Thursday, January 31, 2008

Everything Must Change 1.0

Introductory Comments


This set of essays on Brian McClaren's new book, Everything Must Change, is in response to a request from Anne at Thomas Nelson. As I have already said, I am honored, humbled, and affirmed by this request, three things I can surely use. I had heard a little about Brian and the emergent church, not much, and this is the first book I have read by him. So far, the only one. Hence, the scope of this discussion is limited only to the content of EMC.

I also must confess at the outset: I was prepared to not like this book, or to not like it much. Why? Well, for one, I am a fan of field-specialists. Brian (and I feel comfortable, after reading his book, using his first name in this series) is a pastor, and as he notes in his intro, not an expert in any field. Of course, I realize my reservations appear ludicrous for a community college teacher who has written no books himself! Also, there are excellent books by non-specialists all the time. Finally, I was correct in believing Brian was somehow associated with the emergent church, and while I knew very little about that group (which, one would think, should have kept me from forming any judgments about it) I believed emergent to be a breakaway faction concerned with individuation more than unity, the next generation of young Christians reinventing certain perspectives of their faith, focused on terminology and presentation more than substance. I admit all this because I do not want readers to think I came to Brian already a fan of his work or of the emergent project.

What I actually found in this little book, though, was and is a remarkably humane, relevant and thought-provoking Christian vision. There were times I was reading and thought I could sum up my review in one word, "duh." Or in two, "of course." As in, "isn't much of this emphasis on charity and service obvious to any Christian who has read the gospels and bothered to think about his world?" I realize that is a presumptuous position. Considering the amount of controversy Brian has generated in Christian circles, presumptous indeed.

That said, I do have qualifications and critiques, and also important questions.

Some things must be noted at the outset, even if they are obvious: Brian has had a particular experience of protestant, evangelical Christianity, and it is that understanding and experience of protestant orthodoxy that he is emerging from. I realize he is by no means alone, however, in that experience or in his larger dissatisfaction with American Evangelical doctrine and culture. Another thing which is much more signifcant for me is that, in this book anyway, Brian feels the need to read the gospels in a distinct way; primarily, he draws on a particular set of threads in their narratives. They are important threads, but his explication of Jesus' message in EMC is not exhaustive. In my view, he trims a bit more than he needs to in his eschatology; and much of his anti-imperial political interpretation feels frankly modern, though I realize he is drawing on accomplished scholars in these sections, that Jesus does make critical statements about the power plays among the 'gentiles' in the gospels, and also that Brian himself is figuring things out. That said, and this is far from a thorough discussion of these items, it is blatantly clear throughout the book that Brian is all the while driven by the most Christian of motives: loving his global neighbor in active and sacrificial terms. This is a message much of American Evangelicalism needs to hear, tragically. It is a message I personally need to hear again and again! It is also a core tenet of Christ' teaching. This book is meant to correct an imbalance in Protestantism, in Christianity, with which the church and its individuals have always struggled in varying forms. Good. In that sense, it is a prophet's message, and a very old one. I give him kudos for expressing it in such kind and collegial terms. None of the ancient prophets, nor Jesus, was ever so gentle on the same topic! Read the calamitous, apocalyptic parable at the end of Matthew 25 for a chilling refresher.

In summary then, the spirit of this book, its core, its foundational tenet, is mercy. EMC is continually informed by concern for the poor and controlled and suffering, and anger at the wealthy and oppressive and comfortably self-absorbed and the systems which support and prolong these inequities; quite similar themes run deep in the prophets and inform many statements by the Jesus of the gospels. And this is content far too many Christians ignore! The core ideas in EMC are not new; they are at least as old as the prophet Amos and, in varying forms, they can be found in Christian teachers from the first century forward. But Brian presents these ideas in fresh and relevant ways to a contemporary, and sometimes tragically ignorant, American audience.

In closing my introduction, I note once again: I am not a biblical scholar or expert! I have not had time to research or read many of the outside sources Brian relies on (though some I know). Believe me, I want that education! (Whenever I hear an actual NT scholar speak about spending decades thinking about a biblical textual issue, I wince with envy). I am just a human man, an English teacher, struggling day to day, finding meaning in his Christian practice and scriptures and trying to reconcile that with reason and other experience.

On that note, let's begin.

***

First Questions

I had many questions on how to organize my review. This is an already published book, so I am not making suggestions for change during the drafting process. And as I've said, EMC covers vast ground! Some areas intrigue me much more than others. And so since this is a project gratis…I am simply going to take particular sections of the book which catch my attention and discuss them one at a time. Perhaps it is my English teacher vocation, but I must begin with a bit of critique and question.

