Monday, June 30, 2008

Thick or Thin? Considerations On the Meaning of Peace

This being the week of the 4th of July (can it be already?) as many are inclined to do, we reflect on our freedoms, and relative peace that we have in this country. While we are at war in far off places, we live in a generally peace-filled place. My hope this week is to reflect on ideas of peace and what that means for us as Christians.

A few years ago I heard a chapel message about the nature of peace. She spoke from the John 20.19 (See also, Luke 24.36) passage which reads, “When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, "Peace be with you." Peace, as she interpreted it, grew out of its opposite of strife or the negation/absence of strife. I was not quite at ease with her definition. It felt deficient. Slight. Almost cheapening the profundity that should come with Christ’s words. I want something thicker…more substantial.

More recently in our small group we ran into the passage from Luke 10.5-6 (See also Mt. 10.13) which reads, “Whatever house you enter, first say, "Peace to this house!' 6 And if anyone is there who shares in peace, your peace will rest on that person; but if not, it will return to you.” Is Christ here speaking of the absence of strife? And what is all this about offering it and its return?

My contention is that there is a thicker reality to peace than what we as American’s tend to read in these passages.

First off, lets look at the thin reading of peace as the woman offered to us in chapel. Looking back on her remarks I wonder what strife was Christ trying to overcome in his words? Was he at odds with the disciples when he appeared to them? Are his words to be interpreted as an olive branch held out in hope? I am not satisfied with this as the context does not seem lend those interpretations too easily. Likewise if we consider passages like Matthew 10.34 or Luke 12.51 Jesus tells his followers that he has not come to make peace, but has come with a sword. How are we to interpret this troubling passage? Does this sanction a just violence? Through out the Lukan narrative, we see the birth narratives (1.79, 2.14) suggesting peace, Jesus proclaiming peace in his redemptive activities (7.50, 8:48 – we will come back to these), teaching his disciples to do the same (10.5-6). How can these passages be reconciled with the divisive sword? What we see in the narrative is that God’s purposes will engender opposition. This opposition is ultimately the strife and violence that brings Jesus under the weight of the cross. It seems clear that a thin reading from these two passages alone cannot be a sufficient understanding of peace.

That being said, Mark 9.5, Jesus does urge his followers to be at peace with one another. Here, and a few other places, I will admit that it seems that Christ spoke of an absence of strife which offers some credibility to a thin reading…or perhaps a sacramentally thin reading. More likely the thin offering is a resultant effect from the thick interpretation.

So then, what is this thick reading I have been raving about? My tendency is read them Christologically and Soteriologically.

Our small group has been reading Luke through the lens of Isaiah 61 or the prophecy Jesus reads about himself in the temple recorded in Luke 4.16-19,
“When he came to
Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, 17 and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written: 18 "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, 19 to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor." Luke’s contention, as the narrative seems to suggest, is that when we see these things we are seeing the active presence of the Kingdom of God.

Luke seems to pair peace with healing. Passages such as Luke 7:50, And he said to the woman, "Your faith has saved you; go in peace." or Luke 8.48/Mk 5.34, “"Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace” seem to suggest a great reality to peace than the absence of strife, though it may well include it.

Joel Green suggests that peace is roughly equivalent with salvation in the Lukan narrative (NICNT, 413). Rereading the healing passages above, Christ is not sending the healed women out with an absence of discord, but has sent them away as signs of the healing salvation brings and signs of the inbreaking of the Kingdom. Perhaps the command to go in peace can be roughly reworded to “Go, being now saved.”

But I think we can move beyond the soteriological reading to another reading based in Christology itself. If we see the incarnation as God’s reconciling efforts for peace with humanity, Christ himself becomes the embodied reality of peace as well as the means to procure it.

If we take this perspective to the Luke 10 passage again, we read Jesus telling the disciples to tell the communities that, "The kingdom of God has come near to you.” Not only the redemptive signs of healing and freedom offered in the Isaiah prophecy and the women, but Christ himself as the embodiment of peace. Returning to the woman’s chosen passage that she chose to interpret as the absence of strife, I prefer to read it as a thick proclamation of who Christ was. “Peace be with you,” he said is suggestive of the embodied reality of who he was and also what he offered them. Jesus become the means of acquiring peace with God through faith. But also, that Jesus is the very reality of that peace as seen in the Kingdom of God. The kingdom of God…the peace of God has come near, in a physical human form.

