Campbellite Education  

Posted by The Metzes in , ,

I've been reading through Nathan Hatch's The Democratization of American Christianity, an incredibly important study of the early populist American movements, and had some thoughts spurred that I thought would be relevant for discussion here. Hatch's work is interesting in that he compares some early American Christian groups that we typically may not connect in discussions today (especially in throwing in Joseph Smith's Latter Day Saints group) and considers the sociological implications of what was going on in the new republic. There is so much good in this book it is difficult to focus on just one aspect. However, there is one subject matter that I have been thinking about lately that Hatch spurred me on further.

One of the most consistent tenets of the early populist Christian movements was a thoroughgoing resistance and outright dislike for traditional theological academia. Nearly all of these early reformers were reacting against the clerical establishment that they believed had become overly corrupt. Much as Luther and Calvin reacted to the papal establishment, these early American groups saw the same corruption and shortcomings in the Protestantism.

Alexander Campbell has a rather unique place in this setting in that he was one of the only "products" of the established theological training. The vast majority of these early Christian leaders were self-taught and self-trained, decrying the established centers of theological training. Campbell was so committed to this anti-academia philosophy of theology that when he established his college at Bethany he made sure that no chair of theology would ever be established.

Hatch's whole discussion on this matter has helped me better understand my experience in Churches of Christ. I graduated with my M.Div from Lipscomb back in 2003, and while I in no way believe that I have some kind of special insight into any text or concept, I did spend about seven years of my life entirely focused on theological training. I have found, that for the most part in churches, that training is pretty insignificant to folks. Sure, people respect my opinion, and generally appreciate listening to what I have to say on things, but when it comes down to interpretive weight - we're all on equal footing.

I suppose my question is . . . is that a good thing? More specific to the issue at hand, was Alexander Campbell correct in leveling the play field of biblical interpretation? Should everyone have equal say in the meaning of a text? Hatch notes that this was a major component of each of these early groups, in his great chapter (worth the price of the book to me!): "The Right to Think for Oneself."

I feel the pull in both directions here in considering the situation in Churches of Christ. On one hand, we seem perfectly poised for the postmodern matrix of meaning and interpretation without a central governing body to cast decisions down the denominational ladder. On the other hand, so much of the discussion taking place within the leadership of churches is making a theological degree more and more important. I, sometimes, find myself using language that those without the "formal theological training" can't follow. I then realize I'm a dope. Beyond that, I hope to pursue a D. Min degree next year and am forced to ask myself - why? Does that further the problem of distance between myself and my congregants? Am I muddying the waters of simple matters as Alexander Campbell and others were so skeptical and worried about?

I don't know if I've put this post all together in a way that makes any sense, but let me try to boil down the situation I'm trying to comment on.

Theological education in the Churches of Christ seems to be rising at a fast pace. Scholars within Churches of Christ seem to slowly be making inroads into the broader theological conversation. Education is seen as more and more of a priority in potential ministers' perquisites. Discussions of philosophy, sociology, and other disciplines have joined the ranks of theological discourse and are common place among bloggers. This all seems to imply one of two situations that I would propose for discussion:

(1) Alexander Campbell failed. His grand project of calling Bible things by Bible names and throwing out creeds and -ologies was a well-intended project, but has failed the test of time. Churches of Christ have gotten off course and need to be brought back on. It seems to me, this is where the extremely conservative/traditional Churches of Christ fall. They remain very skeptical of formal education. They remain committed to Bible School and Preacher School training centers, still believing just the Bible and only the Bible should be the object of our study.

(2) Alexander Campbell was wrong. Perhaps we are better-suited to state that Alexander Campbell was wrong, or at least mostly. Perhaps he over-reacted to the shortcomings of the theological situation of his day. Sure there was corruption, and sure there were shortcomings, but wasn't there still a place for the trained clergy?

