Sunday, February 28, 2010

Meston Walk IV: And On To Church

Another fun, beautiful walk to church this morning...

All the usual stops for the boys...

My oldest was in particular good spirits and accompanying his camera-happy father the whole way. This is the building my office is in, incidently.

And the final sprint to The Mission at the end of the lane.

And here we are on the way home. A good morning.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Schleiermacher and the Evangelical "Worship" Obsession

I've only just read the great 18th century theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher for myself and don't claim to be an expert on him, but it is pretty alarming to me how much common ground the contemporary evangelical worship phenomenon finds with the worst trajectories of his religious philosophy and how little it seems to have heeded the best correctives of his theology.

In response to the "cultured despisers" of religion, pastor/theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher defended the thesis that neither metaphysics (philosophy) nor morals (ethics) provided adequate ground for a unifying theory of humankind (something which was more of a concern for people in the 18th century than it tends to be now). Humanity needed and had a third category, which he called "religion", which enfolded the others and also kept each from swallowing the other.

Now, to understand this you need to understand what "religion" meant for Schleiermacher. Heavily influenced by literature and Romanticism, the essence of "religion" was for him the intuited feeling which lay at the heart of the most transcendent expressions of humanity, and yet was itself tainted the moment it transitioned into the necessary but fleeting language of human expression. Some have equated his definition of "religion" with the realm of art, or aesthetics.

Regardless of how it is classified, for him, the "sense of the transcendent" (my term) was the unifying principle in which human thinking and acting could productively cohere. It was an experiential moment that was ruined by trying to hold too tightly, and yet which was worthy of all seeking. If one could live or abide in that experience of absolute dependence upon the intuited, one would be experiencing the true religious life. Schleiermacher felt that Jesus Christ embodied this life for humanity.

As Schleiermacher's theology developed, his focus went more and more away from the character of the divine and more and more on that feeling of absolute dependence which divine faith so constructively produced in the pious. God was effectively reduced to being the "source of the feeling of absolute dependence"---so that the ecstasy and the penitent humility of faith, of absolute dependence, became the heart and focus of his "theology".

In my opinion, this is the perilous edge that the contemporary evangelical worship phenomenon has encroached upon and in countless situations crossed. It is the obsession which has overtaken the evangelical ethos at its worst, with catastrophic results that are felt both in the "successes" and the "failures" of the church growth movement.

It has infected the traditional church, the seeker church, and the emergent church alike where it has made the spiritual experience (however engendered by notions of Christ) the leading edge of its acts, attitudes and goals. Seen in this light, each of these types of churches, for all their claims to have improved upon one another, appear at this point to be suffering under different strains of the same disease. The experiential product is simply tailor-made to a different target audience.

I am not seizing upon Schleiermacher to make this point in order to blame him. In fact, from what I've been reading he seems to have wanted to avoid this problem, at least early on. A crucial element of his explanation of the religious experience was that it had to be given, and could not be reproduced or manipulated on the human side. In fact, it was just such endeavours of encapsulation or reproduction that corrupted religion!

Thus it is that, while he may in some ways be the father of today's so-called "worship" movement, a corrective lay in some of Schleiermacher's own statements as well. For instance, consider the following caveat he gave in the heights of his promotion of "religious feeling". Regarding what we might call today the "spiritual high", Schleiermacher wrote:

“If I could create it in you, I would be a god; may holy fate only forgive me that I have had to disclose more than the Eleusinian [inititiatory] mysteries" (On Religion: Speeches to its Cultured Despisers, 113).

To be fair, we're touching here upon the catch-22 of Christian ministry and expression: How to speak of God without playing God? I think that this is the very thing that seems to have struck the prophets Jeremiah (on whose tongue the scroll was bitter sweet) and Isaiah (whose lips cried out for the purifying burn of the coal). I count myself among the worship leaders, preachers and theologians who must wrestle with this.