Friday, June 27, 2008

found objects: shoes

Ever see shoes along side of the road? Do you wonder who they belonged to? Why do they always seem to be a single and not the pair? Where is the other one? How did it get there? These are the questions that keep me up late at night.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Lex Orandi Est Lex Credendi

Widely known in theological and liturgical circles is the axiom “lex orandi est lex credendi.” Which translates roughly into the law/rule of praying is the law/rule of believing.” Essentially the way we pray shapes what we believe. But this also functions inversely as well where what we believe shapes how we pray.

Recently I was a bystander in a conversation where a woman explained that she had been praying for God to speak to her about the “why’s” and “what’s” of her discontent, the “when’s” of its end, and the “where’s” of their social location. As I sat and listened I wanted so badly to interject this bit of liturgical and theological wisdom into her prayer life. I do not what to diminish the sincerity of her petitions, and yet, all three of her questions are focused on herself and her circumstances. From the perspective of this axiom, what we pray will affect how we think God will or must act, which ultimately dictates who we assume God to be.

A while back I spent some time studying St. Paul’s conversion as recorded in Acts 9. Verse five records Saul asking in reply to the voice, “Who are you lord?” The question struck me. How simple. And yet, how profound. Who are you lord? The text states, “The reply came, "I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.” Paul’s question to his interlocutor brought about a revelatory disclosure. S/Paul’s perception of God and Jesus became radically enlarged through this event thus altering his practice of prayer and faith. By praying and asking God the simple question, “Who are you Lord?” would seem to make an inviting space for God’s self revelation breaking into what may have grown into a very narrow lex orandi est lex credendi situation. It suggests an openness to who God is beyond our rigid presuppositions. Without devolving too far off course, if we add in Calvin’s dialectic of knowledge where knowledge of God brings about a clearer understanding of self, we also see that by inviting God’s revelation as Paul did, radically shifts our perception of ourselves in the midst God’s grand story. The question, “Who are you” invites God’s revelation of self, which cannot be separate from God’s purposes for the Church and world. Upon receipt of such revelation, all other secondary questions, such as the woman was asking, are reframed accordingly.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Adrienne Grossmann and the Human Constitution

The human body is a magnificent thing: beautiful and strong and yet dying and weak. Our theological heritage has often wavered and questioned the goodness of the body. Should we be the proto-Gnostics that Paul discusses? Or should we follow contemporary Christian Gnostics who seem to disregard the body and its worth as simply a home for the all important spirit and spiritual life? So what do we do with this physical and yet non-physical reality of the body.

To overcome this Platonic dualism we need to realize that we do not have bodies (which seems to say that the true us can be had apart from the bodies we are attached to) but that we are our bodies. Our Greek philosophical heritage tends to break the reality of the body into physical and non physical (body and spirit), whereas the Hebrew reality sought to unify the reality through something they called “nephesh” or literally “bodyspirit.” The two were inseparable.

Now this entry is not about theology per se, but rather art and particularly the work of Adrienne Grossmann…my niece. As a recent graduate of Stout College in Menominee Wisconsin, Adrienne has emerged as a fine artist in her college years. Many of the prints below come from her senior show which focused largely on the human form. While I have not been privy to her development and discussion on her work, as a proud uncle, I can enjoy and reflect on her works from my theological soap box.

As I attended to Adrienne’s work the aforementioned theological considerations rose to mind. Her work is at times overtly and others blatantly sexual with the proximity of male and female forms. And yet I find the single bodies the most compelling as one truly searching for honesty of meaning about our human constitution. It comes from a young woman exploring and reveling in the reality of her own embodiment as a sexual being. It seems it is a process of self-discovery and now bodied forth into the complexity of a lithograph. We are bodies that writhe in pain and ecstasy, strong and fragile, that both give and seek comfort through touch. And yet, the method in her making suggests (at least to me) a certain and peculiar movement…an alchemy…a mystery that thrives beyond scientific and biologic attempts at defining who and what we are.

