One of the challenges I face as a theologian working with educators in the public school system is helping teachers discover courage and hopefully a passion for engaging students in a life of the spirit as much as a life of the mind.  This is no easy task.  Teachers in elementary and secondary schools are under huge pressure to ‘teach for the test’ and constantly assessing students in ways that focus attention on skill acquisition without the time nor resources to adequately engender a reason and purpose for the life they are living.

One of my conversation partners is Parker Palmer who for years has sought to bridge the gap in educational theory with a deep concern for the spiritual in student’s development.  Palmer’s background is notable: he has a PhD in Sociology from UC Berkeley, has taught in both public schools and higher education, and is a Quaker which speaks to his framing his thoughts in a contemplative (‘consider the space of teaching’) rather than declaratory (‘here are five things to do in your classroom to make sure student succeed’) mode.  He is currently heading up the Center for Courage & Renewal which works with organizations to align “our lives and our work with renewed passion, commitment, and integrity.” Because Palmer approaches these questions as a contemplative himself,  this can be confounding to be sure and many of my students in the School of Education struggle with him – “does Palmer expect us to enact something here in the classroom? Where is the concrete amidst the abstract?”     Much of this is based on his premise that we live in a tension between the contemplative life vs. an active life – two primary modes of living that are in tension in modern culture and not merely the classroom. As he explores in his book “To Know as We Are Known” and some other books such as “The Courage to Teach”, he holds that in earlier centuries contemplation was the preferred life, one followed by academic or religious scholars through the medieval period until the rise of the scholastic period.  As Palmer would state, an “active life” was one of tedious toil where one did not have the time to reflect on a higher plane of existence. Over time that changed. An “active life” (he wrote a book entitled “The Active Life” which gets at this thesis) became more prominent as technology progressed and the power associated with it.  A pendulum effect between the two – active vs. contemplative – has swung back again as limits to technology have not provided a solution and the lure of a contemplative life and its seclusion has taken hold.  In short, this has resulted in the “why” questions have been replaced with the “how” questions especially in our classrooms.  The demands of ‘teaching for the test’  have created a culture of busyness and frantic skills assessment with little to no time given to what these ‘skills’ are for in our society and how they fund what it means to be a human being.   For some of my students, they are frustrated because Palmer is not forwarding his point based on the strict adherence to social scientific method which holds that which is to be considered ‘true’ as correlating with quantitative methods that can be measured via statistical analysis. No, Palmer is speaking from a more qualitative stream of reflection which does go back to Plato, Socrates, Aristotle and continues on through humanities and the arts: a more existential reflection on the human condition and (for the sake of his books) and exploration of the spiritual as a vital part to deep education.  He is inviting us to essentially go inward – the contemplative life – and sit in the space of quiet with our students and creates spaces for contemplation on the reasons to life in addition to the skills and tasks of living.  As those sitting in his books and lectures, the dominant challenge for what is means to be human in our 21st century age is take seriously our vocation – our calling – and live the life we were always meant to live and to live this full life in front of our students in a holistic manner.  Teachers have been forced into becoming information Pez dispensers – spitting out facts and figures and methods without context nor purpose to test and therefore ‘assess’ with reliability that students are learning.

Do you think that he has a point?

Have we lost something in the education of our children in the elevation of the ‘active’ life over the ‘contemplative’ life?

My goodness how time flies!  Seems like yesterday that I started blogging on various topics and connected with many of you in this space to reflect on ways in which contemporary people were meaning sense of their lives in the high, low and middle brow culture.  When I first started blogging in 2005, the medium was still in its infancy: people who grew up on TRS 80 (seen in the picture insert) or Commodore 64s were finding out about “the Cloud” in new and exciting ways and communicating with each other in more fluid mediums.  Blogging was essentially a form of journaling for a larger audience back then and has become a critical part of how people share ideas, try out new views and opinions, and solidify relationships across barriers of place, culture and context.

As we crest into the end of the first decade of the 21st century, it is a good time to take stock of where we have come from and where we are going.  It is interesting to note that when I started this blog, my youngest daughter Miriam was born.  She is now in school full days as a Kindergärtner.  Similarly, this blog has grown up and so (hopefully) have I.  In taking stock of the many threads that I have posted along with other friends and professional colleagues over the past five years, it has become clear that we needed a name change if we were going to move this conversation format into the next decade.

So… why the name change?  When I started the blog, the name “Theology Kung Fu” seemed like a fun, playful way to frame what would happen in this space – putting discussions of creativity, culture and God stuff in a space of respect, discipline and constant movement that was not adversarial but honoring and complementary.  Hopefully some of that has taken place. That said, sometimes even the best intentions aren’t always enough especially if one is to grow beyond mere intentions and into wisdom.  On one level the name, while attempting to be a bit clever, has also become strangely juvenile and goofy akin to acid washed jeans and Gumby T-shirts at your grandmother’s funeral – something that at times cheapens and detracts from the issue at hand.  On another level, the phrase can be seen as promoting a type of cultural parody that while has never been my intention yet can be taken as ignorant and even worst engendering stereotypes.  To be frank, even the most well-intentioned and seemingly benign things need to be looked at from a larger context and here my thanks to a friend of mine who challenged me on this point on how this could be seen in some circles and he made a great point.  I am thankful for having my eyes opened to the wider conversations in our culture which is ironically what this blog is about.

In addition to the name change, the blog needs to grow up a bit more and settle on making more constructive reflections on culture and theology and not merely flagging the odd and kitschy without some redemptive suggestions.  As I move forward I hope to do this.

So… welcome to Theology and Culture: a theoblog for conversations on creativity, pop culture and God stuff. A new blog that is now five years old, ready to move beyond diapers and potty training and get on the big Yellow school with the others in the marketplace of ideas.  I want to thank those of you who have chimed in from time to time over the years and hope that you will continue to visit and add Theology and Culture to your RSS feed.  I will be striving to blogging about once a week – sometimes posting links to things you might find of interest, sometimes generating commentary, sometimes just offering some existential musings in the moment we find ourselves in.  I would love to hear your suggestions for discussion threads, topics of reflection, or merely what ways a blog like this can encourage and help you.  Let me know!

