On Liquor Cabinets & Judgement

During a recent stay at my in-laws’ place, they mentioned that they were soon going to play host to the church small group they’re a part of. All well and good, apart from the minor dilemma regarding their liquor cabinet in the living room. It seems that their small group leader is emphatically opposed to any alcohol consumption for Christians, so they were considering removing the liquor from their glass-doored cabinet to avoid a scene.

This scenario perfectly illustrates why people dislike Christians—they’re the people you don’t want to have over—but there are many other things worth noting in a scenario such as this. The obvious question I’m driven to is why do we Christians persist in the belief that we all need to think and act the same? I think the answer is something like “because we excel at missing the point.” It is a question sure to produce frustration in those driven to ask it, so I’d rather put it to rest and explore some more illuminating questions.

For instance, what is it that drives us to boldly proclaim our opinions as though we have them from the mouth of God? I suspect that the very dynamics of faith and doubt play a major role here. Faith is always a conversation between trust and doubt; between assurance and anxiety. The speed with which we can move from one to the other is emblematic of the strengths and weaknesses inherent to the human condition. But the cadences of faith are lost on many Christians, who rigidly hold that doubt is the lack of faith rather than integral to it. And I can think of no better way for such Christians to ignore and sublimate their doubts and fears than to be resolute on matters of little to no consequence. (I have just explained the Religious Right.)

Not only is it very, very sad to need others to think and act like us in order to reassure us that we’re actually in the right (despite our suppressed doubts), it also has nothing to do with discipleship in the way of Jesus. Jesus has no patience for the self-righteous, if for no other reason than it’s all a sham. To be a hypocrite is literally to be a play-actor; a liar on the stage of life who desperately wants to look like they have their shit together, while suppressing their doubts under a stern mask of piety.

But another question that must be asked in the Christians-judging-others game that is too often played is why the hell do we care so much if we’re being judged? If those dishing out judgement are guilty of lying to the world (and themselves) in order to assuage their fears, then those on the receiving end are equally guilty for being afraid of what self-righteous idiots think of them.

Those who are afraid of being judged are guilty of the same problem as those doling out the judgement: they’ve bought into the story that they’re not allowed to have doubts or to show any weakness under any circumstances whatsoever. Maybe Jesus is so harsh with hypocrites because they deceive honest people into thinking that people of faith don’t experience doubt. Whatever story the judged believe, they are too easily offended.

Then there’s the question posed by the ubiquitous “hide the liquor” impulse: why do we do it? Because it’s easier. Because it doesn’t require us to do the hard and messy work of building a community of people who are honest with their differences. It doesn’t require us to challenge those we disagree with. It doesn’t make us stand up to the self-righteous bullying that we’d rather ignore than confront.

Peace is not the lack of conflict. All a lack of conflict reveals is a bunch of liars who prefer the easy way. True peace is found in those who are able to extend grace and forgiveness with one another as they are truly honest with each other. True peace is found in those who reject violence as a way to solve the conflicts that honesty bring about. True peace is messy, painful, beautiful and never quite as fully realized as we like. Which is why true peace will only be pursued by a people who pray.

Oh Lord, help.

The Lure of Imagination

If you spend a lot of time around the “I used to be evangelical but I’m much better now” church these days, you’ll hear a lot about the need to shape our imagination via liturgy and creativity. The essential point is that we need to allow the story of God expressed in Christ and testified to in the Scriptures to transform what we imagine to be possible in the world we live in.

I’m all for this—on a generic level. Our imaginations are largely held captive by the consumeristic complex in which we try to buy products that will hopefully associate us with the categories of hip, cool, desirable and to-be-envied. The type of imagination that the Gospel should engender within us is that another world is possible, and we should be trying much harder to cultivate that imagination.

As with all aspects of humanity, imagination is not without its pitfalls and temptations. I invite you to imagine with me for a moment your stereotype of a typical sci-fi geek, perhaps of the Trekkie variety. These are people who are so obviously living in a bizarre fantasy that they desperately want to be real. They may have themselves fooled, but not the rest of us.

These grossly stereotyped fantasy nerds do have one thing essentially right: they are clearly not placing their hope and trust within the ways of this world as it currently is. This is the hallmark of an apocalyptic imagination: that some day this world will be set to rights and another world of peace and justice will take its place. We Christians call this hope a new heaven and a new earth.

