Monday, August 31, 2009

Sex, singles and the ELCA (Sunday Reflections for August 30, 2009)

As the dust begins to settle from the churchwide assembly (CWA) in Minneapolis, questions are arising as to what its actions will really mean in practice. It could be that things now get rather complicated—but then again, maybe not.

What was generally left unsaid—at least in public—is that what the CWA really did was to give official recognition to a situation that already existed—for quite awhile in some cases. In various regions of the country, in urban areas generally, and in specialized ministries like chaplaincies and campus ministry, gay pastors have been serving with varying degrees of recognition. Here in the Metro Chicago Synod, in fact, the synod assembly had voted several years ago to direct the bishop and staff to basically ignore the ELCA’s policy on gay clergy.

This CWA said we are now going to publicly recognize we have differences of opinion and practice on this and we’re just going to live with that for awhile. Therefore,it’s okay for synods and congregations to make their own decisions. So it could be that not much will really change, except that people will feel free to be a little more honest with one another and breathe a little easier. In the church, where we say that the gospel sets us free, that would seem to be a good thing.

The way in which the ELCA has gone about this, however, had raised some other, perhaps unexpected, questions. The sexuality task force recommendations which were adopted at the CWA were a bit convoluted, requiring four separate resolutions. One of the main goals was, in essence, to hold gay clergy to the same standards as their straight counterparts. But this took the ELCA further down a relatively new road, that of specifying the moral expectations of its pastors.

In the past, clergy misconduct was handled on a case-by-case basis by the local bishop (or whatever the equivalent was at the time) and was largely left up to his (no “hers” back then) discretion. After the ELCA was formed, the new Council of Bishops adopted a statement of “Visions and Expectations” for clergy and required pastors to state in writing that they were in compliance with them whenever they looked for a new call.

While there were a variety of topics covered, it was clear the main interest was sex. What was new was an explicit statement that sexual relations could only take place within marriage. Gay pastors officially needed to be celibate but so did single straight clergy. Of course, all this was on an honor system. The synods did not implement any kind of clergy sex investigation unit. When gross violations became public, however, synods now had explicit grounds for removing a pastor from a congregation or from the ministerial rolls altogether.

The resolutions passed by this past assembly allow congregations to call pastors who are in "publicly accountable, lifelong, monogamous, same-gender relationships." By one count, that lengthy phrase is used a dozen times. The question that almost immediately comes to mind is: What about pastors, gay or straight, who are not in "publicly accountable, lifelong, monogamous” relationships? And that question brings up the whole tangled, multi-faceted issue of sex and single people generally.

As I wrote at the time it came out last spring, the new sexuality social statement (also adopted at this assembly) identifies many of the dimensions of this question but offers little guidance on them. Knowing that the last attempt at such a statement crashed and burned nearly twenty years ago, in part over just such questions, this task force was reluctant to be bold or creative.

The social statement says repeatedly that the church still believes marriage is the best and only sanctioned setting for sexual relations. It identifies some of the countless situations modern people find themselves in where sex occurs outside of marriage, expresses some understanding of them, but the task force couldn’t or wouldn’t take the next step of providing guidance for people is such situations.

For a whole host of reasons, the portion of the adult population that is single is now the highest on record. This is true across age groups and regions of the country, and there is no indication this will change anytime soon. Certainly a substantial number of these people are having sex. Does the church really have nothing to say to them other than “get married”?

Once again fear of the real world is leaving the church behind the cultural curve. Human relations change and will continue to do so. Polygamy is practised and accepted in the Old Testament, for example, yet over time was dropped and eventually forbidden. Life-long marriage in the ancient world meant something far different than it does now with life-expectancy more than doubled, formal education lasting twenty or more years, gender equality, effective contraception, and many other changes that would make modern life almost unrecognizable to ancient people.

The gospels include numerous stories of Jesus reaching across and breaking down cultural boundaries, often shocking both his opponents and his own disciples. They demonstrate an understanding of how often rules and standards assumed to be forever are actually very tentative and very human, often serving to aid one group at the expense of another. Unless it can rediscover this same spirit, understanding, freedom and compassion, the church will have no reason to wonder why fewer and fewer people make it a part of their lives. It will be for the simple reason that the church stopped being interested in their lives.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

ELCA sexuality statement a task barely begun

Today the ELCA Churchwide Assembly tackles the proposed social statement on sexuality. Producing this document was the original and primary task of the sexuality task force. The statement has nearly been lost, however, in the dustup over the task force’s added project of making recommendations on gay clergy and the blessing of same-sex relationships.