Blessings and peace to you all and looking forward to this next chapter together!

Jeff

One of the most difficult things about being a pastor is death.  No… strike that.

One of realities of being human is death.

No… strike that as well.

Here, let me try this:  one of the hardest things about being ANY human is knowing what to say and think about death.

Better… we will go with that and move on.

Today I officiated a memorial service for a 30 year women who died of a drug overdose.  Her life was difficult in numerous ways but as testified to by family and friends, she always wanted to become more than her circumstances.   She had two children – a 16 year old and a 4 year old.  Her parents were divorced and remarried.  Her husband speaks very little English.  All of this came pouring into the meeting room at the church as we planned for this memorial service.  They had been recommended to our church through a series of connections.  As we sat and discussed the service, her father pushed a stack of CDs over to me with track numbers.  “These are songs that she liked – ones that remind us of her and that she loved to sit and listen to,” he said.  I looked them over:  Sarah McLachlan, Mariah Carey, and… Metallica.  “Have you heard of them?” he asked.  One of the tracks he choose was “Nothing Else Matters” from Metallica’s 1981 “Black” album.  “These are going to be great,” I said “these will be… awesome.”

“Nothing Else Matters” is a slow burner to be sure.  Written as a goth ballad, Metallica’s lead singer James Hetfield wrote this song with only one hand strumming an Em chord while he was on the phone with his girlfriend. Since he held the phone with one hand (remember, this is 1991 and no bluetooth and cell phones were still the size of minivans but at least down from the monster trucks of the 80’s), he plucked the four open strings of a standard Em chord with the other, which eventually made up the first two bars of the song.  It is a song of separation and a deep desire to get closer written with one hand holding onto the connection to what keeps him alive in this life and using the other to grasp at whatever will turn our longing, our hope, our love into an anthem large enough to fill stadiums.  It is a song written so as to not forget what it means to be alive, and to give that gift of life to others through love and faith.  The song is about longing for something more and seemed to fit perfectly for this memorial service.  As the family and friends came into the fairly standard church sanctuary, more than a couple or eyebrows were raised as the Metallica tune filled the pews and spilled across floor under the alter and to the foot of the cross that hung on the wall.  Tears started to flow as “Nothing Else Matters” became more than a metal ballad but a song of anger, promise and release wound up in chords and bars and rhythm.  The open casket with this young women’s body lay there as the song continued on:

Never opened myself this way

Life is ours, we live it our way

All these words I don’t just say

and nothing else matters


Trust I seek and I find in you

Every day for us, something new

Open mind for a different view

and nothing else matters


never cared for what they say

never cared for games they play

never cared for what they do

never cared for what they know

and I know

So close, no matter how far

Couldn’t be much more from the heart

Forever trusting who we are

No, nothing else matters

As the song ran its course, arms covered with more ink than a stack of comic books were rubbing their eyes and waiting for something beyond James Hetfiled’s simple tune as we looked toward the cross that hung over that casket.  “Nothing else matters” opened the way for “something else” must matter amidst all this sorrow.

When people ask me what pop music has to do theology, it is in moments like these I wish I could bottle up and hand to the cynics.  People get married, celebrate graduations, drive across the country and bury their family members to simple pop songs.  People continue to seek after something that surrounds and empowers their lvies and for this reason I don’t believe in the post-Christian jargon some are used to evoking – I have yet to see that era truly in full bloom.  However, the notion of the ‘after-Church’ world is certainly true. Granted, the ‘after-Church’ folks could truly benefit from the deep traditions and meaning found in the ancient church made new in their midst.  But when death comes screaming into your world people will act like a proverbial drowning man at sea and will grab the most stable and recognizable thing found floating by.

For millions of folks it won’t necessarily be the hymnal in church pews but the song on their iPod that reminds them of hope, faith and love.  These crazy songs make sense out of the chaos of life in ways so many other things shoveled at people never does.

I have a picture in my mind of this young women listening to “Nothing Else Matters” as we gathered there and perhaps wishing that as her family and friends gathered in this place they would write one more verse of that song with their very lives – that verse being lives lived in remembering her laughter, her love of the sunshine, her passion for music, and what it means to live out this love with others and in the presense of God who lives with us now.

As the service continued I read aloud of Psalm 23 and Romans 6: 3-9 and spoke of Paul’s promise that death dies and life will truly live at the end of all things and do hope that these words of promise got a grip on folks as they sat there.  But I can bet that an old 1991 metal ballad is finding new life tonight for folks and hopefully there is a new verse being written in the lives of this family in deep mourning.  That “something else” does matter, that we can reach out not with one hand restrained but embrace each other with both hands fully and experience an even stronger embrace of God’s grace and mercy.

Some would say that Metallica came to church today.  But I think the gathered were ‘churched’ by James Hetfield and the band in ways we have yet to see the fruit of.

In my classes this week I have reflecting on the parable of the Good Samaritan and have to admit being a bit taken aback that what I am offering as a reading of the text seems foreign to students.  As such, I thought I would put some of these thoughts out here in the Theology Kung Fu dojo and let you reflect on this reading.

This text beginning in verse 25 of Luke 10 comes after Jesus has thanked the Father for hiding “these things” from “the wise and the intelligent” (10:21), and now a “lawyer,” whom we would think is wise and intelligent, comes to test Jesus. Will he “get the picture” or will it be hidden from him? Just before the lawyer arrives, Jesus has blessed his disciples for seeing what they have seen and hearing what they have heard. In the parable, both the religious leaders and the Samaritan “see” the man in the ditch (vv. 31, 32, 33), but who really “sees” him?

