The New Orthodoxy and Me

rainbowcrossFor the last few years, I’ve been impressed with a growing number of writers and bloggers, mostly from Methodist circles, but from some other traditions as well who seem to be carrying the Neo-Orthodox/Post-Liberal banner that had seem somewhat dormant for a while. I’ve been attracted to this stream of Protestantism after finding both evangelicalism and liberal Protestantism wanting in different ways.  Writers like Allan Bevere, David Watson, the boys over at Via United Methodists and others echo some of the same feelings I’ve been thinking about God, Jesus and the church.  They show a different way of being within mainline Protestantism.  It is more focused on the importance of salvation, atonement, sin and grace which sadly has become a counter-movement against the spiritually relative ethos in the mainline (at least among the elite).

But while I am thankful for this small movement, I am also left with some wariness about this movement when it comes to the issue of sexuality.  Is there room for LGBT people in this movement?

I’m probably an odd duck: a gay Christian that has an orthodox theology. That’s not how it usually goes: most churches that tend to be gay-friendly, also tend to be quite progressive in their theology.  Many gays would tend to have a more liberal theology.  (Small-o orthodox doesn’t mean conservative.) But I’ve never felt comfortable with the standard liberal theology.  Post-liberal theology is a far better fit for me. ( I know that I’m not the only gay person that doesn’t fit the usual profile.)

But a good part of these writers haven’t said much about sexuality.  Some writers, like the late William Placher, were gay friendly.  But what about other bloggers?  I understand there is still disagreement on this issue and I’m not asking that this movement start excluding those who have different views on sexuality.  But I am wondering if there is room for me.  So, how does sexuality fit in this neo-orthodox/ post-liberal milieu?

I’m looking forward to your answers.

We’ve Got to Talk About Micah

This weekend will be an interesting one for me.

No, nothing really special is happening.  It’s just that this weekend I will be preaching from a passage that many progressive Christians take to heart: Micah 6:8 (Actually I’m going to preach on Micah 6:1-8).

You know the passage:

He has told you, human one, what is good and
        what the Lord requires from you:
            to do justice, embrace faithful love, and walk humbly with your God.

-Common English Bible

A lot of people who are into social justice issues love this passage and I can see why.  Micah 6:8 is probably one of the most well-known verses in Scripture.  It is used especially when talking about political and social issues.  More often than not, the verse is used to address the whole of our society.  It has been used when, for example there are planned cuts to a welfare program omicah68r for things such as the raising of the minimum wage.

But is this what that passage is all about?  Are we saying that God supports the Affordable Care Act or raising the minimum wage to $15/hour?

I’ve been thinking for a while that we are doing this wrong.

Progressives get on conservative for cherry-picking Bible verses to suit their worldview.  While I think that is a legitimate complaint, progressives don’t have clean hands on this either and Micah 6:8 is evidence number one.

People use this verse separated from the rest of the book of Micah.  It is taken out of any context and people unwittingly use it to support their own political agendas.  We forget that this passage was written to a society in Israel that had fallen away from God. Chapter 6 shows a God in pain, wondering why the people of Israel have gone their own way.  In verse 6 God is saying to the people that grand displays of piety are not what God is interested in.  God doesn’t need a large sacrifice.  What God wants is found in verse 8: God wants the people to act just, be kind and be humble.  God is calling the people of Israel to repent and follow God.  It’s difficult to use this passage to speak to 21st century American society, because that is not what it was intended for.

Methodist pastor Allan Bevere has made this misuse of Micah and other prophetic verses the subject of many blog posts and one bookThis is what he had to say last year in response to a progressive Christian’s blog post:

If the religious right and the left want to get the target of their hermeneutic correct, they need to understand that the commands of Scripture in the Old Testament are, by and large, directed toward the people of God Israel, and in the New Testament it is the church. It is the people of God that is to embody the prophets’ concern for justice and the Torah’s concern for morality and purity. And it is by that biblically based way of life that the church engages in the politics of witness that it is God and not the nations who rules the world. The church by its example bears witness to the nations what God wants of them as well. The church by its witness is not a prop for the state, but its alternative. Once the nation becomes the primary hermeneutical target of Scripture, the primary community of faith becomes the state. The church is eclipsed in this world and so is the kingdom of God, and thus Christians will in the end functionally identify more with what it means to be progressive or conservative than with what it means to be the church.

