Monday, October 1, 2012

The Undiscovered Country

I know I haven’t blogged in awhile, but I have a good excuse… at least I think it’s a good excuse.  I’ve moved across the country to Pasadena, CA in order to study Theology and Culture at the Center for Advanced Theological Studies at Fuller Theological Seminary.  So I figured it would be good to share why I’ve made this huge move with the lot of you.  So here goes.

As long as I can remember, I’ve always harbored an interest in the reality that exists beyond the edge of our senses.  As a child this manifested itself as an interest in “mysteries” such as Bigfoot, Aliens, and the Loch Ness Monster.  In fact, I was so interested in studying these and other unexplained “phenomena” that I told my grandparents at age 8 that I wanted to be a “phenomenal scientist”; though at the time I didn’t understand why they chuckled when I shared this.  Truth be told, that fascination with mystery has never left me, and has been near the core of my spiritual life.  Over time my interest in these phenomena waned, though I still have soft spot for a good Bigfoot story. My interest in mystery, however, has remained. 

In my teens I was confronted by and came to trust the mystery of God’s love bound up in the person and story of Jesus.  I remember the joy of newness and discovery, and the growing sense that the God revealed by Jesus represented a vast unknown country waiting to be explored.  There’s a sense in which that exploration is an apt metaphor for the manner in which I relate to God.  I’m continually rounding the next bend on the road, hoping to learn something new, while constantly trying to integrate each new insight into my schema and actions. 

Through all of these developments in my spiritual life, my second first love was music.  I would spend hours locked away in my room listening to vinyl.  I wanted badly to play music, but had a hard time learning to play instruments, and was later disappointed to learn that I could not sing.  I did however possess rhythm.  So, holed up in my room, listening to my records, I taught my self to play the drums.  This ability to play music, as it turned out, became another avenue to encounter God.  Up to that point, my connection with music had been largely emotional, but as I learned to play I seemed to stumble upon moments of what I can only describe as transcendence.  As I played with other musicians, I experienced moments when the thin veil that separates the seen from the unseen seemed to become diaphanous, and what followed could be as varied as moments of insight to pure joy.  I came to realize that creative endeavors such as music, novels, film, and visual art were as necessary as reason in my exploration of the Divine mystery.

This leads to the question of what to do with this keen interest in the intersection then of theology and the arts. This naturally leads into the notion of vocation. It seems the exploration of this intersection is something that suits me and I it, which lead me down this path toward doctoral studies.

I believe that my natural curiosity is part of my vocation, and that my drive to learn the manner in which my predecessors and contemporaries arrange and rearrange the conceptual blocks that make up not only theology, but the arts as well serves as a base on which I would like to continue to build.  You could view this as the outermost boundary of three concentric circles.

The second concentric circle is that of a teacher.  Teaching is something I enjoy immensely, and which I see as directly related to the “student circle”.  I enjoy introducing others to the ideas and theologies of those who endeavored to make sense of God in their times and cultural contexts which might help to then make sense of our experiences and the experiences of others, and I enjoy learning from others in that process.  I understand the danger of sounding cliché here, but I do find that I learn much from teaching others that I never would have learned otherwise, which allows me to be useful, and continue to feed my core student. 

The third concentric circle is influence.  I would ultimately like to influence the manner in which the church interprets and manifests its relationship with the culture in which it exists.  I would like to be one drawing the church toward a fuller embodiment of the Gospel of Grace, and I believe the arts are indispensable in both the Church’s interpretation and manifestation to this end.  That however is the BIG goal, and sounds much higher minded than I intend it to.  Really I want to be one voice in the conversation, but hopefully one worth listening to.

At any rate, that’s why my family and I picked up stakes and moved 2700 miles across the country, so that I could more thoroughly explore that undiscovered country, and attempt to share it with others, and allow God to do what God would like with what I offer.

