Archive for January, 2012

Theological Education and Tomorrow’s Church (Part 1)

by   |  01.31.12  |  Uncategorized

Once upon a time, a group of cousins inherited a large mansion, one of those plantation houses with wide be-columned porches all about, from which the owners could gaze across verdant lawns down to the river.  It had once been glorious, and parts of it still were, though it had recently fallen into decay.  “What shall we do with it,” said the cousins to each other.  “It’s beautiful just the way it is,” said one.  “Don’t change a thing.  This is the way it was planned, and no one should touch it”  “No, no,” insisted another.   “Nothing good ever happened in this house, and nothing good ever will.  Tear it down or sell it.  There’s a lot of rot and mildew and who knows what.”  A third chimed in, “Granted there are problems with the plumbing on the east side of the house, but we don’t have to go there.  The west side is where we used to get together at Christmas and tell stories and sing songs.  Don’t you remember the time….”  Her voice trailed off wistfully.  “Maybe we can just stay in this part and not go in the other.”  Then the last answered, “Cousins, we have to fix the house.  It’s got some great bones, but it does need work.  We need to fix it for our kids and their kids.”

Now you might ask me to explain my little allegory.  The interpretation is this: Churches of Christ in my lifetime have experienced a two-generations-long identity crisis.  The cousins have fought and cussed and argued, sometimes for good reason, sometimes not.  Some of us practice systematic denial of reality (both the arch-conservatives and the neo-denominationalists, albeit differently), others seem wedded to archness and snide criticism of the past (the so-called progressives), but some of us must work to repair and remodel the old house so that it can be a fit residence for the future.  What must we do?

Part of the reform will involve the training and support of leaders and thus the purposes and practices of theological education.  To reform Churches of Christ, we must reconsider the roles and especially the ends of theological education.  We must identify the contradictions and problems in what we inherited, the theological landscape of our time and place, and the resources and strategies for moving into the future.  Let me do that as part of this response.

Where we have been

To retrace our steps to this point, we might begin at the beginning.  In his 1839 prospectus for Bethany College, Alexander Campbell envisioned a school in which students would learn all that was “rational, moral, and subservient to good taste,” in which critical study of the Bible without “scholastic or traditionary [sic] theology” would create an environment hospitable to the formation of Christian persons.  No one would be trained for clerical leadership, for the movement neither wanted nor needed a professional clergy. This model for education of all Christians in a liberal arts environment has shaped Churches of Christ profoundly, as can be attested to by the tens of thousands of alumni of our colleges in leadership positions in our churches – and a lot of other churches – around the world.

Yet there is a problem here, and we must name it.  It became clear by the end of the nineteenth century that the failure to train clergy as such was a serious mistake.  Not only was it not possible to teach everyone all the things required by ministry as it had evolved over the centuries, but also it was not possible to train ministers properly in a strictly liberal arts environment.  Thus as early as the 1920s, schools like ACC attempted and failed to build full-fledged seminaries, and by the late 1940s Harding and ACC and shortly thereafter the rest of our schools had moved toward a mixed model.  Bible departments taught every student the rudiments of biblical theology, and they formed ministers at increasingly advanced educational levels.  Faculty carried heavy burdens in doing all this, but they managed, often at significant personal sacrifice, as long as the schools’ student bodies were relatively homogeneous theologically, ethnically, and socioeconomically. It was possible to pretend not to be training a professional clergy because we were also training everyone at some level and because the theological gaps between pulpit and pew were relatively narrow.  This mixed model has often served us well in creating vigorous lay leadership but has left unanswered the vital questions of just what it means to be ministers of the gospel in a full-time, ordained sort of way.  Our language betrays us here because we seem unwilling to call our ministers what they in fact are (and I think should be), a professional clergy.