What does it mean that we are created as imago Dei? Can this be answered by one reality of physical likeness or rational and creative beings? Or even more recent assertions of relationality based in Trinitarian logic to overcome individualism and depreciating ecclesiologies? While cases for all can be made and perhaps should be, but not at the exclusion of others. I dare not divorce the imago from our physical reality, and yet it is not the totality of our existence and relation to the Creator. We must take this physical stuff, our embodied reality, seriously.

Adrienne’s art helps remind me of my physicality and its correlative complexities. The beauty of her work suggests to me, the beauty of humanity, and ultimately our Creator.
As Christians we dare not forget the goodness of creation, the beauty of our bodies and that they are our only means for appreciating, examining, journeying in this remarkable realilty.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Provoking the Gospel and Film Studies

Richard Swanson, who teaches Religion at Augustana College, has written a series of books called Provoking the Gospel where he attempts to bring the New Testament stories back to life again.

Swanson, among many others, see that much of the Bible that we have inherited came first through oral traditions…that is in stories that were told over and over. The stories were not simply held as files in ones mind but were lived out in a person’s life. Swanson suggests that we tell stories for two different reasons: 1) because there are things that we need to remember…to keep with us…those things we cannot or should not lose and secondly these stories help make sense of those things that we cannot make sense of or that we cannot stop thinking of.

Swanson says that stories do three important things: 1) stories project worlds. These worlds do not stay on the page, rather they incite our imagination. Think of the world’s of Narnia and Middle-Earth.

Secondly, stories draw readers/hearers/viewers as participants into that world. If we are drawn in, it is a convincing story. Consider again Narnia and Middle-Earth. We are taken in and suddenly live among these characters.

Thirdly, and most importantly, stories create roles, expectations, and ways of seeing the world. What makes these roles and expectations the most important aspect of story is how they live off the page as it were…how they change our life. They can expand our understanding of self and others, the world and what lies beyond. As we live in these stories, we return to normal life with a part of us still in those stories or perhaps them within us. Perhaps some stories radically alter our view of the world that we, in some sense, have become those characters. Now, put that in the context of our own life and the bible. Are its stories so implanted in our hearts that they orient us in action in the world? Perhaps this is what happened to Daniel in Jesus of Montreal.

Swanson has made the analogy between music on the sheet and music heard in the ear. There is a profound difference between them. One is potential one is actual. One is life less one the other is a live. The live music is brought about by someone that reads the notes and plays them for all to hear. Swanson wants to make the connection that our biblical texts are the same…that our text on the page needs to be re-embodied in the present. Here we give “the words a physical home in your body, by taking these stories of real human bodies and re-membering them in the members of real human bodies.”

Swanson states, “if the performing of a ritual re-members a character from the past, makes her a member of the present community, then the performing of a biblical story will also accomplish something similar.” Swanson feel that “when the story is told, remembering becomes re-membering. That is to say, Jesus is made to be physically present, at least provisionally during the telling of the story.” Swanson tells the story that when he was young, he thought the man up front was actually Jesus and not believing it when told otherwise. He had been convinced by the man’s life. He states, “When Jesus is embodied in the story that is told, and particularly when the story is played by an ensemble, ( which allows separation between characters and voices), then Jesus is brought back into the community that re-members him in a vivid and vigorous way. For the duration of the story, Jesus is not just an idea but a physical presence with a voice and body, a location and a presence. The kind of remembrance that can be heard in Christian practices surrounding Holy Communion is extended also to a sort of sacramental presence found in story. If the bread and wine are, in some sense, Jesus’ body and blood, then so, too, is the telling of the story a kind of narrative incarnation.”

Swanson states, “The stories we aim to interpret are not about ideas, at least not in some airless and abstract sense. They are stories about real people and real existence, and real people and real existence come only in bodily form. That means, as we understand it, that one only understands biblical stories when one pays careful attention to the bodies in the stories.”

“If performance of a story re-members a character from the past when that character is embodied in a player, then it will matter in what body that character is placed. When Jesus refuses to heal a woman’s daughter because she is a gentile, Syrophoenician by birth, it will play differently if the woman’s character is embodied by a young white woman than if she is embodied by an older African American woman. Body makes a difference in real life and in exploratory ensemble telling of biblical stories.”

Think too of Mary. Take a look at Luke 1.39-56.

Putting aside our cultural differences, imagine a 12-14 year old girl, be it your sister, daughter, niece, whomever, as Mary. What happens when we put those words into the mouth of an elder Mary…say someone who is 65?

