"Before you can search for truth, you must be interested in finding it." -Miroslav Volf

Thursday, June 30, 2011

A Missed Opportunity

Upon hearing a rather friendly-sounding knock at the door the other night, I opened the door to see a nicely dressed, twenty-something young man, possessing some kind of odd combination of excitement yet hip, laid-back coolness. He tapped his chest a couple times, asking me if I “knew anything about this,” pointing to the name on his nametag—the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.

I said that I did know a little bit. He asked me what I knew. At that point I realized I just wasn’t in the mood, reflected in my short answers. It was only like 8:30 or so, but I was in my PJs, watching X-Men 2 with my wife for the first time (she’s getting me caught up on the series) and about to enjoy her just-made “raspberry desert,” as she calls it.

There are times where I might relish the opportunity for religious dialogue; it’s one of those things I’m “about,” I think. I enjoy learning more about others’ faiths and helping them more clearly and truthfully understand my own, and I love what potential for good there is when enemies put down their swords, so to speak.

But now wasn’t a good time. I told him I was a Seminary graduate, and a Quaker, and had studied religion a bit and had acquired some knowledge of Mormonism throughout my life. I thought it interesting that I identified as a Quaker, since I don’t usually identify with a particular Christian tribe in that way, believing myself to be more of a denominational mutt at this point, though probably more in line with something like moderate Quakerism than anything else.

Maybe I felt like “Christian” was too vague and wanted to show him I had actually thought through my beliefs and opinions and values.

He acknowledged my words, then asked me again what I knew. Really not interested in talking at the moment, I just told him again, “oh, I know a little bit.” Then I apologetically told him I really wasn’t interested in talking right now, as I was busy.

Which was truthfully what I felt and wanted. He suggested I come check out the Mormon Church some time. I kind of smiled and lightly chuckled and told him thanks, and wished him good luck in his conversations. And I meant that.

I respect what he and his buddy I could see out in the parking lot were doing, even if I’m not sure that seeking to draw others to your religious faith in a manner similar to Amway salespeople is the best approach. At least it’s not my style and understanding of the best way to live one’s faith.

But I get it. I assume, giving him the benefit of the doubt, that he really believes in this message and sees the goodness of his faith and wants others to experience it. I can’t blame him for what he is doing. If you believe that people’s lives and futures would be better off if they adhered to your religion or worldview, and that loss or sorrow or disappointment await them should they not, then perhaps you’d do anything to spread your message.

It’s possible his role as a missionary is not that rosy, and he does it because he feels obligated to. Then again, some obligations can be for a greater good, even if we are giving up our will for a time to serve the greater community or to do what we feel God wants of us. So again, I respect what he’s doing, and I get it.

Problem is—and I hate to sound closed-minded or overconfident—I really can’t see myself becoming Mormon. I believe I could learn from Mormons, more about God, Jesus, myself, humankind, what constitutes a good and meaningful life, how to love, etc. On another night, I might have been interested in such learning.

But I guess I kind of assume he was interested in teaching and not learning, which makes true dialogue difficult, and I also assume that he wouldn’t have been all that enthused about talking about God together, had I told him at the outset that I was confident I wouldn’t be “converted.” Maybe that’s not fair, and he would have loved such dialogue.

But all of that said, I haven’t even mentioned the nature of the “missed opportunity” alluded to in the title of this post. I’m not referring to a missed chance to share my faith, or to learn more about God, or anything like that. No, I’m realizing I missed a prime opportunity to make my continually nagging dream for my life to be a musical a momentary reality.

When he asked me what I knew about Mormonism I only later realized, with the help of my wife, how I truly should have responded—in song:

“I believe that the Lord, God, created the universe

I believe that He sent His only Son to die for my sins

And I believe that ancient Jews built boats and sailed to America

I am a Mormon—and a Mormon just believes.

And more:

“I believe that God has a plan for all of us

I believe that plan involves me getting my own planet

And I believe that the current President of the Church,

Thomas Monson, speaks directly to God

I am a Mormon—and, dang it! A Mormon just believes!”

For those of you like my wife who know theater, or perhaps watched this year’s Tony awards, you probably know that those are some of the lyrics from this year’s Tony-award winning musical “The Book of Mormon.”

Oh how perfect it would have been to have broken into song; when will I have a moment like that again? Maybe the missionary would have joined me in song, and we would have gone skipping around the parking lot together, grinning from ear to ear.

A missed opportunity, indeed.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Ten-Year Reunion Reflections

This past Saturday was Woodland High School Class of 2001’s Ten-Year Reunion. I was so unbelievably curious, even nervously excited about what the experience would be like. I feel that, like many life experiences, my expectations were not really met, forcing me afterwards to judge the experience not by whether or not it met my expectations but by some other standard.

I’m still processing the 3-4 hour gathering at Big Al’s in Vancouver, not totally sure what to think of it. It was really a bit surreal, and I can’t quite think of the word for it at the moment, other than “odd.” But that makes it sound bad. More accurately, the night was kind of a mix of good and bad…


  • The waitress forgot one of my drinks, and brought me a free pint as compensation. Yay.
  • I recognized all but one classmate (was a little nervous about this beforehand). Percentage-wise, that’s an A! Her hair was red; it used to be dark.
  • I had a brief but touching (for me) conversation with a classmate who seemed to have faced a few more challenges than one often faces in their early to mid-twenties, yet who seemed to possess such a peaceful, regretless attitude about his life, able to see the value in his experiences and count his challenges as lessons learned. I'm sure many others that night, had I talked with them at length, would have displayed a similar gain in that kind of wisdom that seems to come mainly through trial and tribulation.
  • For the most part, I was really proud of my classmates for being friendly and kind to each other, mostly crossing old social lines that can be really hurtful for some in high school. I know not everyone’s an extrovert, but I saw several classmates eager to make others feel noticed, included, and cared for. (BUT, see “Bad” section below.)
  • As I mentioned elsewhere a couple days ago, the conversation between my nuclear engineer and environmental lawyer friends (Sarah and Amanda) was especially fun. I mostly listened and, with the help of best buddy Brad, playfully heckled. But it’s fun to see the paths classmates have taken and what they’ve made of their lives thus far. A lot of that discovery of self and vocation happens after high school, so it’s not always clear who people are “becoming” when they are teenagers. It’s inspiring to see people who are doing something they really believe in and love.


  • I told a couple people that the person I was most looking forward to seeing was Wes Sadlier. I’m not totally sure why. We were on a lot of baseball teams together growing up and eventually golfing buddies later in high school. But Wes didn’t come. Where art thou, Wes Sadlier? You broke my heart this weekend.
  • The food was great…Mexican-style buffet. But I was too distracted by catching up with people and was too giddy and nervously excited to eat. That combined with bowling only one game didn’t exactly allow me to get my money’s worth in activities. But time with old friends is priceless, or something.
  • Despite my praise for my classmates, I could sense a little bit of discomfort for some about old groups. On one hand, it’s natural to flock to your friends, your own social group, your cliques. On the other hand, outsiders often have a hard time breaking in when established groups don’t make the effort to open wide the doors. This is one thing that often disappoints me about churches that are heavily made up of young people; my experience is that they don’t excel at greeting and welcoming new faces, often preferring the comforts of what is familiar.
  • There were 24 (25? 26?) of my classmates there out of (I think) 107 with whom I graduated. That was a bit disappointing. Some I’m sure couldn’t make it because of geographical distance. Some may have had babysitting issues. The cost, maybe. Some probably were just indifferent about the event (hard for me to imagine as excited as I was). Some may not have known about it, because of the use of Facebook to advertise it (there are still people not on Facebook, believe it or not). Sadly, some may have not come out of some kind of fear, shame, embarrassment, or avoidance; I hope the number of this last type of absentee was few.


