Thursday, October 30, 2014

Preparing for Church Leadership: An Example of Theological Reflection in Practice

Still in my first month as Tutor in Theology at Trinity College, Bristol, I'm already enjoying my first Reading Week. It is affording me the opportunity to familiarize myself with our college handbooks, and to prepare for my first teaching and preaching assignments.

In the process I have become very impressed with this college's intentionality of integration between practical and theological learning. It is that dual focus on ministry and academy which so attracted me to this school, and I am happy to report it in fact exceeds my expectations. I am excited to contribute to what this theological college is about.

As a case in point--and as a blog post in its own right--just let me show you one page of our Practical Training Handbook, put together by our Tutor in Practical Theology, Rev'd Sue Gent. It is one of six reports that come in 'Appendix 3: Forms for us in Contextual Training and Church Placements'--and the simple but poignant line of questioning goes like this:


Meeting Report
(complete this form if you were an observer only)


Was the meeting well arranged?

What were its aims?

Were they achieved?

Who was in control, formally?

Who held the real power?

What interesting dynamics did you observe?

How would you describe the spiritual atmosphere of the meeting?

Your conclusion of the proceedings:


This could of course simply be written off as just one more of the many forms that a student has to fill out in the course of his or her training. However, if you look at it closely (especially at the questions in the middle) I think it proves a helpful, perceptive piece of preparatory pastoral reflection.

The questions themselves are not heavily inflected with theology, but embedded as they are within a considerable amount of theological learning and reflection they provide an opportunity to think about the power-dynamics of leadership in a culturally sensitive and contextually specific way.

Incidentally, if you're interested in checking out Trinity College, we have an Open Day coming up that is precisely designed for that purpose.

Monday, October 27, 2014

The Shooting in Ottawa: Discerning Motives, Meanings, and Responses

A Canadian soldier is shot dead at the National War Memorial before the assailant runs to Parliament and is shot by the Sergeant-at-Arms and dies on the doorstep of the House of Commons. on those circumstances, one might be forgiven for interpreting the incident in terms of national security, situating it within a battle of political ideologies and the war on terror. But it matters that we reflect carefully on such things. Our interpretation of the event goes a long way in determining our short- and long-term responses; our cultural and societal attitudes.

Thus it is with interest that I read two articles today, probing deeper into motives and meaning:

A heart-wrenching letter from the mother of the Ottawa shooter, which doubts he "acted on behalf of some grand ideology or for a political motive."

A statement from the RCMP that they are examining "persuasive evidence that [the] attack was driven by ideological and political motives."

The question I raised elsewhere and am simply recording here is this: What exactly is at stake in proving one thing or the other?

Prompted further, I'm lead to think of 'terrorism' as this name we give to things that fall outside the usual terms of war--such as premeditated but surprise attacks on civilian turf. Whether we like to take the long-term view and admit it or not, these are usually (rightly or wrongly or maybe a bit of both) in response to some grievance against the people who call that turf home.

The main weapon in terrorist acts is the fear they initiate, and the main motive is probably to strike back at that perceived enemy with an impact that exceeds one's actually ability to counter them force-for-force.

What complicates matters is that when we've gone off on a 'war on terror' (rightly or not), we possibly exacerbate the conditions that might invite that kind of terror even more. Depending on the terms of engagement and the location of the terrorists, we may even duplicate that terror on foreign soil (inadvertently or justifiably or not).

What complicates matters in this case, I suppose, is that even if this man was caught up in ideological or cultural-political motives, his (possible) mental illness and criminal history may well be as big a catalyst for what he's ended up doing as any kind of battle he perceived himself to be fighting.

I guess my concern is the speed with which the incident was coloured in nationalist, terrorist overtones, even before a proper investigation could be had.

Why? Because by labelling it simply and only a terrorist act we may set our sights and spend our funds on nationalist security issues (not to mention prompt anti-religious rhetoric) when more (or as much) attention might be warranted by the social conditions and infrastructures at play within our nation itself.

In other words, the enemy is demonized and the us/them narratives are exacerbated while underlying issues may not only go unaddressed but perhaps even get perpetuated.

That's not to suggest this killing is to blame on the judicial or penal systems which served as this troubled man's primary places of engagement with the government he would later attack. It is simply to say that if we want to get to the bottom of the underlying problems we may do well do avoid the entrenchment of battle lines that set us up in postures of attack and defence in return.