So, this passage is not about getting universal health care any more than 2 Chronicles 7:14, a passage used by conservatives to justify their agendas.

If verses like Micah 6:8 have a purpose today, it is relating to the church- the inheritors of God’s covenant with the Israelites.  So, we aren’t using this to go against Republicans, it was meant for all of us in the pews and those in pulpit.

In America today, we are good at using Bible passages to justify are own views and condemn others.  It is another thing to really sit down and think about what this passage is saying and what it has to say to me and to the church.

Progressive Christians misuse of this passage has in many ways weakened us.  We have used it to justify our progressive politics and dress up God in left-leaning garb.  We end up worshipping the state (at least when it agrees with us) instead of worshipping God.

None of this means people shouldn’t be concerned about health care or war or what have you.  But we can’t just take a passage that was meant for a different people in a different time to justify our own agendas.  Because when we do that, we threaten our witness in the world.

Soul Searching, Republicans and the Mainline Church

Being a Republican right now is both frustrating and a bit hopeful.  As someone who has been worried about the direction of the party over the years, there is something hopeful of how Republicans are trying to understand the sweeping victory of the Democrats last week.  I’ve seen a bunch of articles about the how the GOP has to change to meet the upcoming shift in the demographics of nation.

There has always been a small hope that some election would be the one where the GOP would hit bottom and finally come to some conclusion that it needed to change.  I was a little surprised it came so quickly, but I’m glad it did.  This time of wondering what works and what doesn’t is good for the party and might make it a competative party once again, this time with a more diverse base than before.
Lutheran pastor Keith Anderson has written a fascinating blog post about how the mainline churches are in a similar path to irrelevance as the GOP.  Here’s a bit of what Anderson says:

It turns out that the downfall of the Romney campaign was not appreciating the demographic shifts that had taken place in the country over the last four years. America and the electorate had become more diverse and urban – and the tone, resonant issues, language, and culture had shifted along with them.

In many ways, the mainline church now finds itself in the same position as the Republican party – scrambling to catch up to changes in country and culture. The Church must understand the lesson of the Romney defeat and pivot toward the culture that exists now rather than the one that used to be.

His post makes a lot of sense.  I am hopeful that the Republicans will listen to the people and make changes to meet this changing America.  I’m not so sure when it comes to my own churches that make up Mainline Protestantism.  While both institutions are in need of a serious overhaul, I am afraid that only one of them is really able to take a good long look at itself and ask some hard questions of itself.  Republicans have the chance to listen and try something new, the chance to retreat on some issues until another day and the willingness to embrace new ideas while keep their values intact.

Mainline Protestantism, of which I am a part, there is less willingness for self-examination.  For some reason, we never want to hear bad news.  On more than one occasion, I’ve heard pastors dismiss the shortcomings of Progressive Christianity and talk about how the future is bright.  I surely don’t want to focus only on our shrinking budgets and empty pews, but I do think it makes sense to at least be honest that there are problems, since it’s only when we admit our own shortcomings can we actually make change.

During the summer, New York Times columnist Ross Douthat wrote a post about the faltering of Liberal Christianity.  I thought it was good advice to take heart.  His words brought out a backlash among Progressive Christians. They didn’t much appreciate this conservative telling them how to do church.  Allan Bevere summed up that mainliners tend to not examine themselves in the same way that evangelicals have as of late:

In recent years evangelical Protestantism has been going through a soul searching, questioning some of its cherished political and hermeneutical positions that have become so intertwined with evangelicalism. An increasing number of evangelicals are re-evaluating some of their “sacred” views on Scripture and science and politics. I think that has been a good thing. But I must say, I have not seen that same kind of soul searching among mainline Protestants. It cannot hurt to wonder if we always have it right. It cannot be a bad thing to remember that perhaps our views are not always biblical, but rather the opposite side of the same modern coin we share with those who are evangelical. Perhaps Dennis and John are beginning an important self-critical conversation that we mainliners need to have. If this is the start, I welcome it.
After all, the unexamined life, politic, and theology is not worth embracing… and it’s not good for the soul… or the church either. An adjective is meant to describe a noun, not get in the way.
I offered my own two cents on the issue:

I think Progressive Christianity has some great strengths.  However, we do a crappy job of self-examination.  We never allow ourselves to think that somehow what we do and how we do it might possibly be wrong.  We are unwilling to think about what we might have done wrong and how to correct for fear that we will become some kind of clone of the Southern Baptists.