This statement is a second attempt at a project that collapsed about fifteen years ago when a similar statement was developed and proposed. The uproar was so overwhelming that rather than try to amend or rework the document it was just dropped altogether. As one might fear would happen after the first fiasco, this statement seems to bend over backwards to offend no one. As a result, however, it says little that is new or remarkable. More importantly, it fails in its primary purpose of providing guidance on the specific issues of sexual behavior bedeviling society today.

The problem was not entirely with the task force. The job given to it by the ELCA was just too big. Books on the Christian theology and ethics of human sexuality can go on for hundreds of pages (and they are readily available). A statement on such a sweeping topic is not really necessary. In any case, sexuality is not a social issue—it’s a part of the human condition. The church would be much better served with individual statements on the various issues of sexuality that society is dealing with (as it did a few years ago in a statement on prostitution and global sex trafficking).

Instead a whole array of topics get brief and shallow treatment: marriage, homosexuality, teen sex, sexualization of children, sex in advertising, sex and the media, sex and the workplace, sexual harassment and abuse, singles and sex, seniors and sex, cohabitation, extra-marital sex, and more. An anonymous ELCA staff member wondered how the statement could talk about sex for so many pages and be so boring. It’s easy: by saying little or nothing of substance on so many topics.

It’s evident the task force wanted to say interesting things but was hamstrung by the past and the limits of time and paper. On almost every issue it begins by affirming very traditional teaching of the church’s past. Then it acknowledges in how many instances that tradition is being challenged or ignored for understandable reasons. So for instance, it affirms church tradition that sexual relations are only permitted between a husband and wife. But then it discusses multiple situations of people today commonly having sex outside of marriage, with some minimal suggestions for people in such situations. The result is a muddle of saying “No” on the one hand and “Well, maybe” on the other, which is of no practical help to anyone.

The section which got the most attention, of course, was the one on homosexuality. (Oddly, the statement never used that word in the first draft, referring instead to “same-gender persons”, a term the task force made up and is actually meaningless. The term is made clearer in the final draft, becoming “same-gender-oriented,” but still seems awkward). Inevitably it makes no definitive statements, but can only recognize that the church “does not have consensus” on the questions of same-sex relationships. In this non-answer, however, one can see where the problem lies.

In effect, human sexuality has run off the biblical map. Today we are confronted with countless issues which the Bible’s writers simply couldn’t imagine. Probably the single most important of these is easy and reliable birth control. People have sexual relations for pleasure far more often than they do for procreation—and sex isn’t even necessary for that now. Women have career options, people live far longer, and technology will continue to give new options and opportunities. What will we say, for example, about virtual sex when (not if) it arrives?

To retain the “sex only in marriage” mantra is understandable but completely inadequate, as the report itself implies. If the church wants to be taken seriously it needs to speak to people’s real lives. Today, most young people cohabitate for some length of time before marriage. Many seniors cohabitate in order to avoid the loss of Social Security and other benefits. Many middle aged and older singles (divorced, widowed, never married) simply do not want to get married for a variety of reasons. Is sex really off the table for them?

These and many more issues confront people of all ages every day. They are often difficult and complicated, but that is where well-reasoned guidelines are needed. In most cases, this document does little more than skim the surface of these questions and dilemmas. Whether this statement is adopted or not, the church still needs to roll up its sleeves and do the hard work of honestly and creatively untangling these issues one-by-one.

UPDATE: The statement was adopted this afternoon on a vote of 667-338. This is exactly the 2/3 majority required, without a vote to spare. Most of the proposed amendments were attempts to pull the statement back to more traditional church teaching and all were defeated.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Waking from the ELCA dream of church unity

ELCA Presiding Bishop Mark Hanson has been quoted saying that, whatever happens at this week’s Minneapolis assembly, it will not be allowed to divide the church.

To which I say (assuming for argument’s sake he actually has any influence in the matter): Why not?

Most of the hand-wringing that has gone on over this issue at ELCA headquarters in Chicago, as well as in many individual synod offices, has not been over the merits of the gay clergy question. Rather, the anxiety has been over, if and when this is approved, how many congregations would bolt the denomination. Rarely, if ever, have the denizens of the Higgins Road tower been heard to say, “This isn’t right” (which would be awkward given the number of gays, lay and clergy, who work there). Rather the refrain has been “We’re not ready for this.” Well, ready or not, it’s about to happen and the fallout is already occurring.