Postmodern. What does this word mean, and does it matter?

In literary theory, if it is even possible to define postmodern literary theory quickly, postmodernism relies on a very pessimistic epistemology, largely as a result of the perceived weaknesses of human language. (For those who would like an infinitely better definition, I recommend Terry Eagleton's book Literary Theory.) Hence, the postmodern or deconstructionist critic will take a traditional reading of, say, the Henry James short story "The Beast in the Jungle," where the author seems to have a clear didactic purpose (as is true in nearly all American realism) and then undermine that apparent meaning by drawing on small pieces of the text. Unravel the center from the inside. A line by one character, a particular descriptive sentence or even a single word. The deconstructionist will use any piece of the narrative she can find which seems to stand in contrast to the central "meaning" of the story, and there make an incision in the (we are now shown) illusory meaning of the text, and the point is proven in fact that the story is an unfocused, though perhaps intricately beautiful, blur of linguistic symbols without an unchallenged center.

Now that may be a bad definition, but it is a start. I have always thought literary postmodernism was the application of existentialism, especially atheistic existentialism, to language and literature (for a first hand experience of the existential crisis, I recommend reading Sartre's Nausea). While the early wave of literary postmodernism has passed, to the genuine relief of quite a few faculty and students in the field, its influence remains clear in later forms of theory, as movement succeeds movement in the push to publish; it is clearly evident in new historicism or revisionist history, where one can no longer say easily, "the Renaissance man thought like this." History has become a much more complex discipline after postmodernism, and I think this has merit. I am no longer involved in current literary theory; in fact, my disillusionment with it was one of the reasons I did not pursue a Ph.D. But I believe what thrives in lit theory now is a mix of postmodernism, feminism and other civil rights concerns, neo-Marxism, and psychoanalysis post-Freud. Those strands, blended different ways, have given birth to post colonialism, for example, where what matters in the text is not so much aesthetic value (none of the above schools are focused on aesthetic value), but the detection of the "colonial gaze," of how colonial metanarrative has influenced a particular piece of literature. By colonial I mean generally what Brian means by colonial, incidentally: the assumptions and presuppositions historically found in aggressively expansive communities of any size, the tenets of empire.

Hence my confusion over what the emergent church means by postmodern! They do not mean what literary critics mean. As an English teacher, I have to get that obvious point out at the start. So, what does Brian mean by the term? As pomo has become something of a badge for the emergent community, what is it?

Brian defines postmodern on pages 34 to about 39 (though he discusses it later also) drawing on a Walter Percy essay I have not read. Still, Brian's definition is startling…for him, postmodern is really a critique and reflection on modern; and for Brian modern means, of all things, a deadly cultural overconfidence (36). And not just any overconfidence, but an overconfidence which led to Nazism, Stalinism, and both World Wars. This is a striking definition! It deserves discussion.

While many sections of Brian's book are well footnoted, this is not one of them. He notes some European and American thinkers came to this conclusion without providing one name! I believe he is telling the truth, but I would certainly like to read them on my own! Who are these "many thinkers" (38) and "certain philosophers" (39). We are not told. He does bring in Descartes; apparently, this "excessive confidence" (38) can be traced back to Descartes' philosophy which is here called foundationalism. The second cause of the destructive overconfidence which led to the disasters of the first half of the 20th century is to be found in metanarratives, or "framing stories" (39). By these, I believe, he means presuppositions and attitudes which permeate any culture.

Here I must interject. I have read Descartes' Meditations and Discourse on Method. I recommend them both as very readable but important philosophical documents (and they can easily be found in one volume). Descartes, of course, was a Christian who spent a fair amount of energy attempting to prove God's existence and a subsequent optimistic world view purely using reason. By this I mean Descartes shut himself up in his room with a stove and thought. His reflections and conclusions are presented in these two short books.