This brings me, then, to a second problem.  Until the past decade, most of our Church of Christ colleges were extremely homogeneous institutions, especially theologically.  Most students, except at Pepperdine, identified their religious commitments with Churches of Christ, and all faculty members did.  The insider stories, assumptions, and even jokes formed part of the discourse.  That discourse could be critiqued in various ways – and was – and students could read far beyond its boundaries – and did, at least in some places – but the world of our schools was still comparatively closed theologically speaking.  We read about this or that theological movement, but no exponent of them ever taught at our schools.  The non-denomination could have many of the trappings of a denomination without acknowledging them.  I do not mean that everyone was sectarian.  Not at all.  But the non-sectarianism of even our most progressive schools had no practical implications in terms of hiring, student selection, curriculum development, the choice of outside speakers, and other tangible practices.  Nor did we encourage students entering full-time ministry to practice their theoretical ecumenism.  Rather, theological diversity lay hidden under a bushel.

This double-mindedness has become untenable today.  Undergraduate student bodies in many of our schools are well below 50% from Churches of Christ.  Brand loyalty is much weaker among all students, so that being “from” Churches of Christ need not imply a commitment to stay in them.  This means that the practices that allowed us to form lay leaders for Churches of Christ must be rethought in depth, and that we must learn to take seriously the priesthood of all believers and the catholicity of the Church in new ways.  The gap between the theological assumptions of alumni and those of current students is wide and growing.  Professors increasingly assume a mediatorial role, whether out of conviction or out of necessity.  (And the motivation matters!)

For the formation of professional ministers, the changing climate creates new challenges as well.  We are presented with ecumenical realities in a much more direct way.  We face squarely the call of training ministers who will work in post-denominational congregations of varying forms and structures.   They will need to work hard to rethink long-held traditions in light of new realities, especially the new reality that Christians today are able to draw on the whole storehouse of Christian practices and ideas, not just those that constellated in particular denominations or traditions (including our own).

In short, the realities that those who created our schools of theology in the 1950s and 1960s could assume simply do not exist anymore.  This is the news I must tell you, and this is why I think our conversation today is vital.  The apparent solidarity of the 1950s and 1960s has vanished into the past.  It has been vanishing for a long time.

Now some people would see all this as bad news.  I disagree.  Quite to the contrary, I think it’s the best possible news.  It means that we are now – finally – poised to take seriously what our teachers taught us about a vision of a non-sectarian Christianity in which human beings reflect adequately the justice and mercy and goodness of God.  What must we do now?

To be continued….

 

Injustice and Idolatry: The Psalms in Our Worship 46

by   |  01.17.12  |  Uncategorized

Psalm 58 is one of those troublesome hymns that seems much too honest for our polite, bourgeois church language.  Other than the first couple of verses, it contains a string of invectives that seem to fantasize about a world in which evil people (“those with venom like the serpent”) get their due comeuppance.  From the comforts of our upper middle class suburban dens, it all seems much to hot, too harsh to be something in the Bible.  Except for the first two verses.

The first two verses, however, offer a different frame.  The first line (not counting the superscription, which tags the psalm as a hymn for the choirmaster, perhaps sung to the ancient tune “Do not destroy,” whatever that was) reads in Hebrew: ha’umnam ‘elem tsedeq tedabberun (“Is it really so that you speak justice, ‘-l-m”).  The three consonants aleph-lamedh-mem (the second word in Hebrew) can be read as an adjective meaning “silent” or an adverb meaning “silently” (Hebrew doesn’t really distinguish between adjectives and adverbs most of the time).  Most medieval Jewish commentators read it that way.   Thus Rashi, in the eleventh century, imagines that the psalm relates to the story of David entering Saul’s camp and sparing the king’s life.  The proper response to such an act of mercy would be to search for a new level of justice in their relationship, which was not forthcoming. People were wrongly silent about fairness and equity.

Modern scholars have tended to read aleph-lamedh-mem differently, as the word for “gods,” which would have the same consonants.  Thus the NRSV translates the opening line of the psalm as “do you indeed decree what is right, you gods?”  If that is the right translation, as I think it is, then the psalm calls into question a social order in which various deities sit atop a social structure marked by injustice and oppression.  Like Amos and Micah, and their much later descendant Marx, the psalmist thinks that religion can, under certain circumstances, go terribly awry and be used to support terrible injustice.  Certainly there’s a lot to back up that assertion, as we have seen in our times with priest abuse scandals, fraud among televangelists, and the political coverage that some ministers have given to political leaders pursuing unjust wars. Religion can at times be the opiate of the people, and like all opiates, it can kill.