  • Mike Rogers’ first interaction with my wife was not a hello or handshake, but the classic tap-the-shoulder-and walk-the-other-way move that has fooled many throughout human history. Nice work, Mike.
  • Joanna Johnson didn’t exactly leap for joy when my wife Joann’s first comment to her was “Joanna, weather girl, right?” (in reference to her “role” in my morning video broadcast that was part quasi-news show and part outlet for my buddies’ and my humor and imagination. Apparently she doesn’t want to be remembered as the “weather girl.”)
  • I beat my wife and the four others in my lane at bowling. So, I’m awesome, I guess.
  • The experience reminded me of the “Lost” finale in ways, except I don’t believe anyone had to wait outside to face their un-dealt-with demons before being ready to enter. I didn’t see Wes Sadlier. Maybe he was outside dealing with his demons.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

A Cooking Post! Dinner At the Boswell's

As I sit on our patio savoring a gorgeous day, our slow cooker is at work inside, preparing tonight's dinner of some kind of stew I improvised with pork, red potatoes, baby carrots, frozen peas, onion, garlic cloves, seasoning salt, pepper, and two different kinds of Mrs. Dash. We’ve had the slow cooker for months, but this is only the second time I’ve used it; I just recently discovered how easy and convenient it is. What I’ve been missing!

And I started thinking about the ways that marriage has brought with it many new dishes for both Joann and I, each of us having obvious preferences in what foods we like to prepare as well as consume. We share the cooking load, and I’d say we do a decent job of catering to one another. As Joann usually explains it, I prepare a lot more meat and vegetable based meals, while her specialties are casseroles and "breakfast."

The following are some of the cooking “highlights” and “staples” from the past 10 ½ months of marriage (wow…about a week longer than the amount of time I spent in China).

  • Pulled Pork Sandwiches (Matt, highlight). This was my first use of the slow cooker a couple weeks ago. I basically just added some barbecue sauce, garlic, onions, spices, and let it sit. The result was delicious!
  • Burritos (Matt, staple). I would lump in nachos, quesadillas, and various Mexican bowls with this, though burritos are the most common form "Mexican night" takes. We could do Mexican just about every night actually. This is one of my dishes that requires a “Joann version” and “Matt version” be made. Joann’s typical burrito includes beans, chicken, cheese, tomatoes, olives, garnished with lettuce and sour cream. Mine includes the same but with bell peppers, Anaheim peppers, onions, and loads of salsa and pico de gallo added.
  • Peas (Joann, staple). This isn’t a dish, but it deserves mentioning as an obvious difference in preference between the two of us. Joann’s favorite vegetable seems to be peas, though I’m usually not satisfied by peas alone. Peas are one of those foods I eat rapidly just to get them off my plate so I can settle down and enjoy my meal. I usually steam broccoli on “pea night” to supplement the meal. Joann doesn’t care much for broccoli, except sometimes raw. She likes the way I prepare fresh green beans…cooked in oil (or often butter), seasoned and crunchy.
  • Waffles (Joann, staple). Waffle night usually includes bacon and eggs, which I generally leave to Joann for the prepping. She makes a mean waffle. Or the waffle-maker makes a mean waffle. Joann and the waffle-maker combine forces to make a mean waffle. Blueberries often make a nice addition when cooked into the waffles.
  • German Pear Puff Pancake (Joann, highlight). Keeping with the breakfast theme, Joann occasionally makes this dish which is more of an egg-based pancake. And the high amount of fruit and eggs makes us feel like it’s an extremely healthy dish. Joann says it is healthy. I’m not sure, but I want to believe it is, considering my usual portion size whenever she cooks this.
  • Chinese (Matt, staple-ish). I realize now that this has not been as a frequent a dish in recent weeks. It seemed like back in the Fall, we on multiple occasions had some friends over for Chinese, allowing me to really go all out and prepare some of my favorite dishes consumed during my time in China, like green peppers and pork, sweet and sour chicken, and various other veggie dishes, with rice. Chinese night has kind of morphed into some kind of Asian fusion night, usually involving chicken and veggies with peanut sauce poured over noodles. Lazy man’s Asian.
  • Pop-up Pizza. (Joann, highlight). “Highlight” as in memorable, not necessarily excellent. Joann probably made the best pop-up pizza—kind of like lasagna but more bread-y than noodle-y—one can find; I just don’t think it’ll ever be a favorite for me. But I think it’s a Whittaker family thing, and I’m a sucker for nostalgia, even if it’s somebody else's nostalgia.
  • Grilled Cheese and Tomato Soup. (Joann, staple). Joann’s comfort food. She knows to add tomato slices to mine so I’ll feel like it’s a more balanced meal.
  • Pasta (both, staple). I think I’ve made more of the pasta recently, though we’ve shared the load on this one. I’ve recently discovered cold pasta salad…I believe I made it with whole-grain penne, grilled chicken, olives, carrots, tomatoes, cucumbers, and some kind of herb-basil dressing. Joann prefers her warm pasta with butter and parmesan; I’m a tomato sauce guy.
  • Chicken and potatoes (Matt, staple). Our standard, “we had Mexican last night, didn’t we?” follow-up dinner. I like to make barbecued chicken. Though we don’t actually own a barbecue; I use the Foreman grill and add barbecue sauce. So I guess it’s not really barbecued chicken, technically. Also found a hickory-bacon-onion ranch-like dressing that I like to add to the potatoes when grilling.
  • Cod (Matt, highlight). I don’t cook fish often, but decided to “Jabez” my meat cooking repertoire. The first attempt was cooking tilapia, because tilapia was cheap. It was bad. I may have done it wrong, and I tried seasoning it in different ways or disguising it with other ingredients (as in fish burritos)…or maybe tilapia just is bad, cheap fish. So I upgraded to cod, baking it with spices, lemon, and crumbling up some wheat thins over the top...amazing! It may have actually just been average to above average fish, but I think I was so pleased with myself for successfully cooking fish that the thrill of victory made the fish seem more glamorous.

And a couple non-dinner items:

  • Cheesecake (Joann, highlight). Joann made probably the best homemade cheesecake I’ve ever tasted for my birthday. It was amazing. She made too much though, and I gained some weight that week before we threw the rest of the second cheesecake away.
  • Pumpkin bread (Joann, highlight). Another Joann specialty. We love the pumpkin bread sold at Batdorf and Bronson’s, a local coffee shop, which inspired Joann to make her own. Which, of course, was better than Batdorf’s, especially the time she added cranberries.

So there’s a sampling. Joann, did I miss anything significant? Anything you'd add?

Also, any suggestions from others for how we can expand our “menu” this summer? Any good dish recommendations that might fit either of our styles (or expand on our styles?)

Oh...I also know how to order a mean Papa's Murphy's pizza.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Boswell Duo Makes its Theatrical Debut

Some of you may have already seen some of these pics on Joann’s facebook page, but I wanted to include a few here. Last Friday night was Tumwater High School’s “Oscar Night,” the annual awards ceremony for the theater department.

Joann presented most of the awards, with the help of her able-bodied assistant, myself, finding and organizing trophies for her (reprising my role as the “Lovely Boz”…pardon the obscure reference...where art thou, Steven Keck?).

We also performed a duet together, I believe the first time we’ve both sang and acted for an audience. Though, sometimes we do converse with each other when others are around as if we had an audience. It’s the actress in her, I guess, and the needy-for-attention child in me, probably.

We did our own rendition of “He Lives in You” from the Lion King Musical. Joann played the baboon sage and did the majority of the singing, using song to explain to me, the young, confused lion, my true identity. I spent most of the time “discovering myself,” learning how to be a lion while also goofing off. It was a true straight-woman, funny man comic duo.

