Archive for ‘Identity’

Contextual Theology

by   |  09.05.13  |  Contextual Theology, Contexual Education, Identity

     While not the first, Stephen Bevan’s Models of Contextual Theology in 1992 mapped the field in a widely used way. Practical theologies relationship with context and the importance of location emerged as a primary conversation partner in the field.
     The contextual nature of ministry should not surprise us. The contextual nature of the gospel is grounded in Jesus dwelling in our midst. The same gospel is embodied differently in Jerusalem than it is in Rome. The rural, middle-Tennessee congregation of my grandparents looks and acts differently than the college town of my midwestern roots. The two places exhibit distinctive issues, personalities, and preferences. While they share much in common (tradition, national origin, language, etc.), no one confuses the two. They are more like second cousins than siblings. On any particular Sunday, the conversations in the foyers are not the same. While both talk about the weather, one worries about the crops, the other the game.
     Recently, a conversation on a cooking show about the various qualities of olive oil caught my attention. The expert suggested not buying products from Italy or Spain but from California. He noted, “Location makes all the difference in the world for your recipes. Currently, California has the best olive oil.” Take for instance wine making. The science of enology estimates that there are more than ten thousand kinds of grapes used to produce various styles of wine. Today only a fraction of those are available on a commercial scale, with over two hundred varieties commonly used. Enologists, viticulturists, and winemakers are versed in how to best grow and season grapes to produce wine with character, elegance, and strength. Winemakers often discuss how terroir denotes the numerous environmental factors (such as region, soil quality, drainage, air temperature, humidity levels, etc.) that effect the flavor qualities of the final product. Terroir can be very loosely translated as “a sense of place,” which is embodied in certain characteristic qualities of the ecosystem, the sum of the effects that the local environment has had on the production of the product. While some large-scale producers blend wines in order to achieve uniformity and consistency year to year, wines defined by their locality celebrate and affirm their terroir. In the movie, All in This Tea, notes that  even the next valley over can change not only the taste but also the marketability of the product. Farming is always contextual.
     Even my own life is contextual. I begin with lived experience (both communal and individual). Where else can a person start? If I begin with one of the theological resources like Scripture, I can only begin with it from my experience of Scripture. I was first introduced to Scripture through the witness of my parents and home church. I went to Bible class on Sunday mornings and Wednesday evenings. Many teachers told me the grand stories of faith. Long before any formal training, I read the text for many hours in private devotion. I passed Bible exams in order to move from fourth to sixth grades. My father is an engineer. My mother is a bookkeeper. I have an undergraduate degree in environmental science. All these experiences shape the way I read texts. Eventually, even my formal training in critical methods was shaped by a tradition rooted in Lockean epistemology and Common Sense Realism. Everyone starts with experience. What other option is there?
     Churches too live in a context. Ministers, by listening, discern what God is calling them to be and do in this place. And from that discernment in location, the people of God have opportunity to partner with God for God’s glory.
–an excerpt from The Effective Practice of Ministry: Essays in Memory of Charles Siburt,
ACU Press, 2013, edited by Tim Sensing.

Why Christians Love the Bible (part 3)

by   |  04.29.12  |  Bible, Christianity, Church, Identity

            In the previous post, I talked about objections that many people lodge against the Bible and thus against those of us who understand it as a book representing in some fashion a window onto the true character, practices, and convictions of God.  Obviously, the discussion here can only hint at some of the depths of the issues.  For some of them, you might consider the profound new book by Feldmeier and Spieckermann, The God of the Living (Baylor University Press, 2011).  It’s not an easy read, but is well worth the effort.

            The final two objections I noted consisted of the claims that the Bible advocates the mistreatment of various groups of vulnerable people, most notoriously the Canaanites but also women.  Let me briefly think about those issues.

            First, the Canaanites.  A number of biblical texts seem to advocate the eradication of the aboriginal settlers in Palestine.  The Bible never advocates ethnic cleansing of anyone else, indicating that the writers considered the Canaanites a special case.  The authors of Deuteronomy and the texts influenced by it (notably, Joshua) were concerned lest the local people persuade Israel to practice idolatry, or at least those are their stated reasons.

            Does the fact that the Canaanites present a special case reduce the horrible level of immorality associated with their extermination, if it actually happened?  No, of course not.  Can we reasonably argue that, well, they were uniquely horrible human beings and so their removal was justified, much as some people believe capital punishment for heinous criminals is justified?  Doubtful, since it is hard to imagine an entire population, including women and children, so sunk into depravity that execution was the only way to prevent the spread of their contaminating influence.