I simply cannot believe that the grotesque and widespread violence of the 20th century has anything significant to do with this man or his philosophy. And why? Because what made the 20th century different from any other century in recorded history was more efficient killing, communication and transportation technologies. It is convenient to think that Descartes, a relatively recent figure in history, may have sparked proto modernism which resulted in multi-national catastrophes as it flowered, but this is simply not the case. Humans have always done horrific things to each other, individually and within groups. Why is a question I'd like to consider in another post in this series, but it is clear to see this is true. We can indeed hope that emphasis on individual civil rights, widespread education, and global efforts against disease and poverty may make the post European colonial period different from the post Alexandrian, or post Roman. Metanarratives do matter, and I will have more to say here also. But I simply do not believe the recent modern age was a whit less humane than prior ages. If the Nazis had excessive confidence, what do we attribute to Phillip's son Alexander? Or the Roman generals, like Ceasar, who butchered for career advantage (and in Caesar's case, then took his ambition into Rome itself). Or the English Kings Henry 4 and 5 who promoted an incredibly prolonged conqest of France? The exploitation of nationalism in the service of aggression is an old trick; even the Roman poet Horace speaks out against it! And to what do we attribute slavery in any age, including American slavery, a repugnant, racially based and typically permanent condition which took centuries and a bloody civil war to end? I often have students read Frederick Douglass' Narrative, his personal account of his slavery experience, and I ask them, 'how could individuals and groups who claimed to follow Christianity, the Jesus of the gospels, committed such acts?' If you have not read Douglass, you must. It is provocative to ponder this. I would agree metanarratives, cultural assumptions, in service to other drives are responsible. But the drives behind human aggression and the ease with which we ostracize, dehumanize the 'other' are forces that are always with us. If there is any hope for our future age, our postmodern age...it is learning viable alternatives. Those alternatives, as Brian correctly notes, form a significant portion of the gospels. They are also the focus of his book.

That is enough for now, friends. I finished EMC a month ago, but it has been a busy month as it always seems to be. I enjoy the reflection on Brian's ideas as much as I enjoy the writing! Please be patient, Anne, as I churn these posts out; it may reasonably take me all semester to finish.

And if you have not gotten the book, do! My critiques do not undercut the Christian importance of these ideas. But for now, sincere love to all.

Monday, January 28, 2008

Sitting in my office with twenty minutes to go until my next class. This will be a busy semester; two basic intro to grammar courses, one lit., two online advance comps and one face to face comp. 16 units. Six classes. Ow. And that does not include any overload; this is my normal load.

My first response to Brian's book is already pretty long, sitting on my desktop at home; I was hoping it was in blogger's server so I could tinker with it but no such luck. I must upload it. This is just quickie blog, a few thoughts tossed out from a slight sense of being overwhelmed, a little loneliness, and a touch of confusion.

My basic grammar classes look very much now like they did when I taught them in so. cal. I mean the students. My college now is as diverse as the truly urban colleges where I cut my composition teeth. It is moving to see students begin their college careers with me in a class so far below freshman level; some will make it all the way through college; many will not. But they are a fun bunch to work with because they are so damned grateful when they can tell an instructor is trying. And in that class, most days, I try so hard I burn calories.

What else? My marriage is stronger every season, my therapy going well and due to end this spring (my therapist is retiring). I have more freedom from depression and even the sticky cling hell of obsession than I have ever had. Less anxiety than I have ever had. In short, my life is getting close to normal! Or whatever normal is. It has been such an adventure, such a dramatic and enthralling and difficult journey. If nothing else, my recovery story must be written, here or elsewhere. I am not sure when, but it will be done. I think many would benefit from my own journey to health...over two decades, with plot twists, villains and heroes...and all truth! I will get there. It would be deeply therapeutic for me to write it as well.

I am still considering entering Episcopal seminary in two to five years, after my son is out of high school, if all could fit with my family's life. My wife finishes grad school this spring and it has been a long, long road for us. Surely for me! I have tried to be a Christian servant and think I have done that. I am not sure I am ready to put another one of us into grad school, but I have time to think as my son still has two years of high school to go and we won't move him during that time.

But one overarching thing is clear to me: to enter priesthood, especially preiesthood, I believe I need to develop my faith. I read Luke while reading Brian just to keep my NT bearings, and I am reminded how the literary puzzles of that book, and the other gospels, out puzzle almost anything I've read. The literary and historic issues alone are enormous, but Jesus intentionally spoke in parables, in the constant metaphor of apocalypse, and he puzzles me as a reader at times as he puzzled so many who heard him in person. But while I struggle with other issues when I consider the priesthood...pay, benefits, retirement, job security, the nature of the job itself...I know my always dialectic faith would be an issue. At least in parish ministry. All this may change! I may find myself with a clear call and vision...I scarily say I hope so, but I am not there at this moment.

I used to know this much: I wanted to study the NT in a scholarly-spiritual setting. I still do. I have told myself many times that if I could do it over I would enter grad school for NT studies and pursue a career as an NT scholar...in my early 20's and not early 40's! That interest is still with me, though I am more aware than I used to be that such an education might build a richer faith foundation, but it would not answer all my questions or build a faith foundation out of nothing. I'll add to that interest, though, my very powerful experiences being an EM, or Eucharistic Minister. "May the body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ keep you in eternal life." Praying that with each person at the altar...it is so emotionally powerful! It is a unique form of connection, of giving...and it is one of the key things priests do?