This text should not be studied in isolation from what follows — the story of Mary and Martha (10:38-42).  An interesting contrast is presented with these two texts. The lawyer asks, “What must I do? (v. 25) and he is told twice to “continually do this” (vv. 28 & 37 — present tense in Greek — all poieo – the same word used by Jesus in the call to the Lord’s supper). This emphasis on “doing” could easily become the “busy-ness” of Martha, even though “poieo” is not used of her work, but more “religious” words for “service” or “ministry” — diakonia/diakoneo both used in v. 40 (“tasks” and “do work” in NRSV). This “doing-ness” is in contrast to the “continual listening” (imperfect in Greek) of Mary (v. 39). In both stories there are unexpected actions — a Samaritan who cares and helps a Jewish man; and a woman who sits as a disciple and listens and learns. The Samaritan is told to “go and do likewise,” while Mary is praised for not going and doing. The Samaritan shows us about loving our neighbor. Mary shows us about loving our Lord. Both are vital in living our lives Christianly.

In 10:25, Luke uses a more technical term for “lawyer” (nomikos, related to the word for “law” = nomos) rather than “scribe,” who were also considered experts in the law. Six of the nine times this word for lawyer is used in the NT they are in Luke. The only time it is used previous to our text, we are told: “But by refusing to be baptized by him [John], the Pharisees and the lawyers rejected God’s purpose for themselves” (7:30). The image of “lawyers” does not improve through the gospel (11:45, 46, 52; 14:3). The reader would already be a bit suspect of a “lawyer” coming to Jesus.

We are also told that he comes “to test” (ekpeirazo) Jesus. The only other time this word is used in Luke it is Jesus’ quote to the devil: “Do not put the Lord your God to the test” (4:12).  What is this lawyer doing to Jesus? If we take seriously the image of inheriting, we may think that the question, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” is ridiculous. It is akin thinking that there is something I could do to inherit some of Bill Gates’ fortune — or even the fortunes of a less wealthy (but much older) person. An inheritance is usually determined by the giver, not the receiver.

Jesus responds to the lawyer’s question with two questions of his own. “In the law (nomos), what has been written? How do you read?” I have discussions with my students at SPU where it has been easy to agree on “what has been written,” but the interpretive question, “how do you read?” or “how do you interpret?” has caused great differences. In looking up the Greek word for read (anaginosko), the lexicons suggest that reading was always done aloud and generally publicly. Jesus does this in the synagogue at Nazareth (4:16). Jesus’ second question might mean “How do you understand it?” but it may also go further and imply, “How do you interpret the law to others?”

The lawyer answers with the twice-daily repeated shema from Dt 6:5 which is the core law of the Torah — except that he adds “mind” or “understanding” to the Hebrew text “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind”– and he includes a command from Lv 19:18 about loving one’s neighbor as one’s self. (See also the “great commandment” passages: Mk 12:28-34 and Mt 22:34-40 where the question is asked by a nomikos) According to most sources, these two commandments were not combined prior to the time of Christ.

Jesus first responds with a very mainline denominational answer, “You answered rightly (orthos from which we get ortho-doxy). The lawyer knows the right answer. He has “read” the Torah rightly.  Jesus then responds with a very unPresbyterian answer, “Keep on doing (here we have the use of poieo again, this time in the present tense = denoting continuous or repeated actions) this and you will live.” Does this imply that one can inherit eternal life by “doing” the law — by loving God and neighbor as one’s self? Do works count?

The short answer is “Yes, works count” — if one is trying to “justify one’s self,” which is what the lawyer is seeking to do. First of all, by asking what he might do to inherit eternal life, and secondly, by the comment in v. 29 and the question, “Who is my neighbor?”

Fuller NT scholar Joel Green in his commentary on The Gospel of Luke interprets the question this way:

Whereas Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Plain had eliminated the lines that might be drawn between one’s “friends” and one’s “enemies,” this legal expert hopes to reintroduce this distinction. He does so by inquiring “Who is my neighbor?” — not so much to determine to whom he must show love, but so as to calculate the identity of those to whom he need not show love. By the end of the story, Jesus has transformed the focus of the original question: in fact, Jesus’ apparent attempt to answer the lawyer’s question turns out to be a negation of that question’s premise. Neighbor love knows no boundaries. [p. 426]

Another way of phrasing the question posed by the lawyer is this:  Lawyer: “What is the limit of my responsibility?”  Jesus’ answer: “Think of the sufferer, put yourself in his place, consider, who needs help from me? Then you will see that love’s demand knows no limit.”  A sin of the lawyer is that he is only concerned about himself. What I do to get myself ahead religiously? This is in contrast to the (despised) Samaritan in the parable who expresses his concern for the other person.

In this text to take literally the meaning of “neighbor,” which in Greek (as well as Hebrew and English) has the basic of meaning of “to be near”.  “Neighbors” are those people who live next door — the nearest people in the “neighborhood.”  Looking then at the three responses to the man in the ditch, the Greek verb used of the first two is antiparerchomai, (vv. 31, 32) which literally has three parts:

erchomai = to go; par(a) = by; anti = on the other side

In contrast, the verb with the third man is proserchomai (v. 34) which literally has two parts:

erchomai = to go; pros = to

Also, drawing near to someone is not the sole definiation of neighbor.  Another form of erchomai is used of the robbers “falling upon” the traveler. Both the robbers and the Samartian “draw near” to this “certain person”.  What is different is how they draw near and for what reason.   Clearly, the answer to the question, “Who is the one who comes near (or is neighbor)?” It has to be the third person. The other two widened the distance between themselves and the man in the ditch. They would not come near to him. They would not be neighbor to him. The third comes near.

“KEEP DOING LIKEWISE” — Towards a Constellation of Hospitality

Probably the most common understanding of this text is that we are to act like the Samaritan in the text, rather than the priest or the Levite. He “sees” and “has compassion” (splagchnizomai) on the needy person in the ditch. He “cares” (epimelo – v. 34) for the man in the ditch. He also asks the innkeeper to “care” (epimelo – v. 35). The Samaritan doesn’t provide all of the direct aid to the needy man. He is also described by the lawyer as the one “doing mercy” (poieo to eleos). The verbs used with the Samaritan are worth emulating: to have compassion others; to come (near) to others; to care for others; to do mercy to others. It is not enough just to know what the Law says, one must also do it. To put it another way, it is not enough just to talk about “what one believes,” but “what difference does it make in my life that I believe.”