Read it again, but imagine a girl from Mexico or Africa or Cambodia? Does it change our interpretation? Do Mary’s words take on a new meaning when they are taken out of our middle class Sioux Falls?

Could this be a helpful film lens?
How does our context and actor choice color our interpretation of the biblical characters?
How does our film watching culture distort our interpretation of what plays well?
How does our cultural difference and distance prevent this method from working fully?
Could this be the proving grounds following the academic work rather than prior to as Swanson suggests?

Friday, June 13, 2008

The Nature of Photography as Art

Photography comes from our pictoral Western arts heritage, particularly painting, as a means to preserve significant events in our lives. Images in general were created to “conjure up the appearances of something that was absent. Gradually it became evident that an image could outlast what it represented; it showed how something or somebody had once looked.”(1) Art, from this perspective is a historical enterprise.

This basic technology of the new medium was born out of the industrial revolution yet finds roots also in Romanticisms’ ‘quest for the True and Natural.”(2) Modernity’s desire to know pushed photography to record empirical life which had a profound impact upon the imaginations by making the world easily tangible, places come to the individual rather than the spectator to the place. Photography ushered in a more thoroughly Modern mood of realism depicting common existence free from idealism or nostalgia. (3) Yet it is these roots that have often created the divide between it and the rest other artistic mediums. The art academy chose to see its’ mechanical and objective nature, as opposed to the subjective and creative whims of painters, have often been its critiqued points.

When Paul Tillich was asked if photography was an art he replied that “art is only art if it is more than an objective record. Photographers are artists only if they discover the artistic realm or reality through their lenses. This sometimes happens. The combination of eye, soul, and camera occasionally can transform the photographer into an artist” but “photographer does not achieve what a great artist is capable of doing.”

Within the frame, time and place is held captive…but hardly objectively. Rudolf Arnheim stated years ago, “What cinema (and we may apply the following to its predecessor photography as well) is so well equipped to redeem is not ‘physical reality’ but a version of it, namely, the view of boundless, indeterminate, unfathomable world. We recognize this outlook as Romantic – a Romantic image obtained by photographic realism.”(4)

Yet there is a strongly subjective nature to photography. Light and the absence of light is recorded as it reflected or absorbed into material forms. This changes every second. And the photograph does capture a moment in time. Yet there is so much that is subjective. Film itself is subjective…boosting colors or reducing them to shades of black and white. Over and underexposure and any number of photographic techniques distorts the resultant image from its objective reality.

Despite the common advertising claims that a particular camera will make us all into Ansel Adams and Edward Steichen’s, it is the photographer, not the machine, that separates the snapshots from the work of art. Photography, literally means “light writing” or perhaps more accurately “light drawing.”(5) Photographers essential work is with light, angles, focus, and distance to bring about a convincing composition to include what they feel should, and should not, be in the frame. Each photograph that is taken is just one of an infinite number of angles and f-stops. The photographers’ art is centered on careful and creative compositions balanced by the skill of managing the mechanism.

One of the beautiful things about art is the particularity of artistic vision, which in viewing photography we are welcomed into. Photography puts viewers vicariously into that moment via our imaginations. Photography is not meant to be pure historical documentary. To do so would be to deny the expressive quality of the art. Like a bridge, art is an opportunity to enter into and participate in the experience of the artist in time and place. “An image became a record of how X had seen Y.”(6) Images are burned onto the photographers and viewers consciousness and imagination. “The significance of such images lies not simply in their ability to inform, but in their power to stir our emotions.”(7)

I would push beyond the emotional evocation to memory itself. I stated earlier that images have a way of outlasting the event or people. They become tangible memories of that which no longer exists in that state. The arts, and its most accessible form of photography, are intimately connected to memory. Photography does preserve moments: weddings, birthday parties, graduations, and millions of other events are all purposefully recorded for memories sake.

I love how the writer Tim O’Brien writes in “The Things They Carried” about the idea of writing, “The thing about a story is that you dream it as you tell it, hoping that others might then dream along with you, and in this way memory and imagination and language combine to make spirits in the head.”(8) As a photographer I appreciate his desire to connect with the reader, and I with the viewer by commiserating in common experiences or imagined ones.