Reading the writing on the wall, the ELCA megachurch Community Church of Joy in Glendale, AZ voted in June to leave the ELCA. Senior Pastor Walt Kallestad declared the vote to be “a victory for the ultimate authority of God's Word” which was “enthusiastically and overwhelmingly supported by God's people who participated in our congregational gathering.” (Those last qualifying words are not without significance. The vote was 174-11, while the church claims a membership of over 5,000 and average worship attendance of over 2,000. I guess the quorum requirement is set pretty low. In any case, the enthusiasm, let alone the opinion, of most CCOJ-ers would seem to be not entirely clear.)

As I wrote earlier, there can be little doubt more departures will follow. There has actually been a slow trickle of congregations out of the ELCA almost since its inception over twenty years ago. The vast majority of these have been churches discontented with the ELCA’s perceived liberalism (a word meaning different things to different people). This rate of defection will almost certainly jump rather dramatically for the next year or so. But again, as I wrote before, it is not at all clear that the total numbers will be very large as a proportion of the ELCA. Many, I suspect, will grumble yet stay put.

Echoing Bishop Hanson, there will be many impassioned pleas for church unity this week—some pro forma and some sincere. While politeness prevents it from being said aloud, my sentiment and I know that of some number of others will be, “Go in peace.” If the ELCA is ever to get a coherent sense of identity, it needs to bite the bullet and take stands that will alienate some of it members.

The rationale for establishing the ELCA was never very clear and there were those, like ALC Presiding Bishop David Preus, who said so at the time. It’s hard not to conclude that “bigger is better” thinking really did carry the day. It happened, to some extent, because no one made a convincing argument why it shouldn’t. The energy for the merger came primarily from a romantic hope for “Lutheran unity”—despite the fact that everyone knew there was no prospect of including American Lutheranism’s second largest branch, the Missouri Synod.

The romanticism extended primarily to the participating churches, however. While rarely expressed in public, conversations before and after merger meetings in hallways and bars often turned to concern over differences between the merging groups. To a large degree, ALC and LCA congregations were encouraged to see what they wanted to see in the upcoming merger. Even then, negotiations over structural issues became testy as the assumptions of the more centralized, clergy-oriented LCA collided with the ALC’s lay and congregation-centered ethos. It was easier to finesse doctrinal issues and faith statements with the inherent vagueness and multiple meanings of theological language.

Differences that were smoothed over in enthusiasm for the merger have plagued the ELCA ever since. The worst consequence has been the inability to establish any clear direction or purpose. Some have blamed this on money woes, which have certainly been real and substantial. A much more significant impediment, however, has been the continuing need to find consensus among competing groups and conflicting agendas. The compromises that have resulted have been sufficient to get votes in committees and at assemblies but have rarely generated much enthusiasm in the church-at-large.

Adopting the sexuality proposals will not suddenly give the ELCA a clear identity or mission. (The task force recommendations themselves are flawed products of this compromise spirit and are going to need reworking in the near future.) The experience of taking a stand, however, knowing it will alienate some of its membership, can only be a healthy step in the ELCA’s delayed maturing process. At some point the church has to emulate its founder and say, “Here I stand,” knowing it then also says, “And yes I recognize that you are standing over there, someplace else.”

It was the expressed hope of the sexuality task force (and to some degree its unspoken assignment) that it would arrive at proposals which everyone might not like but everyone could live with. This has been the ELCA’s modes operandi. This time it isn’t going to work—not because of any ineptitude on the part of the committee but because (finally) there came an issue for which there simply is no compromise. While it may not think so now, eventually the ELCA needs to thank those who have patiently yet persistently pushed this issue. In doing so they have also pushed the ELCA to finally step forward in a meaningful way and say, “This is who we are.” Thanks be to God.

Monday, August 17, 2009

We'll never look at the night sky the same way again

Among the Hubble telescope's many amazing accomplishments, surely the most stunning has been its Ultra Deep Field images. This is a NASA animation with narration provided by a YouTube contributor. The more you really understand what this is the more astonishing it becomes.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Whither the ELCA (Sunday Reflections for August 16, 2009)

(This is a follow-up to last Monday’s “Circular firing squad” post.)

As Carl Braaten’s letter indicates, the opposition to the sexuality task force proposals is about more than homosexuality. The signers of the CORE letter see this as but one more step in the ELCA’s march away from its Lutheran heritage. As Braaten says to Bishop Chilstrom: “All of your criticisms of the CORE Letter are at the same time objections to doctrinal positions I have taught as a Lutheran theologian for over half a century.” I don’t know that that is actually true but it indicates how Braaten perceives the issue.

