July 27, 2008

certain summers are just in-between. maybe in-between is a bad word for it, because the very feeling of in-betweenness arises from not quite knowing what bookends this section of time, not knowing what’s next. this is one such summer.

i know these summers from my reading habits. the last one stretched from a may college graduation to a december flight across the atlantic to macedonia. and there were the months before cindy and i got married and the summer before starting college before that. i tend to read indiscriminately at times like these. these times are secretly relaxing. i know that from how i read too.

i spent the summer before cindy and i married immersed in blake, perusing bertrand russel, and scribbling poetry in worn out comp books (a habit i have yet to break). the summer before macedonia (i tend to think of all the waiting months beginning in may, faltering and rerouting in october, and ending in our departure on december 6 as “summer”) i read bits of foucault, checked out a medieval literature reader, and studied a primer on symphonic composition. this summer i’m bogged down in charles taylor’s masterful a secular age and barth’s first volume of church dogmatics. in between fruitless go’s at these massive texts, i pound out quick terry pratchett novels or whatever comic books the local library contains.

i’ve also been gloriously enraptured in dorothy day’s the long loneliness. augustine’s confessions topped my ma-comps reading list, undoubtedly the most spiritually-incisive of the texts i read. day’s autobiography rings with the same spiritual-yet-this-worldly tones, the same reflective writing style. one thinks of merton’s seven storey mountain. reading the text is refreshing, a stand-in for hours spent walking a creek or watching the waves roll against the beach. it’s been my respite in this stifling hot city of workaday reality.

to close: a pic of my favorite summer read.

Kierkegaard at the Aegean

Reading on the Aegean


a couple of streams of experience are converging for me. one is this conversation, as summarized and extended by mark vans (really, though, check out the entire conversation here, here, here, here again, here, and, finally, here). the crumbling empire we live in, with gas prices shooting up and talking heads filling the airwaves with as much noise about recession as about clinton and obama, is going to change the way we do church. unless significant things change, vocational ministry is on its way out–and this is a huge shift. vocational ministry has been the norm not only since the rise of capitalism or the enlightenment or the reformation or the renaissance but all the way back to at least constantine. this includes not only the common targets of a heierarchical church leadership structure and complicity with the state, but the more beloved heritage of twenty or so centuries of monasticism and religious ascesis. a big change.

the second element is johann baptist metz’ the emergent church: the future of christianity in a postbourgeois world. collected in 1980 (i think i miscited it as ’78 in an earlier post), this series of essays grapples with the disparity between rich and poor “at the eucharistic table.” unashamedly critical of the regressive policies of john paul ii, metz proposes an “anthropological revolution,” which is just his fancy way of saying conversion of hearts to fighting against our own position of privilege in the capitalist “christendom machine.” an incredible read really worth purchasing (if the only copy on was not priced at $123.99!).

so what do this convergence effect? i was in a seminar a week or two ago with a professor from north park university in which the prof cited himself as “going on record as quite critical of the emergent church movement.” why? because he does not see them taking seriously enough the position of the marginalized. it’s a good critique.

if whatever is becoming of us Jesus-followers is going to stand up to whatever is already happening in our society, we not only need to revamp the internal structures that prop up the “christendom machine” (good phrase, whoever coined it). a crucial point (perhaps the crucial point God is calling us to as we follow Jesus) is how we reimagine our relationship to–or better yet–our identity with the poor. we need to get poor. and if we can find a way to do ministry and not get poor, maybe we need to ignore it. Jesus was poor. Jesus suffered. that’s where the church should be.

at church on sunday we sang a song that has been running through my mind ever since then. it’s a folk-gospel-influenced tune written, if i’m not mistaken, by a couple in the church. the lyrics basically follow the first few verses of isaiah 2.

we tend to gravitate there:

In the last days the mountain of Yahweh’s temple will be established as chief among the mountains; it will be raised above the hills and all nations will stream to it.
Many peoples will come and say, “Come, let us go up to the mountain of Yahweh, to the house of the God of Jacob. He will teach us his ways, so that we may walk in his paths.”
The law will go out from Zion, the word of Yahweh from Jerusalem.
He will judge between the nations and will settle disputes for many peoples.
They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks.
Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore.
Come, O house of Jacob, let us walk in the light of Yahweh.

