Sunday, April 29, 2012

City Permits, Religion, and the Gospel

This story caught my eye today. It is about Pastor Ken Shigematsu, of Tenth Church in Vancouver, and it shows how even the most seemingly straightforward administrative aspects of church life can have some depth of theological, historical, and political significance.
"[A.B.] Simpson started the Alliance Church because he couldn't be an evangelical Christian in good faith without ministering to a diverse crowd of people. Tenth Church walks in Simpson's shoes. Once a middle-class, all-Caucasian congregation, Tenth Church's demographic makeup began to change organically, simply because Ken was different.... Ken and his pastoral staff get up onto the stage every Sunday and preach the message of Jesus' love and forgiveness. This was also the impetus for starting a social justice ministry for the homeless [which eventually involved three meals a week and an overnight option for some visitors once a week]....
It was this ministry that got Ken and the church into trouble with the city when Tenth Church's building went under reconstruction. Upon inspecting the building, city planners told Ken that he had to get a social services permit in order to feed the homeless. He initially agreed, but there was an outcry among other religious communities who weren't able to afford the permit but were also feeding the hungry. Ken and his staff began to rethink the permit; as Ken's senior associate pastor Mardi Dolfo-Smith told the press, serving the poor is in fact part of the faith at Tenth Church, not an extra add-on, and what the city was doing was to define which parts of Tenth Church's practices were religious and which were social instead of letting the congregation speak for itself.
An interfaith committee headed by Chinese Christian activist Bill Chu was started to preserve social justice as an integral part of the faith for Tenth Church. Eventually, the city allowed [the service] to continue, and all of Vancouver's religious communities breathed a sigh of relief."
- Justin Tse, 'Hearing a Different Kind of Evangelical: Pastor Ken Shigematsu,' in ricepaper: Asian Canadian Arts and Culture 16/3 (Fall 2011), p. 56, emphasis added.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Three Years

It seems like only yesterday we were acquiring passports and readying to move to Scotland so I could begin PhD studies. At the time our twins were nine months old and we were still frazzled from a lack of sleep and the headaches of trying to move across the sea. Since that time, while I have not quite finished my dissertation, my wife and I (with great help from church and family) have managed to see these boys through their third birthday.

As proof, and in lieu of anything to yet show for my school work, here are their new passport photos. Click here to see the previous set (where you will see them on switched sides).

My oh my. These have been three rich years.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Interrupting Your Regularly Scheduled Reformations ...

In 1940 Paul Lehmann wrote a book called Forgiveness: Decisive Issue in Protestant Thought which first deals with the negative post-reformation trajectories of church and theology and proceeds to spell out some of the 'shattering of illusions' brought about by Karl Barth. Here is what Lehmann had to say by way of introduction to that section:
Paul Lehmann
"Whatever may happen ultimately to the movement associated with Barth's name, one contribution is securely established. The bondage of Protestantism to the religious principles of the Enlightenment has been broken by the force of a new theological method. Whether the twentieth-century heirs of the Reformation can, or will, recover thereby the peculiar genius of their legacy is a secondary question" (107).
Obviously the authors of 1940 were no less inclined to hyperbole than we might be today, but just to let the force of this roll around in your brain a bit longer, here's a blurb from the forward to the book, written by Reinhold Niebuhr:
Reinhold Niebuhr
"Professor Lehmann’s very vigorous treatise on the Reformation doctrine of forgiveness, as revived by Karl Barth in reaction to the dissipation of the doctrine in liberal theology, brings the central issue of Christian theology into sharp focus. That this is the central issue of Christain theology, is a fact not yet fully recognized in the modern church. Sooner or later it must be recognized" (x).
It is worth noting when this book was written, because this was before Barth left us the most mature expression of his theological services; the bulk of the Church Dogmatics, including his Doctrine of Reconciliation.

It is hard to be an evangelical these days and go very long without hearing gestures toward (or even promises of) another reformation in the Protestant Church. I think there is a grain of truth to the perception that such a thing is either impending or direly needed -- but, having read a lot from cultural analysts, the New Reformed and the Emergents on this score, the more I read Barth the more I am convinced that Paul Lehmann was right. To me it is both disheartening and promising that we are into the twenty-first century now and this has yet to really catch on.

Saturday, April 07, 2012

A Holy Saturday Meditation, with Bergman and Chesterton

Every Good Friday to Holy Saturday I intend to watch Ingmar Bergman's Winter Light. Sometimes I get around to it, sometimes I don't. Five years ago I wrote this after watching the film a third time with some seminary friends; after being jarred again by its depth and its despair. There is still something very-the-matter with the earth, and the pastor in this film is done denying it. In fact he cries out about it.

[Spoiler alert! But in a way not, because this film cannot be spoiled.] For many interpreters of the film, I think this pastor's collapse represents his loss of faith. In a significant sense, even to him, surely it does. In that moment he says he is 'free'. But what strikes me is that there, in the stark cold of the bright winter light of his newfound 'freedom from God' - in his sickness and his suffering and in his 'freedom' - he finds himself crumbling at the altar of the crucifix of God.

In fact, keep watching and he ends up back at the church again, preparing to serve the communion. There is but one soul in the building ready to recieve. She is an avowed atheist, and yet she holds out hope for him. And in comes Algot the hunchback, who ordinarily lights the candles and rings the bells. This time he does so in more ways than one, however, for he reminds Tomas the pastor and doubter of the crucifixion of Christ, when God was forsaken of God. And it is in this solidarity with his sufferings that I think this despairing pastor finds the faith again to go on. Even if barely.