In addition, the description of the robbers’ work on the dead man indicate that there would be no identifying marks about his status, his occupation, his race. How would the lawyer (or the Samaritan) know if this half-dead man was a neighbor or not? He is a person who needs a neighbor.

Who will respond? Who will come near?

Note also that the Samaritan acts not to receive anything for himself (like self-justification). He responds to the needs of the man in the ditch and his actions cost him — time and money.

A question that needs to be asked, especially with this interpretive approach to the parable, is “Why a Samaritan?”

The idea of being a “Good Samaritan” is so common in our culture, that most people today don’t realize that “Good Samaritan” would have been an oxymoron to a first century Jew. Briefly stated, a Samaritan is someone from Samaria. During an ancient Israeli war, most of the Jews living up north in Samaria were killed or taken into exile. However, a few Jews, who were so unimportant that nobody wanted them, were left in Samaria. Since that time, these Jews had intermarried with other races. They were considered half-breeds by the “true” Jews. They had perverted the race. They had also perverted the religion. They looked to Mt. Gerizim as the place to worship God, not Jerusalem. They interpreted the Torah differently than the southern Jews. The animosity between the Jews and Samaritans were so great that some Jews would go miles out of their way to avoid walking on Samaritan territory. Previously in Luke 9, the Samaritans had refused to welcome Jesus — the “bad” Samaritans. Note that the lawyer never says “Samaritan.” He can’t call him a “good Samaritan” (a phrase that doesn’t occur in the text). Anyway, we are still left with the question, “Why a Samaritan?”

If Jesus were just trying to communicate that we should do acts of mercy to the needy, he could have talked about the first man and the second man who passed by and the third one who stopped and cared for the half-dead man in the ditch.

Knowing that they were a priest, Levite, and Samaritan is not necessary.

If Jesus were also making a gibe against clerics, we would expect the third man to be a layman — an ordinary Jew — in contrast to the professional clergy. It is likely that Jewish hearers would have anticipated the hero to be an ordinary Jew.  If Jesus were illustrating the need to love our enemies, then the man in the ditch would have been a Samaritan who is cared for by a loving Israelite.

One answer to the question: “Why a Samaritan?” is that Christians might be able to learn about showing mercy from people who don’t profess Christ.  Can we learn about “acting Christianly” from AA for example?

This approach highlights some of the Luke’s themes: Since the man in the ditch had been stripped of anything that might identify him by social class, or perhaps even nationality; he is helped simply because he is a person in need. There should be no distinctions about whom we are to help. In addition, the help involved the use of one’s resources. For Luke, wealth is not necessarily evil, it depends upon how it is used.

Another answer to the question: “Why a Samaritan?” and the biggest challenge in this text for me is that – in the end –  we are not to identify with the Samaritan as the only person Jesus is pointing to for the listener to emulate.   This is probably the biggest challenge to most readings of the parable I think needs to be reflected upon.  A Jew would find that so distasteful that he couldn’t identify with that person. He wouldn’t want to be like the Priest or Levite in the story, so that leaves the hearer with identifying with the man in the ditch as well as see the role that the innkeeper plays in creating a space where hospitality can and does take place.

When Jesus tells the Lawyer to “do likewise” at the end of the parable, he does not exclusively identify the Samaritan.  Rather, the Lawyer says that the one who exhibits mercy is the one we are to turn to.  To that end, we have a constellation of three – the Samaritan, the one in the ditch, and the innkeeper – to point to.  The Samaritan outreach, the one in the ditch who received care and allowed himself to be cared for, and the innkeeper who open a space for reconciliation and healing to forge in grace.  To point only to the Samaritan is to support the move of most Americans who see mercy coming in a one-to-one correspondence without the assistance and support of others.  Also, if we do not see that in some capacity we are also called to be willing – like the one in the ditch – to receive support from another person… perhaps even perhaps offering the face of salvation in a form that is from a racial, cultural dislocating place and will we be willing to receive help and healing from one that is not ‘one of us’.  Lastly, we need to see the role of the innkeeper – the one who opens space for this community building moment to take place – as vital for mercy and grace to awaken and be seen in the world.  At any given time, we are called to these three roles and all are part of discipleship in the world.

The parable can be summarized as follows: to enter the kingdom one must at times get into the ditch and be served by one’s mortal enemy – Grace comes to those who cannot resist, who have no other alternative than to accept it. To enter the parable’s World, to get into the ditch, is to be so low that grace is the only alternative. The point may be so simple as this: only those who need grace can receive grace.

Think back to Jesus’ most famous sermon – the Sermon on the Mount of Matthew 5 – 7 and the Sermon on the Plain earlier in Luke chapter 6.  Jesus makes a list of all those who are blessed – Markarios – in the Kingdom of God.  Those who are hungry, those who weep, those who are poor.  What ultimately makes them blessed is that they know they need someone other than themselves to live.  They are in need – therefore they can allow someone into their lives at a deep and profound level.  This is what Jesus is pushing the lawyer with by putting the view of the Kingdom from the ditch.

A Jew who was excessively proud of his blood line and a chauvinist about his tradition would not permit a Samaritan to touch him, much less minister to him. In going from Galilee to Judea, he would cross and recross the Jordan to avoid going through Samaria. The parable therefore forces upon its hearers the question: who among you will permit himself or herself to be served by a Samaritan? Who among you is ready to open your home as the Innkeeper to allow reconciliation to happen for others? In a general way it can be implied that only those who have nothing to lose by so doing can afford to do so. But note that the victim in the ditch is given only a passive role in the story. Permission to be served by the Samaritan is thus inability to resist. Put differently, all who are truly victims, truly disinherited, have no choice but to give themselves up to mercy. The despised half-breed has become the instrument of grace: as listeners, we should choke on the irony.

The parable of the Good Samaritan may be reduced to two propositions:

– In the Kingdom of God mercy comes only to those who have no right to expect it and who cannot resist it when it comes.

– Mercy always comes from the quarter from which one does not and cannot expect it.

One might attempt to reduce these two sentences to one:

In the kingdom… mercy is always a surprise.