Self-examination doesn’t mean we have to stop being progressive Christians.  It doesn’t mean throwing out everything.  But it does mean seeing what might be hurting us and putting aside our egos to in order to see if we are the best church we can be.  When liberal Christians start doing this, then we can be on the road to saving Liberal Christianity.  Until that happens, we will keep whistling down the road towards irrelevance.

I read a number of progressive and evangelical bloggers.  What has always struck me about the progressive bloggers is that there is this sense that they are right.  While there maybe doubts on whether or not Christ rose from the dead, there are no doubts when it comes to social policy.  For all their faults, evangelical bloggers seem more willing to look within and examine themselves.  There’s a lot more diversity of thought in evangelical circles than in progressive Christian ones.

What long to hear someday is some denominational exec get up before a crowd and say something like how we need to get our act together and fast.  I don’t want to hear more sunny talk.  I want more handwringing and a willingness to change for the better.  Will it happen?  I dunno; it depends on whether the mainline church has hit bottom yet.

What Does It Mean to Be Prophetic, Revisited

Alan Bevere again picks up the the theme of being prophetic in a post today:

I have spent some time this week in the Old Testament prophetic books. I do not find it surprising that most prophets are not accepted in their own time. Their cutting words of truth at best fall on stopped ears. Then, in order to reinforce their words, they resort to symbolic acts which, if committed in the 21st century West, would be more than sufficient cause for them to be put away in special places reserved for people who walk naked in public (Isaiah) and who eat paper (Ezekiel), and walk around with an oxen yoke on their neck (Jeremiah). The people of God today have no more clue on how to recognize a prophet than the ancient folk. Every time I hear someone referred to as prophetic, it’s only because they are speaking words that the hearers who so designate them agree with. But that’s precisely the problem.

Back in February, based on another post by Alan, I asked what it meant to be prophetic:

Which has led me to ask this question: what does it mean to be prophetic?  The reason I ask is that I think a lot of folks have an idea what it means to be prophetic that I think is a bit wrong.  I will see a pastor who will get up and talk about some of the major issues facing our world and it is billed as “prophetic.”  But more often than not, what I hear is more of a political agenda than it is calling the church to present the Kingdom of God.  Since I move around mainline/progressive Christian circles, I tend to hear what sounds like a churchified version of the Democratic party platform, but I’m pretty sure that a lot of what might pass as prophetic in evangelical circles just mirrors the GOP agenda.

So, what does it mean to be prophetic?  What does a prophetic church look like?  I have to think that it’s more than a party platform sprinkled with lots of Jesus.  I’d like to know, because what I see passing as prophetic kind of falls short.

I have to ask again: what does it mean to be prophetic?  I tend to agree with Alan, if we met a modern day prophet of God, no one would really like him or her.  I don’t think they would say things that would basically piss off everyone.

Have we misread the prophets of the Bible?  Have we read Amos or Micah, with their denuciations of wealth and their concern for the poor and confused it with a political agenda?  Have we approprated these words to give us comfort and to use as weapons against others who don’t agree with us?

I don’t have the answers.  I do think that the words of the prophets are harder to understand than we think they are.

Jesus is a Cat Person

One of the more common understandings of Christianity that I’ve found in Mainline churches is that God is all about love. 

I struggle with that belief.  I know that God is a loving God, and as expressed in the life, death and resurrection of Christ, we get to see a God that really did love those that one might think were unloveable.  As a gay man, I understand how faith has been used to kick people out of church and how important it is to see a God that cares for us no matter who we are.

