Christian Identity: Yet Another Reply to Tim Keller & Brian McLaren

December 27, 2016

In a recent conversation, Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times asked Pastor Tim Keller, “Am I a Christian?” Although posted on December 23, the op-ed has generated more than 900 comments through today. Almost immediately, people from around the blogosphere affirmed, critiqued, and interrogated Keller’s many and nuanced replies to questions from a friendly Kristof: including Brian McLaren. I want to highlight the posts from Kristof/Keller and McLaren, as each have cast a certain light upon Christian identity, and raise important questions that we would do well to consider.

 
For Keller in his conversation with Kristof, the replies flowed from “literal” belief in the Bible, textual criticism, confidence in one’s faith in tension with questions generating diffidence, skepticism, attraction to people in mission but incredulous reaction to the same people with antagonistic beliefs, the range of Christian salvation, religious plurality, and finishing on the doctrine of God. Whew! What a tour!

 
For the most part, Keller framed the Christian faith, right from the get-go, as “a body of thought”, one which contributes to forming social boundaries for the church, so that one could have “a cohesive, integrated organization.” Then, his all important claim: “Jesus’ teaching was not the main point of his mission. He came to save people though his death for sin and his resurrection.”

 
Now, let me first of all say: Bravo. I like and endorse the move that links Calvary and the Empty Tomb; Keller links the two, and that deserves further elaboration from him. I need to follow that by asking: Whither the Kingdom of God? I make mention of this, chiefly because Redeemer Presbyterian Church has a remarkable history and presence of witness and service within Manhattan: such practices offer valuable signposts toward the reign of God in Christ, and the presence of the Holy Spirit. I found it strange that Keller omitted any response about Christ’s preaching on the Kingdom of God. Finally, it’s hard to know the importance of mission from a single interview about the aforementioned commitment by Keller and his congregation; so much of Kristof’s questions centered on identity, and—as I will get to below— Keller consented to keeping the discussion within that ambit.

 
For McLaren, though, the interview became an occasion to recollect (sans pleasure) how Keller’s version of “Christian identity is primarily defined by a list of beliefs, as it was for me in my upbringing.” As he continues his journey through his memory, McLaren knows first-hand that such a identity both secured a destiny in Heaven and one could have repellent list of personal sins left intact and impervious to transformation: simply because “if you held the right beliefs, you were going to heaven when you die, and in comparison with that, nothing else matters much.” This kind of propositional-based belief still has currency (see any of your friends from neo-orthodox churches), and empowers a long view of being safe in Heaven, while completely diminishing any value of other persons, the need for justice (or correcting injustice), holds dominion over the earth as a primary value for human existence thus authorizing environmental decay, and simply affirms a dualism between body and soul. McLaren suggests an alternative… or does he?

 
McLaren also takes up the question of Christian identity, although his angle of entry initially appears sympathetic to one I would endorse: “As we approach Christmas, it’s a good time to reflect on why Jesus was born and why it matters.” From there, McLaren approves of people entering a journey of discovery of significance: “It’s a good time to note that according to the Gospels, Jesus himself gives a number of reasons for the ‘main point of his mission’.” From here, McLaren cherry-picks some excellent topics: repentance, liberation and healing, truth-telling, preaching the Gospel: and then this: “Yes, a meaning-rich and world-changing suffering and death were among those many reasons (Jn. 12:27), but it’s a mistake (a popular mistake) to let that one reason silence all the others.” Well, yes and no.

 
Yes, McLaren is correct to elevate and celebrate the importance of Christian identity becoming generated, practiced, and competent through practices of mission. Amen. But, as Newbigin once said, “Words without deeds are empty. But, deeds without words are dumb.” Put another way, and even Keller and Kristof recognize this: the Christian faith does not have the religious market on caring for the poor, the widowed, and the orphan. Actions like these, in which as Keller recognized as “the importance of the individual person and … love as the supreme virtue”, deserve interpretation from beliefs and doctrines. But, we need those practices to assist in developing maturity as Christians.

 

So, No, we can’t discard some of our espoused convictions regarding soteriology and the doctrine of God just because a different system of beliefs is asserted to be superior or to be more inclusive for the naming and creation of Christian identity. To wit, that different system merely addresses different questions: “Do you love the least of these? Do you love the earth as God’s creation or money that can be made from exploiting the earth? Is love— for God, self, neighbor, other, enemy, and the earth— your highest aim and deepest desire?” McLaren raises these questions and more in his conclusion. He is correct to interrogate static models of Christian identity that only rely upon assent to theological convictions.