But the psalmist is no agnostic.  He or she offers a religious alternative to religious corruption.  It is faith in a God who does command justice and carries it out, and who is skilled enough at judging human beings to discriminate accurately between the just and the unjust.  This God is not impressed by  political propaganda that defines evil as what our enemies do and goodness as what we do.  This God recognizes that torture is torture and humiliation of the vulnerable is always evil.  This God does not relish being used for the narrow purposes of human powermongers seeking to defer the day of their own reckoning or divert the attention of others from their evil deeds.  As the psalm ends, it imagines a state in which human beings can recognize that God brings about righteousness on earth.  Surely, as Jesus himself said in the Sermon on the Mount, such a realization is a major goal of the faith of Israel and all its heirs, including us.

This psalm comes to my own life at a time when I am asking if I am radical enough in my pursuit of justice, or whether I am not too often selling out.  There are many layers to that inquiry, and I will not bother you with them now.  But I would recommend a book that is helping me, Terry Eagleton’s 2009 volume “Reason, Faith, and Revolution: Reflections on the God Debate” (Yale University Press).  He manages to take on critics of Christianity from his own perspective, which takes seriously Marxist insights into the corruptions of all political and social systems AND takes seriously the claims of Christianity.  It’s a fun read, and even you’re not a Marxist (which I am not), you find yourself wanting to read more.  Often you will disagree (why read a book you always agree with?  that’s a waste of time if ever there was one), but you will not be bored.  And your faith will be deepened.  I think our psalmist would’ve liked it too.  The banality of much of American culture, the secular indifference to the suffering of people, and the self-indulgence of so much of American Christianity all come under examination.  That’s healthy.  And I come under examination too.  More on that another time.

God’s p.r. agents: The Psalms in Our Worship 45

by   |  01.12.12  |  Uncategorized

One of the recurring notions of the Bible that seems counter-intuitive to many of us is that God’s reputation among human beings matters and that we religious people have some bearing on it.  It’s not that the Bible thinks that God needs human beings to carry out a given plan (as in the Star Trek film “The Final Frontier,” in which Spock’s half-brother Sybok thinks he’s being called by God, but finds instead a somewhat psychotic being trapped on a planet far from earth — that’s not the biblical picture of Israel’s God!).  But since the plans about which we know — assuming that God is up to many things that do not concern us — involve us and our reformation, what we think about those plans seems to matter.

So what do we think?  Psalm 57 begins with a call for divine graciousness, “for my life has taken refuge in you, yes, I have hidden in your wings’ shadow.”  The psalmist expresses an ongoing state of trust in the Almighty, a bold confidence that all will be well, in spite of the ferocity of opponents (v. 4 [5 in Hebrew]).  The psalmist’s confidence in God’s trustworthiness outweighs his/her awareness of the reality of danger on every hand.  Without denying the reality of evil in the world, the psalmist believes that God’s goodness outweighs evil.

The psalm next turns to a cry for future continuation of God’s past work.  “Let it arise over the heavens, O God, your glory over all the earth.”  The refrain opens and closes a major unit of the psalm, giving a sense of the whole.  In the Hebrew text, the word for “your glory” comes at the very end of the sentence, as if our poet wishes to make us wait to wonder what he or she wishes to extend over the heavens and the earth.  God’s splendor, shown by the willingness to save vulnerable human beings, transcends everything else in the cosmos, making all else pale in importance by comparison.  A world in which a gracious God reigns is a world that human beings can safely inhabit.

If the cosmos somehow reflects God’s care for us, and if the psalm is an example of how human beings testify to that, and if that testimony matters because other human beings can learn from it, then what is the nature of the testimony?  Two things: human beings can join God in the struggle against evil, and this struggle takes place in the context of celebration.  Thus verse 8 (Hebrew 9) calls for a new level of enthusiasm: “rouse up O harp and lyre, rouse up my liver” [emending the text slightly; Israelites often spoke of the “liver” the way we speak of the heart or mind).  The redeemed person has every reason to celebrate because we participate in the overcoming of evil.