It’s become fixed in our culture that God all about love and nothing else.  We focus on the stories that talks about God loving sinners, like the parable of the Prodigal Son.  We want God to be the Big Daddy that loves us no matter what we do.

But there’s something about that which bothers me.  It’s not that none of this is true- it is.  But I always feel that what we are getting in Mainline and probably other parts of Christianity in America is only part of a picture of God, a part that we agree with.  I feel that we tend to ignore or explain away the other half that is not so nice to see.  We are as good with cherry-picking Scripture as our more conservative sisters and brothers are.

Alan Bevere has a great post up today that explains how people tend to pull Jesus out of the context that’s found in the Bible and reimagine him to suit our own purposes.  Here’s a sample:

Now before I get all the comments and emails reminding me of how much Jesus and the New Testament writers mention love, let me respond by saying that I know such is the case. I am not exactly ignorant when it comes to Scripture. The problem is that the modern tendency to dehistoricize and detheologize Jesus and his ministry into principles and concepts robs us of the context which makes the biblical notion of love intelligible. Without it we lose what it truly means for Jesus to tell his followers to love one another. The great sacrifice of cross and the wonderful victory of resurrection by which Christian love is understood is replaced by the modern romanticism of love as primarily a feeling, as the justification for behavior without consequences, and living a life devoid of transformation. We move from Jesus’ statement that no greater love can be displayed in laying down one’s life to it doesn’t matter how we behave because God loves us no matter what.

It doesn’t take a profound thinker to know that the primary motivation for this dehistorizing and detheologizing of Jesus is to domesticate his life and work into something more palatable to modern sensibilities. The Jesus who comes to us from the pages of the New Testament demands too much from us. Moreover, in our modern cosmological reductionist assumptions, we simply cannot have a Jesus running around doing miraculous things. So in Bishop Spong and John Crossan fashion we first demythologize Jesus and then we remythologize him after our own image and our own expectations. Jesus now becomes safe to follow. Yes, Jesus is still presented as a radical, but he is a domesticated revolutionary. He is one who looks like a hippie from the 1960s or a political activist whose methods of power and coercion look no different from the politics of the nations.
But a domesticated revolutionary will not bring about serious change; he will just reinforce the agendas of those who are frankly doing nothing more than using Jesus as a prop to get what they want. Jesus was crucified because he presented a true alternative to the ways of the world that could not and will not be displayed in the politics of the current age. Jesus was not killed for promoting right-wing violence on behalf of the state, and he was not crucified for advocating a progressive social agenda. Jesus was crucified because he presented a serious threat to the status quo in all forms; and it will not do just to present his life and ministry as supporting any modern political and social agenda. And those Christians who attempt to do so are domesticating Jesus into doing their bidding.

We all want a Jesus that is more to our own liking.  That was what Andrew Sullivan was getting at in his essay last week.  So, we do just what Thomas Jefferson did, just without the scissors; taking out bits and pieces that don’t fit our own agenda and come up with a Jesus we can stomach.

But I don’t think we are supposed to be comfortable with Jesus.  I think Jesus is supposed to make us uncomfortable in how he lived his life and in what he did.  I think more and more we have to live with this Jesus that we don’t want to hang out with and be open to how we will change in meeting with Jesus and not try to make Jesus fit our own life.

I’ve said before that there is a reason why C.S. Lewis portrayed Aslan, his God-figure in the Chronicles of Narnia, as a Lion- a wild creature that can’t be easily tamed.

We all want Jesus to be like a dog, someone that’s lovable and faithful to us and is always there when we need them.  They expect nothing more than love from us. 

But Jesus is more like a cat; pushy, demanding, intrusive and is sometimes just a jerk.  But there are also times when Jesus can cuddle up to us and just be present at the end of nice day. 

Mr. Beaver in the Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, says this when asked about Aslan the Lion: he is good, but he isn’t safe. 

Jesus is a cat; and cats are never safe. 

What Does It Mean to Be Prophetic?