            There is, we must admit, not easy way to deal with the case of the Canaanites.  Christians who take seriously Jesus’ calls to love or the earlier prophets’ call to justice will find it impossible to work toward a fully convincing defense of the anti-Canaanite texts.  There are a few qualifications to be made, however:

  1. The ethnic cleansing never happened.  There is no archaeological evidence of mass destructions of the pre-Israelite population.
  2. In fact, the Canaanites survived as a recognizable population for centuries after the birth of Israel.  Solomon impressed them into forced labor, for example.  They were “the other” for much of this time, but were not eliminated.
  3. The texts advocating their elimination seem to be much later than the events they purport to describe.  The first few chapters of Deuteronomy, for example, assume settlement in the land and arguably even exile and deportation for Israel and Judah (scholars debate this point).  That is, the call for elimination seems to be a sort of historical fiction retrojected into the past in order to show how things went off the rails.  (Remember what I said last time about how texts may not be what they seem at first.)
  4. This means that the texts about the Canaanites aren’t really about them at all, but about the desire for a sort of national purity.  Still a problematic idea, perhaps, but not the same as massacre and mayhem.
  5. And, yes, the Bible does contain some apparently old stories about how various Canaanite individuals and groups became integral parts of Israel.  Think of Rahab, the ancestor of David, and also the Gibeonites.  There must have been many others, and probably a DNA test of these ancient people, if such a thing were possible (which it is not), would have found lots of Canaanite ancestors for some Israelites at least.  This is not very surprising, by the way.  You may have seen the recent study of the gene pool in Scotland, which found lots of folks with Moorish, Asian, Corsican, and other gene markers in people with unobjectionable Scottish names like Hamilton, McDonald, and Stewart.

There is more to say here – much more – but maybe this suffices for now.

            But what about the women, to paraphrase Abigail Adams?  We have to acknowledge two things: (1) ancient texts assume a world of limited choices for many people, including women; and (2) Christianity has a very mixed record of validating the lives of women.  Here a good bit of history would help us.  We would learn that the history of women’s roles in Christianity has been very complex.  On the one hand, Christianity made space for women to be something other than a commodity under the control of a father or husband.  The creation of monastic life for men and women in the Middle Ages made space for a new way of living that made gender roles worked out in the dominant culture far less important.  Many of the modern moves toward full equality have their foundations in this earlier period.

            Moreover, it should be clear that much of the contemporary religious defense of sharply delineated gender roles has little real backing in the Bible itself.  For example, conservative Christians often speak of male headship and the need for women to have a primary responsibility in the home while men work outside it.  Both of these are simply bogus ideas.  Or at least they are greatly oversimplified.  Male headship is not a biblical term or concept in any meaningful sense.  It is a ghost idea, a misreading of texts.  And the situation in which home and workplace are sharply differentiated is a product of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, not the first.  Much of the current discussion in church thus seems to reflect a fairly gross ignorance of history.  It is almost as deep as the ignorance outside the church.

            Having said all that, on the other hand, we should not pretend that the Bible is really a modern feminist tract very cleverly disguised.  Rather, I would argue that the Bible reports gender roles of past eras without necessarily endorsing them, and that, more importantly, it shows how real human beings work toward general principles of dignity and honor for all within the realities that they face.  Today we face different realities, but we still seek the dignity of human beings before God just as our ancient forebears did.  We could simply reject that history and the texts that came from it, but as the historian Simon Schama put it once in an interview on Dutch television (which you can see on Youtube), to be ignorant of the past is to be locked inside the mind of a small child aware neither of where we come from nor where we might go.  So we do not ignore this history or dismiss this book simply because it does not reflect our own historically conditioned, flawed, and temporary perspectives.  Rather, we seek to find behind the surface appearance of things the ideas that really matter.  When we do, we learn that all human beings are made in the image of God and are worthy of the fullest consideration.

Next time, Part 4 of 4 will appear!  We will return to the original topic of why we Christians love the Bible, in spite of all the difficulties we can name, of which we are all certainly aware.

Sin as Inattentiveness, Faith as Caring Enough: The Psalms in our Worship 43

by   |  12.06.11  |  Bible, God with us, Identity

David Prital tells the story of the Baptist Ukrainians who rescued him, a Jew from the Nazis.  The poor farmer brought him into their hut and said to his wife, “’God brought an important guest to our house’,” he said to his wife.  ‘We should thank God for this blessing.’  They kneeled down and I heard a wonderful prayer coming out of their pure and simple hearts, not written in a single prayer book.  I heard a song addressed to God, thanking God for the opportunity to meet a son of Israel in these crazy days….”

