I was in fourth grade when Paul McCartney’s musings in 1976 that ‘you think that people would’ve had enough of silly love songs, I look around me and I see it isn’t so…oh no…’ filled the airwaves.  Retrofitted by Ewan McGregor and Nicole Kidman during a montage dance number in Baz Luhrmann’s film Moulin Rouge in 2001, the question of whether there is a place for love anymore continues to perplex and befuddle.

I am a second reader on a senior thesis honors project looking at phenomenological turn in the work of Jean-Luc Marion.  One of the grand works of Marion is his reflections on the absence of love in philosophy.  As he notes in the beginning of book The Erotic Phenomenon:

Philosophers have in fact forsaken love, dismissed it without a concept and finally thrown it to the dark and worried margins of their sufficient reason – along with the repressed, the unsaid, and the unmentionable.  Doubtless other forms of discourse claim to recover from this escheat, and, in their own way, they have sometimes succeeded.

I fear that he is correct.   Spend time in the philosophy section of your local college, university or seminary library and flip through the generous tomes that bear the heft and girth of centuries of the ‘philo-sophia’ or ‘love of wisdom’ and where is the passionate call to love and be loved in return?  As Marion goes on to say in The Erotic Phenomenon, we have relied too much upon poetry, novels and even theology to frame the conversation and therefore releases philosophy from its mandate.  Such assumptions need to be reconsidered :

Poetry can tell me about the experience I have not known how to articulate, and thus liberate me from my erotic aphasia – but it will never make me understand love conceptually.  The novel succeeds in breaking the autism of my amorous crises because it reinscribes them in a sociable, plural, and public narrativity – but it does not explain what really and truly happens to me.  Theology knows what love is all about; but it knows it too well ever to avoid imposing upon me an interpretation that comes so directly through the Passion that it annuals my passions – without taking the time to render justice to their phenomenality, or to give a meaning to their immanence.

It is this last statement about theology that vexes me the most.  Have we so easily resigned the task of critically reflecting upon the nature of love to the ‘soft disciplines’ that we have lost the ability to speak of love, let alone render some grounded understanding of what love truly entails – this most elusive yet necessary of all truth?

Perhaps the question isn’t whether people have had enough of silly love songs… it is why they continue to stomach such shallow ones.  Perhaps we haven’t given people many choices…

There are have been proclamations, rants, even celebrations by some that with the fall in church attendance across the mainline Christian denominations that the days of “going to church” are quickly coming to an end.  By this I mean the days of packing the family up in the car and driving to a Sunday morning worship service, perhaps Sunday school and fellowship hall gatherings over burned coffee and cookies fresh out of a box.  To this bit of Americana I would have to agree – the days of this picture are fading faster than a Polaroid on a bulletin board (note: given that Kodak is discontinuing the Polaroid line, this metaphor is ironically fading out as well).

Is this such a bad thing? Well, a number of post-church (aka ’emergent’) folks have been banging this drum for most of the late 1990’s and into the current century and have made quite a nice living on book deals and speaking gigs that have stirred the dismay and questioned the notion of “church” as a modernist construct to the point of people gathering around their books and conferences rather than as collectives of the Body of Christ.  Those who attend many of these “we are different” and”embrace Otherness” and  “not your father’s Christianity” and “meaning as Twitter feed”  gatherings seem to keep coming and the folks who put them on are able to pay their mortgages so something is working, right?   (btw –  many so-called ’emergent’ folks will ‘hate on’ this alignment of “emergent” = “post-church”… but emergent folks hate on any label… kinda cute actually…)

That said, my worry goes deeper than the business models of the so-called ‘different without a Creed’ gatherings.  My worry is that ultimately ‘the Church is Christ in the world’ (a phrase stated rather boldly by Dietrich Bonhoeffer)  and as such has such a brutally fractured presence in the world that it resembles the torn apart corpse of the Levites concubine in Judges 19-22 (if you are interested in this troubling section of the Hebrew Bible that is never preached on and not found in any lectionary, my colleague Frank Spina provides a great lecture on iTunesU available here)

What is left of the presence of the church other than torn apart, sun-bleached and picked over chunks of flesh and bone fragments as Christians continue to passively participate in ever-shrinking circles of affinity that rarely engage a larger conversation that could mean the end of their perspective and the beginning of some new relationship?