Just as photography is not so objective nor is our memory. Some things are remembered and others intentionally or unintentionally forgotten. Photography serves as an aid to memory both in precision and against our tendency to forget.

1) Berger, 10.
2) Jenson, 698.
3) Preble, 380.
4) Arnheim, 183.
5) Preble, 153.
6) Berger, 10.
7) Preble, 160.
8) Obrien, 260.

Monday, June 9, 2008

Tulip Festival

The 3rd weekend of May in Orange City, Iowa is the celebration of the towns Dutch heritage in the Tulip Festival. This year's late arrival of spring kept the tulips around longer than some recent years (in which case we celebrate the stem festival).

Tulip Festival is a homecoming of sorts where family and friends come from far and wide to visit, remember and rehearse a living and embodied memory.

Besides seeing familiar faces, Tulip Festival becomes a photographic event for many.

This year I went with a couple things in mind. First, with my recent studies in ritual and narrative theology, of which memory is a key component, I have been wondering how memory is connected to photography. Also, how can the work of art itself function and convey the properties of memory. One of the ideas I have been toying with is focus...blur...movement. Memory is not exact recall but rather a living thing that changes over time and yet is instantly recognizable. The first two images here are of the MOC-FV High School Band - Pride of the Dutchmen Marching Band. I would dare say that most in the area would recognize in these two images this band who regularly travels the country to perform in their wooden shoes. The red coats, the black pants, and the white shoes in the context of Sioux County would be unmistakeable. The first photo catches the neon green blur of the flag corp, while the second portrays the band itself.
Secondly I wanted to photograph the specatacle or ritual itself; particularly the street scrubbing which is done every parade, each of the 3 days, every year so that the Tulip queen might pass. In these two photos we see the characteristic orange and blue of Dutch culture in both the brooms and buckets. Men come along pouring water from their buckts onto the street where women and young girls push brooms to clean the streets. This broom sticks and their angles struck me in this photo. The second photo offers a view of the men and boys lining up to dip water from cattle tanks filled with water along the street side. What struck me in this photo is the line of buckets of boys and men. Here we see the tradition at work. Young boys participate and grow into a tradition, learning its ways of being, virtues, hopes, etc. The older men show the younger the proper way, conducting the show, restraining the playful water throwing of the boys, and at times playing themselves.

Friday, June 6, 2008

The Scientist and the Via Negativa

This morning at work I was casually listening to Coldplay. I say casually because I remember opening ITunes and choosing Coldplay. Fourteen songs later I heard a few lines from The Scientist pierce through the background noise clutter that we tend to fill our lives with.

Come up to meet you, Tell you I'm sorry, You don't know how lovely you are.
I had to find you, Tell you I need you, Tell you I set you apart.
Tell me your secrets, And ask me your questions, Oh let's go back to the start.
Runnin' in circles, Comin' up tails, Heads on the science apart.
Nobody said it was easy, It's such a shame for us to part.
Nobody said it was easy, No one ever said it would be this hard.
Oh take me back to the start.
I was just guessin', At numbers and figures, Pullin' the puzzles apart.
Questions of science, Science and progress, Do not speak as loud as my heart.
Tell me you love me, Come back and haunt me, Oh on I rush to the start.
Runnin' in circles, Chasin' our tails, Comin' back as we are.
Nobody said it was easy, Oh it's such a shame for us to part.
Nobody said it was easy, No one ever said it would be so hard.
I'm goin' back to the start.

What from these lyrics made the journey from noise to recognition? Well that begins about 12 hours earlier in our weekly small group. A dear friend expressed her frustration/confusion/exasperation at all the excess theological baggage she has gained over the years from her journey through different churches. So much of this now obscures and colors her vision of the Gospel and who Christ really was.

Brian MClaren in his book A Generous Orthodoxy, describes the seven Jesuses he has known over his lifetime. His theological journey introduced him to different facets of who Christ is perceived to be. I think this is similar to what the women in our group were lamenting. Which, if any, is the real Jesus. What these women expressed was a desire to go back to the purity of the Gospels themselves in a way that is untainted from the baggage of various strains of Christianity. I sat with them and this thought resonated deeply within me too.

It is into this thought that The Scientist’s lyrical arrow was shot.

Tell me you love me, Come back and haunt me, Oh on I rush to the start.