You can see our costumes in the pictures; mine featured a stuffed lion duct taped to my head, which was of course a crowd pleaser. We had a blast. The “story” we told was fun, the harmonies were solid, and our interaction was pretty darn funny...if I may boast. And the students loved it. One male student actually proposed to me after our performance. I politely declined, of course.

In reviewing our performance together, Joann differentiated for me two kinds of actors (not the only two kinds). There are actors who take direction well and when on stage adhere pretty strictly to the script, not being so lost in the moment that they forget their precisely prepared movements and cues and lines.

Then there are actors who take direction well but once on stage lose themselves and take things in whatever direction they feel like in the heat of the moment, often thwarting the director's work but being nonetheless entertaining. She tells me I’m that one.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Religious Joke of the Day

I actually heard about this on sports radio yesterday, though it has nothing to do with sports. It's a conversation between an Australian interviewer and the Dalai Lama. What a magnificently, uncomfortable moment. Though it is a pretty good joke.

I would say the Dalai Lama might be one of the five living people I'd like to have coffee with. Hopefully I can come up with an equally clever joke...even if the DL doesn't quite get it. Some things get lost in translation.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Catching (Caught) Up On My 2011 Reading (Pts VIII & IX): MacIntyre, "After Virtue" (and Hauerwas, "God, Medicine, and Suffering")

This concludes my “catch-up” posts, as I just finished this book yesterday. I won't comment on God, Medicine, and Suffering by Stanley Hauerwas which I read just before After Virtue because I actually wrote a Hauerwas-inspired post a couple weeks back: Would You Want To Know the Hour?

Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue, 3rd Ed (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2007)

These two books are in a way linked: I actually discovered this book through Hauerwas, who frequently cites MacIntyre in his work. This was heavy material, and I’m still digesting it and probably need to revisit the chunks I highlighted to make sure I know what on earth I just read. It is a long, deep, philosophical and historical argument filled with several words that required use of a dictionary.

The (Relatively) Short, Simplified Version

1) Historically, morality has been connected to traditions and communities. A community learns what actions are right or wrong by understanding the purpose or “telos”(end/goal) of the individual life and of the community, and by living in line with that goal.

2) When one identifies with a tradition—the way a particular community has acted throughout its history—one discovers examples of how people have acted in various situations and challenges, thus learning what is moral.

3) In the modern and postmodern ages, traditions have been shunned and dismissed as stifling or unnecessarily binding; the modern man or woman is free to determine his or her own sense of right and wrong, and pretty much has; liberal individualism seems to demand this freedom.

4) People from Kant to Marx to Nietzsche tried to find ways of justifying morality, attempts which MacIntyre argues have failed. There are constantly conflicting opinions of what is good and right action, and there are no consistent, logical means of determining what is right. Moral confusion abounds.

5) The best way forward is to rediscover "virtue"—displaying "excellence" in one's behavior/actions in a way that benefits both the individual and the community.

6) This requires gaining a “narrative understanding” or our lives which dismisses the individualism and self-made attitude of our time and sees how our lives are parts of traditions and of stories and are themselves stories that have a purpose and progression and “telos” toward which we move.

7) The most fulfilling life for ourselves and for others comes from learning to develop these virtues in our lives alongside others; virtues find their meaning in the context of a community or tradition. In other words—you don’t just not cheat on your wife "just because," but because you understand how it is both harmful to yourself and harmful to the social network or larger community and shared history of which you are a part—it affects others, affects future generations, and does not fit the framework of right actions that help sustain and enrich communities and individual lives.

Okay…I think I got the gist of what he was saying. The book disappointed me in that it didn’t give the kind of clear-cut roadmap I expected. But that’s fine, because it at least was a starting point that I think I’d like to research and reflect upon more. But I think what MacIntyre implies but doesn't outright say is that the leaders of such a movement in our time should be the Church.

Possible Implications for the Church

Now I could be misunderstanding the nature of virtue theory and of what MacIntyre is arguing for, but I’ll give it a stab. The Church, in some respects, seems like it’s already doing what MacIntyre calls for. The Church is a long tradition of morality, giving its present members guidelines for right living that have been practiced for centuries.

Well, maybe. It’s certainly a tradition of beliefs and rituals: we rehearse the Lord’s Supper, we read the Scriptures, we sings songs, we recite creeds, and we meditate on the work of Christ. And we remind ourselves, in sermons and in Sunday School, of our core beliefs. “What should we think and believe?” is a key question asked and answered. And often “how should we live?” is asked too.

But you’ll hear many people, inside and outside of the Church, rant about how Christianity is about sin-management, about rule-keeping. It’s about don’ts. If you avoid these things, you’ll be fine. I don’t think this is an entirely fair criticism as there are a lot of Christian communities out there doing wonderful things by way of service, outreach, compassionate acts, volunteering, etc.

But it’s not wholly misguided. A segment of the Church expresses much of its attitudes through negatives: “don’t sleep with anyone besides your spouse. Don’t be gay. Don’t abort babies ever. Don’t swear. Don’t get drunk. Don’t not tithe.” Much of contemporary Christianity is not like this, though maybe you recognize what I'm talking about.

But the difference I see between morals and virtues is a differences of negation and action, of don’ts and do’s, of avoidance and disciplined obedience. Being moral tends to mean that you are not guilty of a variety of sins…doesn’t it? But being virtuous, on the other hand, I think is not about what you’re avoiding; it’s about having the kind character or being the kind of person that habitually does what is good and right.

Being a person of virtue means you’re driven by whatever it is your community or tradition defines as virtuous: maybe courage, justice, honesty, maybe faith, hope and love, maybe temperance and prudence, maybe humility or charity, to name some of the classic virtues.

Why Be Virtuous?

I think a lot of people, those like Dallas Willard, Richard Foster, Phyllis Tickle, and many others who—as MacIntyre hints at—are encouraging something like Benedictine spirituality that aims at the fostering of virtues and the development of character in the context of a supportive community that encourages and gives an outlet for such actions.

I know some do react to these movements, and say that this is a sort of works-righteousness, an effort to save ourselves rather than let God save us. But I don’t think the point of virtuous living is the salvation of one’s soul from damnation. I can at the moment think of three incentives to “train” and “discipline” oneself to become the kind of person that “does justly and loves mercy and walks humbly with thy God.”

One, God calls us to it...to act like Jesus, a man who seems to have succeeded at being a pretty “good” guy. We don’t just praise the man Jesus because of the sins and temptations he avoided, though he did; we admire him for his courage, compassion, prudence, and justice, and how these virtues were evident in all his interactions. He, either by divine intervention or by rigorous spiritual training (or a mix), had the kind of character that lead to right and “moral” actions.

Two, I believe being an ambassador of the mission of God, of God’s Kingdom, of God’s will, means not just announcing that God is love and that God saves, but living a life that points to such love and salvation working itself out in my own life. And three, I can imagine that a life in which I was more filled with love, with humility, with courage, with wisdom, etc., would be more rewarding and fulfilling for me and for other people.

The task of “virtue training” in the church is not something I really know much about, nor can I imagine the practical outworking of it very well…but it intrigues me.

Discerning Morality as a Community

There’s one more thing in all this that interests me. Not only is this about virtuous actions by individuals; it’s about communities learning to make judgments together on what is good and right in a given situation. From a more moral standpoint, the Christian tradition, at least that of which I’ve been a part, has usually answered moral challenges with the response, “well, what does the Bible say?”

Many are not content with such a response, however. A lot of folks writing today talk about the need to see the Bible not as a “constitution” but as a “library.” What they mean is that the Bible should not be seen as a hard-fast rulebook in which rules from that time can simply be transposed to the present, without alteration (constitution).