The key concern of Braaten and the CORE letter is that the task force recommendations are a departure from church tradition. Chilstrom’s response is that, especially in the modern era, the church has changed course on a number of issues. For example, the decision to allow women clergy was made, Chilstrom says, because the church realized that such issues could not be

decided exclusively on the basis of a few biblical texts or our long-standing tradition. . . . We believed there were deeper streams in the Holy Scriptures that we needed to listen to.

Similarly, decisions were made to endorse democracy over the previously assumed “divine right of kings,” to oppose slavery though it is clearly presumed in the Bible (and where Paul tells a runaway slave to return to his master), to reject all notions of a God-ordained authority of men over women, to accept the Copernican solar system though the Bible obviously assumes the sun orbits the earth, and so on.

Some of these decisions were made because the church listened, as Chilstrom puts it, to a “deeper stream” in the Bible. Others were made because the church decided the Bible was simply wrong about an issue not essential to the gospel. Often, as with the church’s changing view of homosexuality, it was some combination of both factors.

In a world and a time of rapid and unsettling change, it is understandable to want to hang on to an anchor of past tradition, as Braaten and CORE urge the church to do. Yet the ancient image of the church as a ship reminds us that its purpose is not to ride at anchor but to set sail and move, sometimes on stormy seas. Indeed, as any sailor knows, the worst place for a ship to be in a major storm is in port. It’s much better to ride it out in open water.

This controversy has once again highlighted an ancient divide in the church. Some view it as a refuge in a “fallen” world that is slowly but surely headed to judgment and destruction. Others view the church as a source of grace in a world where the future is open and where God’s loving, creating activity continues.

Over the centuries there have been many periods of fear and pessimism. Often some part of the church has joined in, predicting God’s final judgment was just around the corner. Two thousand years after Jesus, the world—much changed—is still here. And, for the vast majority of people, it is much improved. If the church is to have any hope of regaining relevancy in contemporary culture, it would seem the wiser path is to assume the world has a real future and that God’s Spirit is yet at work changing attitudes, removing barriers, giving hope, and setting people free—in other words, continuing the life and work of Jesus.

Monday, August 10, 2009

ELCA circular firing squad assembling in Minneapolis

The ELCA Churchwide Assembly (aka convention) begins in a week and the battle lines are drawn. It seems likely that after years of turmoil and handwringing, this assembly will vote to allow non-celibate gay clergy. This (among other things) is the recommendation of its appointed sexuality task force.

There is a very vocal opposition to such action. A recent summary statement of this viewpoint is an open letter from an organization called CORE to the assembly delegates. You can
read it here. Prominent among those signing this letter are many of the old guard of non-Missouri Synod American Lutheranism. Thus, a lot of these (mostly) men are designated "retired" or "emeritus." They aren't very happy with what the "young-uns" are doing with their church.

A notable exception, however, is the retired first Presiding Bishop of the ELCA, Herbert Chilstrom. He has been a longtime supporter of gays in all parts of church life. Not surprisingly, then, Chilstrom has written a strong and eloquent rebuttal to the CORE letter, which can be
found here. Also designated an open letter, he nonetheless has specifically addressed it to several colleagues and friends which apparently he is especially disappointed to see as supporters of CORE's position.

In response to Chilstrom comes retired LSTC theology professor, Carl Braaten, with
his own letter and with all guns blazing. Carl was my systematics professor in seminary. No one would characterize him as the warm and fuzzy type, yet he has an excellent mind and I was challenged by and learned a lot from him. I have been disappointed by his drift into the ELCA's reactionary camp, pining for a return to some idealized, orthodox golden past. But nostalgia is what Lutherans sometimes seem to do best.

As Braaten himself writes, he and Chistrom couldn't be further apart:

An outside critic reading what you wrote and what I am writing in this Open Letter might have a hard time believing that we belong to same church and affirm the same teachings of the Christian faith.

If anyone wonders why the ELCA is on the verge of some kind of breakup, just read these three statements.

Personally, while I am sure some congregations and clergy will leave the ELCA after this assembly, I doubt the numbers will be large--perhaps 10 percent. Just as after the Missouri Syond brouhaha in the 1970s, inertia if nothing else will keep most people in place where they are. Because of the ELCA's polity, no congregation can be forced to take a pastor they don't want. This is certainly what ameliorated any unease that existed after the ordination of women was approved forty years ago. The simple reality is that after all the shouting is over and the janitors have swept up the assembly hall, everyone will return to church the next Sunday and nothing will look any different. Before you know it people will be wondering: What was all the excitement about?