perhaps rightly so. we discover ourselves in a world brimming over with violence, with self-interest erupting into the clash of nation-states and the clash of spouses, friends, coworkers. a future emptied of these painful altercations, where that energy is redirected to productive creativity rather than sharp-edged retorts and piercing statements (or, to switch fields, rather than to the military-technological complex)–what more could we request?

but perhaps it is more testament of our haggard, world-weary souls than to the warm-and-fuzzy character of God’s eschatological intervention. a close look at the text will begin to point us in this direction; setting the text in its broader context drives this point home with unsettling insistence.

first, a careful reading of the passage moves emphasis from a hoped for utopia to the sure and expected exaltation of Yahweh. what will be established in the last days? the mountain of Yahweh’s temple–the worship of Yahweh. Yahweh will be worshipped above every other god, every other idol, every other false security. people from every part of the globe will come to take part in this, and they will want to learn how to live in his ways, how to be the people of God (like Israel).

but note: moral education is not the cause of the beating of swords into plowshares. this is not the eschatological glorification of the classroom, of self-help books, of courteous behaviours; it is not the apotheosis of what in the end amounts to the best of the status quo. this is God breaking in, God interrupting, disrupting the way we have been doing things. moral education falls short.

instead, Yahweh is the judge–his word goes out and settles the disputes (for disagreements exist as long as we preserve a multiplicity of perspectives). his ruling, his judging, his leading excises the need for implements of war. “do you have a problem? take it to the Lord…”

second, the context of this passage undercuts both triumphalist appraisals of our current system (no, it’s not going to get us there) and separatist, elitist tendencies to hole up in our sanctuaries and homes to wait for God to fix a world already gone to hell. the immediately preceding first chapter of isaiah already firmly establishes the ambivalence of the day of the Lord concerning those who view themselves as the people of God. the chapter is filled up with accusations, threats, and the occasional plea for israel and jerusalem to change their behaviour (“come, let us reason together”). even the temple cult is indicted–God is sick to his stomach at the thought of the innumerable sacrifices and feasts. judgment begins in-house.

the larger portion of chapter two that follows on from the swords-into-plowshares text returns once again to this promise of judgment on God’s people. the people are double-hearted, holding to superstitions from the east and magic from the west. their houses are full of gold and silver idols, their stables full of warhorses and chariots, and their hearts with pride and trust in everything but Yahweh.

but a day is coming… they will run to the hills, hiding in caves and spiderholes. they will be humiliated and and Yahweh will be exalted.

The arrogance of man will be brought low and the pride of men humbled;
Yahweh alone will be exalted in that day, and the idols will totally disappear.
[…] Stop trusting in man, who has but a breath in his nostrils.
Of what account is he?

connections between the two portions of chapter two are tenuous. are we dealing with two different oracles? are the two portions of one piece? what is the relationship to the material that follows in chapter three? i can’t answer these questions. but we do have the blatant contrast created by the juxtaposition of these dissimilar visions of the day of the Lord as they stand in the text before us. perhaps it is better not to say two visions of the day of the Lord–it is one singular vision that entails both terror and hope.

a refrain from two books i have been reading recently comes to mind. both john howard yoder, in for the nations, and johann baptist metz, in the emergent church (written in 1976–this is a very different emergence metz is talking about, maybe one that’s more useful), consistently return to christians’ responsibility to be suffering, following as disciples the suffering messiah. isaiah’s presentation of the day of the Lord directs us once again to what this might mean for us. we sin and incur God’s judgment when we dub with messianic significance our programs and, moreso still, our successes. God’s way is not to baptize our programs (or our lack of program), our communities, or our service to our neighbours. these are good things, but they are not our hope. our hope lies in the declaration given in the resurrection that God has won, that worship of Yahweh will one day break forth and dissolve the impulse for us to spend billions of dollars on keeping a standing military or to speak guardedly around certain coworkers and relatives. our hope is in Yahweh, Yahweh alone.

the shape of the church

April 13, 2008

today has been a day of afternoon coffee, quick trips to the local market, dinner with junior highers, and hanging with an old friend at a burger joint.  it’s also been a day of rapid heartbeats, tired eyes, a persistent cough, and first contact with what my immediate future may hold.  a good day overall, but one that won’t leave me completely comfortable.

