Today would have been 110th birthday of Lesslie Newbigin. His life and ministry in the name of Jesus Christ informed all of his writings on theology, mission, church, and contemporary culture. As you’ll read below, much of what Newbigin penned continues in salience, and presages so much of what the church lives into at this very moment. Continue reading
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.
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.)
I happened to spot this note from Jim Singleton of The Fellowship of Presbyterians (FoP) a few days ago. The claim made by Singleton and the FoP is this: “The Fellowship of Presbyterians and the NRB (New Reformed Bodies) are designed to be missional at their core.” I find myself both sympathetic to the overall concerns of the FoP, that is to say, a recovery of biblical and confessional resources from the Lord with which to participate in mission as a congregation, and discomforted by the lack of reflection upon biblical data and cultural context.
For those tuning in…the FoP is a large chunk of evangelical plus disappointed Presbyterians from the PCUSA. Most recently, the General Assembly (GA) determined in its polity to create space for the ordination of homosexuals to the office of teaching elder; this determination has been previously attempted and rebuffed several times over more than 30 years. Suffice it to say, this kind of polity represents a significant departure from the Bible. The FoP has always been in the making, so to speak, and coalesced this year once all of the presbyteries confirmed the GA decision. I should add a couple more items here: I am an ordained Minister of the Word and Sacrament of the PCUSA, and I agree with those of the FoP regarding the wrong-headedness of the GA’s polity decision: it is a decision that endorses a lifestyle at odds with the Bible.
Now, with those preliminaries, let me move to my sources of discomfort.
First, there are several attempts by the FoP leadership to cast the movement as missional. Let me add my voice to the chorus: those who employ this adjective have assumed far too much regarding its intent, and with the movement of the usage into the ecclesial vernacular, the same people have evacuated it of any prophetic or nourishing meaning. In short, “missional” is becoming “boring.” How unfortunate.
In a personal conversation with one of the authors of the text Missional Church, I asked if the current use of the adjective avoided the pain associated with the change in identity that accompanies the recovery of such ecclesial character. He lowered his head as he nodded in agreement. He added that most pastors and elders are simply unaware of how sweeping the personal changes that take place when one follows the Lord into becoming the missional church.
Second, latent to the missional church philosophy but completely missed within the FoP regards the biblical identification of and concern for “the nations.” The ongoing affection and desire of Jesus aims for the people of God to extend their experience and joy of redemption and mission to those who are ethnically and culturally different from themselves.
One doesn’t have to journey too far within the PCUSA to determine that it is largely an Anglo-dominated community. That Koreans within the PCUSA- ever joyfully and powerfully witnessing, making disciples, and enacting justice near and far- do so with greater impact than the bulk of PCUSA could be an all-important sign of what is possible when the church takes seriously the extension of the Gospel into and among people different from themselves. That there is such a presence of Korean Presbyterians is, humanly speaking, a function of earlier generations of Presbyterians from the US preaching the Gospel in the Korean Peninsula. Now, it would be worth posing the following question to Koreans within the PCUSA: How are they serving and proclaiming among people ethnically different from themselves? Valuable as that may be, the more urgent concern is whether Anglo elders and pastors of the FoP perceive this explicit Biblical mandate as an imperative to be engaged, deferred, or optional as part of the identity of the missional church it aspires to become.
Finally, there is the massive question of culture. Fortunately, a spate of slogans and colloquial stories used in a variety of western cultural contexts throw light on this challenge, which largely is a problem of shared self-awareness. I am thinking of one story I have used for years, but find that it is hardly original: Talking-Fish Lake. To cut to the punch line: the fish replies to the fisherman, “What’s water?” What “water” is to the fish, “culture” is to humanity. Following the anthropologist Ward Goodenough, culture is “what people need to know or believe in order to operate in a manner acceptable to its members.” We’re constantly surrounded by culture, yet rarely aware of how we shape and encourage and sanction each other because of this “water” that we’re immersed in. And, it is worth stating the obvious: in the West, there’s a lot of “water” out there…
A few comments on culture, then, with which to close out this post.