The problems with the lawyer is that he couldn’t see God as possibily coming in the form of that whom he perceives to be his enemy, or that he was so weak as to need saving, or would even be called to offer hospitality to those who would be beyond saving. He hadn’t recognized the depth of his own sinfulness. (He wants to justify himself and probably had a bit of pride that comes along with that.) He was too strong and healthy. He assumes that he has the ability to do something to inherit eternal life. He assumes that he can do something to justify himself. He is not helpless in the ditch. He doesn’t need God’s grace.

When the lawyer realizes that “the one who had mercy on him” is the true neighbor – Jesus tells him to “Go and do – pioete – likewise”.   Don’t merely live your life as a checklist of the Law, rather – live your life as poetry – with passion and depth and humility as the unique, unrepeatable miracles you are.  This challenge, to live with a view from the ditch – that although we have been battered and bruised in this life there is One who offers compassion – but are we ready to accept all that this entails?

Jesus will draw this together as he challenges his disciples, on the night that He was sentenced to death, to remember him by “doing – poiete – this in remembrance of Him.”

I have the honor of being appointed to the Board of Directors for IMAGE journal – a quarterly literary journal the seeks the intersection of faith and the arts.  Quite a gift to be part of this amazing and deeply thoughtful journal.  While housed at Seattle Pacific, IMAGE is an independent literary journal that has published work from writers and artists such as Anne Lamott, Wim Wenders, Luci Shaw,  Kathleen Norris, Annie Dillard and Ron Hansen to mention a few.  Greg Wolfe, the editor of IMAGE and chair of the MFA program at SPU, asked me to write a letter to the Board as a means of stating why I am excited about being part of this community of faithful artists – here is some of that letter:

I am grateful to be asked to participate in the work of IMAGE and so look forward to finding continued ways of supporting this important journal and vital community of artists who contribute and are supported by its work.  The intersection of faith and the arts is something I take very seriously both personally and professionally.  I suppose I see a similar thread in my story to that which Pablo Neruda evokes in the opening stanza of ‘Poetry’:

And it was at that age … Poetry arrived

in search of me. I don’t know, I don’t know where

it came from, from winter or a river.

I don’t know how or when,

no they were not voices, they were not

words, nor silence,

but from a street I was summoned,

from the branches of night,

abruptly from the others,

among violent fires

or returning alone,

there I was without a face

and it touched me.

The limits of what has been deemed ‘faith’ by many theologians of the Church has been a source of concern and at times deep pain for me. Where friends of mine in seminary would find solace in systemic and doctrinal theology, I would turn to Flannery O’Conner, Cormac McCarthy, WB Yeats, Jim Crace, and other literature to find what George Eliot called “the Mystery beneath the processes” of our faith.  Prior to coming to teach in the School of Theology at SPU in 2005, I was a Lecturer in Practical Theology and Ethics at the University of Glasgow, Scotland and served as Director of the Centre for Literature, Theology and the Arts.  This was a place to find the nexus between my theological and pastoral training at Fuller Seminary and my PhD work was in Victorian Literature  and Theology (I wrote my dissertation on George Eliot’s early translation work of Feuerbach’s The Essence of Christianity and Strauss’ The Life of Jesus and its influence on her early fiction – Scenes of Clerical Life, Adam Bede and Mill on the Floss).  I continue to serve on the editorial board of the Oxford University Press journal Literature and Theology and am an active member of the Society of Religion, Literature and Culture which holds its bi-annual meetings in Oxford.

Perhaps more than any verse, Jesus’ command to the gathered disciples at the institution of the Eucharist in Luke 22: 19 frames why I am excited and humbled by the work of IMAGE.  As Jesus presents himself in the elements of poured wine and broken bread he proclaims the injunction to “do this in remembrance of me” which has been emblazoned on the front of alters, etched into glassworks and pottery, and sewn into liturgical cloth for generations.  For some, this statement has become a license to merely preserve, fence in and ultimately fortress a way of life by taking Jesus’ command as a call to arms against the winds of change.  During my six years in Scotland while in the Centre for Literature, Theology and the Arts at the University of Glasgow, I also served as Associate Minister at the Glasgow Cathedral.  As ‘high liturgical Presbyterians’ (yes, there are some) the serving of the Eucharist included the traditional ‘fencing of the table’ and view from the ruling Elders that the Eucharist must be presented in a ‘decent and orderly’ fashion.  To evoke theologian Paul Tillich, form had taken such a priority over content and meaning to the point of almost silencing the luminescent reality of the Host in our midst.  Is this what Jesus had in mind?  Digging deeper into the passage, we find that St. Luke records Jesus’ words as “τοῦτο ποιεῖτε εἰς ἐμὴν ἀνάμνησιν” in the Greek and chooses “ποιεῖτε” or “poieite” as the action to be taken in remembrance of Christ’s life and ministry.  Poieite is a potent call – the call of poiesis is our cognate for poetry in English and not a term that is something to be fenced in.  “Make poetry in remembrance of me” could be argued as Jesus’ command as he deconstructed the elements before the disciples whose feet had only moments ago been washed clean preparing them to walk anew into the world.

It is this call to ‘make poetry in remembrance of me’ that remains a clarion voice for my work as a theologian committed to the Arts and something I have seen through the pages of IMAGE.  I believe that IMAGE and the community which is supported and enlivened by its work is a voice and presence that is needed now more than ever as we continue to live in a time that seems to want only pragmatics (how we live) at the expense of beauty (why life is worth living)

Blessings and peace and continue to ‘make poetry in remembrance of Christ’

In a series of articles published in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Thomas Benton (aka William Pannapacker, an associate professor of English at Hope College, a small Christian Reformed college in Holland, Michigan) has been raising a veritable army of angry adjuncts and underemployed PhDs through his revealing what he sees as “the Big Lie” of the academy – that universities are not telling the truth about employment prospects for those graduating with PhDs in the Humanities and ‘trapping’ vulnerable graduate students into believing that ‘the life of the mind’ is the only calling worth pursuing and that other career options could be as if not more fulfilling.  If you follow the comment threads to Benton/Pannapacker’s postings, you will hear the anger, outrage and disappointment of many graduate students who concur with him.  In spite of the irony of the author writing under a pen name and publishing an article on the ‘Big Lie’ (why not publish under your birth name if truth is such a value?), there is a deep concern brewing about re-evaluating what a university is for and ultimately what a faculty member is charged with.