A final, perhaps random, thought.  Like many people, I find it pretty easy to get discouraged by events in the world.  Some things just bug me, and you can guess what they are.  Some things should irritate us, because there is such a thing as righteous indignation.  The key is to pick which things.  But, at the same time, there are many things that inspire confidence in the possibilities for goodness in my fellow human beings, and even in myself.  Sometimes, it’s okay to say so.  Someone has said that cynics are just disappointed idealists.  Can we hold onto our idealism just a little longer?  If we do, is there a chance that others might notice and wonder what we found that they can find too?  Psalm 57 thinks so.  Many days — not always — I do too.

God is For Me! The Psalms in Our Worship 44

by   |  01.04.12  |  Uncategorized

Psalm 56 appears in a string of psalms that affirm trust in God.  This string begins in Psalm 53, or maybe even 51, and continues for awhile (where it stops is a bit unclear, or rather, is a subjective decision).  These psalms seem to belong together somehow, and even the ancient compilers of the Psalter thought so, because they added to many of them a superscription linking the sentiments of the poems to episodes in the life of David.  They thus sought to show how a given psalm could play a role in the spirituality of a real person under real duress.  That is, the superscriptions offer a window onto the oldest easily recoverable layer of interpretation of these psalms, according to which they were deeply personal pleas to God for help in times of trouble, as well as offers of thanksgiving to God for that help, once provided.

Psalm 56 seems to consist of four basic units: vv. 1-4 express deep trust in God; vv. 5-7 reflect on the lamentable conditions the psalmist has faced and may face again (because hymns of praise always have lament in their background, and vice versa); vv. 8-11 returns to praise to God, though with a bit of an edge (v. 8’s “You have kept track of my trouble; my tears you placed on your parchment” [not bottle, as in RSV and older translations] — God has remembered the psalmist’s difficulties, recorded them for future reference, and thus honored them as meaningful and real); and vv. 12-13 end as many hymns and laments do, with a promise to give to God some token of thankfulness.

I am especially interested in the statements of trust in God because such an attitude seems far harder than simply a straightforward acknowledgement of life’s difficulties would be.  We all know that life is full of uncertainties and outright evil.  Only people in breathtaking levels of denial could argue otherwise.  Is there hope?  Can we trust God?  That’s the question.

The psalmist thinks so, and says so, in a series of a affirmations beginning in 9b (Hebrew 10b):

This I know, that God is for me (or mine)/In God I will praise a word (or thing)/in Yhwh I will praise a word./In God I trust/I will not fear.

To live without fear and to believe that the infinite creator of the universe cares about me in my tininess and my radical individuality are astonishing commitments.  They are very difficult to pull off, made all the more so because everything in our existence seems calculated to inspire fear.  How many of us expect our employers to provide us meaning in life?  How many of us vote our fears and prejudices?  Most of us, and most of us most of the time.  That’s the tragedy.

Yet the psalmist, for a brief moment, imagines an alternative world without fear.  It is without fear because God has that person’s — and every person’s — best interests at heart.  (This is not the same as saying that God agrees with me, by the way!) 

What are the implications of such a belief?  For Israel, and thus for Jews and Christians, the implication has been that we can believe that life has meaning and purpose, if not in every little detail, then at least in its broad outlines.  We may not be superstitious enough to think that God has planned out every relationship and experience we have — that would be silly — but we do believe that God has in mind the ends of human existence and invites us to live into them.  We are not simply animals drifting from one experience to the next.  We are embodied souls, a little lower than angels, who have a greater destiny.  We do not need to live with the despair that seems to dominate our materialistic, power-hungry culture.  Nor do we need to escape the world through New Age puffery about how wonderful we already are (even when we know we’re not).  Both approaches are fear-driven fantasies.  No, we can live in ways that bit by bit remove fear as a motivator so that we can be truly free to live into the ends that God has foreseen for us.  This I know, that God is for me….