First, all of the energy and focus upon recovering the Confessions by the FoP in a conscious and concerted fashion may have some salutary benefits for the developing New Reformed Bodies: but in and of itself will not provide the analytic or diagnostic tools with which to interpret our western culture. I am totally in favor of recovering the Confessions! Make no mistake about that! My motives here, though, will be for a post at a later date. That energy and focus upon the Confessions will soon be consumed and diverge as a consequence of unfamiliarity and disconnect from the culture the church dwells within.
Second, I noticed that at the initial meeting in Minneapolis back in August that Tod Bolsinger hosted a meeting on leadership. He introduced the leadership theory of Ron Heifetz, and specifically, adaptive change. I can’t find the link I was sent, but I received a copy of Tod’s slides of his presentation: perhaps if you contact Tod, he can point you to the link. Here’s the important point: This theory of leadership may hold the key to unlocking questions of (and resistance to) western culture. I am a big fan and learner of Heifetz’ literature. Yet, I also noticed in an FoP letter after the meeting endorsing Bolsinger’s approach: yet the letter strangely departed from it, through a description of what the desired outcomes of such an approach would be. Perhaps that was a political move on the part of the FoP leadership, an advance source of comfort for those who were rightly disturbed by the possible horizons if adaptive change were implemented by the FoP. Or: it represented some unfamiliarity with the implications of Heifetz’ theory and practice. To be sure: none of the outcomes described in the letter could possibly be known in advance of the process described by Bolsinger.
In The Gospel in a Pluralist Society, Lesslie Newbigin recounts what one of his critics described as his attempts to understand western culture while participating in mission within the same: trying to ride the bus while pushing it from behind. It’s never been clear to me- as yet- that Newbigin aimed to make adaptive changes in the church; the implications seem to be littered everywhere in his writings and preaching. Yet, he was earnest that the church in the west take up the question of how to give witness to the Gospel within western culture. He was not nearly as concerned with the creation of new ecclesial orders or missional churches; he certainly was as adamant as the FoP is about the PCUSA regarding how egregious some polity decisions in the UK were departing from Scripture.
The best of our praying and listening to the Lord, as well as listening to each other, could now be arranged so as to give our energies and attention to the culture we’re immersed in. That there is a renewed presence of the Confessions is acknowledged everywhere; that there is any sense of what kind of culture the churches of the FoP/NRB are conducting their mission within remains unaccounted for and absent.
My friend, Elaine Howard Ecklund, blogged at the Huffington Post last week on the topic near and dear to her heart, the presence of (or lack thereof) university faculty, especially those in the physical and natural sciences, with a faith commitment or religious allegiance or spirituality. Elaine recently published the book Science vs. Religion: What Scientists Really Think. It’s a great work that depends not on anecdote or speculation: but upon interviews with faculty in elite research institutes. The results surprised everyone.
Plenty of faculty have some kind of faith commitment- not always the kind that aligns well with any of the three major book religions. Nor would it surprise most participants in university life that such faiths are eclectic, unassembled, and largely un-informed through low praxis, no matter if it is part of a historic faith tradition or, as Newbigin has said elsewhere, a “supreme monad” in the sky. While it is popular to think of those faculty in the humanities and the social sciences as atheists or agnostics, even those disciplines had their fair share of people of faith. I’ve only browsed Elaine’s book, but the surprises are there: the evidence points toward the faculty in the sciences with some kind of religious faith.
I’m a little concerned about the reduction of religious faith to a chaplaincy-type of function, i.e., helping to cope with crises or difficulties in life, that 42% of the scientists affirmed. But that non-missional perspective should not surprise any campus minister or faculty or student coming from an evangelical perspective. Indeed, our tribe has enough trouble imagining that there is any other perspective on campus. What might be helpful for those following Jesus is to respond to such views and voices with an affirmation of how such dynamic of service and comfort reintegrates those on campus (and beyond…) for robust, authentic, communal participation in the mission of God.