Saturday, October 18, 2014


Typically around my birthday I add another entry to my running list of life-influencing books, albums and films. I was busy moving across the ocean when I turned thirty-nine this year, but here we are without further adieu:

Album: Jason Isbell, Southeastern

Once I'd voiced my interest in country music only in the lyrically-rich and musically-creative vein of Ryan Adams and the Cardinals, my friends James and Tyler sent a few recommendations my way--including Dawes and, of course, Jason Isbell. This past year I listened to music mostly in my office and, whether I was emailing or writing sermons, Southeastern seemed to be on constant repeat. At times I would put it away for awhile and only come back to it with more conviction.

In the end it is Isbell's ability to be easy-going and earnest at once which I think draws me in, and of course the music is just excellent. 'Cover Me Up' and 'Live Oak' are tremendous songs, notable almost as much for their reserve as their richness (click a link and give it a listen while you read on). As the geographically-informed album title indicates, the storied-songs come from a place. It's a world I've never inhabited; nonetheless the songs hit home.

Book: Michael Lewis, Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game

Brad Pitt recommended this book to me (ha ha), and I'm glad I wasn't thrown off by the usual (well-warranted) worries that seeing the movie first would prove to have ruined the book. The film is very much about Oakland A's manager Billy Beane, but the book is also about the stat-keeping baseball hobbyists who stood behind Beane's revolutionary approach, and the marginalized players it came to benefit (and even save). What's so compelling about this story is how lovers of the game were able to set its profiteers on edge, and for a time almost take baseball back.

Most of my list of non-fiction books have to do with my area of study (theology), but this one belongs right there with them because of the complexity with which its human subjects are portrayed. These include not only Billy Beane but also Bill James, the stat-nerd behind sabermetrics, and Chad Bradford, the pitcher with the freaky-weird wind-up. What stuck with me the most, however, was the chapter on Scott Hatteberg, who said 'poor hitters make the best hitting coaches. They don't try to make you like them, because they sucked.'

Another memorable line comes from James, who says 'you have to do something right to get an error; even if the ball is hit right at you, then you were standing in the right place to begin with.' But my favourite might be this little bit of story-description from Lewis, who at one point observes that 'a phony debate soon heated up. It wasn't as interesting as a real debate, in that there was no chance for an exchange of ideas.'

We've all been there. And that's the thing. This book is about far more than baseball.

Film: Darren Aronofsky, Noah

Based on the poster it seemed maybe this was going to be another epic seized upon for dazzling effects of destruction or rambling scenes of melodramatic heroism. There's a bit of that, but it's really just the set up for something more thoughtful. Rather than carelessly visualize the text (like that horrible Bible series--which I've actually warned my kids not to watch) this film digs into the particularities of the story and explores the themes both above and beneath the surface. All the right ones, in this case. It does take a few creative liberties but not, I think, to negative effect. Indeed, it gets to the heart of the text, with care.

There was a hubbub amongst some anxiety-ridden opportunistic christian bloggers out there, but it really was all too much. This is a good, even great, film. But besides that, it definitely had an impact on me. When I saw it first with my friend and fellow pastor Micah we walked out at a loss for words, but later came back and found quite a few. I'm nervous about the Bible being ransacked for box office gains, but in this case the project gives much to be appreciated.

Novel: Timothy Findley, Not Wanted on the Voyage

It turned out to have been a year for imaginative reflections on the story of the flood. This one made no pretensions to biblical accuracy at all, and indeed was the story of a dysfunctional family at the brink of an apocalyptic breech of worlds. The characters in this novel have all the social and psychological complexity of our contemporary neighbours, inhabiting a premodern world that feels like it could have been yesterday.

At times touching and at times frankly shocking, this is a story that gets you into the ark only after embedding you in a homestead with mythological proportions. Somehow the touch of fantasy adds scope to the most normal of family interactions, so that one enters the ark with a much fuller sense of the earthy humanity of the creatures who fill or fall outside of it.

My friend Nathan recommended this book to me, and once I was a couple chapters in I couldn't believe I hadn't heard of Timothy Findley before (least of all because he's Canadian). I've gone on to read some more of his stuff and some more good books besides, but this one really stuck with me. I recommend it. Just be ready for (spoiler alert) a flood story where Noah's the bad guy.

Sometime I might go back and re-arrange my lists to truly reflect my current opinion of the films--time changes memories, preferences, and even impact--but for now I'm leaving them as is. You'll find them in the tabs above.

I like a good list, mainly for the fun conversations they spawn. Thanks to all those who've talked about or recommended good movies or music or books with me this year, its these chats that usually bring the things to light and to life in the first place.