I have to run, but I think of Jesus noting that no man builds a tower without first looking into the costs and problems down the road; I contrast that with the rapid response of the apostles when called, as their response is described. Jesus says follow me, they go. Things that once seemed immovable in my life have moved, like my OCD. What awaits next?

see you soon


Oh, for such a unity of vision!

Friday, January 11, 2008

Prelude to Brian

We were without power over the weekend, almost 3 full days, and the snow is still falling. Nature, when it intervenes directly in life, tends to do so dramatically. This week has been no exception. We are hoping we do not lose power again tonight; we shouldn't, but one never knows. This is my seventh winter in the mountains, and the longest we've gone before was maybe 20 hours, and that was during our first couple of years. Lately, power outages, even in big storms, are uncommon and brief. Hence, we have never invested in a generator as many of the old timers up here have (well, those who can afford one). Physically we were fine, plenty of wood, food, and running water. But psychologically! I cannot say how much I appreciate electricity now that I have been without for 3 days. Everything changes! The first day is fun, but the fun wears off quickly as cabin fever sets in....no tv, radio, dishwasher, washer and dryer or vacuum cleaner. As soon as we were plowed out, we drove to a Costco and got a portable weather radio with a hand crank and b and w tv. Contact with the outside world! That is what the little gadget is for. We have a weather radio in our Subaru, and of course check that even when the power (and hence the internet!) is down. But it's nice to know that little black box is standing by, ready to talk to us if we are again abandoned by the last century of technology and cast back in time.

***

As you know if you read here, I was given a copy of Brian McClaren's new book, Everything Must Change, to discuss on this blog. I am highly honored by that request, touched even, and I have begun reading it and am more than half way through. The book reads quickly, easily, but covers many things. Many things! I want to make sure I am digesting before I attempt any kind of thorough discussion. In the meantime, I would like to use this post as a prelude, introducing where I am in my own philosophical and spiritual journey, in brief. I'd also like to do something else: tell you all to buy the book. If I did not think it was worth reading, I would never suggest you do so. But the fact is it is worth reading, and that is your homework: if you're interested in what I have to say about EMC, please, buy it and begin reading yourself. Or if you can't afford that, head to a bookstore and, uh, browse from the shelves. What I have to say will be utterly enhanced, enriched, if you have have read the work itself. You all know I teach college English for a living, and there is no such thing as a lecture or discussion with any life energy (for professor or student) apart from the individual experience of reading the work beforehand.

***

On Caution

I remember the maxim in graduate school: by the time one is done with the thesis, one will know it is a piece of junk (actually, we said piece of shit). I am not even that far in my theological or bibical studies; I have no formal graduate or undergraduate training in those areas...so I am quite sure my discussion of Brian's book will be less than perfect! And I think of Martin Luther, changing his mind about the number of sacraments within a single essay! (Thanks to Professor Carey and the Teaching Company for another fantastic course). I too am figuring things out, and I do not have a developed personal creed (and may never have one). As I have said openly in this blog before, though a true Christian (in my own view at least) I consider the possibility of atheism rather often, usually in light of the apparently random nature of suffering and death, let alone various perspectives on the many difficult issues in the faith I continue to hold (hold warmly, glady, and gratefully I might add). However, there are a few things I'd like to say before I leap into Brian in the next post (and depending on the weather and family responsibilities, that could take a week or two, hard to say).

If I had to sum up my approach to Christian theology, really to all knowledge, I can say I favor, and experience, a fair amount of epistemological caution. Epistemology is the branch of philosophy which considers what we can know about our world and ourselves and how well we, as humans, can know it. I like to believe I am generally careful when it comes to knowing. That is why this blog (drawing on N.T. Wright's description of "critical realism" in NTPG) is called Look Closer! It is so easy, even natural, for our race to make erroneous judgements, to cling, even when the stakes are enormous, to fallacious beliefs (of course, some beliefs are too complicated to be all right or all wrong...they represent a complex fabric of individual positions and presuppositions). There are many challenges on the path to truth; I feel the best we can hope for in human knowing, no matter the field of inquiry (including science) is a distinctly human knowledge, and that even reaching that usually takes work.