This is where Hatch's insight is invaluable. The real driving force behind where Campbell and the others were coming from is this: the democratic voice of equality. It was within the construction of the federal republic of democracy these early leaders formed their thoughts on Christianity. The church structure they had inherited from the forefathers was so . . . undemoctratic! Politcally, the people had been taxed without representation, spiritually, the people were taught and led by spiritual elites and lofty liturgy.

It seems to me a real rub in the development of localized postmodern theology will be the interface of democracy and theology. Does majority rule in matters of interpretation? Is that our guiding light in biblical studies?

In the end, I keep coming back to this question that first emerged in my thinking in grad school: how does a Christian group who was formed at the height of modernity, firmly upon modernistic principles survive the downfall of modernity?

Derek Webb Bringing The Controversy?  

Posted by Adam

Lots of controversy about Derek Webb's new song. Derek is no stranger to controversy, but he seems to have upped it a notch with the new album and this song in particular. I'll save my reaction for now, except to say that I don't think he'll be getting much airplay on Christian radio.

What do you think? I'd really like to hear your reactions.

WARNING: EXPLICIT LYRICS!!! (well, ok...there are like two words you wouldn't want your kids to say, but I've given you fair warning.)

Lyrics (unedited):

What Matters More, by Derek Webb

You say you always treat people like you like to be
I guess you love being hated for your sexuality
You love when people put words in your mouth
'Bout what you believe, make you sound like a freak

'Cause if you really believe what you say you believe
You wouldn't be so damn reckless with the words you speak
Wouldn't silently consent when the liars speak
Denyin' all the dyin' of the remedy

Tell me, brother, what matters more to you?
Tell me, sister, what matters more to you?

If I can tell what's in your heart by what comes out of your mouth
Then it sure looks to me like being straight is all it's about
It looks like being hated for all the wrong things
Like chasin' the wind while the pendulum swings

'Cause we can talk and debate until we're blue in the face
About the language and tradition that he's comin' to save
Meanwhile we sit just like we don't give a shit
About 50,000 people who are dyin' today

Tell me, brother, what matters more to you?
Tell me, sister, what matters more to you?

Rob's Mission of God Statement  

Posted by rob the redbeard in

It is strange for me to think of myself in terms of Post-Restorationist, because part of me wants to respond (to myself,) “Hey, wait! We just got here to Restorationist!”

To make a spiritual autobiography cut to the chase – I was raised in a Catholic neighborhood in New York City, the son of two former clergy (a monk and nun) who were very spiritual liberal pacifist liberation-theology churchgoing christians. I had fantastic models of Christian living in my life, many of them clergy and former clergy (what we called “religious”…ugghh.) Jesus was pure love and good-stuff; there was no fire and no brimstone. I never heard most of the stories of the OT, considered eschatology or knew anyone who had been “born anew.” I’d only read the passages of the Bible that were read aloud during the liturgical-calendar readings, and what I was given to read in studying for my Confirmation.

At the age of 15, while working in our church rectory at nights, I realized that I did not believe in any of it, or God. I still took it seriously, though, so out of respect for the Mass, and the earnestness of people like my parents, I stopped going to church. There was another 15 years of that, with a brief and pathetic attempt at buddhism about halfway through that time. If someone called me an agnostic or a lapsed catholic, I would argue vociferously that I was neither. I was a secular humanist atheist.

To try to make a conversion story short, about seven years ago, I realized that I did, in fact, believe in God, and needed him in my life. I still was probably just a theist, until actually reading the Gospels, by myself (on the bus!) a number of times, which converted me to the Way. I was baptized in the Long Island Sound, with my house church family watching from the rocky little Bronx beach, on Easter Sunday 2006.

I have struggled, in my “amateur missiology,” to rectify the scriptural narratives of human origins with my strong belief in the general Truth of anthropology and biology. Without getting into the whole debate, I do believe that there are many passages in the apocalyptic writings of the OT and NT which point toward a restoration of an “original paradise,” but I cannot connect that desire and prophecy to my belief in the science of human origins, which would not ever allow for any time in early human history as having been better, in almost any way (with the possible exceptions of pollution and processed foods.) In terms of the ethics of God, it has never made sense to me that God’s Creation would be perfect, and then an immediate failure, that we and all of creation would continue to pay for the sin of Adam (or that this could be removed with a sacrament.)