Friday, July 6, 2012

Oliver Stone, Wall Street and the Eschatology of Home

On this mountain the Lord Almighty will prepare
    a feast of rich food for all peoples,
a banquet of aged wine—
    the best of meats and the finest of wines.
 On this mountain he will destroy
    the shroud that enfolds all peoples,
the sheet that covers all nations;
     he will swallow up death forever.
The Sovereign Lord will wipe away the tears
    from all faces;
he will remove his people’s disgrace
    from all the earth.
The Lord has spoken.
-Isaiah 25.6-8 (NIV)

I recently watched a good portion of Oliver Stone’s ‘10 film Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps.  It’s the only film I can think of in memory where the credits struck me more than the movie.  The tone of the credits just seemed to strike a dissonant chord in relation to all that had preceded it.  The movie is a kind of morality tale, dramatically rendering the relational cost of greed.  I won’t get to into the details.  It will suffice to say (as with any story I suppose) poor choices are made, people are betrayed, and relationships are torn, frayed and severed.  The credits though reveal a happy reunion of family and friends built around a baby’s first birthday party.  A father is reunited with his daughter. Business associates who were at odds are reconciled.  Couples who had split are smiling and holding each other affectionately.  Then it struck me, yes this is a birthday party, but this isn’t a birthday party.  Ok, that may have you saying “huh?”  It seems to me Stone was shooting for something more all encompassing.  The tone of these reconciliations seemed full and final, meant to be juxtaposed against the greed and betrayals that typified these character’s actions in the film.  What we were witnessing wasn’t just a birthday party it was “home”. 

Then I was struck by the sheer transcendence underpinning that concept, and I realized “home” is at its core an inherently eschatological concept.  I realize there’s a lot packed in there, so I will briefly unpack that sentence with the thoughts that have been floating around my head.  I will say the ideas are still freshly forming, but it might be a chance to share how the conceptual sausage gets made… so to speak. 

First I will suggest that home is different from house or shelter.  The use of the word house tends to simply signify a building where people live; nothing special, just a place of residence.  Granted, home can have the same meaning, simply a place of residence, but there is a secondary meaning inherent in home that is absent in house.  Home tends to be used to signify a place of residence where one’s affections are centered.  It intimates a place of refuge or asylum, perhaps even a place of safety and love.  The tone Stone strikes in his credits is the latter.  It’s home, though not the nostalgic longing for the home of our youth.  He pictured a present and future home, a current and future place of asylum, safety and love.  I would suggest the longing for that type of home is something we all share, and perhaps reveals something of the transcendence inside each of us.

One of the core dogmas of historic Christianity is that everyone will exist forever.  We all have a beginning, but no end.  We are all made in the image of the Triune God, and as such are more than just flesh and bone.  We harbor unseen and un-seeable components.  We are made for a life in a world where the seen and unseen intertwined into one whole reality.  According to Genesis, Adam and Eve walked and talked with God.  We live in a world where the relationship of seen and unseen is torn and frayed.  We were made for life in a world that doesn’t exist.  It’s this tension, and the many promises in scripture that this tension will one day be relieved that creates the foundation for our longing for home I think.  We see the world as it is, and conclude that this is not as it was designed, and read the promises of its repair, and look forward to that time when that eschatological home is reality. 

So when we speak of home in the here and now we speak of that temporary place of affection, refuge and love, but I think we also hint at that something that’s coming.  When we think of and speak about home we hint at the concepts that underpin the core of God’s reconciling plans for humanity, and our longing to be reconciled, and safe and loved.  Like I said, very fresh and new ideas to me, and ones I need to expand on, but ideas that encourage me, and perhaps may encourage you as well...

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Standing on Principle, Walking On Balance Beams, and Living Out Love

Do not oppress a foreigner; you yourselves know how it feels to be foreigners, because you were foreigners in Egypt. – Exodus 23.9 (NIV)

If anyone comes to you and does not bring this teaching, do not take them into your house or welcome them.  Anyone who welcomes them shares in their wicked work. – 2 John 10, 11 (NIV)

16’ x 4”.  Those are the dimensions of an Olympic balance beam.  That is all the space available for all of those tumbles, runs, leaps and acrobatics.  4”across… I think my foot would hang over both sides of the beam.  I also think it’s a safe understatement to suggest the successful navigation of the balance beam requires skill.  It takes time and effort to learn how to step, where to position your arms and hands, and where to look in order to learn to simply stay on the beam, let alone complete anything resembling acrobatics.  I might suggest as well that there’s an apt metaphor in there somewhere for the manner in which Christian’s put their faith into practice.  The parallel isn’t necessarily one regarding a Christian’s “skills”, but perhaps their wisdom, that is the manner in which he or she translates his or her faith and knowledge into actions. 