My concern, however, is that we have so often left it up to each individual minister to do this wrestling alone in the secret turmoil of their well-intentioned and important ministry preparations, while week after week they serve up the best product possible and let the experiential fixation of our evangelical ethos prevail.

Where the focus on being inspired and reproducing an experience has so taken over, one wonders if it can even be called worship other than if God accepts it---much like a father accepts from a son a birthday present that is clearly meant for the son's own enjoyment. But one has to wonder how long before us children grow up.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Albums to Live By (5-1)

5. Switchfoot - Learning to Breathe

This honest, enjoyable rock music with song-writing comfortable (but not self-assured) in its own Christian skin came to me at a time when I was searching for such comfort, not to mention confidence, myself. Something about the genuine thoughtfulness mixed with humble optimism really hit home for me, and provided a few anthems for my inner life as a pastor. "Maybe redemption has stories to tell, maybe forgiveness is right where you fell." Something about being allowed that "maybe" compelled me to own it and move with the rest of it. I appreciate the forgiveness theology of Innocence Again and Learning to Breathe, the confession of Erosion, and the hopefulness of Living Simple. The latter song concludes the album nicely by building off of an ancient Simone Weil quote declaring the hope of the world:

"All, will be
made well, will be
made well, will be
made well, will be
made well. . . .
Is this fiction? Is this fiction?
The best gives himself to the worst?
Is this fiction? or divine comedy?
Where the last of the last is the first?"

4. The Choir - Free Flying Soul

"As the sign of the covenant dimmed in your sky, will we ever find gold? Follow all seven stripes across my eyes, am I young or old?"

Thus begins this this "organic" concept album which for years has retained for me a sense of freshness--not the freshness of a blast of air but of newly turned spring soil. I love the downright earthiness of this seamless collection of songs. Salamander, Slow Spin, The Ocean, and Butterfly are containers for every subtle but all the more profound expression of wonder and worship. These are not metaphors. The songs are about animals and things. Period. But as such (and precisely not as mere symbols) they are about so much more. Reminiscent of prayers of Francis of Assisi. Such an anomaly in the world of "Christian music".

My favourite song begins, "Listen to the warbler's melody", and continues: "You must believe it true, when I swear we're alive. Beware the deciever, he's a killer and a liar, your spirit and your eyes are on fire. Celebrate the wonder of lunar light. Listen how the coyote sings at the sight." The guitar parts beneath it are like rolling thunder or seismic activity. Remarkable stuff. It hits the soul through the body.

3. U2 - Achtung Baby

I grew up in the age of youth group videos that scared you away from rock'n'roll. Then in grade 11 my friend phoned in on a whim and got us floor seats to U2's Zoo TV tour. I had heard enough radio to know this would be an event. It was my introduction not only to U2 but to rock music in general. The concert was intended to be an unprecedented bombardment of the senses, everything rock and roll writ large. For me, multiply that effect times 10. I sometimes joke that this is my "other" conversion experience.

Anyway, I listened to this album again to remind me where it should be in my list and suddenly found myself coming back to it repeatedly. Even Better than the Real Thing, The Fly, Mysterious Ways, and One---these are epics of modern music that will always be under my skin. I can still remember goose bumps as Zoo Station crumbles to a start. I absolutely love the song about Judas: Until the End of the World. There are few songs as soaring as Love is Blindness. I can still imagine the Edge seizing 40,000 people at once with its arching solos to conclude the show that fateful November night in 1992!

2. Five Iron Frenzy - Our Newest Album Ever

This is the album that represents a whole crazy half-dozen-year episode of life and music that was the strange, upbeat, and smart ska and punk music phenomenon of the Christian sub-culture that was my early-to-mid 20s. I don't know how to explain what this band did for me. I think it helped find a new way with an old story. It was awesome to have people who shared the faith in such unstereotypical ways, writing music that was hopeful, honest, intelligent, and even fun (not something I normally go for in music).