That said, I do not consider myself a postmodernist in the way I understand that term in literary studies or philosophy (Brian uses this word freely, and he is perfectly within rights to do so; I simply find in his work a different meaning for the term than the one I have understood). I do not deny corporate meanings. I do not believe the limitations of language, nor the limitations of mind, nor the remoteness of history, leaves us on a "darkling plain," to quote Matthew Arnold, where there can be no meaning save the personal, non-discussable, and self-deduced (a great introduction to thinking critically about critical thinking can be found in Bacon's Four Idols...it is must reading). Some ideas are true; some are false; some ideas are clearly better, we could say more true, than others. Humans do in fact have a capacity, utterly unequalled in any other animal, to interact, to dialogue and discourse with reality as we receive it through our senses and the mental stages of our minds, and to uncover truth as we can know it with varying success: metaphysical, moral, and even, in my view, religious.

What I mean when I say that all truth, even scientific truth (water will boil at this temperature at this pressure every time) remains human truth is, I know, a bit obscure. Even I do not know the complete ramifications of that statmement though I am quite sure it is true :) But I know my sensory world is not that of the duck or dog (let alone that of God, whose perceptions we cannot even explore); the way I see this computer, thought aside, is quite human, and when emotion, preconception, the rest of the human phenomenon is added...how human knowledge remains distinctly human is quite complex indeed. What, except in thought experiments, can we even compare it to? The very best we can hope for as we reach for truth will still be human truth, through and through. Rather than continue to watch me drown in abstractions, think with me for a minute about the color blue. We see blue because certain wavelengths of light, photons (which are matter and energy) move in certain speeds and spacings, and we perceive this as blue or shall we say blueness (please correct my weak physics if required). I am willing to admit the normal human eye perceives blue essentially the same across the globe, but it has to be conceded that the color blue and the light patterns my eye and brain turn into blue are two distinct things. Does this mean blue does not exist. Not at all. But blue is a distinctly human sense-mind experience. Other animals may not perceive blue at all. Hence, blue, and all colors as humans see them, are distinctly human. Forgive me if this is an elementary point; even the scattered philosophy I know has much to say about this from many convoluted angles. But just as color is human, for me, all ideas about the universe and God we can hold are also shaped by human mind. We simply can not, will not ever in this life if any, know the mind of God as God knows it. If you doubt this, consider the size and complexity and enormous vigorous energy of the known universe for a few minutes...then begin to contemplate what kind of Mind is responsible for that! Or is larger than and utterly beyond that! Not a human-animal mind, surely. Here, in my view, Plato is closer in his descriptions of Divinity (via the Absolute Beauty and the Good) than some portions of the Hebrew Bible.

But we do have reason, and intuition, and conscience; we also have, in complex form, revelation from God. And these things, though imperfect, can provide us with meaningful world views and life narratives and ethical positions which depend on truth as we can experience it!

As you can tell already, I do not believe truth often reveals itself easily. Uncovering truth, generally, takes effort and multiple minds (working at the same time or asynchronously, as one mind draws on the prior ideas of others, or both). This is why I call myself a Christian skeptic. If none of the rest of what I've said clicks for you, know that I am skeptical about nearly everything. I come to conclusions but distrust myself if that happens too quickly. How did I get this way?

Part of my epistemological caution, much of it in my view, comes from living in an empirical, scientific age. This may seem odd, considering the certainty which science can at times provide. Yet science and empiricism, despite impressive successes, often analyzing things which, in some sense anyway, can be laid out on a lab table or tested and observed directly, still struggles= and disagree within its ranks about many things; its truths continue to grow; its knowledge is also often provisional...the revolutionary changes Einstein's relativity made to Newton's laws come to mind. Knowing this is true regarding our study of the material world, how can I make certain proclamations about things which lie outside the material world? This is a critical point for me. When I was young, I was aggressively into theological certainty. If I could have burned some heretic or other, God help me, I might have. I was into doctrine, into it. I remember beginning Latin studies when I was about 24 and thinking...Latin is so systematic, it is just like theology! All those tables of noun declensions and verb conjugations reminded me of the order I expected to find in the theological world, the order I thought I had already found. Oh, but further thought and life experience have shown me I had built a house on sand, friends, emotionally and intellectually. When it fell, it was a great fall indeed. I thank God and Christ it was not a destruction, for God heard me in my horror, and raised me to continue. This blog, when I give it the attention it deserves, is part of that continuing exploration. Ditto this essay.