I bring this up because the ideas in the two quotes above take some wisdom in order to balance.  Hospitality vs. Morality.  Grace vs. Law (notice the “grace” quote is from the Old Testament and the “law” from the New Testament).  Identity vs. Identity.  Given John wrote his letter (now 2 John) in the 1st century and in it wrestles to find appropriate limits to hospitably, one can see that this balancing act is not new to the Christian experience.  I bring it up, because I believe this balancing act is critical to the Christian’s witness to the world, as it’s been through history.  I also believe the portion of the Church in which I find myself at home, that is the Evangelical Church in the US, finds this balancing act extraordinarily difficult, often gravitating toward 2 John over Exodus.

We Evangelicals seem to have a talent for leaning on principle.  Our instincts seem to lead us to read the Scripture looking for ways to “boil it down” to tenets which are easily communicated, and understandable to both those of the faith and those to whom we evangelize.  This isn’t an inherently bad instinct.  Finding avenues through which to clearly communicate the Gospel to our culture is a part of what distinguishes Evangelicals.  This instinct clearly serves this end; however it also has the potential to undermine other Christian ends, thus the need for balance. 

Christians cannot be solely about principle; they must also be about a type of love that looks past standards, beliefs, and dogmas, past human constructs and collectives, past our limited aptitude for propositional articulation and understanding and values that which is supremely important to the God who is the source of our beliefs, constructs and propositions: people.  Hence the balancing act and the tension between the poles listed above. 

Do we encourage someone to continue down a bad path by providing for them, or giving them shelter and not directly addressing their destructive behavior?  Should we shut them out altogether if they believe Jesus was a created being, or wasn’t fully human?  What if they are criminals?  Substance abusers, thieves, illegal immigrants.  What if they were simply immoral? (Insert your own list here).  What hoops should we expect the folks we embrace with the love of God to jump through in order to continue to show that love?  I’ll make no attempt here to give a solid answer, because I don’t think there’s one to give.  This is one of those Biblical “grey” areas where we have to wrestle with the scripture, with the situation and with God in order to find a way to appropriately answer these questions for our contexts.  However, given our tendency to lean on principle, I might have a brief suggestion or two to keep in mind when attempting to find that balance.

1.) This Divine love that Christians are called to share with the world is first to be shared amongst the community of Christians.  Jesus said, “As I have loved you, so you must love one another.  By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” (John 13.34b, 35 NIV)  The best way to reveal God’s love to the world is to practice it on other Christians first. (Practice in the hands of the Holy Spirit makes perfect, right?) 

2.) After practicing it on other Christian’s practice it on your neighbor, your friends, your family, the stranger on the subway, or in the car next to you.  Practice loving others the way Jesus loved you.  Spend time wrestling to understand how Jesus showed his love for us/you, not just with His death, but with his life as well.

3.) Finally, remember that no matter how good or bad you are at practicing Jesus’ love, God still loves you.  Even when we sew division in the community of Christians instead of love; even when we mentally or actively exclude those outside the faith from God’s love because of their bad choices or sin or immorality; even when we’re tired or lazy, God still loves us. 

These are the types of actions our faith must take.  This loving action I would suggest is what the wisdom we spoke of earlier looks likes.  I would also suggest that in the end this type of action embodies many of the principles we’re concerned with communicating.  It reveals them through action.  If as Paul writes in I Corinthians 3 we are living letters read by the world, then we best communicate our beliefs, principles and dogmas when we act them out, as if on a stage, and the best way to act out our beliefs is to love as Christ loved.  It’s a love that carries its own balance inside of it.  

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Where Is the Easter Joy?

Do not abandon yourselves to despair. We are the Easter people and hallelujah is our song. – Pope John Paul II

Is it just me, or does the church have difficulty expressing joy?  I ask because I’ve begun to associate the celebration of Easter directly to the notion and experience of joy.  Easter is the epitome of the unexpected, joyful plot twist in the story.  It’s in essence the source of Tolkien’s notion of “eucatastrophe”, the joy of the unexpected, unforeseen happy ending.  Given the stakes at play in Jesus’ life and death, the Divine killed by humanity, and the apparent failure and defeat of the Father, unadulterated, astonished, overwhelming joy seems to be the only appropriate response to the resurrection.  Victory was literally wrenched from the sure, clenched jaws of defeat.  I get choked up when I spend time meditating on it.  The reason I bring it up is because I don’t recognize that joy in our liturgy.  Our worship tends to accommodate prayer, confession, adoration, and praise pretty well.  But we seem to have a difficult time accommodating Easter joy.  I will confess to contributing to this joylessness.

