve just spent a lot of time in the past week and a half at the Westmoreland Fair among farmers (which is partly why I noticed when our worship leader called Amos a farmer). It was a whole lot of fun, and Ordinary Spouse and I were discussing how we appreciated the atmosphere created by farm families hanging out with their animals.

But I’m not used to thinking of getting my spiritual advice from them.

And here is Amos the Farmer, laying down the word of Lord, as well as any theologian that I’ve been reading lately.

Let that be a lesson to me.

Review: “Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed Cross the Road?” by Brian McLaren

Three and a half years ago, I picked up A Generous Orthodoxy by Brian McLaren with the idea that I might find out what all the fuss surrounding the emerging church was about. Brian starts that book (in Chapter 0) by explaining why you might not want to read any further – all the objections you might raise. And indeed – I almost didn’t make it through Chapter 0 to get to the rest of the book, not because I had objections to his subject matter, but because I was getting impatient waiting for him to get around to it. But eventually he got the rest of the book underway, and I was glad to have persevered. His writing has been a great encouragement since then.

Fast forward to the Wild Goose Festival earlier this year in North Carolina… I had the chance to briefly share this story with Brian as I received an advanced copy of his latest book, Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed Cross the Road? (Christian Identity in a Multifaith World). It turns out that connection between these two books is appropriate and quite a bit deeper than my little story of frustration.

In AGO, Brian suggests that there is more than one faithful way for Christians to think about orthodoxy. A better approach to orthodoxy (“right-belief”) might value orthopraxy (“right-practice”) and generous relationships among Christ’s followers. And in WDJMBMCR, Brian suggests the time has come for Christians to reconsider our concept of evangelism, of “preaching the gospel”. And we are overdue for a new approach to relating to people of other religions (and indeed – people of no religion).

This is a breath of fresh air. Brian succinctly describes what I’m sure many of us have been feeling. We have been presented with two approaches to faith: maintain a robust faith and an antagonistic stance toward “the other” (i.e. ultimately I must convert you), or effectively render our faith meaningless in order to respect the other. Against both of these alternatives, Brian proposes a “strong, benevolent” Christian identity.

As with previous books, Brian will be accused of throwing orthodox Christianity to the wind. But he devotes much of the book to showing how our orthodox beliefs (as well as our liturgy and mission) can be both strong and benevolent. His detractors will try to discredit this work, but he is very intentional about working within traditional Christianity. The only thing that isn’t traditional is his conclusion. And that’s sort of the point, I think.

Here’s what I like most about the book:

  • Brian’s succinct statement of our quandary. Either “we love them (or say that we do) in spite of their religious identity” or “we… say that we love them in spite of our own religious identity”.
  • The chapter on evangelism. Isn’t that where a lot of people get hung up?
  • The ideas for re-shaping the liturgy. We need worship to reflect our theology.
  • Brian’s devastating string of questions regarding penal substitutionary atonement. Interestingly, these questions are in one long footnote and not the main text.*
  • The definitive lesson on sharing the good news of Jesus… from a Hindu. (Curious? Read it for yourself!)

* Questions about penal substitutionary atonement are often questions about the nature of God – specifically, “Is God violent?” I began asking those questions a few years ago, and Brian asks a whole string of them here. It is high time to answer with a resounding, “No!” I believe that doing so will set off a chain reaction of many changes in Christianity… for the better.

Here’s what I don’t like:

  • I’m afraid Brian will be preaching to the choir. Folks like me will be glad for the contribution this book makes toward a conversation that is desperately needed. But I didn’t need any convincing, and Brian has a reputation that will chase off a lot of people who would benefit.
  • He writes too many books. Don’t get me wrong. I love them. But I haven’t even had time to read Naked Spirituality yet. Slow down, man!

Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed Cross the Road? comes out, not coincidentally, on September 11th. I recommend you read it. This is a conversation the Church needs to have.


Notes:

  1. If you haven’t read one of Brian’s books before, I’d also recommend A New Kind of Christianity.
  2. On Facebook today, Carrie Newcomer announced that she’ll be working with Brian in the spring. Her album Everything is Everywhere reflects her faith and the kind of Christianity that Brian is writing about.
Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed Cross the Road? by Brian McLaren
Plotting harmony!

God is Love?

A while back, I discovered this mug…

"God is Love" mugI was either horrified or highly amused. Or both.

“God is love?!?!” More like “Godzilla is love,” if you ask me.