Last week I received the call that many academics wait for – the notice that the Board of Trustees at the University had voted to extend me tenure.  I went on this journey once before during my time on faculty at the University of Glasgow so to go through it again was tiring to say the least.  It is a long process of evaluation through many vantage points in closed rooms – students focus groups, peer teaching evaluations, guild endorsements, reviews of published scholarship, administrative interviews, and meeting with the President.  In many ways, tenure is an ancient rite of passage more than a means of securing employment or (as many people think) the so-called ‘freedom’ to do and say whatever I want when I want (this was the number one thing that people said to me after the announcement – “so… are you going to just spout off and do crazy things?!”)  No, tenure is not a freedom to be self serving nor should it be seen as a means of subverting the very institution that has embraced me.  It is truly a statement of covenant in the oldest sense of the word – a commitment to a mission beyond the confines of contracts and student evaluations. In many ways, tenure is the ultimate act of faith extended by a body to an educator and scholar – a promise to support, nurture, and give space to voice the mission of the institution not as a mere employee – but as a physical embodiment of the institution itself.  In short, tenure is a burden of grace and trust not to be taken lightly.  It does sadden me to see other faculty who see tenure as a licence to ‘do their own thing’ – pull back on working with students in co-curricular ways, starting side businesses that take most of their attention away from campus life, stop sticking their necks out through submitting papers to peer-reviewed journals and seeking book contracts, and basically coasting through the remainder of their career in utter silence as the ultimate ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy.  These are few, but represent why the public views tenured faculty with such scorn.  For the public that Benton/Pannapacker speaks to and now has a substantive following, these are the faces of the voodoo dolls newly minted PhDs are sticking pins into with relish (which to layer irony upon irony Benton/Pannapacker is possibly another candidate if he is merely stirring up dissent and not courageously using his tenure status to make the changes he himself desires – I would love to know how his letters of petition to the Board of Trustees at Hope College have been going as well as his offer to cut his own salary to enable a younger faculty member to find employment.  As a scholar of Walt Whitman, he might find some courage in Leaves of Grass or as a faculty member at a Reformed school being one of the Elect…)

The challenge I want to lift up as a tenured faculty member is basically this – is the role of tenure a freedom ‘from’ the institutional restraint we perceive holding us back or is it a freedom ‘for’ living into the very mission of the institution that has chosen to embrace us?  Is perhaps the gift of tenure a gift of stewardship – learning how to be truthful about the difficulties of the profession and prospects of employment as Benton/Pannapacker frames so well in his article and also honestly take stock of how tenure means embodiment of the institutional legacy rather than merely licence to be left alone?

What do you think?

In my new book – Freedom of the Self: Kenosis, Cultural Identity and Mission at the Crossroads – I outline an argument to move away from the posture of consumerism and into what I call “the Kenotic Self” based on Philippians 2:5-11.  In the book I track the forgotten path of the Kenotic self in philosophy dating back to Aristotle and Augustine through to Derrida, Levinas and Jean-Luc Marion and theologians such as Karl Barth, Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Graham Ward.  In light of this move toward the Kenotic self for 2010, here are 5 things to consider for ‘twenty-ten’ and 5 questions to ask yourself in making economic decisions in the new year drawn from the latter half of the book where I spell out the lifestyle choices of the Kenotic self:

1. God owns all things. As we hear in Ps 24: 11 and Job 41:11, the notion of personal and corporate ownership is an illusion. We have a lease relationship with this life. The fact that people in the U.S. speak of “owning” a home when the truth of the matter is that a vast majority of so-called “home owners” are tenants in a residence “owned” by a mortgage company or bank shows how far we have come as a culture into the illusion that “debt” can be equated with “ownership.” This mentality has seeped into the marrow of our understanding of God’s ownership of creation and all that dwells in it. Regardless of stance on free will and human ethical agency, it is central to the Christian story that God is the not only the sustainer of creation, but the owner as well. We are “stewards” of the garden, not owners. As John Taylor points out in his book Enough is Enough: “Only in his unbroken awareness of God is man’s technological mastery safe. Only in his acceptance of creaturehood can his dominion [over creation] be prevented from becoming raw domination. For being answerable to God, man remains answerable for his fellow creatures and for the soil of his earth.”

2. God provides all things. As the Bible reminds us, there is no need for anxiety: Matt 6; Luke 12: 22–31; no need for love of money: Heb 13:5; no need to serve two masters: Matt 6:24; no need to seek secondary treasures: Matt 13:45. In short, what is needed is provided for—all the rest is fuel of fear at best. Part of the concerns surrounding economic flux in the global market and the rash responses—from Y2K paranoia to increased interest in Middle East oil reserves—has to do with a need to manage and control those things we need due to our deep lack of faith. In short, we pay lip service to God’s providence the more we hoard goods and services unto ourselves at the expense of others. The notion that we are to “focus on our family” as a “primary concern” only exacerbates the divide between our nuclear family and the “widow and orphan” whose caring is not additive, but central to our understanding of what the Kingdom of God looks like.

3. We release all things. Henri Nouwen spoke prophetically in regard to the only true prayer is the prayer offered with open hands. Jesus’ ministry was one of freedom for hospitality through our availability to others. In this way, the extreme is the normative—we are to sell all, give all, and ultimately receive all and pure gift as we hear in Luke 12:33–34 and Mark 10:21, 29–30. To “hold on” and grasp things is harmful—both to relationship with God (i.e. “Eye of the Needle,” Luke 18:18–24) and to one’s own identity and relations with others as we hear in 1 Tim 6:8–10. It is important to remember that the judgment upon Sodom and Gomorrah was a judgment primarily based upon a lack of hospitality—they had become so consumed with feeding their own lusts and desires that they had no time nor vision to acknowledge the needs of others. In this notion as Americans do not stand apart from Sodom, but in the Sodom town square.