Vision of artists (Sunday Reflections for August 9, 2009

Many in the church (especially clergy) aren’t happy with the growing numbers who claim interest in spirituality but little or no interest in organized religion. Regardless of the spiritual quality of contemporary Christianity, one thing the “spiritual, not religious” folks are aware of is the possibility for genuine spiritual experience outside traditional religious venues.

This is not a new or particularly radical idea. The Bible itself testifies to the fact that before our ancestors ever built a shrine or temple they experienced God and sacredness in the natural world. Forces of nature were often identified with God or the gods as were specific places, such as mountains and rivers. The most common place, of course, was the sky or “the heavens.”

Religious or not, most people have experienced wonder and awe when encountering nature in its mystery, size, power or beauty. That’s why it’s been said no one can be an atheist who’s been to the Grand Canyon. Others might say the same about seeing the birth of a baby.

Last week, in writing about my vacation, I noted that the confluence of natural beauty and artistic talent in Santa Fe was not a coincidence. It isn’t so much that the area provides lots of “pretty things” to inspire artists to draw, paint, sculpt or photograph, although there is that. Rather, I think there is something about the “purity” of the desert landscape which encourages you to focus and clarify. In addition to the special light quality of the thin, dry mountain air, the lack of distractions makes individual objects stand out. Without the blur and confusion of excess noise, movement, shapes and colors, you are more naturally inclined to concentrate on an individual plant, animal, mountain or cloud. Over time, you become more adept at really seeing the world around you.

A common element of Jesus and the Hebrew prophets is that they so often frame their criticism as people’s inability to use their senses. Israel’s leaders are repeatedly accused of being metaphorically deaf and blind. “You see but you don’t see; you hear but you don’t hear.” Many of Jesus’ healings enable “the blind to see and the deaf to hear.” Given his teaching, these stories obviously are about more than the need to repair physical impairments. Similarly, when we make a new discovery or come to some new awareness, we often give such experiences a sensory dimension. “I hear what you’re saying. I had never seen it that way before.”

Strolling through Santa Fe’s art galleries on this visit, I was struck for the first time by their spiritual and even religious qualities. You enter them feeling like you are walking into a kind of shrine or holy place. The spaces are normally very quiet. Inside, of course, the art objects take central place and you move from one to another “experiencing” them like icons. Your attitude isn’t that of worship but rather more like anticipation and sometimes awe.

The art works speak to you, open your eyes—or not. There is no guarantee. Every piece is different, every artist is different, and every viewer is different. But from time to time, there is real communication or communion even—between you and the artist, between you and the world the artist has opened up and revealed in a new way.

In Western history, the arts received a dramatic boost from the church in the Middle Ages, especially with the building of the great cathedrals. In addition to their spectacular architecture (an art form itself), these buildings were filled with stained glass, sculpture, mosaics and paintings. Most of this work, of course, represented religious figures and stories. In looking at a saint or biblical character, however, you knew you weren’t seeing a “real” person. Most of them were long dead and no one knew what they actually looked like. It was up to the artist’s imagination to create their appearance. They were “idealized.” That wasn’t John the Baptist in that picture; it was the artist’s “idea” of John the Baptist.

With the Renaissance this changed, and it’s not an exaggeration to say that the world changed, also. For reasons that still aren’t fully understood, artists became interested in real people and in how those real people actually looked. That wasn’t just an idea of “woman” in that picture; that was the artist’s next-door neighbor. And that wasn’t just “Hair” on her head; that was how that particular woman’s hair really looked.

Suddenly artists were seeing things nobody had noticed before, and through their art causing everyone one else to see the world differently, as well. With these new modern eyes, many people began asking new questions about this world that was being rediscovered. Scientists soon followed artists in looking with a new and deep intensity (and sometimes they were both, as with Leonardo da Vinci).

What about those saints? Artists kept painting them but often they, too, became “real” people. Artists began using actual persons as models for their work. Now, Mary looked like the artist’s next-door neighbor—or for political reasons, the duke’s wife, or for the sake of comedy and social commentary, the archbishop’s mistress. Not coincidentally, it was at this time that the arts began separating from the church and finding a more independent existence.

Even apart from its religious patrons, art has remained a sacred endeavor. While the medieval church found holiness primarily in ideas (theology, laws, stories, God), art since the Renaissance has looked for and revealed the sacredness of real life and of this world. Medieval religion (which is still alive and well in many places) doesn’t much like that. Ultimately it sees this world as something to be escaped. Modern art, however, while certainly not denying life’s pain and ugliness, nonetheless asserts that existence here and now has genuine value.