Instead, they say, the Bible should be seen as a library, a wealth of resources to which we can turn to examine how people faithful to God in the past have lived virtuous lives, good lives, and have made choices and developed rules for their communities—be it ancient Israel or the early Church—that allowed them to live in the kind of peace and loving community and fulfilling life that is pleasing to both humans and to God.

So…when a community is determining right actions by virtues, I think the questions they ask become different, and sometimes the conclusions as well. Example: sex before marriage. The “moral approach” is simple: don’t do it, the Bible says so.

The “virtue approach”—as I understand it or at least as I’ve “extended” it here as I’ve interpreted its implications—might say something more like, “let’s look at how those in our religious tradition have tended to deal with this, from the Bible through the various eras of the Church to now; and let’s also consider your (our) intentions and motivations, what will most benefit the person involved, and what will most benefit others; then we can as a group of people dialogue about what right action might look like.”

Maybe it seems a complicated way to decide something. Maybe the conclusions will be the same as the moral approach: don’t have sex before marriage. But maybe there are a whole other host of issues that we might look at differently when considered from the standpoint of virtue theory (gay marriage comes to mind) or issues where perhaps actions depend on context (lying, for example).

The Gist (You Should Have Just Scrolled Down To This Part)

So it seems “recovering virtues” as MacIntyre tries to do, involves both individual and communal components: fostering character traits that transcend situations but inform how you act in a given situation (courage, love, justice); and fostering communities that discern together how to act “morally” or rightly or godly in a given situation, based on those transcendent virtues believed to be virtues either because the tradition or community decided they were, or because God has revealed to humans what qualities are virtuous, through prophets, messengers, inspired writers, and in Jesus himself.

So…there it is. Probably don’t read the book, unless you’re a nerd like me and into that kind of torture, I mean, fun. But it might be worth looking into how religious communities are exploring this topic of virtue today.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Catching Up On My 2011 Reading (Pt VII): Brueggemann, "The Prophetic Imagination"

Walter Brueggemann, The Prophetic Imagination, 2nd Ed (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Fortress, 2001)

The Old Testament has become so much more fascinating for me in recent years. And not the parts of the Old Testament little boys and girls learn in Sunday School growing up about arks and whales and slaying giants. Thanks in part to a spectacular Old Testament professor at seminary (Dr. Delamarter) as well as some books and articles I’ve read in recent years, I’ve discovered a lot of depth in the OT prophetic writings.

Whereas before I would often skim over these sections, either bored by the ranting and negativity, or puzzled by what seemed like an angry God, or just confused by what to do with these “future-predictors,” I have more recently found a great deal of inspiration in these writings.

Scholars like Brueggemann have helped make a lot more sense out of what it was the prophets were trying to do and have made those often ignored sections of the Old Testament seem more relevant than ever to life today. And they've helped me synthesize a bit better what at times had seemed like two different Gods in the Old and New Testaments, or maybe a God who had a sort of mid-life crisis and decided to, evidenced in Jesus, change his whole attitude toward humans.

I’ve become dissatisfied with the dichotomy of Old Testament angry God equals versus New Testament loving God. I see in the Old Testament a very inspiring vision of God’s relationship with and hopes for God’s people. I see God’s desire to bring justice. Not justice in the sense of an eagerness to punish “evildoers” or those who oppose “God’s people” but justice in the sense of setting right economic imbalances, dethroning oppressive regimes, and creating a world free of suffering and conflict...a God committed to setting things right.

I see God’s eagerness for a community that is a light to others. Not a community that is legalistic in a way where people feel bound, un-free, like life is about constant restraint, but a community with rules and guidelines set up for the good and health of the whole community, guidelines that will lead to full life, healthy relationships, and will enable that community to be a source of hope and love to the world in all its tragedy and injustice.

And I see a God who, because of such devotion to this community, does not simply tell these people, “well, it’s alright that you’re not perfect, because I love you.” I hear something much more like “you people need to get it together because your actions are such a far cry from what you could be, from what I hope for you, and you are destroying yourselves by the choices you are making…the world needs you to be better.” Yes, wrath…but wrath not as an end, but as a means of energizing people toward right living and obedience to God.

I think in the past I’ve felt a tendency to be a bit about shy about the God seen in the Old Testament (am I alone?), like I need to apologize for God. But I’ve come to see the continuity between the God of Israel and the God of the Church, even discovering more deeply how truly prophetic Jesus was.

For as tender and compassionate as Jesus was, Jesus had the fire of a prophet, willing to name sin and evil for what it is…but always out of a desire to see people become more self-aware, repentant, and eager to the live the kind of life that can truly be called good, fulfilling, compassionate, and a life that contributes to the greater community rather than harms it.

Brueggemann continues this conversation about the nature of God and the purpose of prophecy in the Old Testament. He observes that:

  • We don’t necessarily enjoy criticism, nor do we really enjoy “energizing,” for “that would demand something of us” (4). I think the scary thing about listening to the prophets is that one is likely to conclude that God expects a lot out of people. And that means effort on our part, a willingness to consider how our habits, commitments, preferences, whatever, might actually—though they might not seem evil—be doing harm to others or ourselves. Being criticized or “energized” means I might have to change. And that’s often not very fun, or pain-free.
  • Hope is essential, even if hope seems a little silly and unproductive at times in light of the reality before us: “Hope is the refusal to accept the reading of reality which is the majority opinion; and does that only at great political and existential risk. On the other hand, hope is subversive, for it limits the grandiose pretension of the present, daring to announce that the present to which we’ve all made commitments is now called into question.” (65) And later, “The hope that must be spoken is hope rooted in the assurance that God does not quit even when the evidence warrants his quitting.” (67). We hope that things can and will be better, and we base this hope in part on the fact that we believe God has not abandoned us, even if life at times might lead us to think so.
  • Jesus’ compassion is not just about emotions: “The compassion of Jesus is to be understand not just as an emotional reaction but a public criticism in which he dares to act upon his concern against the entire numbness of his social context. Empires live by numbness. Empires, in their militarism, expect numbness about the human cost of war. Corporate economies expect blindness to the cost in terms of poverty and exploitation. Governments and societies of domination go to great lengths to keep the numbness intact. Jesus penetrates the numbness by his compassion and with his compassion takes the first step by making visible the odd abnormality that had become business as usual.” (88) This seems relevant to a variety of “empires” over the two millennia since Jesus’ ministry. I can be "numb" at times, maybe unaware of it because I don't feel guilty of directly murdering anyone or stealing anyone’s wallet. I nervously write this as the thought of becoming more awake and less numb to the evil around me feels demanding and confusing—what can I actually do about it? What can we do about it?

Friday, June 10, 2011

Catching Up On My 2011 Reading (Pt VI): Volf, "Allah: A Christian Response" (UPDATED WITH A PARABLE)

Miroslav Volf, Allah: A Christian Response (New York: HarperCollins, 2011)

The God of Muslims and the God of Christians is one and the same. There are differences, but there are similarities. One can choose to focus more on the differences, or one can choose to focus on the similarities.

Focusing on the common ground is more likely to bring about more good in the world and more likely to lead to peace between religions and nations than insisting on the primary importance of the differences.

That’s the short version. It’s a great book, maybe the most accessible of all I’ve mentioned this week. Just pressed for a time…got a High School theater awards ceremony to attend!



A great comment made by my wonderful mother, that I assume reflects the concern of many others as well, to which I hope I've offered a helpful response:

"While I agree on focusing on what we have in common...I disagree that we worship the same God. I don't know as much as you do about Muslims. I worship a triune God, do they? And that is a huge sticking point for me. In the beginning, with Isaac and Ishmael...perhaps. Sorry. Love you."

I think you and I are thinking about this issue in two different ways. An analogy that I came up with laying in bed last night might be helpful.