4. We are called to desacralise all things. Jacques Ellul in The Technological Society argued that money in and of itself when we imbue it with idol-like mission—in this way money qua money has power in itself and we need to act counter to this temptation and set people and relationships in primary consideration as having priority over things. In this way we need to work toward a redefinition of the Good Life: not quantity of things but quality of relations. As we are challenged under the divine command ethics of the ten commandments, we are not to mission any other God than God, period. To hold things and the monetary value we have placed upon those things above drawing people close in relationship with ourselves and their Creator is to choose graven images. This goes for the notion of usury or putting interest upon money borrowed from others. As we hear in 2 Cor 8, we are challenged not to coerce more money from people but liberate people from addiction and release people from debts. The work of DATA and Jubilee 2000 is not merely fad, it is a mandate. As we learn from liberative and emancipatory theologies, God’s concern for the poor is primary throughout scripture. The “new poverty” is the poverty of ignorance to the cry from the margins. Theologian Ron Sider reminds us: “Are the people of God truly God’s people if they oppress the poor? Is the church really the church if it does not work to free the oppressed? [Regarding Matt 25:41] The meaning [of Matt 25] is clear and unambiguous. Jesus intends that disciples imitate his own special concern for the poor and needy. Those who disobey will experience eternal damnation . . . Regardless of what we do or say at 11am on Sunday morning, affluent people who neglect the poor are not the people of God . . . God is not neutral. His freedom from bias does not mean that he maintains neutrality in the struggle for justice. He is indeed on the side of the poor.” What are some of the challenges that remain before us in striving toward an authentic and humble biblical economics? We are reminded of the Lausanne Covenant:  “All of us are shocked by the poverty of millions and disturbed by the injustices which cause it. Those of us who live in affluent circumstances accept our duty to develop a simple life-style in order to contribute more generously to both relief and evangelism.”  In many respects, little has changed in the 30 years since the Lausanne Covenant was drafted, but the challenge before us as people of integrity is still there.

5. Create communities of loving defiance. Ron Sider puts it this way in Rich Christians in An Age of Hunger: “The church should consist of communities of loving defiance. Instead it consists largely of comfortable clubs of conformity. A far-reaching reformation of the church is a prerequisite if it is to commit itself to Jesus’ mission of liberating the oppressed.” There is a need for intentionality among the faithful to form a new vision of the church as “communities of loving defiance” is a world moving with the inertia of consumerism and an ego-born appetite that shows no natural hope of slowing. The time for a spiritual reassessment of economics and the “new poverty” where the deficits of the soul are acknowledged on the balance sheet alongside the deficits of the check book in now needed. Bonhoeffer made this all too apparent as a factor for authentic discipleship: “Earthly possessions dazzle our eyes and delude us into thinking that they can provide security and freedom from anxiety. Yet all the time they are the very source of anxiety. If our hearts are set on them, our reward is an anxiety whose burden is intolerable . . . When we seek security in possessions we are trying to drive out care with care, and the net result is the . opposite of our anticipations.”

Here are five more resolutions to ask yourself for ‘twenty-ten’ form Ron Sider in Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger:

6. Does this purchase I am about to make move toward a globally sustainable personal lifestyle? Are the choices you are making sustainable outside of the US?  Can someone from different economic system live into the life you are surrounding yourself with?  If making high end purchases – clothing brands, technology upgrades – are not attainable by others then why are you binding yourself to such a lifestyle?

7. How am I distinguishing between necessities and luxuries in my economic priorities? One of the best ways to life into this is to surround yourself with a community of discernment who have permission to speak into your purchases and economic decisions.  Remember, what becomes normative is what we spend up to.  Find friends who share a lifestyle you wish to hold as normative and then give people permission to hold you to it.

8. Work toward eliminating “status expenditures”—can a basic Mp3 player do the job that the iPod can? On a recent trip to Hong Kong, I was amazed that most of the brand clothing lines (think: ‘7 for all mankind’ jeans) merely have labels attached to them where as the same jeans in a discount store do not. Same jeans sans the label.  Another thing I advise college students to do – wait 1 day for every dollar you are thinking of spending on entertainment items.  If a new CD or download costs $12, then wait two weeks before buying it.  I have often found that the “need to buy” and the “need to have” diminishes merely by waiting to see if you really want and need it. I still have that stupid T’Pau CD that if I had waited a few days I would have released how lame it was...

9. Work toward distinguishing between expenditures for creativity and recreation and excessive self-indulgence. People spend often when they are bored and as a way to alleviate loneliness and boredom.  “I don’t have anything to do, I will go shopping.”  If the chief question is community and connection, then begin with people and have spending follow.  Additionally, you do not need to spend money to spend time with people – i.e. you do not need to buy food as an excuse to spend time together.

10. Strive toward severing the connection between what you earn and what you consume. This is by far the most difficult task for many. The reality that “downsizing” is incredibly difficult shouldn’t surprise anyone—but the call to do so is certainly central to what it means to life selflessly and self-fully rather than selfishly.

Let me know what you think.  Since I am in the final stages of editing Freedom of the Self, your comments may make it into the final book!

I just finished teaching a 10 day intensive for Fuller Seminary on Christian Ethics.  As an exercise in community, intensives have always felt like a parody in many ways – akin to the ‘new car smell’ that car companies spray into the seats of cars before they roll off the assembly line… smells real but is far from it.  Granted, I know that teaching flexible format courses – online, distance learning, intensives – is just a reality of the current situations that most students find themselves in as they attempt to balance classes, working to pay for classes, and families and friends and ministries they are enmeshed in.  That said – as a faculty member teaching these classes – I find the experience terribly draining spiritually and psychologically as I try to get through difficult material in a timely manner yet still allow space for the engagement of deep and abiding learning in light of ministry.  I am a teacher (like many teachers) who desires to know my students and teach to the space in which they find themselves called to.  Spending 10 days with them focused on plowing through ethically challenging questions doesn’t give much room for that.  Many of the challenges we had together as a class would have been alleviated if we had simply spent time getting to know each other at some level, learned to trust one another, and then entered into these complex questions of poverty, just war theory, abortion, euthanasia, homosexuality, etc.    True, we may have emerged with the same disagreements and unanswered questions as we did this week.  But as opposed to seeing the questions as unaswered, the depth of relationship would have framed them as open questions to continue journeying through.