This apocalyptic imagination can, however, be lured into living within the mere imagination of another world rather than doing the hard work of beginning to live now as if the world to come is in some way really here. This is what Christian theology means when it tells us about the kingdom of God being both near and yet delayed. It requires both tremendous imagination and tenacity to live in the tension of the world to come being partly here but not fully realized.

It is too often the case, however, to choose one of two things that should be held together. I can easily think of those who work hard with no imagination, and those with well-developed imaginations who wouldn’t imagine doing anything practical to change the world around them. Although we live in a world filled with non-imaginative workers, I still hold that imagination without work devolves into a sad impotence.

We cannot be satisfied with either hard-headed pragmatists or esoteric fantasies. God, help us. What we need, in short, is a plethora of poet-activists. We need dreamers who are doers, and doers who are dreamers. I’m probably betraying my own captive imagination by leaving out vast swaths of important folk. We need people fully alive in their activities and imaginations. What we need is God.

God. Oh God, help us, your fragile servants.

Beyond Christ & Culture’s Typology

H. Richard Neibuhr is (in)famous for his typology of the various ways that the church approaches the culture it is in. They are:

  1. Christ against Culture
  2. Christ of Culture
  3. Christ above Culture
  4. Christ and Culture in Paradox
  5. Christ Transforming Culture

The critiques of Niehbuhr’s typology are legion, and I won’t rehash them here. What I do find interesting, however, is the different typology that Hauerwas and Willimon draw from John Howard Yoder:

Yoder distinguishes between the activist church, the conversionist church, and the confessing church.

The activist church is more concerned with the building of a better society than with the reformation of the church. Through the humanization of social structures, the activist church glorifies God. It calls on its members to see God at work behind the movements for social change so that Christians will join in movements for justice wherever they find them. It hopes to be on the right side of history, believing it has the key for reading the direction of history or underwriting the progressive forces of history. The difficulty, as we noted earlier, is that the activist church appears to lack the theological insight to judge history for itself. Its politics becomes a sort of religiously glorified liberalism.

On the other hand we have the conversionist church. This church argues that no amount of tinkering with the structures of society will counter the effects ofhuman sin. The promises of secular optimism are therefore false because they attempt to bypass the biblical call to admit personal guilt and to experience reconciliation to God and neighbor. The sphere of political action is shifted by the conversionist church from without to within, from society to the individual soul. Because this church works only for inward change, it has no alternative social ethic or social structure of its own to offer the world. Alas, the political claims of Jesus are sacrificed for politics that inevitably seems to degenerate into a religiously glorified conservativism.

The confessing church is not a synthesis of the other two approaches, a helpful middle ground. Rather, it is a radical alternative. Rejecting both the indivudlaism of the conversionists and the secularism of the activists and their common equation of what works with what is faithful, the confessing church finds its main political task to lie, not in the personal transformation of indiviudal hearsts or the modification of society, but rather in the congregation’s determination to worship Christ in all things.

Hauerwas & Willimon, Resident Aliens: Life in the Christian Colony, 46-47.

Those Flickering Pixels

Note: I received a free copy of this book in exchange for a promise to write about it. Getting a free book on a topic you’re profoundly interested in = awesome. Read other participating blogs if you’re interested.

Shane Hipps has some very important things to say in his new book Flickering Pixels, where he explores the hidden power of technology, particularly as it pertains to the life of faith. His conclusions aren’t always easy to receive, particularly for Christians who are heavily invested in cutting-edge media, but I think that critiques of technology have been far too casually dismissed as “Luddite” or “Amish.”

But name-calling too easily devolves into a simple “for” and “against” binary opposition, which does no service to the cause of careful thought. Hipps avoids this type of simplistic thought admirably, and while some might find him overly negative, it’s a much needed corrective to our usual lack of critical thought in this area.