The difference maker for me was that Reese Roper wrote some really great songs. I'm not sure I've enjoyed reading lyric sheets as much as I did these ones. So, when this band was about to call it quits, I still hadn't seen them, and so a couple good buddies of mine and I drove 35 straight hours to do so. It was worth it. I didn't care that I had to share the experience with a bunch of pre-teens. Every New Day live was a highlight of my life. That song just hits the deepest possible nerve. I'm not sure I even listened to ska all that much in the years after that concert, but a month later my son was born, and his middle name was Reese.

1. Michael Knott - Life of David

Michael Knott has fronted a number of bands and projects, most notably L.S. Underground. (LSU's Grace Shaker is an awesome album too, and I'm kicking myself it isn't on my list. Another one is The Grape Prophet Speaks, which is incredible). But the stuff that got me most was when Mike Knott went solo. This is the pinnacle of his musical achievements in my opinion. When I pick up a guitar to play it is 9 times out of 10 to play a song off this album.

Life of David contains confessions and laments that resonate with the Psalmist without borrowing any words directly. Lots of times it is artful and not overt, and it lets the music take care of things, evocatively. Other times it just comes out and says it:

From The Chameleon:

"I am the adultress,
And the penitent man,
I'm the cunning culprit,
And the little lamb.
I love all God's creatures,
All but one.
This chameleon."

From Halo:

"Hell no . . .
I don't mind if your halo don't glow
like it used to glow
I don't care if you change your mind
every tempting road

She's always reaching out for heaven
Says its a hard place to find
I swear and say its everywhere
Freed is the taker's line..."

For more on Michael Knott, here are some links. Picture. Paintings.

As for my list, well, that does it! Thanks for reading along.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Schleiermacher on Parenting

Today I read about Friedrich Schleiermacher's sermons on parenting, and it hits a bunch of the hot buttons for me. I am crushed by the weight of what he says here, and buoyed only by the grace held out within. With a frightening honesty about the perils involved, Schleiermacher probes beyond platitudes and paints a picture the parenting as it can only be by the grace and giving love of Christ. What follows is Barth's summary of Schleiermacher's three 19th century sermons on the theme, from The Theology of Schleiermacher (126-7):

Bringing Up Children. This is not merely the most important business of Christian parents. All members of the Christian church should lay it upon their hearts. The younger generation as a whole is brought up by the elder generation as a whole.

There are those who think they can achieve everything by educating children and there are others who expect nothing from it. Both must be told that in relation to children we must pay heed to the will of God and do it....

It is bad enough already that the fatal inclinations of the parents that slumber in the children are aroused by living with the parents and by their example, that older sin gives rise to younger, and that often new and individual sins will arise in children through opposition and antithesis to those of parents. All this is regrettable and humiliating....

Combating the faults of children demands that they come to us for healing, and that in their respectful trust we should find an ally in place of the enemy. What contact can we make with them if they are only bitter and hostile? This enemy, mistrust, must be starved out by the withholding of nourishment, by inexhaustible patience, by full self-control, by the purest self-denial....

We certainly do not get through to our children by force and we usually emerge resigned and defeated, leaving the children to their own devices and to God's instruction. Yet if only we see to it that they do not become withdrawn, the situation may easily be remedied. If that disaster befalls, all is ruined and lost....

Where can we find the needed forgetfulness of the world, where can we meet the original placid form of life, if not in the carefree and eager youngsters who, when we return home, see in us only our joy at being there and feel only that they have missed us. Happy are we if this is our daily experience!

But woe to us if through our egotistic indifference or capriciousness, through the coldness or unevenness that we bring with us from outside, our children come to share our worldly cares and concerns, meeting us anxiously, hiding all kinds of things from us out of regard for our moods, so that we are responsible for continuing the unworthy features of the wider spheres of life in our own homes!

How can we believe in something perfect beyond the imperfections of society unless we can already see something of it, and where and how can we see it except in our children? We can see in them not only our own failings but also something of a hopeful future: "that the sons will be better, and because better, better off, than their fathers."...