Science, with its many successes and failures (generally at the cost of enormous effort) has influenced my epistemological caution, but I also live in a philosophical zheitgheist post-Kant, post-Bacon, post-Enlightenment, and in Brian's sense of the word, post-modern. I have seen human project after human project fail; been lied to by my politicians and leaders; been lied to, with much greater impact, by some quite close to me. Trust has been violated in my life, horrifically...I almost said diabolically, but that would unfairly take the sting away, for a human being who injures another is no demon, but remains quite human and free in his choices, at least in the case of the one who hurt me. I cannot pretend my wounds have left no impact on me. Also, I have seen technology used to hoard resources and dominate communities as it has always been, from the spearhead and sword blade to the computerized "smart bomb." I can look all around me at the bizarre, truly bizarre, mix of Christianity and capitalism in America, the blindness to the suffering and poor which has plagued our faith in parts of its existence in every age and currently does so in my own country on a grotesque scale...when someone tells me the Bible is God's Word and does not show a heart, let me say bleeding heart, for the poor, at least a desire to somehow assist those in need by parting with some of what one has now or in the future--at the least guilt over not doing more--(I sit and wonder what I myself do...not near enough) I must conclude this person has not read the gospels or the prophets! You see, truth is hard to hold! And I too am a sinner!

However, as this is meant to be brief, without going into other pieces of the zeitgheist which shapes me, there is a critical piece to my wariness in matters of knowing, especially religious and Christian knowing, and it is the other key thing I must adress in my preface to EMC as epistemological caution is connected to it: the nature of the Bible.

On Scripture

I want to know more than I do about the millenial history of scriptural interpretation/reading in Judaism and Christianity, but at least in the western Protestant tradition, the tradition I know a little about, the Bible has usually been considered the ultimate authority in questions of doctrine and moral direction. Not always...some established groups did and do maintain that God speaks directly to them in addition to the canon (the Friends come to mind). But the Bible sits there on the table, can be opened and read by anyone literate, and is believed by millions of Christians to be the Word of God, a book without error or contradiction, God's divine and direct communique to humanity. I once believed this myself; now I reject this thesis completely. Not because I have some personal agenda, some secret sin or need that requires I sweep away this or that biblical passage; not because I believe God could not have provided a perfect Word-book if he wished (I really cannot say what his limitations might be). I don't believe the Bible is God's inerrant Word for many reasons, but all of them stem from the fact that I have read parts of it closely with an open mind. Not just liturgical size pieces, but entire books at a time. Now, this is complicated, and black and white thinking (at which I am so good) must be avoided: our faith depends on the biblical books; I do not deny this. But the Bible is used so irresponsibly and simply often misunderstood by those who are using it inside and outside the faith! Proof-texting is the easiest thing to criticize, common as it is among Christians. Individual verses or passages are lifted out of the written Torah or Prophets or NT and used to provide guidance for life or proof on this or that point. After all, this is God's word to humankind! Of course, oddly, other times key themes, like Christ's (and the prophets) emphasis on the poor somehow get left out. Rather than looking at the entire book being drawn from, or even the entire biblical collection, a few verses in Romans 1 or 6 or 9 are trotted out as certain evidence of a moral or theological position without seeing the limitation of the text, without relying on love, without using the conscience and reason. When this is done, the result is invariably selective, many time disastrous. The doctrine of predestination comes to mind. I realize this is about as tough a nut as there is to crack, but while Romans 9 seems to teach individual predestination to salvation or damnation (Luke Johnson disagrees, arguing the categories are corporate) there is no one who will ever convince me that 2 Peter 3:9 does not say that God delays his final judgement so that all may come to repentance!

The funny thing is, we can see selective use of the scripture right in the NT! Satan uses Tanahk, or passages from the Hebrew Bible, to attempt to persuade Jesus in his temptations; Jesus answers with passages in turn (both sides relying on interpretations of the passages...there is no such thing as a reading without interpretation...even by the Jesus of the gospels; I'd say especially by him!) In other places, we see Jesus bracketing off portions of the Torah (as in his discussion of divorce law or dietary restriction) yet using others, sometimes in ingenious fashion, to confound his interlocutors or to make (often grandiose) statements about himself. The fact is, everyone who proof-texts uses the Bible selectively, even the Jesus of the Gospels! Jesus was a first century Jew, and Wright's belief that he was providing a "critique from within" of the Judaism of his day is persuasive. But Jesus does offer a critique, and part of his critique is a complex, at times free and even inconsistent (at least on the surface) reading of the Hebrew scriptures. He uses them to fit individual circumstances, always holding, in my view, to a higher narrative which can be derived from the HB, but which is FAR from represented there in totality.

For one thing, we must admit at the outset, the Bible is simply not one book. It is a library, a collection of books, which, as my priest says, dialogue with one another. That kind of dialogue, point counter point without resolution, is quite Jewish, I am told by a Jewish friend. I am not going to point out contradictions in the gospels or places Paul is struggling to mesh divergent theological points. I want to give just one example, something quite large.