I have the opportunity in my church to put together and arrange the worship songs once a month.  A few years ago my Sunday fell on Easter.  I was excited about this.  Easter is the Christian “main event”, and I was going to get to contribute to the Easter experience.  I flubbed it completely.  It’s that year that I understood the joy of Easter for the first time, because my choices contrasted so starkly with the rest of the service.  I remember 2 of the songs I picked, “Here I Am to Worship”, and an arrangement of “When I Survey”, both of which are Good Friday songs.  They deal with the death of Jesus, not his resurrection.  They’re both somber and introspective.  I would submit that neither is joyful.  Those responsible for this year’s Easter service did a much better job.  They chose “Jesus Messiah”, “Glorious Day”, and “Mighty to Save”.  All three carry the content of Easter much better than my choices had; however upon playing them Easter morning I realized though the content may have been “right”, the music didn’t embody the joy of Easter.  Now this is no slight to those who put the worship set together.  I might suggest that there choices were limited by our own liturgical limitation in relation to joy.  It seems to me we don’t write it well, and so it isn’t available to be drawn on.

This begs the question of why, which I suppose would be the point of this particular blog.  Why this difficulty?  I’d be interested to get input in this regard.  I’ll confess that up until that Easter experience a few years ago I had an excruciatingly hard time with joy.  After that experience I came to recognize it when it appears in my life and it’s become an important part of my faith experience.  Playing drums has helped.  As I’ve said in a previous blog, I experience joy most completely when I’m playing.  From there I’ve been able to recognize it when it appears in my life (it feels like playing drums).  At any rate, any ideas for why our liturgical joy is often incomplete?

Saturday, March 31, 2012

Gungor, Zombies and Inhabited Music

It looks like a human... It eats like a human… It still walks and makes noise and resembles a human, but it’s not. It’s a zombie. It has no soul. – Michael Gungor

If you have not discovered Gungor’s music yet, I would highly recommend giving them a listen.  It’s rare for me to find music that truly excites me, let alone excites me more each time I listen to it.  Gungor’s music has that effect on me.  It’s extraordinarily engaging on the first listen, and rewards further more detailed listening as well.  I’m waiting on further work from them, but I’m dangerously close to including them in my pantheon of all time favorites. 

For me, the quality of their music that seems to most consistently catch my ear is its inhabitedness.  There is an alive quality to it.  The music embodies the heart of the song.  The melodies, harmonies, instrumentations and voicings all seem to exist to serve the song.  To Gungor, the song and the body of songs seem to be a beautifully valid end in and of themselves, period.  What makes this more interesting is the ideas embodied by the music and lyrics are what might typically be categorized by genre as “worship”, though I don’t think much of their music would be adaptable to many contemporary liturgies.  I’m always a sucker for tension, so this is one I’d like to take a quick dive into.  Why would this beautiful, worshipful, engaged music seem to be out of bounds for most churches?  Or perhaps to rephrase the question, is there something about their music that is at odds with Christian, and perhaps more specifically Evangelical Christian tastes?  We’ll explore two sets of ideas to answer that question, Michael Gungor’s and Flannery O’Connor’s. 

Michael Gungor, the lead singer and songwriter of Gungor, obliquely addresses my question in a blog he wrote last November.  He suggests, I believe correctly, that many Christian singers and songwriters view music simply as a vehicle intended to deliver the content (lyrics) of a song.  The vehicle (the music) from this perspective then is interchangeable.  It doesn’t matter what the vehicle is as long as that which is carried in the vehicle clearly points people to Jesus.  Songs here are simply 3 to 4 minute sermons.  He cites a quiet, intimate song he had written that was covered by a hardcore/screamo band as an example.  Instead of recognizing the inherent connection of the lyric to the music, the screamo band uprooted the lyric from the shell of the song and replanted it into what from Gungor’s perspective is an entirely foreign and inhospitable terrain.  He goes on to share why he believes this utilitarian understanding of music undermines music’s inherent value.  He writes,