If you read Elaine’s post, you’ll have noticed the lament of the chemistry professor on the homogeneity of the faculty on anything beyond the purview of their research or discipline. I’ll defer any elaboration on this phenomenon for now: but, that comment hits dead-center on lack of curiosity that produces such bland uniformity regarding anything of philosophical, political, and -especially- ethnic character. I’d posit here that the homogeneity and the lack of curiosity work reciprocally. The sense of infinite regress here generates the frustration of the chemistry professor and for many others: including myself!
Today is Day 10 of Lent. I read lots of FB updates about abstaining from chocolate, or coffee, or (fill-in-the-blank:___________). All of which, insofar as I can tell, are mostly done faithfully, and largely informed by a desire to do without “that” which keeps them from knowing and following Jesus in a robust and free manner.
OK: I am being generous in the above description.
But, the cynical and realist side of me also knows that the reported motives aren’t always the complete story. Nevertheless, I also admit that the Lord is merciful to us in our always-partial expressions of faith. I’m not saying that to let myself off the hook! Rather, it’d be an unfortunate and lop-sided observation on my part if I failed to include the generosity of God toward our often-impoverished faithfulness. Back to Lent and a couple of related matters.
A few years back, I read this winsome article by Catholic priest that reformed my Reformed understanding of Lent. I had imbibed a perspective that repentance from sin was an ongoing, durative experience of the community of disciples (think the 2nd Gospel here), and that a seasonal expression of repentance merely underscored how insignificant we think repentance is once we come to faith in Jesus. The article countered that by proposing it is precisely because we have Lent as seasonal expression within the context of repentance that we heighten and reaffirm the radical call of Jesus, e.g., “Repent and believe the Good News.” (Mk. 1:15) If I recall the gist of the article, it landed finally upon the notion of intensification: a more intentional turning to Jesus in all of life. Maybe it’s my present social location and experience, but that rendering then makes even more sense to me now.
The other matter regarded what “metanoia” meant then, and for now. I’ll abbreviate for this post, but I had always felt troubled by a definition of repentance that was rendered as (and bounded by) “turning away from sin.” The trouble was that most of the NT was pushing beyond that, as was the OT. (I’ll save that rant on bible translators for another time.) Then, I stumbled upon Newbigin, and he gave words to what I sensed was at play in the Bible when it came to “metanoia”. (Once I figure out how to use Greek fonts, I will amend the word.) For Newbigin- and since then many others- “metanoia” was about a full-on, new way and new content regarding thinking about God. And, of course, any attentive reading of the Gospels yields a God present in Jesus that simply wrecks any intuition we might have regarding God.
So, not just turning from sin- always a good thing in my estimation- but also a fresh understanding of God. That impresses me as far more coherent when paralleled with “believe the Good News.” We practice leaving behind old frameworks, convictions, patterns of behavior for a unique, gracious, and creative God who, by his Spirit, leads us to himself through Christ.
You might have asked yourself earlier, “So, how is Mike observing Lent?” Glad you asked: and that you read this far!
I attended this conference at Wheaton, and during one of the Q&A’s, this plenary speaker explained that he once read Mark repeatedly for Lent: in the Greek. To my way of understanding “metanoia,” this made perfect sense.
I wondered right up to the morning of Lent what I should do that would intensify and heighten my experience of the Lord though “metanoia.” And that’s when the thought (thank you, Lord!) came to me: read Romans in the Greek. Now, it is also true that I’ve had some nagging matters related to soteriology over the last few years. And reading Romans will assist me in ways that I cannot anticipate but will likely attenuate the nagging.
Of course, my Greek has received “a vitamin” from this experience; I’m reading a chapter a day, and will post (or is it back-post?) on some relatively small discoveries along the way. And, supremely, reading Romans is already granting me a fresh understanding of God: that is my experience of “metanoia” in this season of Lent. More on that fresh understanding to come in later posts.