Hosea tells us, "For I desire mercy, not sacrifice, and acknowledgment of God rather than burnt offerings." (6:6) Matthew's Jesus quotes this verse twice in that gospel (chapters 9 and 12). This same theme is even more explicit in Micah 6:6-8, which I will lay out as a poem:

With what shall I come before the LORD
and bow down before the exalted God?
Shall I come before him with burnt offerings,
with calves a year old?

Will the LORD be pleased with thousands of rams,
with ten thousand rivers of oil?
Shall I offer my firstborn for my transgression,
the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?

He has showed you, O man, what is good.
And what does the LORD require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy
and to walk humbly with your God.

These are two passages from the Tanahk, the Hebrew Bible, the Prophets. And they come after the extensive and very detailed sacrificial codes in the Torah. Did God say both of these things? Is the sacrificial code wrong? Did God not write both the Torah and the book of Amos? I mean no disrespect to any Jew or Christian, nor am I attempting to make a straw man of this complex textual conflict. I admit this is supposed to be my brief intro to a discussion of Brian's book. But I think Brian is often misunderstood (based on online reading I've taken up in the last few weeks) and we as Christians need to, frankly, grow up into a mature intellectual species. At the very least, the conflict between the two passages above and the temple sacrificial cultus we see in the Torah and in Jesus' lifetime (and remember, Priests in Israel during Jesus' time were essentially butchers, offering animal after animal to God) shows that ancient Judaism was not a monologic thing. Their sacred books reflect these tensions. In my own view, the passages in Amos and Micah stand in direct contrast to the entire Temple cultus established, according to the Torah, in the wilderness by God and enforced by exclusion or death. They are a revision of the Law itself, especially Micah, who provides a new set of behavioral standards entirely! A simpler, and utterly more enlightened set! Of course, the Torah is not all legal codes...it too has moments of genuine religious elevation which resemble Micah's passage, but that can be discussed at another time. I'd suggest, of course, you read it for yourself.

Now, I understand what the responses to this might be: God does not care about empty sacrificial offerings; the prophets here speak about offerings devoid of faith or genuine, sincere concern for God's law or the principles underlying the law. Also, the historical context for Amos and Micah needs to be brought into the discussion, as well as the rest of the books' content. Agreed! But even when these things are done, I do not believe my central point changes: the Bible is not a perfect and divine code-book which, when cracked, provides the answer to every question...even less so when it is not cracked, or studied carefully, as is often the case. It is also not a single book written by God, nor a collection of books which were kept from any and all error by God in their composition. Again, my reasons for believing this are many; some relate to my profession. I read texts for a living (I have a cousin who, when I told him I have a "low" view of scripture...a term I like less and less...told me, "of course, you're an English professor"...how that is relevant I do not know). The Bible, I believe the evidence shows, is a collection of human books, written over time by individuals and communities who had varying types and degrees of religious experiences. Each book in the Bible is unique and each is different. I do not believe I must hold Mark's gospel, say, on equal footing with Proverbs. I have struggled very much with these ideas over the last seven or so years, and will have more to say, I am sure, later; I do hope this beginning is helpful to some.

Does this then mean we toss these books out! No! Does this mean our faith must divorce itself from these books? No! But the bible must be read carefully! Does the Bible (using the famous phrase, I believe it is from Barth) contain God's word if it is not God's Word? I believe it does in some very mysterious way. At least, it has been used by God as no other book has been used, in my view. I'd suggest that "word" is actually different for different people, or presents different emphases for different individuals; and it has been used to utterly uplift and heal and utterly oppress and debase and wound. God help us. All of us, all our theologies and belief structures, are limited to historical and individual circumstance. I have heard Gustavo Guttierrez says this; if so, I agree. Martin Luther saw in Paul what he needed to see in Paul, and I am glad for it. But that is not all there is to Paul!

This is one of the reasons why N.T. Wright's work holds so much interest for me. I do not know what he thinks about the Bible, actually; I think he may maintain some positions, or is subltle or silent on some things, out of a need to maintain Anglican and Christian unity, but I do not know. What Wright tries to do in his work on Paul and Jesus, though, is get back to the texts in their true first century context, before centuries of theological interpretation, expectation, and calcification were laid down on them by thinkers drastically removed from the original culture and historical period. This approach I like very much, even if the Bishop and I may not agree on all things. (And I am an Episcopalian who still considers himself part of the Anglican communion...in short, Wright is not my bishop, but he is a Bishop to me nonetheless...I pray for him at this moment as he would for me).