Example 1: Ted and Ted (two different guys with the same name) are hanging out at a coffee shop. You have a brief conversation with Ted in the brown chair about how silly it is that people pay so much for coffee these days. He is light, witty, and humorous. I go in a few minutes later, and talk to Ted in the green chair about U.S. foreign policy, about which he is VERY critical and frustrated.

We meet be back at home and talk about our experiences with “Ted” and are very puzzled when we realize how different of an impression we have of this “person.” The problem is we’re talking about two different people named Ted.

Example 2: You bump into a man named Ted (the one and only Ted) at the post office. He is frazzled, just getting some bad news in a letter; you say hi and try to start a conversation, though he just says hi and doesn’t seem interested in talking. The next day, I see Ted at the grocery store, and he initiates a conversation with me, seemingly in a very friendly mood.

When you and I meet for dinner that night, we both talk about our meetings with “Ted.” But we’re confused by each other’s descriptions; you describe Ted as a rather introverted person, while I insist he’s much more extraverted. We think we must be talking about two different people, based on our very different impressions of this man.

I think many think about God through the lenses of the first scenario: different understandings mean different beings. The second example suggests that people can be talking about (or worshipping) the same God while having a different understanding of that God.

If I as a Christian begin my prayer with: “Dear great and holy Creator, One who commands us to love…” and a Muslim begins her prayer with the same refrain—does the same God not hear us? Muslims understand God to be more monotheistic than the Christian understanding of a Trinitarian Christian God (though I think many Christians in actuality think about God more monotheistically).

And it’s likely that one of us is more right than the other. Because I believe that Jesus is the fullest revelation of God, I obviously believe Christians have a fuller picture of God. That's probably partly why I'm a Christian and not a Muslim. That said, I think God is so far beyond my comprehension that I should be humble in claiming that I “get” who God is more than others, even believing that Muslims could help me understand my God even better than I do.

It’s not saying we share an accurate and/or common picture of God, though there are many similarities, if we can look past the caricatures of each faith (angry Jihadists and angry preachers); it’s saying we’re both talking about the same, incomprehensible being.

This is not about changing Christian beliefs, or watering down the Christian faith (or the Muslim faith) and making a “hybrid” God. It’s being willing to celebrate similarities and distinctives, creating a safe space between Christians and Muslims where dialogue is free and open, maybe even where Muslims feel free to try to “persuade” Christians just as Christians feel free to persuade Muslims of their respective views.

One can be a fully devoted follower of Jesus and believe in Jesus’ uniqueness and even believe your picture of God is more complete than others (not arrogance, just the nature of belief, I think), while admitting that despite our different understandings, we’re talking about the same being. Thus, we worship the same God, even if we’re both a little right and both a little wrong about some things.

It's one thing if I said, "I worship a being who is the Creator and Sovereign over all things" and you said "I worship a being with a core, stem, and that many often call Granny Smith or Golden Delicious." You would obviously be talking about an apple, something different than what I'm talking about. But Muslims and Christians believe they both worship the Creator and the Sovereign. I believe they do.

So in short, "do they worship a triune God?" you asked. I believe God is triune, and I believe they worship God. So, I would say, yes they worship a triune God, but don't believe that God to really be triune. I'd guess a Muslim who believes we worship a common God would probably say we worship God "who is One" and not three and that we're a bit misguided and need to be corrected.

Hope that helps. :)

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Catching Up On My 2011 Reading (Pt V): Moltmann, "Sun of Righteousness, Arise!"

Jurgen Moltmann, Sun of Righteousness, Arise! God’s Future for Humanity and the Earth (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Fortress, 2010)

This is ultimately a book about hope. Moltmann writes a lot about eschatology (how God’s promised future affects our lives now, not Kirk Cameron-style), the Holy Spirit (though I wouldn’t call him charismatic), the Trinity (I’m sure he’s influenced Franke), and creation care (not just weeding, but I’m sure including weeding).

But beyond all the brilliant theology here, it’s a book that ultimately leaves one with a great sense of hope. Optimistic enthusiasm, yes, but tempered with a realism that suffering and waiting precede relief and fulfillment. He gives me hope that God is in control.

Not “in control” as in God’s going to provide me a job or a baby or good weather tomorrow; I don’t mean it that individually. I mean “God is in control” as in God will one day blow us away when we more clearly see the rightness of God's justice, the extent of God's grace, the goodness of God's choices and actions.

God is trustworthy. And even if we can’t comprehend what could possibly happen after we die, how God could possibly make things right and honor those who’ve suffered, how God could possibly win over those who seemingly want nothing to do with their Maker...even though we see through a glass dimly, we can trust in God’s “God-ness” and know that what is best will be accomplished by God, and we’ll maybe understand why it was the best. I think that’s the kind of hope I have, only aided and deepened by Moltmann’s writing.

I share here two quotes with minimal commentary. If one’s “hope” for the future is for their own security and happiness, these statements might be lacking. But if one’s hope is for a much broader vision of a healed creation—the end of all war, conflict, oppression, suffering—these words may offer some inspiration.

It also may help to know that Moltmann is writing from the view that God is committed to the redemption of all, and so this picture is one of the salvation of the human race as a whole, not a matter of individual faith and choice.

First, a criticism from Moltmann directed toward all who preach the importance of human free will in determining our own ultimate destiny:

“The picture of God who judges human beings in wrath has been the cause of much spiritual and psychological damage. It has poisoned the idea of God instead of leading to trust in him. Among the dying it has intensified fear of death through fears of hell. The picture of God’s punitive judgment was always a threatening message. It has plunged some into profound self-doubt and has led others to incensed rejection of belief in God in general.

“As a result, modern theological interpretations of judgment have ceased to put the God who judges in wrath at the center. It is now the human being who takes responsibility for himself. No one will go to heaven or be sent to hell against his will. It is a person’s own decision, which is followed by the one or the other consequence. So the picture of the last judgment is nothing other than the final endorsement of human free will...

“If this is the case, then human beings are masters of their own destiny, and God is only the executor or accomplice of the person’s own decisions. If he believes, God will take him to heaven; if he does not believe God will send him to hell. So doesn’t this make God superfluous? Belief in the freedom of the human will replaces belief in God.” (134)

And second, a powerful, hopeful vision of healing justice:

Israel’s psalms of lament are an eloquent witness to the conviction that ‘to judge’ means to establish justice. God’s supreme justice will ‘create’ justice for the victims of wickedness, will raise them up out of the dust, will heal their wounded lives, and put to rights the lives that have been destroyed. The victims wait for God’s creative justice, which will bring them liberty, health, and new life…

“The divine justice which Christ will bring about for all human beings and for all things will be not be the justice that establishes what is good and what is evil; nor will it be retributive justice which rewards the good and punishes the wicked. It will be God’s creative justice, which brings justice for the victims and puts the perpetrators right.

“The victims do not have to remain victims to all eternity, and the perpetrators do not have to remain perpetrators forever. The victims of sin and violence will receive justice. They will be raised up, put right, healed and brought to life. The perpetrators of sin and violence will receive a justice which transforms and rectifies. They will be already transformed inasmuch as they will be redeemed only together with their victims.

“They will be saved by the crucified Christ, who will encounter them together with their victims. They will die to their misdeeds in order to be ‘born again’ together with their victims to a new, common life. Paul expresses this transforming grace with the image of fire: ‘if any man’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire’ (1 Cor. 3:15).

“The image of end-time ‘fire’ has nothing to do with the stake or with the apocalyptic destruction of the world through fire. It is an image for God’s love, which burns away everything which is contrary to God, so that the person whom God has created will be saved.” (135, 137)

Even if one does not agree with Moltmann (and I basically do, to the extent which I’ve understood him and personally reflected on such matters), it’s a pretty compelling, exciting, hopeful vision…isn’t it?