 If you want to reach emo kids, then sing emo music but with Jesus language. The problem with this is that emo music is not simply reducible to certain sounding tones and chords. There are emotions and attitudes of different genres of music that are the soul of the music. You can’t remove the anger from screamo and have it still be screamo. It’s the soul of that music, whether that soul is good or evil is not the point, simply that it is the soul. So when you remove the soul from music and transplant the body parts (chord changes, instrumentation, dress, lights, and everything but the soul…) and parade it around with some more “positive” lyrics posing as Christian music, then what you have is a musical zombie.
It looks like a human.. It eats like a human… It still walks and makes noise and resembles a human, but it’s not. It’s a zombie. It has no soul. It just uses its human body for its own purposes.

I find it interesting that this “body snatcher/zombie” music essentially puts on the style and airs of the genre its engaging, but replaces its soul with something foreign.  Granted this is very imprecise/metaphorical language, but I think you get the picture.  There’s a sense in which when Christians engage musical genres (and one can make the same case for film, novels, the visual arts etc…) in this manner, they actually create something that undermines the heart of the Christian message, which is the Incarnation.  I understand that may sound preposterous, but follow me here.  

The Father loved and respected humanity, which is of course a Divine creation, so much that the Father sent the Son to share their existence as a means of communicating the depth of the Father’s love.  Jesus became the language (the Word) through which the Father chooses to communicate this love.  The Father didn’t simply send the Son as a facsimile of a human in order to articulate a proposition; no, the eternal Son BECAME flesh. The Son embodied the message of the Father and through his words and actions on Earth acted out the Father’s love for all to see.  So if the Father respects the brokenness, foibles, and foulness of humanness enough to fill it with the Son, shouldn’t Christians respect musical forms (the language of music) to the extent that we don’t zombify it with the Christian message.  Instead, if we’re to follow the Father and Son’s lead, shouldn’t the musical form be inhabited by the Christian who then embodies that Divine message of love?

Flannery O’Connor speaks about this when she discusses the inherent value of the novel.  Citing Jacques Maritain’s assertion read through Aquinas that art exists for the good of that which is made, O’Connor asserts, “The novel is an art form and when you use it for anything other than art, you pervert it.”  She goes on to suggest, “I find that most people know what a story is until they sit down to write one.  Then they find themselves writing a sketch woven through it, or an editorial with a character in it, or a case history with a moral, or some other mongrel thing.”  I think this parallels what Gungor writes.  What is created, particularly by the Christian who respects the Son’s Incarnation, should only be created for the good of that which is created.  To this end O’Connor would write, “God does not care anything about what we write.  He uses it.”  The Christian creates out of a creativity/muse/heart/inspiration under the influence of the Holy Spirit.  Should we not trust the Spirit to work through the gifts given the Christian?  

That brings us to the heart of the answer to the question I posed earlier.  I might suggest part of the reason Gungor’s music would seem out of place in many liturgies is because Christians, particularly Evangelical’s don’t trust art.  Perhaps it’s because it doesn’t directly produce results, read conversions; or perhaps because we prefer direct references to the truth to indirect allusions. Whatever the reason, I think the music of Gungor is evidence that we do ourselves a disservice.  We miss opportunities for Divine encounter by not allowing the arts to do their work in our lives.  Take a listen to a few of the links below, and see if you might agree.    

Let There Be - An amazing song about creation.  You can hear form coming to formlessness 
This Is Not the End - A wonderfully joyfully defiant song about death
Church Bells - A melancholy song about lost joy
Ezekiel - Drawn strait from Ezekiel's parable 

Monday, March 12, 2012

Haggai, Daniel, and the Violent Non-Violence of God

Tell Zerubbabel governor of Judah that I am going to shake the heavens and the earth.  I will overturn royal thrones and shatter the power of the foreign kingdoms. I will overthrow chariots and their drivers. –Haggai 2.21,22