This is the question that is driving my book project entitled “The Z factor” which is a meditation on the words of the Minor Prophets and in particular the book of Zechariah.  It is something I have been musing over for a while and feel that it is time to kick start the project again.  I will be posting thoughts on it over the coming weeks and look forward to your contributions and help in musing these questions over…

I recently published an article entitled “The Beatific Quest as Faith Formation in C.S. Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia: Direction, Release and Integration” in the recent Aesthetics Issue of The Other Journal: Journal of Theology and Culture (issue #15, ISSN 1933-7957).  The article reflects on Lewis’s use of the Grail quest genre as exemplified in Malory’s Le Morte D’Arthur as a typology for deep faith exploration that takes seriously both personal introspection and poetic imagination.  A version of the article is available here: http://theotherjournal.com/article.php?id=841

Some of you know that I have been working on a book project looking at the nature of “kenosis” in Christian identity formation.  “Kenosis” is a Greek term taken from Phil. 2:7, where Christ is spoken of as having “emptied himself” (NRSV) as the true mark of what constitutes humanity. There has been much discussion about this entire crucial passage (2:6 – 11), and the scholarship surrounding the exegetical history of the Carmen Christi of Philippians 2 is expansive.  While I will be referring to a number of key works, this book primarily explores the philosophical and theological questions that arise from the Kenotic tradition as they inform theological anthropology or the question of ‘being human’.  In addition to the many texts that will be cited throughout the book, recent texts that have  particularly informed this study are C. Stephen Evans’ recent edited volume Exploring Kenotic Christology: The Self Emptying of God (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), Michael Gorman, Inhabiting the Cruciform God: Kenosis, Justification, and Theosis in Paul’s Soteriology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009), and Kevin Cronin Kenosis: Emptying Self and the Path of Christian Service (London: Continuum, 2005).   The chapters in the book offer readers new conversation partners from the breadth and width of human reflection on what it means to be human and with these conversations partners I will offer a theological method for kenotic identity formation – a means and discipline to remain aware and open hearted to what the Kenotic life can be reimagined as.  The contours of this reimagined life will look at the re-framing of the deeply lived life by both internal (seen in the model of St. Augustine) and external (as seen in the work of Aristotle) concerns, radically decentered in location (as seen in the challenge of French theorist Jacques Derrida), found in the face of the other (seen in the Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas), and ‘given’ rather than taken (as seen in the Catholic theologian Jean Luc Marion).

The challenge of writing a book is more than the research and putting proverbial pen to paper… it is knowing who you are writing for and speaking in a way that can be grabbed onto by the intended reader.

One of the things that has been difficult is finding this perfect pitch given the subject matter.  I have called the book “The Kenotic Self”  but have found from those who have looked at a draft of the proposal that the jargon may be off-putting.

My latest title:

k(no)w (you)r(self): The Missing Art of Being K(no)wn in Christianity

Thoughts?

I am reading David Walsh’s The Modern Philosophical Revolution: The Luminosity of Existence right now and am just thunderstruck with how clean, concise and thoughful he is.  A fantastic read and truly a must for my continental geek friends out there.

Here is a great takeaway on the nature of Faith as Walsh reflects on the legacy of Søren Kierkegaard:

Faith is always in what we cannot know.  It is not merely a substitute for knowledge, but is of an utterly different order from knowledge.  What is known is over or possessed; what is believed is lived.  So it is precisely the nonpossibility of knowledge that constitutes faith and existence.  Just as the ideas of philosophy had become the principal barrier to the life of philosophy, the historical doctrines of Christianity had become the main obstacle to the life of Christianity.

Is Walsh arguing for an abandonment of the tradition and history of the Christian church?  No – I think in many ways this is his attempt to recapture the very intention of the ecumenical councils that have somehow become lost in the early years of the 21st cenutry.   As he states so well – what is truly believed is lived.  It becomes that simple.  To merely articulate beliefs without living them out is to plunge into a disembodied pit of reason without recourse, affirmation of so-called truth without the evidence of truthfulness in time and space.

I will be chiming in on this reading journey in the weeks to come from time to time.  Worth picking up fer sure!