Crazy days.  I guess that label has been appropriate in almost all times and places.  Since Adam and Eve first said to each other, “Things aren’t what they used to be,” we have been in a steady state of dismay at our world and the other humans sharing it with us.  And with ourselves, for that matter.  Particularly dismaying has been the persistence of evil, not so much as the result of concerted plans (the Holocaust is exceptional, after all), but as the inevitable product of inattention to goodness.  Carelessness is the root of all evil, we might say.  Or at least of evil enough.

Psalm 52 expresses fitting indignation at the persistence of indifference.  Some people, it says, “love evil more than good, stupid nonsense (Hebrew: sheqer) more than speaking justly.”  That sounds about right.  In a world awash with words, no one could plausibly argue that our choices of ideas, practices, norms, or beliefs always avoided being sheqer!  Our common human indifference to wisdom shows itself in many forms, and in all our lives.  Psalm 52 diagnoses the cause of our problems in a simple way: “Behold, no person puts God in his reflections.  He trusts in the abundance of his riches….”  By miscalculating the true source of meaning and security, human beings lose a vigorous sense of meaningful distinctions between justice and injustice, between good and evil.

Still, this is not the psalm’s last word.  Verse 8’s (verse 10 in Hebrew) “But as for me, I am like a verdant olive tree in God’s temple.  I trust in God’s loyalty forever and ever.  I will praise you forever for you have acted.  And I will trust your name, for it is good….”  In contrast to false trusts, the psalmist finds life, permanence, beauty, productivity (all symbolized by the olive grove in the temple courtyards) through the simple expedient of trusting in God.  He or she does not explain what that means in detail, but this very lack of specificity underscores the radical nature of the commitment.  To trust God in an uncompromising way requires every bit of our moral commitment, our clarity about ourselves and others, and our resolve not to take shortcuts in the life of faith.  Most of all, it requires God’s grace, not just our activity.

Trust is thus itself a gift from God, a gift rooted in relationship, and it returns to strengthen the very relationship that gives it life.  This simple psalm, which lacks all pretense of sophisticated artistry or theological profundity, calls us to the most difficult thing of all.  In our crazy times, such a call may be our only hope — and our best option.

Why God Loves the Penitent: The Psalms in our Worship 30

by   |  05.11.11  |  Bible, Identity, Theology

Repentance — such an old-fashioned, churchy word, so reminiscent of unctuous preaching and Elmer Gantry hucksters.  Or so some of us think.  Yet, even if the word has fallen on hard times, the idea of change, of renouncing bad habits and poor commitments, of rethinking what we love still makes sense to most of us, and rightly so.  Few people outside the confines of the world’s privileged elites of power, wealth, and celebrity are so convinced of their own perfection as not to acknowledge the need for repentance now and then.

Psalm 38, one of the Psalter’s penitential psalms, lays out both the need for repentance and the steps such an action requires.  As in most laments, the poem expresses the suffering of the poet (and all subsequent singers of the song) in terms of bodily pain and decay (verses 1-14 sound like a hypochondriac’s dream world, though in this case, the description is true), and in terms of social isolation (verse 11’s [12 in Hebrew] “those loving me and my neighbors stand before/apart from my affliction; those formerly near me stand way back”).

Unlike most lamenters, however, the psalmist takes responsibility for sin, as in verse 18’s “for I recount my inquity and have remorse for my sin.”  At the same time, this psalmist does not cower before a distant God who remorselessly punishes sin.  Rather, the psalmist associates God with his or her suffering, not only by pointing out to God that the arrows of the Almighty have already brought enough pain to get the sinner’s attention, but also by commenting on the performance of the psalm itself, describing it as a way of reaching out to God.  So verse 9 [Hebrew 10] says, “O Lord, before you is all my desire, and my sighing is not obscured from you.”  The psalmist has done all he or she can do and now awaits salvation.

Hence the poem’s conclusion: “Do not abandon me, O Yhwh my God.  Do not be far away from me.  Hurry to my rescue, O my saving lord.”  For the psalmist, the most devastating consequence of sin is its isolation from God, its capacity to shatter hope in a meaningful and orderly world, and thus its capacity for utterly crushing the soul of the sinner.  Other texts, of course, talk about other consequences.  But here the radical individualism of repentance comes to the fore.  I, and not someone else, am a sinner.  I must change.  I must find my way back to a merciful God.  Individuality is both a blessing and a curse.  The naked “I” is most manifest as a consequence of sin; the aloneness of the individual is the result of our capacity for evil, not the highest good.  And yet I cannot shift responsibility from myself to another, for in doing so I erase myself and lose all opportunity to be part of a relationship with others.