Monday, October 13, 2014

On the Privatization of Education

With the school teachers on strike in British Columbia and the rigamarole of trying to get our children into a neighbourhood school upon moving to Britian, I've been thinking a lot more about childhood education--specifically its privatization.

I won't be sharing those thoughts just now, but I will share what I think is a pretty relevant question for those who are in favour of a high degree of parental school-selection opportunity (whether for political, religious, or quality-assurance reasons).

Just a question, in response to a question.

I don't know if they discussed it on the radio. But feel free to discuss it here or amongst yourselves.

Even if you can get a more Christian-friendly or quality-assured education by paying for it: Should you?

Thursday, September 04, 2014

Karl Barth on Gender Relations: Complementarian, Egalitarian, or Something Else Entirely?

Photo from The Center for Barth Studies
I have been pondering the following excerpt from Barth's Dogmatics on and off for the past couple years. It is trademark Barth: He checks out both sides of an issue and then ends up taking neither (or is it both?). In this case the issue is gender relations--and while today's categories of 'complementarian' and 'egalitarian' had not yet been coined, they certainly come into view.

Were this excerpt ripped out and inserted into today's church-debates then Barth would start off sounding an awful lot like what he calls a conservative, and his concern about minimizing difference keeps him from embracing what he thinks of as feminist 'progressivism'. Indeed, his apparent appeal to nature has him lining up squarely with today's complementarian.

However, what has me returning to this text is the subversiveness of it, particularly once the sounds of christology are allowed to reverberate into and rattle the prior categories. By the end we find Barth reaching for what is increasingly being called mutual submission egalitarianism, or 'mutuality' as it is more often called.

This would be something of an anachronistic judgment, but here my interest is not so much to gloss on Barth as it is to find the best foot forward for his most pressing point. Read the excerpt carefully and then I'll give my interpretation:

Is not the community of Jesus Christ itself and as such, as adduced in Eph. 5, the model of the woman who has her κεφαλή [head or authority] in the man, and cannot really exist except in subordination to this κεφαλή [head or authority], but in this way, determined and limited in Him, is exalted above all heavens by His majesty and lowliness, in fellowship with this Head?