Runnin' in circles, Chasin' our tails, Comin' back as we are.
Nobody said it was easy, Oh it's such a shame for us to part.Nobody said it was easy, No one ever said it would be so hard.I'm goin' back to the start.

This first section is as good as a prayer. The second describes our theological follies. And the third, a hope and endurance for the beauty of a pure start.

Can we go back to the start?


And no.

We can return to the Gospels. We can pray to see through eyes and hearts and minds guided by the Spirit in community. And yet, I know that we cannot unlearn the dirty devices, teachings that ring false, oppressive fundamentalisms that have been part of our Christian faith journeys. Even though these thoughts meddle and divide us they are apart of who we are. I am thankful that this community has had such an array of ecclesial and spiritual experiences because together we recognize a greater sense of where we do not want to go…a practical via negativa.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Re-envisioning Baptist Identity: A Manifesto for Baptist Communities in North America

The following is a document produced by a group of younger moderate Baptist theologians and historians in 1997 while at the University of Dayton joint meetings of CTS (College Theology Society) and NABPR (National Association of Baptist Professors of Religion). It represents something of an epistemic revolt against an older generation of moderates. While I am generally a newcomer to the Baptist theological discussions, I have come to see the importance of this document and the trajectory are among Baptists. I have had the privilege of studying with Dr. Philip Thompson, one of the authors, and meeting most others who crafted this statement.

Re-envisioning Baptist Identity: A Manifesto for Baptist Communities in North America
Dear Baptist Sisters and Brothers,
We are writing to ask you to consider the following theological proposal. Baptists in North America have long been fragmented, and far too often the fragmentation has been for most unworthy reasons. In the contemporary theological milieu, many Baptist theologians have remained timid about stepping forward to make constructive theological proposals. Even criticism of the status quo popular theology is either excessively muted, or so heavily ideological that it seldom gets to the heart of what the Baptist theological heritage has stood for.

For too long Baptist theology has railed against Catholics, Anglicans, Campbellites, and Methodists, not to mention liberals, fundamentalists, pedobaptists, holy rollers, or whoever are identified as the current “bad guys” in other churches or theological camps. But Baptist theology ought not to be against the church. Baptist theology needs to be for the church and the gospel in a hostile world.

We believe that there are a growing number of Baptists who would like to see a new theological direction. We think you may also be among them. That is why we are asking you to examine the statement Re-Envisioning Baptist Identity. Please read it carefully and give it your consideration. It is not a perfect statement. It is a beginning. We hope that it will begin a framework for dialogue among Baptists of all sorts. We are inviting you to help us place the issues raised in these affirmations before other Baptists. Let us know by mail or email if you would like to be in conversation with a growing number of people who want to pursue the task of re-envisioning Baptist identity.

Mikael Broadway
Curtis Freeman
James Wm. McClendon,
Elizabeth Newman
Philip Thompson

To the people called Baptist in North America who in Jesus Christ have “like living stones” been “built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ, may grace and peace be yours in abundance” (1 Pet 2:4-5). From our beginnings, we Baptists have celebrated the freedom graciously given by God in Jesus Christ (Gal 5:1; Jn 8:31-32). Freedom in Christ is a gift, not a given. This freedom does not subsist merely in self-determination. It is not rooted in what the world calls natural rights or social entitlements. It cannot be claimed, possessed, or granted by any human institution, community, or individual. It belongs to Gods gift of the new creation in which we share through our faithfulness to Christ (2 Cor 5:17; Rom 5:15).

God’s freedom is the pattern for the gift of freedom in Jesus Christ. This freedom which is ours in Christ therefore cannot be understood apart from the fellowship of the Holy Spirit (2 Cor 13:13; 3:17) who convicts us of sin (Jn 16:8-11), leads us to repentance (Rom 2:4; Acts 5:31), converts us to faith (Rom 8:9; 1 Cor 12:3), renews us through regeneration (Jn 3:5-6; Tit 3:4-5), sanctifies us to holiness (Rom 15:16; Gal 5:16; 1 Pet 1:2), assures us of salvation (Rom 8:15; Gal 4:6; Eph 1:13-14), incorporates us into the church (1 Cor 12:13), guides us in discernment (Jn 14:26, 20:22-23; 1 Cor 2:14-16, 12:10), and readies us for ministry (1 Cor 12:11). Human freedom exists only in relationship with the triune God who lovingly creates, wisely governs, mercifully redeems, and justly judges the world. It is into this relationship of freedom that God calls a people from every tribe and language, nation and race . . . to be a royal house of priests, to serve our God and to rule upon the earth (Rev 5:9-10).