In doing so art certainly is not without biblical support. It reminds us of God’s own verdict on his creation in Genesis 1, when “God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good.” And one thing that stands out so strikingly about Jesus in the gospels are the repeated instances of his taking notice of individual and usually insignificant people—often to the consternation of both his opponents and his own disciples. Jesus shows the value not only of people in general but of this person and that person—of Peter and Jairus and Zaccheus and Mary Magdalene.

Artists, of course, have their own ideas about the world and they share them through their work. Those ideas, however, are based upon their experiences of the world and of the people they encounter. These things, too, the artist says, are holy, sacred and must be valued. In the silence of a gallery and in the silence of the desert, somehow that becomes easier to see.

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

Brueggemann's swing and a miss

For the second time this summer Walter Brueggemann has an online piece dealing with the challenges of biblical historical criticism in the life of moderate Christianity. (Brueggemann, a United Church of Christ minister, is a popular author, exegete and retired Old Testament professor.) Early last month posted a short video by him, which I commented on. At the end of July he posted an essay on the Christian Century sponsored site Theolog, provocatively titled “Remembering an imagined past.”

Brueggemann is certainly right that historical criticism has created enormous problems for the moderate and liberal churches which have embraced it—much greater than they usually acknowledge. Depriving the Bible of virtually any historical credibility has sucked much of the life and energy out these church’s preaching and proclamation, or as Brueggemann calls it, “confessional passion.”

According to Brueggemann, the problem with historical criticism as it has been applied is that it deprives the church of its “textual memory.” He writes, “It remains for the church and the synagogue, in their thick practicality, to keep opting for memory over historicity.” He then goes on to acknowledge, however, that “to be sure, much of the textual memory is ‘imagined’"—hence the essay’s title.

Yet, as everyone knows, memory is hardly a reliable source, whether individual or collective. Just as we see what we want to see, so too we remember what we want to remember, and we often remember things we would be better off forgetting. So Brueggemann admits that “the biblical text can and often does lead to destructive ideology” along with “risky, faithful, generous obedience.” But when and why does it lead to one rather than the other? And how can it be recognized at the time and what can be used to sort and judge one from the other?

On these questions Brueggemann is silent. His remedy seems to be an idealized view of the gathered believers. “Serious remembering—in a community of self-awareness, moral passion, knowing discipline and generous hope—is thick, elusive and multidimensional.” Well perhaps, but it remains unclear where such communities exist or whether they are typical or exceptional. Certainly such a description isn’t simply synonymous with the church, at least not in my experience.

Obviously a large part of the problem with Brueggemann’s essay is the vagueness of much of his language. “Imagined past”? What keeps that from being simple fantasy? What happens when one person’s or one group’s “imagined past” conflicts with that of another? How does one judge among “imaginations”? What is “confessional passion” as opposed to passion that is misguided and even destructive? Given the “passion” of fundamentalism it would seem that its absence in moderate religious groups isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

Brueggemann admits that “no doubt we must keep asking questions about historicity” but doesn’t say why or ever give a clear statement of what, in his view, is the value of historical criticism. What he describes here is all negative. Indeed, for him historical criticism is primarily about depriving the church of biblical texts: “’modernizing’ that seeks generally to get rid of stuff is misguided.”

This, however, is where Brueggemann goes off track. He accuses Old Testament historical critical scholars of concluding that most OT “texts are largely quite late theological constructs designed to serve nefarious ideological purposes.” Late yes, but nefarious? I’m somewhat familiar with their work and that is hardly the conclusion I have drawn. This seems like distortion bordering on slander. Indeed, one of my favorite books in this genre, The Mythic Past by Thomas Thompson, actually restored my awareness of the Hebrew Bible’s value even as it removed it from the category of “history.”

Similarly, Brueggemann accuses the Jesus Seminar of having “voted out much of the memory of the church” by determining what of the gospels genuinely goes back to Jesus and what is the creation of the early church. But how so? He admits much of this “textual memory” is “imagined.” The Jesus Seminar, well or poorly, simply tried to separate the imagined from the real. I’m not aware they concluded that anything not red (the color code for “the real Jesus”) ought to be discarded or ignored.

In assessing the red texts of the Jesus Seminar’s New Testament, Brueggemann says, “Not surprisingly, what is left has turned out to be a Jesus who looks and sounds a lot like the voters.” True, and totally unsurprising. This is what a century ago Albert Schweitzer figured out has been the story of Jesus interpreters all along: Jesus always bears a striking resemblance to whoever is telling us about him. We find in Jesus what we need and what we want to see. That’s the Jesus we proclaim. Jesus may not be Everyman but he is Everyman’s Savior.