Hipps helps us understand media better by trying to define just what it is. He says that all media have four dimensions:

  1. amplification or extension (being able to reach more people)
  2. every new medium makes an older technology irrelevant or obsolete
  3. every new medium retrieves some experience or medium from the past (for example, the surveillance camera–designed for protection–replicates the ancient city wall)
  4. every new medium, when pushed to an extreme, will revers on itself, revealing unintended consequences. For example, the Internet was designed to make information more easily accessible, thereby reducing ignorance. But too much information or the wrong kind of information reverses into overwhelming the seeker, leading to greater confusion rather than clarity.

It is the last item on the above list that reveals how we normally don’t think about the common drawbacks of the media in our lives, although they’re never far from us. And it is the fact that we don’t normally notice media and it’s effects (regardless of the content) that makes it so potentially harmful, particularly in the life of faith.

Examples could abound–and they do in Hipps’ book–but I won’t recount them here. (I will likely post a few excerpts over the next little while, however.) What I will do is to say that we desperately need more critical engagement with media, technology, and the ways in which our best-intentioned uses of them can subvert our best intentions to communicate the Gospel. Hipps does so in a clear, engaging book that any Christian who thinks and serves at the intersection of faith and media should read, ponder, and take very seriously.

The Entrepreneurial Evangelical

When I was a zealous, recently-converted evangelical Christian, I threw myself into the conventional process of trying to discern God’s will for my life. Call it what you will: vocation, calling, career—what should I do with my life that honours God? A tumultuous process (which I will spare you the details of) led me to the surprising conclusion that I had a pastoral calling on my life.

This did not mean that “pastor” was going to be a job title for me. Even then I believed that the pastor-as-career model was bizarre and confusing, and that the “tentmaker” bi-vocational approach of St. Paul was the path to be on. This type of ecclesiological experimentation is certainly welcome within the Vineyard family of churches that I find my home in. Indeed, stories of bold individuals who set out to do something different and wound up with a church around them are not only abundant in the Vineyard, they are foundational. I always assumed that I would follow a similar trajectory.

That assumption led to a lot of unrecognized frustration and guilt, because it just wasn’t happening. Not only could I not discern the first step, the thought of trying to discern the first step was unpalatable. I didn’t want a plan, and I definitely didn’t want to go around casting a vision and trying to get people caught up in it. It all felt so patently alien to me, but I had no language to name it.

But recently I had an epiphany that helped make sense of this part of my journey. I was feeling the old familiar pangs of guilt and inadequacy as I looked at leaders I respected who were so much further along in their ministry (whatever that means) by the time they reached my age. I saw that, in the context of much evangelical Christianity, the move into pastoral ministry is analogous to an entrepreneur: a do-it-yourself, self-motivated, trailblazing individual who has charisma, clarity of vision, and the ability to gather followers.

This realization was immediately and incredibly freeing, because I know that not only am I not a charismatic entrepreneurial-type, this meant that the implicit “career path” of my ecclesiology was broken because it was based on personality traits. This doesn’t mean that I’m recommending the “normal” path of seminary either—that model is just as broken, but for different reasons.

Instead, I have come to realize that what our churches desperately need is an apprenticeship-based training within the context of the life and work of local churches to help shape and form leaders. I believe that we are robbing our churches of some of our best leaders by failing to do so: leaders who are unwilling or unable to go to seminary or who are simply gifted in ways other than personal charisma.

I have a hope for a church that doesn’t model its leadership after that of the business world, in either the mode of the CEO or entrepreneur. I have hope for a church where leadership is shared, rather than held tightly by a “man at the top.” I have a hope for a church that doesn’t fall prey to the accreditation trap of disembodied, non-contextual learning that our non-relational world holds as normal. I have hope for a church where leadership is looked at differently, where it is nurtured and grown in ways that are different, beautiful and unexpected.

Ecclesiastical Imagination

church and sky by Flickr user omarrun

As a critical person, I have to remember that the point of criticism is always to build something better, and that criticizing what’s wrong is only one step in the journey. The church is quite often a target of this criticism (and rightly so), yet I have been trying to exercise my imagination of what a faithful church might look like. Towards that end, I imagine that a faithful church might:

  • not have a bank account
  • have members going to jail regularly because of faithfulness
  • be active in developing their local economy
  • not have a parking lot
  • not have a building
  • be too unstructured for people used to hierarchy
  • be too rigid for those who treasure “freedom”

Anyone have any others to add to the list of imaginative possibilities?