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

I am currently working on an article in response to Charles Taliaferro and Stewart Goertz’s article last year in Christian Scholars Review entitled “The Prospect of Christian Materialism” (volume XXXVII, number 3, Spring 2008) which is a chapter in a book I am completing entitled “The Kenotic Self”.

In the article Taliaferro and Goertz assert that ‘most, if not all, orthodox Christian theologians of the early church were anthropological dualists… [and] God has allowed dualism to dominate Christian anthropology for two millennia’  Hence, it is relevant to make clear that while contemporary Christian materialists advocate going materialistic, we support remaining dualistic.’

Well… I disagree on a number of fronts with their assertion and am arguing in my article for what I am terming a return to ‘dynamic incarnationalism’ in light of the Gospel accounts and testimony of the Church.  To assert dualism as a ‘fundamental’ category of Christian theology seems pretty spurious to me. What I am terming ‘dynamic incarnationalism’ builds on the dialectical materialism found in post-Marxist critique yet still acknowledges the mystical Divine amidst imminence.  This builds on Žižek’s dialectical materialism which is essentially a Marxist commentary (from Engels’ Dialectics of Human Nature and Marx’s Das Kaptial through to  Feuerbach’s Essence of Christianity) framed by Hegel’s continually reforming dialectic. The problem with materialism for many Christians is a view that it creates a hegemonic essentialism that it purports to free us from – shifting one form of hubris for yet another.  That said, by acknowledging the dynamic nature of materialism and the multi-valiant nature of imminent existence (read: the nature of the Church as the body of Christ), we can expand and deepen the material life without leaving behind the spiritual.   In dynamic incarnationalism we can see truth as Heidegger did – a work/poiete ( Luke 22:19) of  aletheia – something worked out in the midst of  immanent human history passing through various dynamic phases, which includes moment of error or apophatic negativity that provide counterpoints as essential component of truth.  As Marx’s dialectical materialism argues and is deepened in Foucault’s critique against Hegel’s Geist-centric idealism,  our real life existence/Existenz is not actualized in a transcendent spiritualism (whether it is an idealized Geist or a temporally localized Zeitgeist) in exclusive polarity to the material existence; rather the Spirit (paraclete) is immersed and bound fully within the material – a radical ‘Emmanuelism’ if you will.

As a Presbyterian and therefore Reformed by tradition, I realize that this puts me at odds with the recent trend of Neo-Calvinist views that argues for a radically transcendent God as “wholly other” to the created order.  In my article I dialogue with Žižek in concert  with the Gospel of John as a via media in this debate. For Žižek, the turn toward dialectical materialism asserts that true (alethia) existence is not a disconnected mix of things isolated from each other, but an integral holistic presense that freely offers particularity.  Rather, all of nature is in a state of constant motion and dynamic deepening akin to Goethe view of morphology and Engel’s view of nature  as ‘becoming’ (“All nature, from the smallest thing to the biggest, from a grain of sand to the sun, from the protista to man, is in a constant state of coming into being and going out of being, in a constant flux, in a ceaseless state of movement and change.” Friedrich Engels, Dialectics of Nature).  Additionally, we have much to learn in theoloogy as to the deepening of existense in Christ as a process whereby insignificant and imperceptible quantitative changes lead to fundamental, qualitative changes – see John 15 for the immeshed life of the body as a branch engraphed into the Vine. This is both catalytic and still point in a turning world – think of Acts 22 and Paul’s testimony of the Damascus Road.

My question: Why would the church choose dualism as a mode of being when intimacy – aka ‘materialism’ after Žižek or ‘dynamic incarnationalism’ for the Devout – is what we ultimately are seeking?

I will end with Žižek’s bold statement from The Puppet and the Dwarf:

“What we are getting today is a kind of suspended belief, a belief that can thrive only as today is a kind of “suspended” belief, a belief that can thrive only as not fully (publicly) admitted, as a private obscene secret.  Against this attitude, one should insist even more emphatically that the “vulgar” question “Do you really believe or not?” matters – more than ever, perhaps.  My claim here is not merely that I am a materialist through and through, and that the subversive kernel of Christianity is accessible also to a materialist approach; my thesis is much stronger: this kernel is accessible only to a materialist approach – and vice versa: to become a true dialectical materialist, one should go through the Christian experience. (emphasis mine)

Couldn’t agree more…