 
But, we don’t check in our theological traditions along the way in identity formation. We need to recover a process of identity formation that involves a constructive, dynamic response to the imperative of the one we are convinced of who offers us life: “Come follow me, and I will make you fishers of humanity.” (Mk. 1:17)

 
But, I wonder how “local” the questions of McLaren are, especially relative to Jesus. Put another way: even Jesus had a context, one of a long religious tradition that permeated every aspect of life. That tradition underwent several changes during internal political changes, external influence and military invasions; these changes took place during forced migration from home and in repatriation.  But, the Jewish tradition endured, and long expected another exodus-like saving event from YHWH. So, whether the changes enacted by family politics or Roman imperial forces acting upon the tradition, the Jewish people kept their faith in a multicultural and multiethnic milieu. Jesus had no problems engaging with Gentiles, (e.g., Mk. 5:1-20) and he certainly directed those who followed him to do likewise. (C.f., Mt. 28:19-20)

 
Now, one might push back on me: “McLaren observes “the other”, and “the outsider.” True. But, here’s the snag: For McLaren, (and for that matter, Keller) declare through their silence that belief and service occur in an ethnically-neutral context of North America: that is how Christian identity becomes formed. One wouldn’t know from either of these pastors that racism is America’s original sin. While McLaren (and we could presume Keller, as well) would champion a wholesale rejection of racism, violence, and structural injustice, and especially in light of the increasing events of white hostility following the recent presidential election, their omission of such makes me wonder how far their observations extend to Christian identity. How can we discuss caring for the poor, or the healing of the sick— who are often people of color— without consideration of their ethnic identity and our own ethnic identity? How can we make any prescriptions—or recommendations— about beliefs or practices for Christian identity without some consideration of the racialized society we dwell in?

 
Other friends chimed in on my FB page: surely the NT doesn’t drive a wedge between belief and practices. Similarly, if one wanted to press the whole notion of identity, we could look to the rite of initiation: baptism. And, this initially appears warranted, at least theologically. Yet another observed regarding beliefs, that evangelicals like Keller and McLaren (although the latter may not want that label anymore) hardly can be affirmed for the inclusion of the creeds in their belief systems as constituting evangelicalism. Some version of “both/and” was called for. I made note that for both Keller and McLaren, they both draw boundaries, and they simply do it differently than each other. I wanted to address this element more thoroughly but in my prayers, I could not look away from the total absence of discussion of ethnicity and context as informing Christian identity. One might also wonder why suffering is omitted from either descriptions of Christian identity. (C.f, 1 Peter 3:8-22) Similarly: there’s not a shred of conversation about how our gender contributes toward the formation of our Christian identity: clearly, this last element needs a more thorough examination. To be sure, the differences between Manhattan and Manhattan Beach hold unique elements.

 
Christian identity becomes formed not only through beliefs and practices, but also in context; both engage the respective contexts and are engaged by the same. For Kristof, Keller, and McLaren, we would ask them: “Who is your neighbor? And, is your neighbor of a different ethnicity than yourself?” How they—and we— answer such questions may well help all us understand how we all are formed into our Christian identity.


Preaching at Advent

November 21, 2016

“And he shall stand and feed his flock in the strength of the LORD,
in the majesty of the name of the LORD his God.
And they shall live secure,
for now he shall be great to the ends of the earth;
and he shall be the one of peace.”
Micah 5:4-5

This time of year is always my favorite for preaching. No, I don’t have anything scheduled! But, it brings back some memories that won’t go away: and I don’t want them to leave me.

Several years ago, through the unfortunate passing of a colleague, I received a call as what the Presbyterians call, “Temporary Pulpit Supply.” This call began in early fall of that year, and ran through the end of December. Thus, it fell to me to preach through Advent.

On another day, I’ll argue for why evangelicals (what’s left of them…) should preach from the Lectionary. But, as one who was already convinced, when early November showed up, and I cast my eyes ahead to Advent, I was delighted to discover: Every week contained a text from the Minor Prophets.

Not sure how else to explain this, other than: it was effortless study to reflect upon christological and eschatological themes (regarding the latter: it is “advent” after all…), as well as how such inform and empower a communal life that collaborates with God in mission. The ease at addressing evangelism and justice, as mutually informing responses to the anticipated coming of the Christ, really stood out as cohering well with the text of each week.

The feedback to my preaching was remarkably constructive and affirming. While all preachers admit to that being important, my overall sense was that God was drawing me into his mission, affirming my “temporary” status, preparing the local congregation well for their mission, and empowering me for service beyond the term of service. In short, God had a word for me about my anticipation of the coming of Christ.