The freedom of God’s people is freedom from the domination of sinful and selfish human impulses (Rom 7:24-25; Eph 2:1-10). We are free for serving Christ and one another (Gal 5:1, 13), free to be sisters and brothers of the firstborn Jesus (Rom 8:14-17, 29; Col 1:15, 18; Jn 1:12-13), and free in our participation in the new humanity that God is calling out from among the nations (Eph 2:15; 2 Cor 5:17; James 1:18; Rev 14:4). Because freedom comes to us as gift, it is not something that we possess for ourselves to use for our own ends. It is something we encounter through the divine community of the triune God and with the Christian fellowship that shares in this holy communion (1 Jn 1:3). Human freedom in the new creation is the image of the Creators freedom who does not will to be free in solitude but for creation (Gen 1:26Ð30).
Baptists at the outset faithfully bore witness to this freedom in their common life. For these early Baptists, liberty of conscience was not a libertarian notion. It was a conviction that faith must not, indeed cannot, be coerced by any power or authority. This understanding of freedom is very different from the modern account in which the mere expression of the will is the greatest good. We concede nevertheless that the conception of freedom we oppose became deeply entrenched in the North American Baptist tradition by the mid-eighteenth century. Baptist heritage, however, predates the formation of modern democratic societies in North America. We have, therefore, drawn from earlier sources of the Baptist heritage and from other examples in the believers church (or baptist) tradition that have resisted modern notions of freedom and have practiced a more communal discipleship. We thus seek an understanding of freedom that is true to the biblical witness and the earliest insights of the Baptist heritage.

Two mistaken paths imperil this precious freedom in contemporary Baptist life. Down one path go those who would shackle God’s freedom to a narrow biblical interpretation and a coercive hierarchy of authority. Down the other path walk those who would sever freedom from our membership in the body of Christ and the community’s legitimate authority, confusing the gift of God with notions of autonomy or libertarian theories. We contend that these two conceptions of freedom, while seemingly different, both define freedom as a property of human nature apart from the freedom of God in Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit. We reject both of them as false and prefer neither, for false freedom will only lead Baptists to exchange the glory of God for the shame of idols (Rom 1:21-23). Only the freedom of the gospel liberates us from the worship of idols, including the idolatry of the self, so that we might serve the living and true God and await the Son from heaven whom God raised from the dead (1Thess 1:9-10; Tit 2:11-14; Acts 1:11). We invite Baptists in the fellowship of kindred minds to join us in resisting all destructive ideologies that subvert the gospel. To that end we offer the following affirmations as a description of freedom, faithfulness, and community.

1. We affirm Bible Study in reading communities rather than relying on private interpretation or supposed ’scientific’ objectivity. We believe that we are engrafted anew into God’s freedom whenever we gather around the open Bible, because it is the truth of God’s Word that sets us free (Rom 11:17; Jn 8:31-32). Such freedom is a consequence, not a condition, of reading the Scriptures. God therefore calls us to freedom through the faithful and communal study of the Scriptures (Jn 5:39; Acts 17:11). Because all Christians are graciously gifted everyone has something to bring to the conversation, but because some members are specifically called “to equip the saints” everyone has something to learn from those with equipping gifts (Eph 4:7-16). We thus affirm an open and orderly process whereby faithful communities deliberate together over the Scriptures with sisters and brothers of the faith, excluding no light from any source. When all exercise their gifts and callings, when every voice is heard and weighed, when no one is silenced or privileged, the Spirit leads communities to read wisely and to practice faithfully the direction of the gospel (1 Cor 14:26-29).

We reject all forms of authoritarian interpretation, whether they come from the ranks of the academy or the clergy. Consequently, we deny that the Bible can be read as Scripture by any so-called scientific or objective interpretive method (e.g., literal-grammatical, historical-critical, etc.) apart from the gospel and the community in which the gospel is proclaimed. Scripture wisely forbids and we reject every form of private interpretation that makes Bible reading a practice which can be carried out according to the dictates of individual conscience (2 Pet 1:20-21). We therefore cannot commend Bible study that is insulated from the community of believers or that guarantees individual readers an unchecked privilege of interpretation. We call others to the freedom of faithful and communal reading of Scripture.