We ... should be open to what is in our children. We should be able to see into the depths of their minds and perceive all the folds of their hearts. If through bitterness they become withdrawn in relation to us, then they will be closed to us and we shall be deprived of this joy.

For the children's sake, therefore, and for our own too, sacrificial love above all.

If sometimes our conduct might cause temporary bitterness in our children, there is divine forgiveness. God has equipped the human soul with the gift of forgetfulness on the one side and discernment on the other. Young people easily rise above details and learn to distinguish between transitory movements and the fixed direction or dominant orientation of our lives.

If only the totality of our lives and the innermost core of our hearts might be pure before God and our children!”

If only, indeed. God help us. Kyrie eleison.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Becoming Acquainted with Barth IV: Catching Up and Forging Ground

As I've been pursuing my research question in the pages of Barth's Doctrine of Reconciliation, there have been many times where I have come across new questions or salient points and have wondered if anyone has asked them before. These are the questions I take to my supervisor. So far, pretty much every time the answer is that, yes, they have been asked before (and, remarkably, usually by him). So I suppose I'm on the right track, even if I am playing catch up.

Last week wasn't much different. I had been reading Barth's "The Act of Love" in Church Dogmatics IV/2, and was perplexed to find that Barth seemed to restrict love of neighbour to love of those within the Christian community. That's pretty alarming, not only for people familiar with the Bible, but also for those familiar with Barth. It seemed out of character. I wasn't sure if I was reading it right.

Of course, in the section as elsewhere, Barth balances this with emphasis on the importance of loving indiscriminately, and with deconstruction of the very notion that we can definitively know for ourselves who is in or out of the Community. But Barth was a bit vague on this in the section on agape love, so I asked about it.

Turns out this, too, has indeed been asked before, at a Barth conference and then subsequently in print. For quotes below, see Caroline J. Simon, "What Woundrous Love is This?", For the Sake of the World: Karl Barth and the Future of Ecclesial Theology, 2004. Turns out my supervisor wrote the response to her article himself. Not only does his response get to the heart of what Barth was saying, but it charts an important trajectory for the way I am going to continue to pursue this and the related questions.

I post an excerpt here as a way of: a) further introducing Barth's theological approach for those less familiar; b) bringing further clarity for those who are quite familiar; c) sharing what I think to be an important theological point, and; d) serving as a window into my research experience.

As it concerns the latter, I must say that as I read my supervisor's response this morning I was simultaneously: a) reassured that my inklings and questioning were not way out in left field; b) mildly disappointed that I wasn't actually breaking new ground with my research (yet, at least!), and; c) spurred on to dig deeper into the ramifications for my particular project and my whole outlook on the fabric of Christian community. Here's an excerpt, from the response of John Webster to Simon's article, pages 162 -164:

"First, for Barth the neighbour is not simply the person in need, but rather the person who does good to me. On Barth’s reading, in the parable of the Good Samaritian it is the Samaritan. . . . [who, as neighbour, is] the "bearer and representative of the divine compassion" (cf. CD I/2, 416). . . .

It is this which presses Barth to assert that the Christian is my neighbour as the representative human being, humankind on its way to becoming what in Christ it has been made. The stress on the Christian as neighbour is not driven by sectarianism (indeed, both by temperament and by theological conviction Barth was in many respects a secular person, for whom the internalities of Christian culture held little attraction). The limitation of the term “neighbor” to my fellow believer is a rejection of the idea that there is any reality we might call “humankind as such,” humankind considered in abstraction from the gospel. The Christian is my neighbour because, as one in whom life in Christ is especially manifest, the Christian refers me to Jesus Christ, the bearer of the mercy of God. . . .

To love the other as a latent Christian is not to do violence to his or her integrity; still less is it to set up barriers to compassion. It is nothing other than a matter of affirming the other’s teleology, to treat the other as what he or she already is in Christ. My neighbour is “ordered” to be the witness to me of Christ’s mercy; that mercy is confessed in the church, and therefore it is the members of the church who are the especial realization to me of neighbourliness."