In closing, I'd restate the obvious: my reading of the Bible certainly influences my theological caution. It's hard enough to interpret the biblical books if one believes they are all written by God to unveil some unified divine plan (actually, I think they were, but not in the way this is meant by fundamentalists or inerrantists)! How much more difficult it is if one believes they each have human authors capable of opinion and error! I think the fact is that for many who believe the Bible is God's inerrant Word in every line, the idea of making it something less than that is terrifying. What do we cling to then? How do we know what to believe and how to act? Very good questions! And God has given us the answers! In our own consciences, and in the prophets and the historical record of Christ himself, not to mention however the Holy Spirit works in his Mystery...we can know enough to act lovingly, to love God and neighbor, even through a very dark glass which is much less dark than it was before Christ came and died. Jesus, famously, drawing on (certain) ideas which preceded him, tells us the entire law and prophets hang on one thing: Love God and your neighbor. The Prodigal parable tells us who are neighbor is. Jesus, as much as is possible, has shown us something of God. You see? How very simple the Christian life can be at its essence.

So, these are two "negatives." I am cautious in asserting belief, though far from despondent. And I do not believe the Bible is God's Word as I understand that term to be used in American circles, anyway. I'd like to briefly state, as I have begun to shift in that direction, two "positives." Things I do believe in. I will be very brief, and these make good segues to Brian's book.

Two Things

One, we cannot know precisely what is in the afterlife, but we damned sure are held responsible for what we do in this one. And that means acting in love as best we can with the help of the Holy Spirit and God. Loving our neighbor, actively, fully, and sacrifically. Anyone who tells me the gospel is about something else will have a hard time convincing me based on the NT record and its pre-echoes (if that is a word) in the HB. What does it actually mean to love our neighbor, to act in a sacrifically loving manner? It means different things to different people, but there are plenty of things it surely is not! I will leave discussion of those for when we get to Brian's book. This, this, is what Jesus shows us in the gospels: 'here, you really haven't been getting this...let me show you how it's done.' Loving sacrifice for the other, obedience to God as he demands that very thing from all of us, in Jesus' case the ultimate sacrifice. That is the central Christian metaphor. It resonates through my soul when I think of it like an explosion.

Two, while I may be cautious in affirming belief or "knowing," I actually do believe Jesus was a unique and utterly vital figure in human history. I do not believe he was a man like other men. I do not believe he has been replicated in any other literary-historic figure. Period. Further study (and I have plenty of this left, God willing) may cause me to change my mind (though I hope not...but I try to always remain open, truly). Also, human beings all over the world have a spiritual sense, or many millions, billions, of us do at least. It is still my belief that Jesus presents an electric, though challenging and difficult!, Vision which speaks directly to essential human nature, directly to that spiritual sense, to that longing. To paraphrase Professor Carey, the Christian story is a good story! It's a wonderful story! The problem is when we find reason to believe it is not true, to discount it, or when we misunderstand it. And that, frankly, happens often when Christians do not know what we are talking about. Or when we forget the central core-essence of our faith: Love.

And this is a good place to stop before I dive into Brian. Brian's book has a very noble and simple to understand mission: what are the biggest problems in the world, what is causing human suffering right now, and how can we set about solving these problems and helping people who need it? To me, this is UTTERLY Christian. It is certainly not something Brian has invented nor claims to invent! Nor is it a discovery from the emergent church. It has been part of Christian experience and tradition always, but sadly, oftentimes too small a part. Think about it: Mother Theresa was not a postmodern emergent. Go argue with that life. Christianity in this country has been eerily highjacked by those who wish to hoard resources and increase personal power. But I am stealing Brian's thunder :)

My goal is to approach Brian the way Carey approaches Luther in the audio course: a sympathetic but critical reading. There is much in EMC I agree with; I certainly support its central contention. But questions and isssues remain; those will also appear here (eventually....I do hope to be done, competely done, with my series of posts before, say Easter :)

So, the homework is: get a hold of Everything Must Change and begin reading. Buy it, borrow it, or check it out from a library, etc. We begin discussion soon, family obligations and weather allowing (and it is dumping outside as I speak).

***

Sincere love to all. And deepest gratitude to Anne from TN who gave me the book and this assignment. I have not asked why it was sent to me; I imagine a series of keywords (like Wright:)) showed up in technorati or something. But this experience has been delightful, and energizing, and deeply, deeply affirming. So far at least! It is possible no one will like what I have to say! But let us hope all take away at least one thing positive from the discussion.

As always, comments are welcome (sighs). Peace.

Until next time....when it is Everything Must Change 1.0