I see, when I am true to my personal worldview, a general slow progression of morality and the practical application of “loving one another” in history. Finally reading the stories of the OT reinforced this view, the brutality and almost absurd immorality that was normal in the ancient world is described in detail in the Jewish scripture (although it is vividly described in pagan writings as well.)

In my view, God created a people, the Hebrews, through Abraham, who were ready for Him to intervene more directly, as a Witness for Him to the world. They also chose Him, though like most things in history, there was always the dialectic of a counter-force in their society. That counter-force was Satan, who always offered the hedonism and power-pride of the mystery cults. The mystery cults were the norm, but God re-cast them as the temptation of the Enemy. He was elevating the standards, guiding the moral progress of the peoples that He had chosen, at the crossroads of the Indo-European and African worlds, to be His Witness. (Isaiah 43:10)
People who were going to, for no apparent reason, write this struggle down and preserve it.

His Mission, in this age of human history, was to create a Witness to Himself, to speak through the Prophets and intervene more directly in the history of this people, so that their struggles and moral triumphs would speak to His true intention for humanity, which was far above His beautiful creation of Nature and the Cosmos. We are meant to be His triumph, because we, unlike the animals or plants, will have freely chosen to be better than we were before. Not out of competition or mutation, but rather out of collective Love and Reason.

Dare I say all of this… but I will…. His chosen people failed to even try to spread that Truth of Him and His need for a better humanity. Humanity needed a much more direct intervention, or the hedonism and power-lust of the Evil One would simply prevail, even within the chosen people. God was probably angered by the lack of effort to spread knowledge of Him, I am okay with that, but that anger, to me, would have to do with a certain….lack of understanding of His Creation. (I know that sounds heretical, but hear me out…)

How does the creator of the Universe know…what it is to not know? It creates a logical conundrum – how does an all-good omniscient Being know what it is to be a tempt-able, cosmically ignorant human? There is only one good, but still surprising, solution to that problem for God – Incarnation.

God came into this realm to be one of us, to tell us what He’d really wanted us to do, redirect the chosen people, and understand “where we are at.” He showed us the depths of His own self-sacrificial Love as a model for us to follow. He showed us what a true King is, not a lover of power and lust and control, but rather a Suffering Servant, one who conquers through self-assured Sacrifice. It became necessary for Him to plant the seed which offered the alternative Way to the way we were headed, the way of evil self-destruction.

In the End, as Jesus stated, many will still follow the Evil One, many already have, all of humanity is judged via the Inspiration behind Romans 2, and we are all judged by the Law which God has placed in our hearts, as humans. God’s Mission, and ours, as christians, is to increase the awareness of Him and His higher calling to moral Love and societal Justice. Many of us people will ignore this, and when God’s story reaches its climax, He will end it with a spectacular final scene; in which the opposing forces of Satan and Goodness will conflict in a way which will end all things as we know it, and judge what we know and have been. His Mission, christians know, is fulfilled in the Resurrection, that triumph which is reserved for His ultimate command of our story.
Then we will have our Eden.
This makes perfect sense….. to me. :>}

Another Perspective on the Mission of God  

Posted by Greg McKinzie in , ,

I grew up in a number of Church of Christ congregations ranging from highly traditional (i.e., rural, patternist, and sectarian) to middle-of-the-road (i.e., urban, attractional, and kind-hearted but essentially traditional in form and thought). If, in younger years, I had been forced to say what Christian missions was, I would have said something about teaching the Bible so people could be saved from their sins in order to avoid the punishment of a God forced by his very nature to deal out retributive justice (Hell). Not that he wanted to; the nature of holiness forced his hand. God was basically saying, “Don’t make me pull this car over!” and missions was getting people the right knowledge (proclamation), which led to being legally off the hook (or off the cross, if you like)--through Baptism by immersion for the forgiveness of sins, of course. The mission of the church, then, was to effect verbally in the lives of individuals the imputed forensic justification available through the substitutionary death of Christ. Although there were other restorationist elements involved, this way my basic view of what God was after.