This is a passage from the last of the four messages given to Haggai from God which Haggai then passed on to their intended recipients.  In this case it was a message meant for Zerubbabel, the Governor appointed by the Persians over Judah.  It’s a message about a future Zerubbabel will never see.  In fact it’s hard to see how much of this message benefits Zerubbabel at all, except to encourage him that God has chosen him to be his “signet ring”, which upon further consideration I suppose is nothing to sneeze at.  In all reality there are myriad subtle references in this message to the plans that were in motion regarding the pending arrival of the promised Messiah, but given the subtlety of the references I would suggest they were most likely lost on the message’s first audiences.  I would also suggest that much is lost on us as well when we read these types of apocalyptic, fore-telling messages, particularly when the foretold events have yet to come to pass in our own times.  In particular I would propose that we often misread the method through which the Divine mayhem quoted above is accomplished.  We see the shaking of the heavens and the overturning of thrones and chariots and tend to assume that these violent acts will occur violently.  In doing so I believe we make some of the same mistakes that caused the people of Jesus’ time to miss the fact that he was the Messiah.  I believe we’re always in danger of this type of misreading whenever we run our understanding of the Kingdom that does the overturning and shattering through a human sieve.  However, before we consider that sieve, I think we must consider the nature of the Kingdom doing the shaking.

Haggai is not the only prophet to characterize the interaction of this Divine Kingdom with the kingdom and powers around us using this violent language.  In fact one of his contemporaries, though one much older than he, used very similar language 50 or so years earlier.  In interpreting a dream of Nebuchadnezzar, the king of Babylon, Daniel gives the following interpretation of a part of his dream where a stone destroys a statue representing the kingdoms of the world, and subsequently grows larger than a mountain.  He said, “In the time of those kings, the God of heaven will set up a kingdom that will never be destroyed, nor will it be left to another people. It will crush all those kingdoms and bring them to an end, but it will itself endure forever.” (Daniel 2.44 NIV)  Again we have this violent language, God’s Kingdom “crushing” the kingdoms of the world.  How do we make sense of this violent language in light of the Kingdom of God that Christ reveals in the Gospels? 

Perhaps there’s not much to make sense of.  Many of the references by Christ to the Kingdom of God have their own apocalyptic and even violent touchstones.  The Kingdom as Christ describes it tends to be characterized by healing, wholeness, plenty, justice, mercy, and love, but also by separations and conflict.  One could make the case that the Kingdom of God can be partially characterized by the sword Christ said he came to bring in Matthew 10.  There do seem to be similarities here between the inherent violence in Haggai and Daniels’s Divine Kingdoms and the Kingdom of God being described by Christ.

If that is the case, then what do we do with the healing, wholeness, plenty, justice, mercy, and love that typify the kingdom and which seem out of sync with these violent hallmarks?  How do we reconcile a kingdom that apparently marginalizes the rich, but is freely open to prostitutes and those widely considered immoral and repulsive?  How do we square the violence of the Kingdom with the notion that it’s freely available to everyone, wantonly scattered to any and all soils, even those in which it will not grow?

Perhaps a hint toward an answer to that question can be found in Jesus’ metaphor/parable of the mustard seed/plant.  It’s also meant to picture the Kingdom of God.  As a seed it starts as something inherently small and inconsequent, but grows into something so large that cannot be missed.  The parable is meant to highlight the notion that God specializes in endowing importance into the unimportant; significance into the insignificant.  So how does this relate to the apparent violence inherent in the Kingdom of God?  I’m glad you asked. 

In relation to the question I would suggest that violence and those who wield it are not inconsequent, small or insignificant.  In fact violence in a way is a powerful and more often than not sinful assertion of significance and importance.  By its nature, it gets our attention.  It triggers our self preservation instincts.  It cries out for justice.  Even if wielded justly it triggers the urge for revenge. It is a power play.  It asserts the muscle of the aggressor over the weakness of a victim.  In fact by its nature it creates victims.  So while there are violent touchstones of conflict in Jesus’ descriptions of the Kingdom of God, it seems that violence, at least the manner in which I’m describing it, can’t be a part of a Kingdom characterized by healing, wholeness, plenty, justice, mercy, and love.  This would suggest that perhaps it is the human sieve through which we filter our understanding of violence that is creating this irreconcilable tension here and affecting our ability to imagine an alternative means of overturning thrones and shattering kingdoms.

I suggest that when we hear of Kingdom’s being “crushed”, “overturned”, or “overthrown” our imaginations immediately conjure up the violent means by which these events tend to occur.  We think of coups, revolutions and wars.  We often lack the grace-filled imagination necessary to envision any other way of accomplishing these titanic shifts.  In doing so, we miss the God of the mustard seed at work in the world.  We miss the awesome power of God’s grace, which author Phillip Yancey asserts in his book What’s So Amazing About Grace is the most powerful force in the universe.  As an example of the power of grace Yancey submits the events in Poland in the 1980’s. 