It is for this reason that this order cannot be broken in the community; that the relationship of man and woman established in creation, and the distinctions which it entails, cannot be regarded as transitory and accidental and abolished in Christ, as though Christ were not their meaning and origin. 
In the community this relationship cannot imperil either man or woman. It can only be their honour and joy and blessing. There is thus no cause to deny or abolish it as though it were a mere convention. On the contrary, dishonour and harm are done both to man and to woman if this clear relationship is abolished.  
It is quite ridiculous to think that progressiveness should be played off against conservatism in the matter of this relationship. If there is anything which is inwardly necessary and no mere convention, it is this relationship. Progress beyond it can only be regress to the old aeon. It is only in the world of the old aeon that the feminist question can arise.  
And for this reason the Corinthians should accept the custom. It is a symbolic recognition of the relationship, and therefore of the basis, determination and limitation which it has been given in Christ. This recognition may not be withheld. Self-evidently it might have taken a different form in a different age and place. But in Corinth and all the Christian communities of the time (v. 16) it took this form. And as it was called in question in this form it had to be protected and defended in this form, not for the sake of the form, but for the sake of what was at issue in this form.
The fact that it also conformed to natural sensibility, to φύσις [nature] (v. 14), was an additional recommendation as Paul saw it. But this statement was only incidental. The decisive point was that the enthusiasm for equality which outran the form was not particularly Christian, but that the custom should be accepted in Christ. 
We cannot say more than that it should be, for Paul was not arguing from the Law, but centrally from the Gospel. It was not the one who called the Corinthians to order who was thinking legalistically, but the Corinthians themselves, who, armed with a general, liberal, non-christological concept of humanity, thought it their duty to attack this relative and indirectly human order, as though they were all apostles, and as though an apostle were a genius (see Kierkegaard for the allusion here). 
It was as well for them that they had in Paul a real apostle able to maintain an unruffled front against their impulsive genius; and they were well-advised to accept his summons to be imitators of him as he himself tried to be of Christ (v. 1). 
Our final passage is Eph. 5:22-23, the locus classicus for the point at issue. No other passage makes the connection so emphatically. No other is so primarily concerned to make it. No other is so complete in its exposition of the two relationships. And no other refers so solemnly to Gen. 2. 
From it we can survey the whole landscape which we have traversed: the New Testament relationship of man and woman in the light of the relationship between Christ and the community, and conversely the elucidation of the relationship between Christ and His people by reference to the man-woman relationship; the Old Testament marriage between Yahweh and Israel and its reflection in the man and woman of the Song of Songs; and finally our starting-point in Genesis 2, the natural being of man as fellow-humanity, as being in the encounter of I and Thou. Should we really have the courage or find it necessary to consider all these things not only in detail but in their manifold relationships if they were not set before us so authoritatively and perspicuously in Eph. 5? 
But this is an idle question. This passage does in fact make everything clear. And we have only to apply ourselves directly to this text in which everything is set out directly and verbally in an exegetical norm for all other texts. It forms the introduction to the so-called "house-table" of Ephesians, a list of specific admonitions to wives, husbands, children, fathers, slaves and masters among the members of the community, all of which stand under the overriding injunction "Be filled with the Spirit; speaking to yourselves in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord; giving thanks always for all things in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ; submitting yourselves one to another in the fear of God" (vv. 18-21). 
This basic note must be remembered if we are to understand the ensuing injunctions, and especially the first and lengthy admonition addressed to husbands and wives. Be filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another in praise of God, not only with your lips but in your hearts, not ceasing to give thanks, and subordinating yourselves to one another as you are engaged in this thanksgiving to God. 
Humanity in the New Testament thus derives directly from the practical experience of the Gospel. And we must certainly not forget the negative beginning to this general exhortation: "Be not drunk with wine." We recall from 1 Cor. 11 that the knowledge of the true relationship between man and wife established and determined and limited by the knowledge of Jesus Christ stands in contrast to an enthusiasm for equality which will not accept the fact that they are both allotted to their distinctive place and way in the peace of God. 
Where it is not a matter of this intoxication but of the fullness of the Spirit, not of the boasting and defiance of man but of the praise of God, not of the establishment of one's own right by one's own might but of constant thanksgiving, there flows from the Gospel the necessity of the reciprocal subordination in which each gives to the other that which is proper to him.
This is the meaning of the house-table: Suum cuique [To each his own]. It has nothing really to do with patriarchalism, or with a hierarchy of domestic and civil values and powers. It does not give one control over the other, or put anyone under the dominion of the other. The ὑποτασσόμενοι [submitting] of v. 21 applies equally to all, each in his own place and in respect of his own way. 
What it demands is ὑποτασσόμενοι ἀλλήλοις ἐν φόβῳ χριστοῦ; mutual subordination in respect before the Lord. He is the Exalted but also the Lowly, the Lowly but also the Exalted, who causes each to share in His glory but also His burden, His sovereignty but also His service. And here there is only mutual subordination in full reciprocity. 
In this way order is created within the creaturely sphere, and humanity established. It is, of course, no accident that more than half of the table is devoted to the relationship of man and woman, and particularly their relationship in marriage. This relationship is typical or exemplary for the whole relationship which has to be estimated in the fear of Christ.

- Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics III/2, 312-313.
Earlier I said Barth seems to be reaching for mutual submission egalitarianism. That's not entirely accurate. Evidently Barth defends retaining a kind of complementary order between the genders--not because it is the unassailable nature of things but because it is the cultural 'form' in which they [the Corinthians and Ephesians] live.

For me the question is not whether Barth's theology demands a complementarian-patriarchal order today. I don't believe it does. For him, the 'nature of things' is defined by the Gospel, and in this it is not the cultural 'form' but the dynamic of reciprocal fellowship-in-difference that is most important. This cannot be flattened by an abstract appeal to 'equality' but must be lived in a social context.

Speaking of the 'form' our gender roles and relations take, he says 'it might have taken a different form in a different age and place.' Thus while Barth is not interested in changing the form for some some theorized un-Christian reason, given time we might well expect mutual submission out of reverence for Christ to change the form on its own terms.

Indeed, I would contend that when Barth says it is in the old aeon that the feminist question arises it is not because the feminist question belongs to it, but because the old (i.e., sinful) aeon's lack of mutual subordination and reciprocity has made feminism necessary.

That's not to say Barth is a feminist. But if push came to shove we'd see Barth is not a patriarchalist or even a complementarian either. In an increasingly egalitarian 'age and place' Barth's comment takes on a new vitality: For him 'the decisive point' is whether the enthusiasm for equality is 'particularly Christian.' Thus in this time and place it is the egalitarian custom which 'should be accepted in Christ'--that is, on the terms of mutual submission; of reciprocal self-giving love.