In his video presentation, Brueggemann says that historical criticism has stifled preachers’ imagination. While I agree imaginative preaching has taken a hit I think it is flat out wrong to blame this on historical criticism. On the contrary, had the church genuinely embraced it, historical criticism could have provided the sanction for a dramatic revival of creative and imaginative preaching.

It’s pretty evident that down through the centuries, preachers have intuitively known or suspected that much of the biblical material at their disposal fell more into the creative writing category than that of eyewitness reporting. The church’s hang-up with this didn’t come until the Enlightenment.

At that time and since the church has felt its authority challenged by science’s use of objective and observational truth. Attempting, fruitlessly, to compete on that field led to shoving the Bible into such categories through ideas of scriptural inerrancy and literalism. Of course, the very scientific methods the church was trying to keep up with led to the discoveries that undermined any claim for the Bible’s scientific or historical accuracy.

Even while rejecting fundamentalism, liberal and moderate churches still live with a sense of inferiority in relation to the scientific and technological world. Theology still pines to be, once again, the “queen of the sciences.” Even these churches want to be able to proclaim what the late evangelical Francis Schaeffer called “true truth.”

Trying to corral historical criticism is a losing battle, and one that doesn’t even need to be fought. Rather, by abandoning notions of “scriptural authority” the church can at last let the Bible be what it is and drop any need to defend it. Where it is objectionable or simply wrong, acknowledge it. Where it is irrelevant (as any two thousand year-old document must be sometimes), just move on. And where it provides the materials and the impetus for creative reflection on life and the world, go for it.

Freed from any concern over whether this or that really was said or happened, preachers can take biblical characters and images in an infinite number of directions—as great story tellers have always done. Indeed, one of the key discoveries of historical criticism is that this is exactly what biblical writers themselves did with the literary material they found at hand. Rarely, if ever, did they create ex nihilo.

So what’s stopping us? I suspect this is largely a fear that the emperor has no clothes. What is the Bible without any claim to objective and/or divine authority? Most in the church suspect it will become just another book. And they may be right. Yet surely the past century has shown that giving the Bible some special status doesn’t accomplish anything. Its words either move, inspire and teach—or they don’t. Labeling the Bible “holy” or “God’s word” doesn’t change that.

Putting the Bible in some kind of protective glass case will only lead to it becoming a dusty air loom. Indeed, given the rising levels of biblical illiteracy that’s a status it is rapidly approaching. To save the Bible we need to kill it, at least as it has been viewed and used in the past. It needs to be set free from any and all doctrinal and theological straightjackets. Use its stories and images however necessary to be challenging, shocking, inspiring, and enlightening. If we can’t use it to do those things, then it’s time to get new material.

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Church history lesson needed

While most of the attention on controversies in mainline Protestant churches has to do with permitting or prohibiting gay clergy, apparently women clergy remain an issue for some. According to The Times of London, when the first woman to become one of the canons of the Church of England's Blackburn Cathedral, Dr Sue Penfold, presides at the Sunday service, worshipers are given a choice of one of two lines to receive the Eucharist. As an alternative to receiving communion from Rev Penfold, worshipers can choose to receive bread consecrated by a male priest and set aside from an earlier service.

Even if one buys into the medieval nonsense that only legitimate clergy can "do the magic" in consecrating the host, this policy still violates ancient church teaching. In the Donatist Controversy 1700 years ago, it was decided that the moral qualities of a minister had no affect on the legitimacy of the sacraments they administered. The ultimate power is God's, not that of the ordained minister.

Blackburn worshipers (apparently only about a half-dozen publicly object to female priests) may not like Canon Penfold's appointment and may think the church was wrong in ordaining her, but she is ordained nonetheless. Perhaps Archbishop Williams needs to pay a pastoral visit to Blackburn and engage in some remedial church history instruction.

Monday, August 03, 2009

"Come away to a deserted place" (Sunday Reflections for August 2, 2009)

I am back after a truly restful week in what has become one of my favorite places: Santa Fe, New Mexico. Santa Fe, despite being the state capital, is basically a big small town. Arriving here you automatically lose the intensity of city congestion but it takes a day or two to get in its groove. No one is in a hurry so you either adjust or become endlessly frustrated. I don’t think I ever heard a car horn. The mixed language slogan on a t-shirt I saw summarizes the local philosophy: carpe mañana, “seize tomorrow.”