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Catching Up On My 2011 Reading (Pt IV): Franke, "Manifold Witness: The Plurality of Truth"

John R. Franke, Manifold Witness: The Plurality of Truth (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2009)

This book is a story about a young Malaysian boy who, escaping from a life of poverty and forced thievery, goes on a global quest to find the meaning of life while facing sorrow, death, love, and mystery along the way toward eventually finding himself while rising to prominence as a wealthy world leader and humanitarian.

I lied. It’s a non-fiction book about philosophy, theology, and diversity. But just as interesting!? J

Franke (pronounced Frank-ee) actually came to my seminary class a couple years ago and spoke on some of the book's themes before it was published. He encourages epistemological humility—i.e., don’t be so sure you’re right—and explores the concept of “interdependent particularity” (134)—i.e., we are parts of a whole, pieces of a puzzle, candles in a candelabra, insert your analogy here…

I found the following topics particularly important:

1) Context (35). The tradition of the Church is one in which faith has been expressed in a variety of historical and cultural situations; figuring out how to “do what’s right” requires more than just looking at how another faith community from another era or culture did it, but discerning how to live out God’s truth now in your own context.

I think means, as an example, that we don’t simply base our ethics on “what the Bible says” but discern as a community today why those Biblical laws or practices were important in their given historical and social context and explore together what practices and actions are good and right today in our situation.

And maybe some of those practices will look the same. I don’t think “thou shalt not steal” has really lost its relevance; that “principle” seems to have stood the test of time. Though maybe we are stealing in ways we aren’t willing to really label as “bad”; any wireless internet moochers out there? I was once one myself… J

2) Perichoresis (57-59). This is a very old word that tries to express the relationality of God. The Trinity is hard for me to grasp. I think it’s even harder for my Muslim friends to grasp; I’ve heard them cite this as a major disagreement with Christianity, as they can’t fathom God as being in any way “many.” While I’m usually just comfortable saying “it’s a mystery,” I’m always eager to find better ways to think about the Trinity.

Perichoresis captures it better than anything I’ve found. It conjures up an image for me of a dance, of distinct entities moving together harmoniously; they are different and unique, but so united by their love for one another that each depends on the other for its life and existence. You can't have one without the others.

I think this is why the Trinity has been historically understood as a powerful metaphor for human community—a network of distinct persons, yet somehow one single entity, united by love. Franke, like many others, suggests that it is in capturing this social, relational dimension of God that we can understand how God can be Love (59).

Only because God is plurality—not a single, monolithic being—can God be love and be thus fully “complete” on God’s own. But I know this is hard to grasp and to hold in tension—God’s oneness and God’s “many-ness.” I think I tend to think of God more often as an old dude with a long beard rather than a community of persons, because the former is easier for me to imagine, regardless of whether or not it’s more truthful.

3) Deconstruction and Plurality (70, 104). When Franke says plurality, he means we all see things a little differently, and that’s a good thing; but we need one another to better see things as they really are. I’m going to understand love, or beauty, or God, or pain, or ecstasy more deeply if I can at least partially grasp how you experience these things.

I think part of the work of deconstruction is to realize that different environmental factors inform how we think and act, so that there is a need for us to sort of see beyond our situations and know that we don’t “possess” ultimate truth as much as we can point toward it.

Perhaps the gospel writers are good examples of this. Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John all had different motivations and different audiences to which they wrote their own story of Jesus; but most would say that each of the four accounts of Jesus’ sayings is essential and necessary. There’s no single authoritative account of Jesus’ life, but all four contribute something to our understanding. That’s not a bad thing; I think it’s just how life works, for people like us who aren’t God.

I think the main idea here is that our personal beliefs about God should not be free from scrutiny, since we’re human and prone to error and misjudgment. We should be comfortable always checking our understanding of God, being open to having our faith revised, lest we get too comfortable or overconfident. I don’t think this has to be scary, as if we should despair that we can’t know anything.

What I think it means is that we can, for example, claim that Jesus is our Lord, while being ever ready to revise our understanding of who Jesus really is and what Lordship really means; we can believe in the power and rightness of love but be open to finding new ways to express that love; we can believe God has overcome evil but be ready to learn more about the nature of evil, how it affects us, how it can be dealt with or overcome in our lives, and how to suffer yet persist in a world in which evil exists, even if we hope that a world will one day come where it does not.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Catching Up On My 2011 Reading (Pt III): Barth, "God Here and Now"

Karl Barth, God Here and Now (London: Routledge, 2003) (First Edition, 1964)

As important of a theologian as Barth was—one of the most important of the Twentieth Century—I’d never really read his work. This isn’t Church Dogmatics, his multi-volume “magnum opus,” but it was a nice introduction to his thought. He writes a lot about God's revelation and how we know what we know, the doctrine of the Trinity, paradox in Christian theology, and God's faithfulness toward humankind.

Here are three samples: the first seems to be a dialectical for-and-against argument concerning the possibility of universal reconciliation; the second concerns the powerful effect an encounter with God’s grace can have; the third is an attempt to capture the “essence” of the Church.


1) “Who knows what sort of ‘last’ ones might turn out to be first? The proclamation of the Church must make allowance for this freedom of grace. The restoration of all things? No, for a grace which automatically would ultimately have to embrace each and every one would certainly not be free grace. It surely would not be God’s grace.” And then: “But would it be God’s free grace if we could absolutely deny that it could do that? Strange Christianity, whose most pressing anxiety seems to be that God’s grace might prove to be all too free on this side, that hell, instead of being populated with so many people, might someday prove to be empty!” (41-42)

I sense this sort of “playfulness” is characteristic of Barth. What I hear him challenging in the first part is the way universalism can kind of “obligate” God to do something, and I think Barth is uncomfortable making any claims that limit God’s freedom to do whatever God feels like doing.

Even though we think of God as constant and reliable, not really like a moody child, I think many have this problem with Christian universalism—that it doesn’t allow for the freedom of God, nor human freedom. Then again, if God promises to do something, we tend to count on God to do it, right? Maybe it means God isn't as much whimsical as a good promise-keeper (no reference to the famous men’s movement intended).

The second part seems a jab toward those who appear to want people in hell, to prefer that not all people get the same reward or meet the same end. I’m sure for most of us this isn’t the case; many believe in hell because they think that’s the way things really are. But I suspect some do drift into that sense of entitlement or a desire for “fairness”—attitudes Jesus seemed to critique in the parable of the prodigal.


2) “The message of the free grace of God…is of such a nature that even when proclaimed in a stupid manner it has a way of producing, suddenly and anew, now here, now there, (people) who are in fact free, that is, nimble, humble, questioning, seeking, asking, knocking (people), and in this sense free Christians…” (53)

What I love about this is how one’s encounter with God is expressed as a beginning, not an end. I don’t believe anyone can ever really say “well there, I found God, it’s finished...glad I got that taken care of.” Rather, I think life with God means endless discovery, endless learning, endless fascination with the ways God can be discovered in all facets of our lives today and for the rest of our lives.

That God is “for us” is profound to me, and makes me eager to spend my life finding more and more about this God. Because of the imago Dei—the image of God in every person—I’d say the person next to me is a good place to start. (Not my wife…she’s not here right now…the closest person to me at the moment is probably my downstairs neighbor who always seems to cook with a lot of garlic.)


3) “The essence of the Church is an event in which the community is a light shining also in the world…this community, in the midst of the world, distinguishes itself from the world and thereby inevitably becomes offensive to the world in a particular way…(it is a community that should be) opening wide its doors and windows in order to truly share not in the fraud and especially not in the religious and moralistic illusions of its environment, but in the real concerns, needs, and tasks, that it may represent a calm center of lodging and reflection in contrast to the world’s idleness, and also in order to be, in this context, the source of prophetic unrest, admonition, and instigation, without which this transitory world can never endure. ” (81)

So much that is interesting in this quote. But I want to highlight the "offensiveness" of the Church. This is a complicated issue for me; I often feel like I'm navigating a fine line between being offensive to one group of people or else another. I know there are some who read this blog that don’t identify as Christians; and I would have to imagine that, as generous and gracious as I try to be, some of the exclusive claims I make about Jesus and his significance have got to be at least a little offensive, especially at a time when tolerance, pluralism, and acceptance is so valued.