Ordinary, yet theologically adept, Spouse made the important and insightful bridge between ceramic and scripture:

Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church.

Ephesians 5.25

“Hmmm,” I thought. “What would that look like…?”

Husbands, love your wives.

JUST KIDDING!!!

(I just wish everyone was.)

Adding to the reading list…

As you might have guessed, I was enthralled by the book sellers at convention in Pittsburgh last week. I came home with three new books to read…

At the Menno Media exhibit, I purchased A Christian View of Hospitality by Michele Hershberger. As I think about the future and possible changes in direction or vocation, I’m attracted by hospitality. Broadly speaking, I see hospitality as opening up spaces in which we can encounter God. Michele writes:

In our North American society at the turn of the century, where busyness is the curse of the hour, materialism threatens to destroy our families, and homes are sanctuaries instead of centers of community, there is great need to redefine and to revisit the notion of hospitality. What is biblical hospitality, and what does it mean to take up God’s call to be hospitable in our present age? These are the questions that we must face before our lives burn up in our frantic pace.

And so, I purchased this book as something of an investment in my future. I’m especially excited to read it after sitting in on a tremendous seminar on Bible study that Michele did at convention.

I purchased two books at the Wipf  and Stock booth. I had no idea that they’d be at Pittsburgh. (As far as I know, they aren’t a “Mennonite” company, although they publish a number of things of interest to Mennos.) But after purchasing and reading (almost done!) Unclean by Richard Beck, I was glad to browse some other titles.

Working with Words by Stanley Hauerwas is a collection of essays and sermons that reflect on…

…what it means for theology to be work and, in particular, work with words…

It is my hope that these essays and sermons exhibit the training necessary to say “God”.

I’ve been wanting to read some of Hauerwas’ work for a while now, and this is the first of his books that I’ve picked up. I think that I’ll enjoy this work, given my amateur interest in theology. I hope that the “training necessary to say ‘God'” is not too advanced. After all, the training should be accessible to fishermen, tax agents, and those whose wont is to sit under fig trees.

The final book I purchased is Presence by J. Alexander Sider and Isaac S. Villegas. While I was considering the Hauerwas book, I asked those at the booth if they could tell me a bit more about it. I didn’t immediately realize that the person who describing the book was Isaac Villegas. I had just heard him speak in the adult worship session, and he had his own book for sale at the booth. Once I figured that out, I asked him to tell me about his book, too. I’m hoping that I might find this book to fit in somewhere between the other two…

As a Mennonite congregation, our worship is a display of what it means to be a priesthood of all believers. To be a church of priests means that you mediate God’s life to me. The Holy Spirit offers a fresh word for you through each of the people gathered for worship…

…the Word of God is not God’s Word until it has been received as both ‘good’ and ‘news’…

Whereas I expect Hospitality to give insight into how we share God with each other in basic, tangible ways, my hope is that Presence will inform on how we share God in our conversations about God.

We’ll see. My current reading list should get me well into next year.

Post-modernism, privilege, poetry, and prayer

Wow – how about that title? Don’t let it scare you away. Really, all I want to do is to get you to listen to some poetry by Ruth Forman. So I won’t be offended if you scroll down to the end and do just that.

No. Seriously. This post is sort of a random bunch of thoughts swirling in my mind that aren’t meant for anyone other than myself.  It’s not coherent at all. Just go listen to the poetry.

Ok – with that out of the way…


I’m not an expert on post-modernism. I do know that it questions objective truth. However, I don’t know if it rejects objective truth outright, or just cautions us that our personal truth is probably not the whole story.

Ironically(?), I accept this post-modern critique – that I don’t see the whole picture – as part of my personal truth. However, I do tend to believe that there is objective truth – it’s just that I can’t completely grasp it.

In particular, in the past few years I’ve been thinking about privilege. (Uh-oh – here he goes again!) I have about all the privileges that a person could have – gender, race, class, education, and so forth. Those of us with privilege often have trouble seeing it, and the process of letting it go can be painful. So – even though I accept a post-modern critique, even though I know I have privilege, and even though I know I should give it up, it’s still hard.

One area of privilege may be in theology. Now, personally, I don’t have much at stake. However, much of what has been regarded as “truth” in North America has been inherited from Europe and whatever emerged from the reformation. This has become apparent to me recently as I read J. Denny Weaver’s book, The Nonviolent Atonement. In addition to exploring some Anabaptist theology, he also includes the insights of Caucasian women and both African-American men and women. The thinking of the last group is sometimes termed ‘Womanism’.