This scene always brings to mind for me the startling lines from GK Chesterton's Orthodoxy; lines better read in fuller context but which pack the following punch:
"If the divinity [of Christ] is true it is certainly terribly revolutionary. That a good man may have his back to the wall is no more than we knew already; but that God could have his back to the wall is a boast for all insurgents for ever. Christianity is the only religion on earth that has felt that omnipotence made God incomplete ....

Christianity alone has felt that God, to be wholly God, must have been a rebel as well as a king. Alone of all the creeds, Christianity has added courage to the virtues of the Creator. For the only courage worth calling courage must necessarily mean that the soul passes a breaking point – and does not break ....

In this indeed I approach a matter more dark and awful than it is easy to discuss; and I apologise in advance if any of my phrases fall wrong or seem irreverent touching a matter which the greatest saints and thinkers have justly feared to approach. But in that terrific tale of the Passion there is a distinct emotional suggestion that the author of all things (in some unthinkable way) went not only through agony, but through doubt ....

He passed in some superhuman manner through our human horror of pessimism. When the world shook and the sun was wiped out of heaven, it was not at the crucifixion, but at the cry from the cross: the cry which confessed that God was forsaken of God ... [Search high and low and you won’t] find another god who has himself been in revolt. Nay, (the matter grows too difficult for human speech,) but let the atheists themselves choose a god. They will find only one divinity who ever uttered their isolation; only one religion in which God seemed for an instant to be an atheist" (pp. 204-206)
At the cross we find a God who entered the wreckage and the silence of our disconnect and our travesty. We find the Creator who entered creation, and who came all the way and more. So when we feel the silence we know that He felt it aloud. We know that God is with us in it, and that in the crucified Saviour there is a silent suffering that speaks louder than words.

Tomas Ericsson as Pastor Gunnar Björnstrand in "Winter Light"
The silence only speaks, of course, because it was broken; because Jesus is alive. This Word has not been muted even by the death which it took on. Hearkening throughout the centuries it rings with every church bell and flickers with every church candle: There is more to the story. It may yet be winter but there is present the promise of spring. The Christian faith is nothing without this.

But Easter Sunday is also nonsensical without Holy Saturday. And yet I've been in enough Good Friday services to know that we tend to skip the forsaken Christ to get on with the happy ending; with what we construe to be the fulfilled life. But if our liturgy reflects our life, we may need to let the whole weekend ask us a question or two: What is the life into which the risen Jesus guides? Is it not to follow the Light in the darkness? Are not the people of God to find him and follow him in the world, bringing not disregard and presumption but a hope-filled willingness to wrestle together with God and to lose? Is it not the worst thing imaginable to wrestle alone and to win? We should be careful not to perpetuate such a thing  - this weekend most of all.

But to gather in a community where light meets darkness takes courage; a courage few (if any) of us have; a courage born of faith in a crucified and risen Lord. Nonetheless, since I've come this far let me leave with one more question: If our sanctuaries and homes are not the safe places for such courageous community, can we blame people for thinking our God is still dead? God help us.

Thursday, April 05, 2012

"This Bible is an Important Part of ..."

"This Bible is an important part of your calling to duty. When you are overwhelmed with doubt, pain, or when you find yourself wavering, you must turn to this wonderful book for answers.... You are now called to play your part in defending our country. It is my prayer that this Bible will be your comfort so that you can fulfil your duty, and South Africa and her people will forever be proud of you. Of all the weapons you carry, this is the greatest because it is the Weapon of God."
This is the inscription that was on the inside cover of Bibles given to soldiers of the South African Defense Force; the army which was responsible for enforcing the brutal system of apartheid in that country prior to the event of its overturning. Written by then President P.W. Botha, it is evidence of the degree to which much of the church was willing to be nationalized and commandeered by ultimately unbiblical forces. As one observer put it, they 'stood by silently and watched apartheid's murderous plan unfold' - and they thought their Bible supported it.

Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela
Interestingly, the person from whom I learned about the above inscription is a South African sociologist named Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela who had the opportunity to personally interview in prison one of apartheid's central enforcers; a man named Eugene de Kock, nicknamed 'Prime Evil' by some of those who were oppressed in his time. Having read Gobodo-Madikizela's amazing book a few years ago, scouring it this morning I was impressed again with its poignancy. What's particularly interesting here is Gobodo-Madikizela's account of de Kock's surprise when he came across a Bible in the knapsack of one of the members of the opposition army. When she asked him about it, he answered:

Eugene de Kock
"Here we have a SWAPO [South West African People's Organization] man who is supposed to be a communist, who is supposed to be the enemy, the personification of the Antichrist, who also ten-to-one that morning may have read the same Scripture lesson that said the enemy will be given into your hands. Now, on whose side is God now? Even today still I sit and - I expected to find a Little Red Book there or one of Lenin's condensed writings. And there they had the same Bible that my men and I carried in our rucksacks. They've got exactly the same Bible..."

Gobodo-Madikizela goes on to express her own surprise that de Kock seemed unaware there could be other readings of this Scripture that challenged his own. To me this is testimony to the problems inherent in becoming a reader of the Bible who has made the Bible "an important part of" something and thereby usurped its authority; a reader who no longer submits that reading to the larger interpretive conversation; who shields off contrary readings and criticism in favour of what has been taken to be the blessed angle. When that happens, the authority of Scripture is deadened and the authority of the interpreter or the interpreter's favoured community takes precedence. As Christians we confess belief in the authority of Scripture, but we need to confess the authority of Scripture in as much as it is read in the Spirit, which means under the authority of the living Word, Jesus Christ, who brings readers into a loving and thus listening- and truth-speaking-communion, in order to read and to be read by, the Bible.