The “real world” indeed felt far away and suddenly much less important. I looked at a newspaper once. When (out of habit) I started scanning the news online it felt like a cloud had come over me. I usually switched quickly to either looking up new restaurants to go to or just closed the window and started playing solitaire.

Two things here put “world events” in a very different perspective: the area’s stunning natural beauty and the unparalleled density of artistic talent. You can’t help but be amazed by the shapes and colors of northern New Mexico’s high desert and mountains. And it is these which have drawn artists here for over a century, resulting in Santa Fe having the 2nd or 3rd (depending who you read) largest art market in the country with over 200 galleries to wander through.

Experiencing the Santa Fe area’s boundless natural beauty and deep reservoir of human talent, the latest political tempest in Washington can’t help but seem like an enormous waste of time and energy. Places like this force you to reexamine both your own priorities and those the world tries to dictate to us.

In a place like Santa Fe it seems so obvious that we are made to enjoy the beauty of creation and be inspired to contribute to that beauty however we can. Yet in practice we do so little of the former and so often end up doing the opposite of the latter. With so much beauty around us, why is there so much ugliness in our lives and in our relationships and in our communities?

One of the surprising ways I have come to appreciate the Southwest’s landscape and the culture of its native Indian population has been through the mystery novels of Tony Hillerman. Hillerman (who died last October at age 83) wrote eighteen books set in and around the Navajo Reservation and Four Corners region. The protagonists of his stories are Navajo Tribal Police Lieutenant Joe Leaphorn and his protégé, Sergeant Jim Chee. A prominent theme of each of Hillermann’s books is the struggle of both men to integrate their lives as Navajo and as members of the predominant white culture.

Though a belagaana (white man), the Navajo honored Hillerman with their “Special Friends of the Dineh (People) Award” for his sensitive and accurate portrayal of contemporary Navajo culture. For Hillerman, telling the story of the Indians was as important as the plot of any of his books. His stories portray both the vast beauty of the desert Southwest and the deep and life-sustaining connection between that world and the lives of Indian people.

The over-arching theme of Hillerman’s portrayal of Navajo culture is that of the need to be in “harmony” with the world. For these Navajo policemen, as important as solving the various crimes in the stories is the restoration of the hozro/harmony that is disrupted by the acts of violence they are investigating. When a person lives in such harmony, they are said to be “walking in the way of beauty.” The
New York Times article about Hillerman upon his death gave this quote:

“Everything is connected,” Jim Chee reflects in “Ghostway” (1984). “The wing of the corn beetle affects the direction of the wind, the way the sand drifts, the way the light reflects into the eye of man beholding his reality. All is part of totality, and in this totality man finds his hozro, his way of walking in harmony, with beauty all around him.”

The types of things which can disrupt one’s harmony are, of course, endless. Hillerman spends much time in his books describing the many ceremonies and rituals the Navajo use to restore harmony. He does so out of recognition of how unharmonious is much of Western culture and that the Navajo have an important lesson to teach that surrounding and dominating world.

Our need for harmony, balance, and even beauty is gradually becoming recognized and accepted. They are concepts that appear increasingly in our understanding of physical and emotional health, interpersonal relations, economics, politics, and preserving the environment. For as long as people have lived in towns and cities, we have instinctively recognized the restorative and healing power of time spent in more natural environments of forests, lakes, and mountains. How appropriate that we often call our holidays and vacations times of re-creation.

A couple weeks ago in the Gospel we heard Jesus reflect this everyday yet often forgotten wisdom. To the busy disciples he says, "‘Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.’ For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure.” Such rest, however, is much more than recuperation from exhaustion, though that is often what we reduce it to. To restore our own essential harmony, it must be a time of grounding, centering, reestablishing balance, and yes, rediscovering beauty, in ourselves and in the world around us.

Around the beginning of the third century, as persecution grew and the decadence of many Roman cities increased, Christians began moving out to the desert and establishing monastic communities. Some of these exist yet today. In addition to the few who chose this as a life, many more found them as temporary places for refuge and retreat, opportunities to rediscover one’s life purpose and find one’s bearings.

The desert can be harsh and it’s foolish and potentially disastrous to enter it unprepared. But time spent in its barrenness also provides a unique opportunity to regain moral and spiritual clarity. We all know how our over stimulated environments can keep us even from hearing our own thoughts. How unsurprising that our lives spin out of control.

Deserts can be simulated in many places, even the corner of a room. What’s important is that in retreat and recreation, we can screen out the noise and commotion, and in silence and purity find the beauty that is both around and within us.