I stumbled across a post by Methodist blogger Allan Bevere on the prophetic nature of the church.  He ends to post like this:

As I continue to say– when Christians hear the word “politics” they should not think state; they should think church. For Christians, our politic is church. But that clearly is not what it has been and both the Christian right and the left are guilty of making the church somehow beside the point. Because we have reduced the “political” to partisan politics we have reduced the church to one more social agency and one more culturally acceptable option to choose from– like the having season tickets for the local sports team and a membership in the zoological society– though we are actually more excited about going to the ballgame than being an ecclesially based new society.

As Stanley Hauerwas has prophetically said, “in the name of being politically responsible, the church became politically invisible.”

Which has led me to ask this question: what does it mean to be prophetic?  The reason I ask is that I think a lot of folks have an idea what it means to be prophetic that I think is a bit wrong.  I will see a pastor who will get up and talk about some of the major issues facing our world and it is billed as “prophetic.”  But more often than not, what I hear is more of a political agenda than it is calling the church to present the Kingdom of God.  Since I move around mainline/progressive Christian circles, I tend to hear what sounds like a churchified version of the Democratic party platform, but I’m pretty sure that a lot of what might pass as prophetic in evangelical circles just mirrors the GOP agenda.

So, what does it mean to be prophetic?  What does a prophetic church look like?  I have to think that it’s more than a party platform sprinkled with lots of Jesus.  I’d like to know, because what I see passing as prophetic kind of falls short.

Christmas Sunday Sermons: Phoning It In

Alan Bevere is really indignant about the attitude some pastors have about Christmas this year since it falls on a Sunday:

I have had conversations with a few pastors in the past few weeks who basically admitted that since worship attendance on Christmas Day and New Year’s Day will likely be sparse, they are simply going to recycle old sermons and preach them.
Seriously? Do they have so little regard for their calling that they are going to use reduced numbers for worship as an excuse to be lazy? Do they have so little regard for the faithful who will show up on Christmas Day and New Year’s Sunday that they have decided that these folks are not worthy to hear a fresh word from the Lord, but must listen instead to a stale sermon?

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What Should Pastors Say on 9-11?

Good words from Methodist Pastor Alan Bevere:

1) First, I want to remind folks that
there is indeed radical evil in the world, and because of that people
commit heinous acts against other people. Moreover, when we reflect upon
a day when such evil was committed, we need to do a “gut check”
ourselves as to where and when we have been complicit in committing evil
ourselves. The Bible portrays sin as a very seductive thing in which
human beings become willing to participate even in the name of a moral
cause. No one is immune from “Satan’s snare,”–including Christians in
America.

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2)
The Old Testament prophets used the occasion of Israel’s national
tragedies to remind God’s people of their calling and raise the question
of whether they were being faithful to the divine mandate. The tenth
anniversary of 9/11 provides an opportunity for preachers to raise the
question as to whether or not the people of God, the Church, is
fulfilling its mandate to make disciples of Jesus Christ. We do this not
because we think the church is somehow responsible for 9/11, but
because such evil and tragedy remind us that God calls us to be present
in the midst of such times and that we must never forget the mission to
which we have been called.
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3)
That leads me to my next concern. This Sunday Christians need to
remember that the church has been called to be a suffering presence in
this world. The suffering of others is not to be kept at bay. Christians
are to enter into that suffering, just as Christ entered into our
suffering on the cross. We are to enter the suffering of those who still
mourn the death of loved ones these ten years later, and we are to
enter into the suffering of all who who have suffered in some form
because of that terrible day.
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4)
This Sunday is a day to honor the courageous– firefighters, police
officers, rescue workers and others who put their lives at risk (many
losing their own lives) for the sake of others. C.S. Lewis said that
courage was not one of the virtues, but the quality necessary to inhabit
the virtues in our lives. Such examples of courage remind us that
Christian faithfulness too requires courage– the courage to live
rightly, to act justly, and to reflect the image of Jesus Christ in this
world, and to give our lives if necessary for the cause of the gospel.
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5)
Finally, this Sunday is an appropriate time to remind God’s people that
in Jesus Christ God plans to put this world to rights, and that evil
will, in God’s own time, be defeated– the evil that impinges upon us
and the evil we perpetrate. Despite what happens in life, in the end,
God will get God’s way.

If you’re preaching tomorrow, how will you reflect on the event and connect it to being a follower of Jesus?