But then again, repentance in this text and in general rests on a key assumption about the nature of the human being and thus of God.  That assumption is that God desires human beings to change, grow, mature, and live according to justice.  Repentance is not a futile begging for mercy, nor is it a way of appeasing an otherwise stubbornly hard-nosed God.  Repentance is not a way of crushing human independence, as the Romantics of the modern and postmodern period often understand it (see, for example, Shelley’s poem “Prometheus Unbound,” and in some ways Aeschylus’s ancient original, “Prometheus Bound”).  Repentance is a way of keeping us from crushing ourselves.  It is an act of turning back to the course of goodness and life, for our own sakes.  Repentance matches our deepest desires with our outward actions.  And as such, it is a gift of mercy we give ourselves.

This week, there are some things I need to repent of.  Maybe it’s the same for you.  And next week, there will be more.  Let us have the courage to receive forgiveness and healing through the honest discipline of repentance.

Does the Gospel Sell Itself? (part 4)

by   |  05.04.10  |  Bible, Change, Christian, Church, Gospel, Hospitality, Identity, Ministry, Society, Theology

Mark Hamilton, PhD - Associate Dean, Associate Professor of Old Testament, ACU Graduate School of Theology

Mark Hamilton, PhD - Associate Dean, Associate Professor of Old Testament, ACU Graduate School of Theology

Does the Gospel sell itself?  That’s how I began this series of posts, and that’s how I’ll end it.  If we are on a road alongside of which are exits to narcissism, self-indulgence, and self-promotion, and the Heavenly City seems further away in our rearview mirrors, then how do we change directions?  (I’ll drop the metaphor there, if you don’t mind!)  I’ve tried to set out some of the interpersonal and intellectual challenges because to reflect theologically and to act on the basis of that reflection, we need to consider several factors.

But here’s the final one, and the decisive one.  What does God want?  Now, I know that this question is tricky and easily hijacked by various sides of any given debate.  If you want change, you point to the God of renewal, and if you don’t want change, you mention the old paths.  Both sets of languages — both descriptions of the nature of God — have biblical warrant.  Which one applies at a given moment depends on several factors, not all of which everyone will agree upon.  Moreover, Christians have a wide range of views of just how specific God intends to be.  Neo-Calvinists assume that the sovereignty of God implies a very high degree of planning of human lives, while most other Christians are content to think of God painting in the cosmic picture in broader, more impressionistic strokes.  I do not say any of this to be cynical, but simply to note that I am aware of the hazards.

Still, as a Christian, I must always ask myself what God wants.  It is not legitimate to try to escape the question, if you want to think in Christian ways.  Here are some things (not everything!) that Scripture, which I believe to be the best indication of God’s will that we have, seems to think God wants from us:

1. Let’s be passionate about the search for God.  Christians should pray a lot and with passion.  If we spent more time on our knees, we might spend less time wringing our hands or shouting.  As Paul said to the Athenians, God has given us evidence of nearness by raising Jesus from the dead.  The search is not an idle quest for an elusive goal, but the pursuit of one lover for another seeking rest together.

2.  Let’s care about the stranger.  I have long been struck by Exodus’s story of the redemption of Israel and the legal conclusions that the text draws from that experience: “you shall not oppress a stranger; you know the heart of a stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Exodus 23:9).  Perhaps Christians are so hostile to immigrants and other vulnerable people because we have concluded that this land really is our land, not simply a place on loan from God while we move toward our final home.  Have we forgotten that we too are strangers, that we too are redeemed people?

3. Let’s remember that we are in this together.  It is distressing to watch churches split over issues that can only be classified as trivial.  I have always found that praying for those with whom I disagree (which is quite a few people, as it happens!) or whom I found narrow and annoying and petty (also a fairly large group) changes things.  Very few Christians are so alienated from their own calling that we cannot find in them something to cherish.

4. Let’s remember that change can be both good and necessary.  Some folks I know are worried about “change agents.”  I’ve even read journals that argue that all change is to be resisted.  Of course, this is absurd.  Sometimes change is apostasy, true, and that is to be resisted.  But sometimes change is repentance, as when churches quit making one race sit in the balcony while another sat on the pews on the floor.  Sometimes change is simply maturation as when we recognize that our group does not have a monopoly on Christian commitment or understanding.  And sometimes it’s just change, relatively benign and neutral in meaning.  To fear change is to fear life.  The key is to make change rather than suffer it, and to make it with the highest Christian ideals in mind.

5. Finally, let’s remember that to be church is the greatest calling in the world.  We cannot cherish Christ without also cherishing his bride.  The church often needs correction — we are always reforming — but we also need to be loved and to love the magnificent calling we have received to be harbingers of God’s Kingdom, in which no one suffers hunger, no one is alone, no one is disrespected, and all find a place of dignity and honor at the bountiful table of the Lord.

May it always be so!  I’ll start a new series in a few days, after the Pepperdine lectures.  I hope to see you there!