Because Jesus is the true human, then, when someone, anyone, is in need, "I may not pass by on the other side." Furthermore, "because he is true, I must learn to find my neighbour in my fellow members of his church, and then in all who do not yet know that he is their neighbor who presents to them the mercy of God.”

Whether this is a proper read of the Good Samaritan or not, this made a lot of sense of the passage in Barth that I was having trouble reading. Barth does not promote an in/out mentality or an introverted ecclesiology (as Webster calls it) at all. What he does is define everything in his theology in light of the first principle of Christianity which is that Jesus Christ is true God and true man. Thus his theological anthropology is Christology and his definition of humanity is not driven by the negative conception of its evident neediness but the positive revelation of its proper goodness.

Barth keeps to this "first principle" with a dogged determinism that has both frustrated and delighted readers. But he calls this true form of theology the "happy science." It is a science because it allows its object to shape the methods and the findings of the study. It is happy because the object, Jesus Christ, is the bringer of good news to the world.

But readers of Barth know that this happiness has a note of melancholy burdensomeness too. For Barth was frequently running across places where this Christological reading was exposing our failure as Christians to remain properly fixed upon our object; upon the author and perfecter of our faith. And yet the happiness resounds, for ours is a good and merciful Neighbour: the God who meets us here and has reconciled the world to Himself, in Christ.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Great Song Lines

I've thought for a long time that it would be great to compile a list of great lines from songs. Every time I think of it I figure the best way to do so would be by creating a running list. But I can only ever remember one or two at a time and I never make the running list. So here's the few that I'm remembering right now and really like or get a good kick out of. I'm sure there are lots more. Please, share some of your own!

- - - - - - - - - - - -

"It just isn't fair, taking bullets for the team of bad poets"
- Ryan Adams, "City Rain, City Streets", Love is Hell

"I just had a secret meeting in the basement of my brain"
- The National, "Secret Meeting", Boxer

"Looking for a place to happen, making stops along the way"
- The Tragically Hip, "Looking for a Place to Happen", Fully Completely

"Should be working on my manners, but I'm working on my website, all you star-spangled scanners, trying to photocopy moonlight . . . . It's like a weird technological dream, watching buddies turning into machines, We never get our hands dirty, but paradise was never this clean"
- Joel Plaskett, "Lying on a Beach", La De Da

- - - - - - - - - - - - -

"I don't want a battle from beginning to end, I don't want a cycle of recycled revenge, I don't want to follow death and all of his friends"
- Coldplay, "Death and All of his Friends", Viva la Vida

"And if you swear that there's no truth and who cares, how come you say it like you're right?"
- Bright Eyes, "We are Nowhere and Its Now", I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning

"Hear it every Christmas time, but hope and history won't rhyme, so what's it worth"
- U2, "Peace on Earth", All That You Can't Leave Behind

Monday, February 08, 2010

Karl Barth on "The Shack"?

I haven't read The Shack. Or at least I didn't finish it. Mostly I just didn't like the writing, to be honest. I also knew that if I read it I'd have to blog about it, and didn't want to go there. But today in my reading I came across what I think might possibly have been Barth's reaction to it, had he been alive, and hypothetically cared to respond to it.

For those who are not familiar with the story, basically it is about a guy who has a horrible tragedy in his life and ends up in a shack alone wrestling it out with the Triune God over his questions. The Trinity goes out of its way to appear to him in some more "acceptable" (?) forms in order to enable this conversation, and the whole experience ends up being fairly redemptive, from what I gather.

I don't really want to go into all the doctrinal problems there may or may not have been with this. (You can track some of that down here.) I'm just addressing the basic premise of the quite prevalent "shack" metaphor in Christian spirituality.