By virtue of my biblical studies I began to see more clearly what was at stake and to shed many old assumptions. Further experiences in short-term missions simultaneously opened my eyes to the inadequacy of a technical-salvation-from-sin-driven mission. I mention the generalized movement of my own thinking before launching into a brief description of my present understanding of mission, because although our stories are personal, they may be indicative of the whole community’s movement to something post-restorationist in terms of mission. Although my early belief was actually very evangelical in contour, there is plenty of discussion as to whether the SCM has been or is basically evangelical and thus implicitly whether post-restorationist also means post-evangelical in some sense (see Kevin VanHoozer, The Drama of Doctrine for a great discussion of “post-evangelical” theology).

As I see it now, it is necessary to start with the notion of missio Dei--that the mission is essentially and properly God’s. That God is doing something is the basic datum, and that the people of God are permitted and expected to participate is the corollary that emerges in the narrative of Scripture. What we perceive God to be doing, therefore, is determinative for our articulation of mission. One of the most insightful terms I have encountered in the conversation about mission is coined by Chris Wright in his Mission of God. It is “teleological monotheism,” which handily sums up a number of things at the core of mission. Most basically, mission is about a telos: a goal, purpose, or aim. Movement toward an end characterizes everything God does. He does not simply sustain to sustain, for example, but sustains purposefully. This is the Christian sense of reality that makes “missional” a hopeful framework for emerging God-talk. Also, the particularly Christian nature of mission is rooted in the narrative that assumes the only God, Yahweh of Israel, is the one working his agenda, calling and sending his people to bring it to fulfillment.

Like many, in the course of my theological formation it became evident that a latent Platonic dualism had shaped my assumptions about what God is doing, and having challenged that dualism, a whole new vista emerged that made much more sense experientially. If from a “biblical worldview” (how’s that for a metanarrative?!) it makes no sense to think in terms of salvation of the “soul” or “spirit” apart from the body, then God’s redemptive work must be understood holistically. What he is doing is saving the whole creation, including the whole person. God’s mission is holistic.

But there is more than one way to come at this, as I see it. On one hand, we may look at the ministry of Jesus as paradigmatic (“As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world” Jn 17.18) and thus understand the proclamation in word and deed (as well as the proleptic realization) of “the Kingdom of God” to be the definitive representation of God’s mission. On the other hand, a comprehensive biblical theology of salvation lays bare the variety of language (often metaphors) used to designate the multifaceted telos of God sometimes described blandly as salvation. This is seen in Paul alone, in fact, where ideas ranging from inclusion in the covenant people to forgiveness of guilt to relational reconciliation to resurrection into new creation are present, to name a few. Accordingly, as this realization has gained acceptance, a broad but representative phrase has become common currency in English: God is “setting things right.” Indeed, the Kingdom on earth as in the heavens is creation set right--the restoration of all things. This is truly biblical restoration; this is God’s mission.

A Perspective on God’s Mission  

Posted by Adam in , ,

For at least 2/3 of my life, I had an easy answer to the question “What is God’s mission in the world?” I thought the answer was obvious. I honestly can’t remember anyone overtly teaching me the answer I would have given. It was easily assumed, and commonly held. After giving a blank stare and blinking a few times, I would have responded, “Saving souls.” If I had been asked to unpack my simple answer, I’d have wondered what rock you had been hiding under, and then said something like:

People have an immortal spiritual essence (component) called a “soul”. Because of the bad choices that all individual humans make, this spiritual essence is bound of an eternity of after-life torment in Hell. However, God has made a way through Jesus for our “souls” to be saved from this fate, and instead experience an afterlife of disembodied bliss in Heaven. One need only believe, follow the prescribed “steps” to accept one’s salvation, and stay out of trouble to change their eternal destiny. That’s all God’s really after in this world. He wants individuals to agree with the right ideas, and behave themselves, so that their “souls” will have a desirable afterlife.