Under the leadership of Lech Walesa, with some of its roots in the Catholic Church, the Solidarity Trade Union asserted themselves through non-violent means with the intent of gaining grater self-governance from the Polish Communist Party.  Granted that is a great over simplification of events, but it will do for a one sentence summation.  The character of the movement though can be seen and understood in one key event, the assassination of one of the movement’s spiritual leaders, Father Jerzy Popiełuszko.  A quarter of a million people publicly mourned him, and as they processed down the streets of Warsaw they chanted, “We Forgive You” to the Communist regime.  Within five years the Communists were out of power.    

Is this not the overturning of thrones and the shattering of powers through the wielding of the power of grace?  You could even make the case that this is part of the sword Christ said he came to bring.  I would suggest that in light of the attributes that distinguish the Kingdom of God from earthly kingdoms, that grace is the primary weapon given to the church to accomplish the establishment of healing, wholeness, plenty, justice, mercy, and love, and the acting out of these qualities of the grace-filled Kingdom is what undermines and subverts the authority of the Kingdoms out of line with these hallmarks.  This is a force with the potential to shake, overturn and crush governments, using the Biblical language.   

To be clear I’m not arguing that the events in Poland in the 80’s are in anyway a template to be followed in every circumstance.  I suppose I’m simply suggesting we need to be mindful of the limits of our imaginations in relation to both the manner in which we reveal the Kingdom of God through our actions now, and the manner in which the Divine Kingdom will be and is being established.  We need to be careful to not assume that these violent allusions will be accomplished by brute force.  Much of this, I believe, will be accomplished by the simple, steady, strong grace of God.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Is Faith a Gift?: A Theo-Dramatic Perspective

For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast. – Ephesians 2.8,9 (NIV)

I have had a few conversations recently with friends where they asserted the notion that faith was a gift from God.  In each instance the notion just didn’t sit right with me.  Upon doing a bit of research and reading here and there, I unearthed a long standing and open theological conversation that’s been running through the centuries regarding just this topic.  I’m ashamed to admit I’d never taken note of it, perhaps because of the fixedness of my own position and understanding in relation to faith.  At any rate I began to reconsider the question or perhaps just consider it, given I’d never given much thought to it previously.  Also after reading texts on both sides of the debate, I wanted to bring a particular set of eyes and ears that I thought might be helpful to my process of thinking.  I wanted to briefly read the question through the eyes of Theo-Drama.  If you’ve read this blog previously, you know I’ve employed this template before as a means of working through a particular thought, text or theology.  So how would this notion of faith as a gift play out if we filter it through the separate notion that existence is a part of a larger story or drama being told and played out on the stage of the world?  Well let’s find out.

First, I must make a quick detour and define what I mean when I use the word faith here.  For that we could go one of two roads and reach the same destination I think.  The first would be a Biblical road.  I am not going to do an entire exegetical analysis here on the nature of Biblical faith, but I will (even with the danger of proof-texting) pull from the writer of Hebrew’s definition of faith.  He or she suggests, “Faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see.” (NIV)  The key words I want to draw on for my purposes here are “confidence”, and “assurance.”  They embody the notion of trust.  A person who trusts something or someone is willing to place their physical, emotional, or spiritual safety (depending on what one is trusting in) in the care of the thing or individual being trusted.  I trust that the engineers and builders of my car have designed and constructed it to such a quality that it will not explode as I drive it.  To that extent I place my faith in both them and my car. 

The other road is the dictionary road.  Given we are dealing with an English translation of the Bible, the folks translating decided that “faith” is the best translation for the Greek word translated (which we’ll get to momentarily).  Our friends at assert that our English word faith is “confidence or trust in a person or thing.”  That fits in pretty well with what the author of Hebrews asserts as a working definition.  If I were to expound on the Biblical and dictionary definitions together, I’d say that faith is a confident, assured trust.  Quick and dirty, but fair I think.  Unfortunately for lovers of pith, this simple understanding of faith is in conflict with much of the historical understanding of Christian faith. 