Barth makes no bones about his conviction that there is no such thing as private Christianity. It does not end at "Jesus loves me". It just doesn't. I am a part of the world reconciled to God in Christ, and there is an intensely personal component to that reality, but it is not a private reality. Barth comes around to this theme again in his section on "The Christian in Affliction":

"It is not surprising that when Christians are threatened or already visited by affliction, they should be assailed by the treacherous thought, which must inevitably arise where the personal experience and assurance of salvation is regarded as the essence of Christian existence, whether it is not permissible in face of the storm of affliction, and even perhaps imperative for the sake of general and not least of individual peace, to retreat into an island of inwardness where the Christian will give offence to none and will thus be not unfavourably regarded by many, and where he may fairly certainly count upon it that he will be safe from the painful counterpressure of the external world....

It is as well for him, indeed, if his attempted evasion does not succeed. For he would be brought into mortal danger if his calculations were correct. Assuming that the Christian succeeded in retreating to that island and really found peace there in the abode of his inner life and experience, his withdrawal could only mean the renunciation of his ministry of witness and therefore of his Christian existence of which it is the principle" (IV.3.2, 616-617).

To be fair, were Barth allowed to speak to the issue directly, in his true dialectic style he'd likely point out to a nay-sayer such as me the proper place for a book like The Shack as well. Certainly, for all the glossy consumerism and implicit individualism of the stereotypical evangelical ethos, one would not want to feed the all too common notion that Christians can use the community as an avoidance strategy for the personal issues that they ought to be facing head on. It is all too easy to take the beautiful thing that is Christian communion, and the self-giving love of the gracious people who are in it, and to take advantage of it, spewing our difficulties to whoever has ears to hear and expecting others to take up our cause for us.

Christian communion is not meant as an evasion of personal responsibility. So I suppose there is a place for some shacks in the church. Sometimes maybe the thing we need is for someone to kick us into a room, lock the door, and force us to grow up and ask ourselves some hard questions for awhile. But I'm still going to go ahead and say that the individualism and privatization of which The Shack is just the tip of the iceberg are a very negative trajectory in the evangelic ethos.

Now, I know many people I respect read The Shack and benefited from it in some way. That's fine. I'm happy to hear it. I don't mean to take away from some of its benefits. And I didn't finish it, so I'm open to the possibility that the book offered its own self-corrective in this regard? I hope so. But if it does have a long term benefit, it will be because the retreat and withdrawal which it implicitly engendered were a failure.

Admittedly, I could be a bit grumpy today, due to my Colts losing the Super Bowl last night. Please don't bring that up. I don't want to talk about it. Leave me alone while I retreat into my sporting shack of self-pity.

Saturday, February 06, 2010

Cambridge, Outside

Imagine a place where the bicycles on the road outnumber the cars two to one, most of the buildings are older than your country, half of them are schools, the majority of the people in the city are a part of some kind of major learning community, instead of fences there are hedges, and countless rows of trees, misty paths and bridges lead from book shop to library to brick houseto college courtyard to impressive cathedral. This is Cambridge. I'm not so sure it is a tourist destination so much as a place you visit to see how you wish you could live.

Here's some of the stuff I saw on my brief excursions away from the library last week.
One of the many bridges over the river Cam. That's where the name comes from I guess.

"Punting" is a favourite past time here. I figured punting was too romantic a thing to do alone so I deferred until I can get my wife down to Cambridge with me one day.

See all the bikes? I have no idea which school this one is.

I got up early on my last morning there to take a walking tour before the library opened, and was glad I did. Here's a look toward the massive King's College cathedral across a misty football field.

This is the entrance to the library. I didn't post a shot of the tower, but it is a good 20 stories I'd guess. Like a fortress. The fort knox of books.

This outdoor hallway leads to the Bridge of Sighs, pictured from the outside below.
The Bridge of Sighs. Some swans decided to swim toward me for full effect.

Another school. Can't remember which.

One of many delightful paths.

This last one is a picture of Newcastle from the train. Figured I'd snap one for my friend Dave.

What a country. What a place.

Tuesday, February 02, 2010