So, for those pastors who haven’t committed themselves to an Advent series: the Revised Common Lectionary offers both the weekly texts and the resources needed for giving praise and witness to the Christ who has come and will come again.


Happy Belated 104th Birthday, Lesslie Newbigin!

December 10, 2012

My internet connection was down over the weekend so this is a delayed post.

Leslie Newbigin (1909-1998) is the premier contemporary missiologist of the 20th and 21st centuries. Newbigin’s passionate reflection upon the Gospel and Christian mission remain unparalleled in our time. His writings have yet to be fathomed; his preaching, lectures, and publications are regularly read by pastors, missionaries, and routinely challenge theologians and missiologists. Newbigin served 40 years in missionary service in India, and in service to the worldwide church; his subtle influence upon Vatican II is only now becoming public. Upon retirement, Newbigin began serving as a pastor in London to an inner-city church. In honor of what would have been Newbigin’s 104th birthday, I post the following:

“When we speak of finding in Jesus the clue to the meaning of the whole human story, we are not speaking of a mere cognitive exercise. We’re speaking of that act of atonement wrought in Jesus through which we are brought into a loving obedience to the will of God as it is exercised through all human and cosmic history. It is not merely a matter of illumination, of new understanding; it is a matter of reconciliation, of rescue from alienation, of obedient response to the divine initiative of love. It is illumination and new understanding only because it is first a divine action of reconciliation through which we are brought to that state in which we can say and know that God works all things together for good to those who love him. It is only through this act of atonement that Jesus becomes for us a clue to history.” (Truth and Authority in Modernity, 1996:39-40.)


Ethnic Diversity: Reality for Growth or Choice of Zip Code?

August 17, 2012

I had an interesting meeting with a vendor regarding service for the home we just moved into. This vendor, an Anglo, mentioned that his family raised him in a community adjacent to the one we just moved from. He remained in that community through marriage and child-raising, and once he and his wife became an empty-nest, they moved several miles away, because of “the changing demographic, with so many Orientals moving into [the community].” He said this with a straight face, no sense of malice, not seeking some kind of social solidarity with me: even though he had just been introduced to my wife not 5 minutes earlier.

I must admit to you that I felt very, very sad for this man. In the past, I might have felt some slight or anger. But, in his case, as far as I can discern from his story, assuming the complexity of all life narratives, part of his decision to relocate was motivated by increasing ethnic diversity, i.e., people were moving into his neighborhood who were different from him and his family. And, this vignette evoked sadness for me.

Now, in part, this sadness is also related to the neighborhood we’ve moved into! We are the Asians of the block! As yet, I’ve not seen any African-Americans living on our street, but it’s a long one, and we’ve not been here a month. We have a few Spanish-speaking people, but I’m not sure what their cultural heritage is. So, that present reality may be part of my sadness in response to the vendor’s story.

It’s a big deal for the Christian community to take stock of its ethnic identity. That Sunday morning is still the most segregated time of the week is a shameful blight that the NA church can faithfully arrest and reverse. That we rarely or fail to vigorously reflect theologically about ethnicity as it relates to our mission in the communities where we live, serve, work, and worship is not merely a blind spot, but a gaping black hole about which our good intentions and “we’ll-get-to-it-later” slogans are vacuumed in while the diverse people around us wonder “what’s in it for me” as we tacitly describe ourselves as Christians.

When we shopped for a home, I recall looking around in every neighborhood, wondering who lives here? I mentioned this to my wife, and she always humored me by listening. For now, as we still get our boxes unpacked and set up, it’s not an issue. Of the neighbors we’ve met, they are the kindest and friendliest people one could ask for to be living adjacent to you: they are the real deal. But, it’s not lost on me: we’re the ethnic minorities of the street, as far as I can tell.

One of my favorite readings in the Gospel of Mark regards the invitation of Jesus to his followers in 4:35-41: “Let’s go over to the other side.” He just concluded some remarkable discourse on the Reign of God, all of which held the attention of the presumably Jewish crowd: and he invites them to head over to…the Gentile side of lake. In other words, as one of my earliest mentors paraphrased Jesus, “Let’s see if this stuff on the Kingdom makes any sense among people unlike ourselves.”
Here, Jesus welcomes his followers into an ambiguous, uncertain, short-term mission, while embedding his teaching, authority, and person within the missio Dei, and joining the two for testing and demonstrating the possibilities for God to reconcile Jew and Gentile in his reign.

Next week, my friends and colleagues from The Fellowship of Presbyterians will gather in Colorado Springs and Atlanta. I observed with some encouragement and some amusement that the pre-conference gathering will be about mission and…missions. Yet, the bulk of the ethos and philosophy of the FoP continues to be about being “missional.” Let me both cheer and chastise this posture.