Yet I'd guess that some Christians are probably offended as well by things I’ve said at times...ways that maybe I’ve seemingly (to those offended) distorted the gospel, or been an advocate for a cause they don’t agree with, or been overly critical of Christians in ways that make it seem like I either need to lighten up, or maybe chill out, or maybe just stop talking out of my butt.

I would be really curious to know—and may begin to ask some of my non-Christian friends about this to really research it—from those don’t consider themselves part of the Christian Church:

  • What do you find offensive about the Church?
  • And, do you think the Church should be offensive in those areas, or should make adjustments to be less offensive?

In other words, is there a good kind of offensiveness the Church possesses that you see as valuable for the health of the world? Or is the Church mostly offensive in that it often seems foolish, or pretentious, or narrow-minded, or judgmental, or hypocritical, or some other thing?

I also love how Barth here expresses a desire for the Church to be a place of peace and rest, while also being outspoken about the ways society and culture are committing evils or living destructively. I find the challenge of what exactly the Church should be outspoken about interesting, but one that has really been present for some time and looks different between the liberal and conservative sides of Christianity (e.g., condemning cultural greed or condemning abortion)

I do believe the Church has a voice, and should be outspoken. And I guess that, whenever you make a statement that challenges another’s way of life and presents the possibility that they might have to make some kind of change in their views or their habits and activities, you’re bound to be offensive.

Knowing what right I, or we, have to be offensive in this manner is tricky for me.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Catching Up On My 2011 Reading (Pt II): Bosch, "Transforming Mission" (With Helps for Donny Shire)

David J. Bosch, Transforming Mission: Paradigm Shifts in Theology of Mission (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1991)

For being slightly old as a book trying to assess recent cultural changes, it seems relatively right on twenty years after it was published. The book traces the way the Church understood and practiced its “mission” throughout history: the early church, the Eastern Church, the Medieval Catholic Church, the Reformation/Protestant Church, and the post-Enlightenment Church. Bosch then tries to describe the emerging paradigm and some of the features of contemporary mission, offering some great insights about how the Church should think about and live out it mission in our present-day situation.

It’s a LONG book and feels a bit like a textbook. It took a while to get through, but it was worth it. But I’m into this kind of thing, so, it was fairly easy for me. But I really need to read some fiction soon.

Here are some of the book's standout ideas. Also, I realize that my almost 4-year old nephew Donny is not capable of really understanding what follows. In light of this fact, Donny—if you are reading this—I’ve tried to simplify the following ten points in a way I think maybe you might understand. Also, be extra nice to your Mama right now, and don’t worry, she won’t always be pregnant.

1) On mission in the Gospel of Matthew: “For Matthew…being a disciple means living out the teachings of Jesus…mission is not narrowed down to an activity of making individuals new creatures, of providing them with “blessed assurance” so that, come what may, they will be ‘eternally saved.’ Mission involves…making new believers sensitive to the needs of others, opening their eyes and hearts to recognize injustice, suffering, oppression, and the plight of those who have fallen by the wayside.” (81) This appears to be written with the assumption that many people don’t really believe that this is what discipleship is about. Though I feel like many communities and movements are popping up these days seeking to more seriously and actively practice virtues, spiritual disciplines, and acts of compassion and justice.

Simplified for Donny: Jesus wants you to let your little sister play with your toys, too, Donny.

2) On mission in the wake of the Enlightenment: “Advocates of mission were blind to their own ethnocentrism. They confused their middle-class ideals and values with the tenets of Christianity. Their views about morality, respectability, order, efficiency, individualism, professionalism, work, and technological progress…were without compunction exported to the ends of the earth. They were, therefore, predisposed not to appreciate the cultures of the people to whom they went—the unity of living and learning; the interdependence between the individual, community, culture, and industry; the profundity of folk wisdom; the proprieties of traditional societies—all these were swept aside by a mentality shaped by the Enlightenment which tended to turn people into objects, reshaping the entire world into the image of the West, separating humans from one another.” (294) Does it seem like there are still remnants of this mindset in how we think about our faith in relation to others, even if we are trying to or know we need to move away from it? I’m working in an intercultural community, and still struggling to train my mind and heart to be receptive toward and appreciate the way foreigners think and act.

Simplified for Donny: Donny, instead of thinking “what does Donny want?” try asking, “what does Mama want?”

3) On epistemology and rediscovering mystery and enchantment: “Neither science nor theology ‘proves’; rather, they ‘probe.’” (353) I think this is what I love most about teaching, when it happens—inspiring the curiosity of others, encouraging them to learn and inquire and wonder. I think I possess this curiosity and hope it only deepens with time.

Simplified for Donny: While adults like me often find your statements absurd, Donny, don’t stop making them…your sense of wonder and incredible imagination is a gift that many lose when they grow older.

4) On conviction and commitment: “Nobody can really survive without (conviction and commitment). What is called for is the willingness to take a stand, even if is unpopular—or even dangerous. Tolerance is not an unambiguous virtue, especially the “I’m ok, you’re ok” kind which leaves no room for challenging one another.” (362). I think I’m a fairly tolerant person, but know I often err in two opposite ways—intolerance, which often looks like being judgmental, arrogant, and closed-minded , and what I’d call indifference, meaning I don’t let others call me on my mistakes, challenge me, push me toward excellence, nor critique or challenge others where that might be appropriate. “Just accept me for who I am” seems to be one of cries of my generation and culture—which can be an opportunity to love, accept, and understand, but perhaps in some cases reflects stubbornness or laziness.

Simplified for Donny: Just because we love you Donny, doesn’t mean you can do whatever you want. We don’t tolerate your tantrums because we don’t think this is a healthy attitude. You’ll understand some day. Hell, maybe you do understand now. (Also, don’t say “hell” Donny, it’s not polite.)

5) On interdependence: “The ‘me generation’ has to be superseded by the ‘us generation.’” (362) This is Bosch summarizing his suggestion that our health as individuals and communities, Christian or not, depends on thinking more collectively and holistically. It’s not a praise of socialism and a condemnation of capitalism, but it certainly seems to endorse more cooperation than competition. Or at least more selflessness than selfishness.

Simplified for Donny: You are important, Donny. SO important. But this is not the “Donny story.” Donny is not the main character. But you are a very important character.

6) On individual, personal salvation: “In a world in which people are dependent on each other and every individual exists within a web of inter-human relationships, it is totally untenable to limit salvation to the individual and his or her personal relationship with God. Hatred, injustice, oppression, war, and other forms of violence are manifestations of evil; concern for humaneness, for the conquering of famine, illness, and meaninglessness is a part of the salvation for which we hope and labor.” (397). I really appreciate this kind of systems thinking; it challenges me to remember that I owe the character of my present life to others who’ve influenced and shaped me, and to consider in what ways I am obligated to others.

Simplified for Donny: When you’re naughty, it doesn’t just affect you, Donny. It affects Mama and Daddy and Evie, too.

7) On technological development and progress: “Even if humans could live by bread alone, there is simply no longer enough bread for all because of structures which appear to be unalterable. We have, in addition, become conscious of the real possibility that our technological and scientific know-how may lead to our irreversibly ruining the ecosystem. We are, reluctantly, arriving at the conclusion that not everything that is technologically possible should be manufactured.” (398) That includes time machines for me. I don’t think we should make time machines, even if we find we can. More than anything in life, I’m afraid of disappearing like Marty McFly. Please, no time machines.