I pray that the students find some community to wrestle with these difficult questions and wish I could continue to the journey with them, but the week is done and so is our context.

Go with God, my friends.  Journey well…

Ray Oldenburg, the sociologist who famously coined the phrase “third places, or “great good places,” as being those public places on neutral ground where people can gather and interact. As Oldenburg notes in his book The Great Good Place, most people ocntinually move between three distinct places or zones of meaning-making: first places (home) and second places (work) dominate peoples concern and are mediated and at times sustained by third places: locales that allow people to put aside their sectarian concerns and simply enjoy the company and conversation around them.  As Oldenburg states, third places “host the regular, voluntary, informal, and happily anticipated gatherings of individuals beyond the realms of home and work.”  Examples of these ‘third places’ has literally sprung forth from the rubble of reaganomics in the 1980’s and sustained in many ways the dot.com boom and bust of the 1990’s: beer gardens, main streets, pubs, cafés, coffeehouses, post offices, and other third places are the heart of a community’s social vitality and the foundation of a functioning democracy.

“Life without community has produced, for many, a life style consisting mainly of a home-to-work-and-back-again shuttle. Social well-being and psychological health depend upon community. It is no coincidence that the ‘helping professions’ became a major industry in the United States as suburban planning helped destroy local public life and the community support it once lent.”

It is no suprize that Evangelicalism amidst the church growth frenzy of the 1980’s saw the notion of ‘third place’ as a call to arms:  people need to gather and talk!  We shall build large, sanctified third places!  We shall provide coffee!  We shall provide bookstores!  We shall offer line dancing and yoga and colorful childcare areas filled with optimism!

But Oldenburg’s call to creating a third place for people to gather, to dialogue, to meet ‘others’ on a neutral ground with our sectarian differences left at the door is not what many church plants have created nor fought for.  Rather, many so-called ‘third place’ churches have draw up plans and focus born of the shopping mall phenomenon rather than a truly open space for meaning-making.  As Oldenburg puts it:

“Totally unlike Main Street, the shopping mall is populated by strangers. As people circulate about in the constant, monotonous flow of mall pedestrian traffic, their eyes do not cast about for familiar faces, for the chance of seeing one is small. That is not part of what one expects there. The reason is simple. The mall is centrally located to serve the multitudes from a number of outlying developments within its region. There is little acquaintance between these developments and not much more within them. Most of them lack focal points or core settings and, as a result, people are not widely known to one another, even in their own neighborhoods, and their neighborhood is only a minority portion of the mall’s clientele.”

Haunting but true – to walk into the sprawling narthexes in most churches built in the last 20 years is to enter a mall of unbridled consumerism: focus is drawn to the walls and walls of pre-fab seminars cut and pasted off websites that don’t identify the hurts and longings of the community in which it hangs.  As such, the experiment is running out of steam as evidenced by the fact that these neo-third place churches are emptying by the week and people are simply not coming back.

The big question:  where are they going…?

Stay tuned…

Of the top five things that factor into my sense of ‘being’ is the strange reality that I am an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church (USA).  Even writing about it feels odd akin to discovering that you are actually adopted or better yet, that your entire life has actually been shaped and sustained by a force you least expected.  Think of the great plot twist in Dickens’s Great Expectations when Pip realizes after so many years that seemingly pragmatic humanist rise to fortune under his own cunning and skill only supplemented by the wealthy Miss Havisham, but was actually the result of a dark benefactor shaping his ends that he encounters as a boy: Magwitch.  Pip’s so-called self-made journey is nothing more than a (havi)sham in the end.

My life has been such a bildungsroman as well – times when I had the audacity to think that I deserved my life, that the accomplishments and failures that marked out the data points of my days were of my doing alone – that I was the egoist and ‘overman’ of Nietzsche’s Thus Spake Zarathustra in so many ways.  Yet the truth is that I am not so much an architect nor a cartographer worth of this sojourn by any means.  No, the reality is that God is very much a reality and my vocation has been bound to who God is for quite some time akin to what the Gospel of John sees as the intimacy and fury of a fruit bearing branch engrafted to a deeply rooted vine.

It is not an easy vocation by any means and the further I can ‘into’ it (I was ordained in 1995) the more mysterious and just plain weird it all is.

I am currently reading Charles Taylor’s magnum opus A Secular Age this summer – a sprawling 800+ page tome that seeks to locate the contours, valleys and peaks of this so-called ‘Secular Age’ in relation to the West.  No one is better suited for this challenge to be sure than Taylor.  In the introduction he speaks of his task as essentially’re-telling the story of the West, as he puts it “to get straight where we are, we have to go back and tell the story properly.” (29)  Part of the story Taylor wants to tell is that over 2,000 years the issue of God’s Death (after William Hamilton, Tom Altizer) or ‘Dying’ (think the Victorian anxiety surrounding Matthew Arnold’s Dover Beach as the ‘Sea of Faith’ recedes into the distance) is vastly overstating the condition of modernity.  God is not retreating from the public sphere – what Taylor terms the ‘subtraction’ theory in that God is being pulled out of discourse inch-by-inch as Fox News would have us believe.  Rather, according to Taylor, God is very much still a core component of society and continues to be so.  Now I am not going to redact the 800+ pages of his tome (it is certainly worth the read though!) but he does paint a compelling argument.  Sooo… why am I rambling on about Charles Taylor in reference to the vocation of pastor? The fact is that as long as society continues to seek and be sought by a very ‘real’ God, the more I will be found in the mix of the conversations and silences that follow waiting for the still, small voice to nudge us yet again – the rough beast of WB Yeats’ ‘Second Coming‘ slouching ever so nearer and nearer toward Jerusalem to be born among us yet again…jeff with stoll - wedding