i ran across this article on open source theology (see sidebar).  for some reason it keeps running around in circles in my head.  Andrew P touches on all the issues i care about–church, scripture, poverty, community, change–but i am unsure whether i agree with how he draws the connections.  the source of this ambivalence lies in an earlier post, we have to go back, but not to square one.  what is at stake is not the evangelical commands of poverty, chastity, and obedience; rather it is the relationship of our following of Jesus to Jesus’ first disciples’ following.

shane claiborne’s irresistible revolution, the jumping off point for the article, proposes a radical, prophetic shape to our following Christ.  it looks like dropping out of the system and trying to live out the kingdom here and now, a premonition of the way things are going to be in the end.  without ever discounting claiborne’s model, andrew p suggests that it cannot function the longterm shape of the church.  the church is not always prophetic to this degree, not always negatively defined by the status quo death-money-power institution.  he offers a vision of the church more shaped by the resurrection new life revealed at Easter than by Jesus’ confrontation with power.  the two models are not mutually exclusive, for both contain a prophetic and eschatological witness.  but there is enough space between the two to provoke some serious thought.

read the two articles, check out shane’s book (if you haven’t already), and let me know your thoughts.

for the next twenty-one days my life is consumed with books. ancient books, classic books, recent books. long books and longer books.

march fourteen is my masters comprehensive exam. i have twenty-odd books to read in this time to prepare for this exam. so i am reading. reading fast and hard, early in the morning and late into the night. reading until my eyes fall out.

right now i’m making my way through important passages of thomas’ summa theologiae. on deck is luther. calvin’s in the hole.

hopefully after the fourteenth we’ll all be able to sit around and have a few good long conversations about what all these words mean, both in themselves and for us. and hopefully i’ll all but have a masters degree.

February 15, 2008

I was saying:  Tomorrow I shall find it; see, it will become perfectly clear, and I shall have no more doubts.  Faustus will come and explain everything.  What great men the Academic philosophers were!  Nothing for the conduct of life can be matter of assured knowledge.  Yet let us seek more diligently and not lose heart.  The books of the Church we now know not to contain absurdities.  The thing which seemed absurd can also be understood in another way which is edifying.  Let me fix my feet on that step where as a boy I was placed by my parents, until clear truth is found.  But where may it be sought?

When can it be sought?  Ambrose has no time.  There is no time for reading.  Where should we look for the books we need?  Where and when can we obtain them?  From whom can we borrow them?  Fixed times must be kept free, hours appointed, for the health of the soul.  Great hope has been aroused.  The Catholic faith does not teach what we thought and we were mistaken in criticizing it.  The Church’s educated men think it wrong to believe that God is bounded by the shape of a human body.  Why do we hesitate to knock at the door which opens the way to all the rest?  Our pupils occupy our mornings; what should we do with the remaining hours?  Why do we not investigate our problem?  But then when should we go to pay respects to our more influential friends, whose patronage we need?  When are we to prepare what our students are paying for?  When are we to refresh ourselves by allowing the mind to relax from then tension of anxieties?

Let all that perish!  Let us set aside these vain and empty ambitions.  Let us concentrate ourselves exclusively on the investigation of the truth.  Life is a misery, death is uncertain.  It may suddenly carry us off.  In what state shall we depart this life?  Where are we to learn the things we have neglected here?  And must we not rather pay for this negligence with punishments?  What if death itself will cut off and end all anxiety by annihilating the mind?  This too, then, is a question needing scrutiny.

But put aside the idea that death can be like that.  It is not for nothing, not empty of significance, that the high authority of the Christian faith is diffused throughout the world.  The deity would not have done all that for us, in quality and in quantity, if with the body’s death the soul’s life were also destroyed.  Why then do we heistate to abandon secular hopes and to dedicate ourselves wholly to God and the happy life?

But wait a moment.  Secular successes are pleasant.  They have no small sweetness of their own.  Our motivation is not to be deflected from them by a superficial decision; for it would be a disgrace to return to the secular again.  It is a considerable thing to set out to obtain preferment to high office.  And what worldly prize could be more desirable?  We have plenty of influential friends.  Provided that we are single-minded and exert much pressure, it should be possible to obtain at least the governorship of a minor province.  It would be necessary to marry a wife with some money to avert the burden of heavy expenditure, and that would be the limit of our ambition.  Many great men entirely worthy of imitation have combined the married state with a dedication to the study of wisdom.

That was what I used to say.

Augustine, Confessions vi.18-19