My handy little definition of God’s mission served me well for a while. The really nice thing was that my main responsibility in regards to the mission was to make sure that I personally agreed with the “right” ideas, followed the “right” steps and reasonably behaved myself so that my fate in the afterlife was secure. Everything else seemed irrelevant. Even the idea of somehow participating in God’s mission to others, while a “good” thing to do, was rendered superfluous. I was oblivious to the more holistic Jewish understanding of a “soul”, and more oblivious to how much the definition that fed my spirit/matter dualism owed to Greek philosophy.

Eventually though, my simple and self-serving definition began to crumble. Among other things, as a sophomore in college I accompanied my father on a month-long mission trip to Ukraine. It was a paradigm-shifting, life-altering event that shook me to my core. Upon my return to the United States, I found my self-absorbed, afterlife-centered faith to be unsustainable, and the anemic, ethereal “god” it served to be unworthy of both worship and devotion. Unfortunately, both that version of faith and that understanding of God appeared to be prevalent in the church in North America. I thus came to a fork in the road: one path led away from Christianity and church altogether, and the other was the rocky and dangerous path of an active catalyst for change. One was a path of abandonment, while the other was the path of exploration. I chose the later.

My exploration of Scripture, Theology and history has led me toward a different understanding of God’s mission in the world. Theology enabled me to begin to see the narrative of scripture as a whole. No longer content to mine scripture for propositions and steps, I began to see a thread that ran throughout the entire story. In the Creation narratives, God tasks the human beings He created with bearing his image to the rest of his creation. Those humans make a selfish choice that throws the harmony of God’s creation into fractured chaos. Prior to that choice, creation is characterized by perfect harmony; between God and humans, between humans and other humans, and between humans and God’s creation. Human beings were able to find their value from the harmony that characterized their existence. After the choice was made, that harmony was shattered in all of its dimensions, and the world became a very different place. However, God would not be undone. As the world descended into chaos, God called a man we know as Abraham into a special relationship. Through Abraham, God would bring forth a people for Himself. God would bless them, and they would BE a blessing to the nations. In short, they were to bear God’s image; to reflect who God is. In spite of their noble calling and miraculous beginning, the people of God tend to be more interested in getting blessed than being a blessing to anyone else. Things don’t go so well for them in general because they tend to see their election as indicating favored status rather than as a commissioning. Even so, God does not give up on either his people or his mission in the world. God delivers them again and again, that they might live into their destiny. Eventually, God acts in a way that defies their imaginations, in order to move beyond the impasse. As his people cry out under the iron-fisted oppression of Rome, God became a human being. The Creator of all that is came into the world as an embryo in the womb of a teenage girl. Her song in the gospel of Luke, proclaims the redemptive work that she believed was being enacted by this incarnation. She believed that things were being set right; that the powerful would be torn down from their thrones while the humble are exalted; that the overfed would be left empty while the hungry would have their fill; that God was remembering His people and His promise. Her son grew into the man we know as Jesus, and powerfully proclaimed and enacted the Good News that God’s Kingdom is at hand; that it is “near”. He looked forward toward a time when “all things” would be “renewed”. Eventually, he was executed by the empire and the religious leaders of his own people. However, the grave doesn’t hold him. Whereas his life modeled the Way God intended His mission-oriented people to live, his death and resurrection open the door for all humans to become a part of this missional community, and free them from both the cycle of their sin and the threat of death. Liberated from guilt and fear, they are thus enabled to partner with God in His mission of the restoration of all things to the harmony that was lost in all of its dimensions. They are free to join God in reconciling the world to Himself.