Simplified for Donny: Just because you can wet yourself, Donny, doesn’t mean you should.

8) On not judging others “standing” before God: “I can never be so confident of the purity and authenticity of my witness that I can know that the person who rejects my witness has rejected Jesus.” (413) This makes me want to be so much more humble, so much more gracious, so much more earnest in my following of Jesus.

Simplified for Donny: It’s not that I don’t want to play with you, Donny. I just didn’t think the way you asked me was very polite. It's not you, Donny, it's how you presented it. Try again.

9) A slam on starting new churches (ouch!): “This Protestant virus (the proliferation of new churches) may no longer be tolerated as though it is the most natural thing in the world for a group of people to start their own church, which mirrors their foibles, fears, and suspicions, nurtures their prejudices, and makes them feel comfortable and relaxed.” (466). I don’t hear in this a full-on condemnation of church planting, but I do hear a challenge to the attitudes of “we can do it better, the right way, the ‘hip’ way, the truly effective” way, a mindset of which I think church planters (myself included) can be guilty.

Simplified for Donny: Just because Evie isn’t playing the way you want her to, doesn’t mean you need to go in the other room and play. You can learn to play with her. You might find you like it! (Donny generally plays VERY well with his sister, for the record).

10) On the source and scope of salvation, from a statement by the World Council of Churches: “We cannot point to any other way of salvation than Jesus Christ; at the same time we cannot set limits to the saving power of God…we appreciate this tension and do not attempt to resolve it.” (489) This reflects the spirit of many trying to express how we can hold firm beliefs and convictions in a postmodern setting that is suspicious of ultimate truth claims. Bosch uses the term “humble boldness.” Newbigin has elsewhere called it a “proper confidence.” The point is to be comfortable that we know only in part, and to not let this lead to fear but to a sense of adventure, even trust.

Simplified for Donny: Donny, I know that you’re convinced your eating preferences need no altering. But, you know, not everybody agrees with you that an exclusive diet of gummy bears is the healthiest choice. What does that do to your understanding of what is good and right? Do you feel angst?

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Catching Up On My 2011 Reading (Pt I): Volf, "The End of Memory"

I feel like my journey can partially be indicated by the books I read. Often what I’m reading reflects what is important to me, what spiritual, philosophical, theological, and personal reflection is happening, maybe even what is happening in my relationships with others.

Because of the possibility of doctoral work in the near future, I try to be constantly studying, seeking both breadth and depth in my understanding of all things religion. It's also a kind of soul-searching: trying to discover what I’d want to focus on if I were to spend several years with a dissertation topic. What do I most care about?

I thought I'd do some recapping of what I’ve read thus far this year. I haven’t yet read a book I didn’t enjoy, so I recommend them all! Here's the first, from way back in January...

Miroslav Volf, The End of Memory: Remembering Rightly in a Violent World (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm B. Eerdmans Publishing, Co., 2006)

The thrust of Volf’s argument can be summed up in a well-worn adage: “forgive and forget.” I think I have probably uttered that phrase a few times, while not fully believing in its value. Sure, we shouldn’t hold grudges, and being unforgiving can be harmful both to you and the one you haven’t yet forgiven. But we might not tell a victim of, as an example, childhood sexual abuse to “just forget it ever happened.”

In some ways it seems like that’s the more provocative kind of “forgetting” that Volf is talking about. And he has some right to talk: he was himself violently interrogated in his native Yugoslavia years ago and wrestles in this book with how to rightly remember these events and his oppressors.

I think Volf’s concern is with how we can often remember events in a way that, rather than subduing or ending violence, perpetuates it. Evil and pain are a part of our stories, yes; but those events can have such a stronghold on us that they inhibit our ability to live peacefully with others. And often times, rather than really seeing the truth of what happened clearly, we become more interested in how we want to remember what happened, how we want to see the truth.

Volf on seeing the truth rightly: “Claims to posses the uncontestable truth aren’t always wrong, but they are always dangerous—especially dangerous when a person’s claim to possess the truth matters more to her than the truth itself. But this takes us straight back to the moral obligation to remember truthfully. The obligation to remember truthfully, and therefore seek the truth, counters the dangers involved in claims to possess the truth. Seekers of truth, as distinct from possessors of truth, will employ “double vision”—they will give others the benefit of the doubt, they will inhabit imaginatively the world of others, and they will endeavor to view events in question from the perspective of others, not just their own.” (57)

Volf says he has sought to challenge two “cherished notions.” (231). He challenges the notion that we should remember wrongs for the sake of those victims wronged, suggesting that we should also remember out of generosity toward those perpetrators of wrongs (231). He also challenges the notion that we should “remember forever” wrongs that have been suffered so as not to “betray victims” or “endanger the wider community,” instead suggesting that “under carefully defined conditions it may be salutary to release memories of wrongs” (231).

I think it is helpful to remember that his primary goal and motivation is one of reconciliation. Volf, as is expressed in much of his work, believes the mission of reconciliation to be central to the Church; he also looks forward with hope, believing that the work of Christ assures us that humankind is ultimately headed toward a reconciled future, one in which the oppressor and the oppressed are united, and all is forgiven.

It’s a pretty profound book, one that I’m sure can cause some discomfort, because of how radical and counterintuitive it feels at times. For example, forgetting something horrific like the Holocaust (not Volf's suggestion) just seems grossly wrong, doesn’t it? Part of honoring those who have suffered and not making the same mistakes twice means that we should hold those horrors in the front of our minds. Yet I think of a more recent example like 9/11. What happened that day was awful, and we were and are right to mourn this as a nation. Yet has our memory of this event brought about more good or harm?

I’m genuinely asking this question. And what first comes to mind is the way this event fostered a desire for revenge (or “justice” as some see/saw it) for nations or peoples we sensed to be threats, and the way it has caused suspicion, fear, or even at times hatred of innocent Arab men and women. I don’t sense 9/11 launched a powerful peace movement as much as a sense of nationalism and a quest for vindication. But then, I might just be expressing my strong bias toward non-violent solutions for peace. I know not everyone agrees with that, and I don’t mean to discount any good that the American government and military have done or any peace they’ve brought about, even if many are uncomfortable with the methods.

What Volf is not advocating is being dismissive or not taking evil seriously. What I think he is suggesting is that we seriously consider what actions will make the greatest headway toward peace and reconciliation, what will allow us to function as people who are truly free, not bound to the evils of our past in a way that prevents us from fully enjoying life and fully enjoying community with others. We also look forward with hope in this way, anticipating a healed community with God, who we could probably say with some confidence “keeps no record of wrongs” (1 Cor 13:5).

It’s an interesting conversation Volf encourages in this book. He doesn’t make blanket statements that suggest one course of action in every situation. He does take seriously the danger of things like repression and foolish forgetfulness. But he also suggests that in some cases individuals and communities are better off not allowing atrocities and past harms to “come to mind” (a more accurate way of putting what he’s really suggesting than “forgetting”) (145).

This is so that people who have been harmed do not continue the cycle of violence but instead become agents of peace, doing good for others and living more freely and happily themselves. I also think Volf believes that those memories have a way of being a barrier to truly loving our enemies...perhaps the greatest challenge Jesus ever posed to his hearers.

Great book, and great challenges posed: what does true forgiveness require? What actions best encourage peace? Why are we resistant to letting things go, and are they good, healthy reasons? How do we be truthful in how we remember what really happened rather than creating our own “versions” of events to satisfy some need we have? What should our goals be as Christians seeking to be a light and source of hope?

His chapter on eschatology is interesting too, which deals with what we will remember about this life in the next. I should also say this book—in content and in style—is relevant to anyone, regardless of religious belief. The desire for peace and unity is a hunger that transcends any one religion or worldview.