To establish this conflict I’ll have to start with a little bit of Greek, which I suppose is a dangerous course in the hands of one ignorant of Greek; however it’s a course we will take anyway.  The most widely employed Greek word which we translate into English as “faith” is the word pistis.  It’s rooted in the Greek word peitho, which means, “to persuade or be persuaded.”  So in the minds of the New Testament writers, faith contained in it the notion of being Divinely persuaded to trust.  If one is of the mind that these types of word choices are beyond chance and have their roots in Divine inspiration, then Christian faith by its nature, given the object of the faith, is revealed as an interplay between Divine persuasion and the human response to that persuasion.  The conflict then arises in relation to the manner in which people through history have tried to make sense of that interplay. 

Those who tend toward the notion that faith is an entirely gratuitous gift from God tend to find themselves favoring the Divine portion of the interplay as dominant over the human portion.  To be fair there is scripture that seems to bear this out.  For example Paul in the Book of Romans suggests, “For through the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think more highly of himself than he ought to think; but to think so as to have sound judgment, as God has allotted to each a measure of faith (Romans 12.3 NAS).  Paul also lists faith as one of the fruits of the Spirit in Galatians 5, meaning it’s something produced by the Spirit, not by the individual’s effort.  In addition the verse at the beginning, Ephesians 2.8,9 is also often cited.  Folks who hold this perspective read the line, “and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast,” as referring to faith.  Given I’m going to argue for a different reading, and that this is a blog, not a book, I will not lay out this case further.  I don’t intend to be unfair to it, but to represent it simply and quickly. 

I’m also not going to argue that faith is entirely of human origin.  To do so would be to marginalize the parts of Scripture I find difficult, and what fun would life be without Scriptures that blow holes in your understanding of God? Instead I’m going to argue that faith is a mysterious inter-penetration of both God’s persuasion, and humanity’s trust.  I could go directly to scripture for this, but that’s been done, and would not add to the conversation (though what I’m going to argue I suppose isn’t new, unique, or extra-biblical).  As I wrote earlier I’m going to filter the question through Theo-Dramatic Theory.  For this I’ll be drawing heavily on Balthasar’s understanding of the notion. 

At its heart is the idea that the story or narrative God is telling in history, that is the fall, redemption and restoration of humanity, is being played out in the world as if on a stage.  One could loosely see the Father as the author of this play, the Son as one sharing the stage with humanity, representing and revealing the Father’s vision, and the Spirit as the play’s director, bringing the play to life, directing the actors and action on the stage, and improvising to bring about the Father’s vision.  As members of this stage, we all have “roles” in this play.  Some have more to do than others, but as Stanislavsky said, “there are no small parts, only small actors.”  This however does not mean that our contribution to the story is entirely pre-determined.  On the contrary, just as any actor in a play or film must bring their entire person to a role, their interiority, their subjectivity, their creativity, so we must if we’re to play our part to the fullest on the world stage.  It’s our freely exercised choices which bring life to the role given us by God.  In other words for the drama being played out to have life, the actors must contribute something to the work, and the Father seems, through the Spirit, to expect and encourage our contributions to the story.  What’s in play here is our understanding of the manner in which our finite freedom interacts with God’s infinite freedom.

Granted I haven’t argued exhaustively here to prove my point, but if we assume this construct reflects something of the reality of things, it would mean that humanity has something of themselves to contribute to the drama, including their trust of the God who gave them their role, and though not mentioned previously, also their identity, both of which are tied up in the imitation of the self-gifting of Christ, but that’s another blog.  Ultimately, if one leaves no room for humanity’s trust/faith, then one strikes an almost un-repairable blow to human freedom, which itself runs contrary to much of scripture.  I would suggest human freedom is a Biblical concept.  I would also suggest Biblical freedom is the freedom to do what we ought to do, to employ our God given gifts, and creativity and apply them to the role God’s given us in order to achieve God’s ends.  In the end I will grant that God is ultimately responsible to bring about the ends God has planned, choreographed and orchestrated, and that I see God’s fingerprints all over my life, wooing me, influencing me, persuading me, cajoling me, loving me.  But I also experience my active pursuit of God, which can’t be diminished.  So in the end has God given me my faith, or do I freely, by my choosing offer my trust to God?  For me the answers to those questions are yes and yes, and must be in order to preserve both God’s and humanity’s respective freedoms.