Yes: the recovery of mission, even the adjective “missional”, is to be welcomed and encouraged: such a retrieval suggests not success, but an approaching day of fruitfulness. No: there cannot be any fruitful horizon for the FoP that fails to theologically account for biblical data that so explicitly directs the people of God into mission among those who are ethnically diverse and different from themselves. The “Focus on Church Planting” element of the August Gathering suggests an important corrective and development in the need for theological reflection on ethnic diversity; it’s a real bonus that it is embedded within the conversation on planting new churches.

Some of the sharpest minds and hearts among Presbyterians are within the FoP. Indeed, in private conversations, some of these people have admitted to me their desire for ethnic diversity within their own congregation. Often, they don’t know how to begin the journey of developing an ethnically-diverse congregation. But, the starting line is right in front of them daily: and I would want to reassure them that they may not get any real guidance straight away: there is no error-free instruction on beginning.

Given the history of NA and its churches, surely some of the FoP elders, both ruling and teaching, can provide leadership that fallibly and imperfectly relies upon the Word and Spirit to give witness to the Gospel among people unlike themselves: even within their own zip code.


Practices of Reading for Leading

August 15, 2012

A colleague tweeted this blog connecting leadership with reading, and, to be honest, I was overjoyed to read it. It’s worth taking the time to review what Coleman has to say here.

I’ve long advocated reading to my colleagues. Coleman does a good job of recapitulating much of what I’ve endorsed and encouraged my friends and colleagues to take on board when it comes to reading.

The challenge that repeatedly arises is communicating to my friends and colleagues “how to read a book.” Far too many of my younger colleagues have- let me be blunt- a misguided and an unrealistic expectation: If you pick up a book, you have to read every page from cover-to-cover.

I’m not sure where that presumption comes from. Leaving that aside, I’m a big fan of Mortimer Adler, Bobby Clinton, and Chuck Van Engen when it comes to reading. The last two, Fuller faculty, draw heavily upon Adler, but have modified his approach to address the realities of being involved in ministry, academic research, and sometimes both. Contact me if you want further details.

I mention the trio above for this reason: one of the first matters that all three are in agreement on is this: very few books are worthy of your sustained attention from cover-to-cover. I believe it was either Adler or Van Engen (maybe both?) who proposed that perhaps in anyone’s lifetime, there are probably 4 or 5 books that are worth reading all the way through. Most likely, you will read them several times from cover-to-cover.

The other matter that all three are in agreement on is this: You only need 10 to 20 minutes to inspect a book to decide if it is worth reading further. And all of the PhD students reading right now said, “Amen.” But, you don’t have to be in graduate school, the university, or even the church to recognize the wisdom of this advice. While each of the three nuances how you make the decision to read further, they are unanimous: you need a strategy to determine if a book is worthy of further attention and energy on your part.

One other practice that none of the above, to my knowledge, promotes but would likely bless unreservedly: is the practice of a reading club/group. Prior to moving to Pasadena, I was in reading club of two: Tim P and myself. For approximately two years, we read off of a list of titles that Fuller was using for the Qualifying Exam for the SIS-PhD Admissions Requirement. We read about a book a month, but because we were both committed to reading broadly in missiology, we read some books that were flat-out boring and dry. That comes with the territory for those taking classes, right? Some texts are required reading, so you grab your bootstraps, and read. But, that practice, of reading closely, asking questions, and then engaging in the discussion with Tim, really expanded my understanding of mission, of Christ, and of what God was doing on campus. Even if we were reading about translation or ecclesiology, that practice began to expand my thinking, and subsequently, my practices for serving the staff in Houston. The reading club/group idea spilled over to life at Fuller during the last year, as I entered into a community of scholars, for whom, discussions on what we’re reading were already part of the social DNA, and encouraged by the faculty.

Moving away from strategies and practices- for, really, that is what the above is about: reading practices- I would return to what Coleman has emphasized in his post: leadership must be informed by reading. For my younger colleagues, some of their disappointment (and despair) in ministry comes from a lack of influence on campus among undergraduates. In part- not in total- this can be attributed to under-developed reading practices.

If we would have influence in the name of Jesus, we would do well to be like him: become readers, even wise readers: of Scripture, of a variety of disciplines, of a variety of types of literature: these practices will cultivate our hearts, our energy, our relationships, and our imagination for leadership. Stories connected to those practices are always worth reading.