Alice Walker defines a ‘womanist’ as someone who is:

Committed to survival and wholeness of entire people, male and female

and who:

Loves music. Loves dance. Loves the moon. Loves the Spirit. Loves love and food and roundness. Loves struggle. Loves the Folk. Loves herself. Regardless.

(Please note: there’s much more to her definition. I’m just excerpting.)

Back to privilege… Like I said, giving it up is hard. But it is made a whole lot easier by people who are willing to point out my privilege in love – like Alice Walker describes.

And finally, we get to the poetry of Ruth Forman. The other night, I was reading from Renaissance, a collection of her poems, and I came across “Reunion”. It starts this way:

Bring someone some hope
like a basket of good nectarines
to share n bite n
love the sweet

And I thought – this is a person who could teach me about privilege. And hope. And womanist theology. Which she does in this poem that she read one day on NPR:

Prayers Like Shoes


Car conversations

(I promised this post a few days ago…)

Ordinary Spouse and I enjoy road trips. Well – maybe “enjoy” is not really correct for Ordinary Spouse. She puts up with travel and is happy to get to the destination. But at least we value those times for the chance to talk (especially those times after dark when the Ordinary Daughters fall asleep).

I was thinking about this after our recent vacation trip to visit my parents in West Virginia. On the trip east, the topic du jour seemed to be theology. (Well – I suppose that I probably drive many of our conversations in that direction, since I seem to find theology interesting right now. So maybe it’s the conversation of the week. Or month. Or year…) And I found our conversations that day fascinating, as well. Check out what we covered:

How do we understand the Bible? If we see differences between the beginning and the end of the Bible, do we (to use mathematical concepts) take an average? Or maybe we think that the changes represent an unfolding understanding by God’s people, so we construct a vector (or trajectory) pointing to an ultimate ending. Or maybe we deny any changes at all.

Should we begin our theological conversations by stating our assumptions? Sometimes, when the Church starts discussing our controversial issues, it feels like we’re talking right past each other. Both sides wonder how the other side could come to its conclusions – they just don’t seem logical. But if, instead of arguing the controversies, we stepped back and discussed the basics (like “how do we understand the Bible?”), we might have a more productive conversation.

Is God non-violent? (You may notice that my questions are building on each other.) If we see Christ as non-violent and if we also view Christ as the fullest revelation of God, do we see God as non-violent? And based on this…

Do we need to rethink our concept of the atonement? I think (from my limited experience) that evangelical Christianity generally embraces a penal substitutionary atonement. Personally, I think that I absorbed this without really questioning it when I was younger. There is something nicely formulaic about this view: an accounting system for the debt of sin. On the other hand, it raises the problem of divine child abuse. Now, I am enjoying the exploration of non-violent theology with the help of writings from Denny Weaver* and Ted Grimsrud. Weaver and Darrin Snyder Belousek also take on the topic in a recent issue of The Mennonite.

Darrin also raises an interesting question about the Trinity…

Is God fully revealed in the story of Jesus Christ? Could we conceive that the first person of God (commonly “God the Father” – sorry for the patriarchal language) might occasionally be violent, while the second person of God (commonly “God the Son”) is non-violent? Or even, is the God the Son fully revealed in Jesus Christ? And what about now – does God the Son still retain aspects of humanity after the ascension?

To what extent is the Trinity “truth”? To be clear, our car conversation wasn’t questioning the existence of the three persons of God. But we wonder if God presents God’s self to humans in this way in order for us to understand something that is essentially unknowable. Sort of like trying to see a 16-dimensional object in a 3-dimensional world – maybe all we get is a projection.

What is non-violence? What is peace? This was Ordinary Spouse’s insightful and original question.** We talk about working for peace, but we really don’t know what that will look like. We can only speak in the negative: peace is the absence of violence and conflict. Unfortunately, we know violence and conflict intimately.

If you embrace a non-violent theology, what do you do with the abundance of worship resources that no longer seem worshipful? And, in addition, how do you raise children who share your values?

Well – that’s how we burned up the miles between Indiana and Pennsylvania during our July vacation. I guess it didn’t hurt that the CD player in the van was broken.


* This is a pretty old link. I should probably look for more recent writings, such as the link to the article in The Mennonite. Certainly, his book (The Nonviolent Atonement) has now been published, and I’m in the middle of reading that. However, I haven’t searched for other resources.

** With an emphasis on the ‘original’ part. I’ve heard our other questions posed in various other places. But I hadn’t considered this before.

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