Ash Wednesday, Dandelions, Missional Reflection, & the Fellowship of Presbyterians

February 22, 2012

Today is Ash Wednesday of 2012. I read Psalm 51 this morning, and was impressed yet again by both the powerful transparency of David’s admission of sin and his confidence in YHWH for reconciliation and proclamation. But, his confession of sin and the orientation of such toward YHWH impressed me. Passionate, lean, and honest to the depths of his being, David recognizes that, using the contemporary idiom, “at the end of the day”, it is God alone who perceives the egregiousness of David’s sin. Even in his rendering of the outcome of biblical concupiscence (51:5), David acknowledges God’s remarkable comprehension of the former’s sinfulness: to the depths of his being.

Yesterday, I bought a “dandelion digger.” I have had an ongoing disagreement with our mowing service as to who is responsible for the eradication of weeds. Their viewpoint is to spray weed-killer on the offending plant: end of story. My view is that they need a second step: pull the offending weed from the ground. Which they steadfastly refuse to do, my landlord’s demands notwithstanding. So, rather than wait for these gentlemen to receive their pink slips (forthcoming, I am told) in order to explain this responsibility to their successors, I purchased the tool.

At the time of the purchase, I had no idea why the shaft of the tool needed to be so long: maybe 7-8”. This morning, away I went, shoving the tool into the lawn, bringing up the nasty weed. I soon noticed that the roots were of varying lengths. I felt the roots break in the ground, and heard some snap. Then, in some softer soil, the tool penetrated deeply: I gently pulled on the dandelion, and out came an intact root with a length greater than that of the tool shaft. Mind you, this dandelion had no flower on it at the time.

Dandelion Root and Dandelion Digger

First, I am intensely aware of the grace of God in Jesus Christ using this little exercise in frustration over weed removal to reveal the depth of my sinfulness, even when its phenomenal and public expressions lay dormant. Second, no matter what my efforts may be: my sin is greater than my capacities to root it out of my life. Finally, it is the mercies of God that can penetrate deeply into my life, with a capacity to both reach to the bottom of the tap root of sin and to inform me of how pervasive sin is in my life.

I would add this: for all of my propensity for activism that grows out of an evangelical faith in Jesus, my participation in the missio Dei is bounded by the depth of my sin, or conversely, confined by my limited appropriation of God’s grace to me in Jesus Christ. Furthermore, God’s mission won’t be hindered in the slightest way by my sinfulness, even with my conscious, repentant efforts for faithful and joyful servanthood among the nations with God’s people.

Of course, this also includes my administrative and ecclesial production. Here, I am also in prayer for my sisters and brothers in the Fellowship of Presbyterians. All of the proclamations and organizational services will be necessarily bounded by sin and our limited appropriation of God’s grace to us in Jesus Christ. From a largely intuitive consideration on my part, our praxis and reflection upon being and becoming missional as churches can only develop constructively with responses similar to those of David.


Rob Bell, Theological Kerfuffles, & Universalisms…Pt. 13

April 25, 2011

OK: So, by popular demand: I have ordered Love Wins by Rob Bell. Actually, because we’re packing: I downloaded it to my Kindle. 🙂 If I added another book to this household of boxes, my wife would brain me. So, in my copious free-time, I will read it before chapter camp…which is two weeks away.

In a very convoluted way: this book has come into my messy home before I ordered it. I’ll withhold the details, but I was surprised to learn that the same kind of “behaving-badly” type of conflict you easily read on blogs reviewing Bell’s book intersected with my colleagues here in Houston. For now, let’s call it guilt-by-association: GBA. I hasten to add: my colleagues and I are more exclusivist in thought, speech, and behavior than those with loose lips.

I wish such people would simply ask us, “What do you think about Bell?” before yakking…I don’t know, maybe it’s about the following:

ἀληθεύοντες δὲ ἐν ἀγάπῃ αὐξήσωμεν εἰς αὐτὸν τὰ πάντα, ὅς ἐστιν ἡ κεφαλή, Χριστός, ἐξ οὗ πᾶν τὸ σῶμα συναρμολογούμενον καὶ συμβιβαζόμενον διὰ πάσης ἁφῆς τῆς ἐπιχορηγίας κατ’ ἐνέργειαν ἐν μέτρῳ ἑνὸς ἑκάστου μέρους τὴν αὔξησιν τοῦ σώματος ποιεῖται εἰς οἰκοδομὴν ἑαυτοῦ ἐν ἀγάπῃ. (Eph. 4:15-16)

I intend at another time to describe what could be an important way forward in both the formal discussion as well as how we discuss the perceived discrepancies. Part of the wider discourse conflict involves the determination of universalism within Bell’s text. For a good- no, really, great- discussion starter in this regard, especially as it applies to Bell et al, see this recent post by James K.A. Smith.