2. We affirm following Jesus as a call to shared discipleship rather than invoking a theory of soul competency. We believe that by following the call to discipleship we discover true freedom (Mt 4:19; 8:22; 9:9; 10:38; etc.). Just as the pattern of God’s freedom became flesh in Jesus of Nazareth, we who are his followers partake of the gift of freedom as we offer our bodies to God as living sacrifices, thus exalting Christ in our living and in our dying (Jn 1:14; Rom 12:1; Phil 1:20). God therefore calls us to the freedom of faithful discipleship by participating in the way of Jesus, which begins with our confession of faith (Mt 16:15; Rom 10:9-13) and is lived out under the shadow of the cross which is ours to bear (Lk 9:23). Such discipleship requires a shared life of mutual accountability in the church. Disciples may not remain aloof from the church and its life, its proclamation, its fellowship, its ministry, its suffering, its peace (Lk 4:16; Acts 2:42; 1 Cor 12:12-26; Heb 10:25). Only as we stand together under the Lordship of Christ can we discern by the Spirit that from which we are liberated and that to which we are obligated (Mt 18:15-20; Jn 20:22-23). In this life together, God has chosen us to serve as priests, not for our ownselves, but to one another. Through our mutually reciprocal priestly actions, confessions of faith and of fault are heard by the church to the end that together we might proclaim the mighty acts of God’s mercy (Isa 61:6; 1 Pet 2:9-10; James 5:16; Rev 1:6; 5:10; 20:6).

We reject all accounts of following Jesus that construe faith as a private matter between God and the individual or as an activity of competent souls who inherently enjoy unmediated, unassailable, and disembodied experience with God. We further reject all identifications of the priesthood of believers with autonomous individualism that says we may do and believe what we want regardless of the counsel and confession of the church. We finally reject the false teaching that redefines gospel freedom as the pursuit of self-realization apart from the model of Jesus Christ (Phil 2:5-11). We call others to the freedom of faithful and communal discipleship.
3. We affirm a free common life in Christ in gathered, reforming communities rather than withdrawn, self-chosen, or authoritarian ones. We believe that, along with other Christians, the Holy Spirit gathers us from the nations (Isa 56:7; Mk 11:17; Rev 5:9-10) and empowers us to share in the gift of God’s freedom so that in our bodies the Lord’s mission of reconciling the world might continue (1 Cor 6:19-20; 2 Cor 5:18). We further believe that Baptists have an important contribution to make in God’s mission of freedom. The practices of believers baptism and called-out church membership display a distinctive vision of the church as a community of shared response to God’s mission, message, and renewal (Mt 28:19-20; Acts 2:38; 22:16). As we strive to embody this vision, our life together suggests an alternative to the undisciplined practice of baptism. We find it alarming that for many Christians the fact of their baptism into the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ is of little or no consequence to them. Our call for a believers church, however, is not a condescension to other traditions. It is first a summons to close off nominal Christianity in our own ranks. It is only second a gesture toward other traditions and communities to the end that they might make disciples of those whom they baptize. Insofar as we are faithful in our common witness to a believers church, we embody afresh the church to which God’s call to mission is given (Mt 28:19-20; Mk 16:15; Lk 24:46-48; Jn 20:21; Acts 1:8).
In humility, we recognize the failures of the believers church to be a faithful witness to its own ecclesial vision, and we look to the church catholic as it appears throughout the world and through history for other examples of faithful communities. Because we affirm that there is much the believers church can and must learn from other Christian traditions, we reject as false all ecclesiologies which claim either that the aggregate of Baptist (or Evangelical) congregations is the whole of God’s people (1 Cor 3:16-17; 12:12) or that any one congregation (or association of congregations) exists autonomously without connection to the whole people of God (Jn 17:21; 1 Cor 12:12-26; Eph 4:4-6; 1 Pet 2:4-5). We call others to the freedom of a faithful and communal embodiment of a believers church.

4. We affirm baptism, preaching, and the Lord’s table as powerful signs that seal God’s faithfulness in Christ and express our response of awed gratitude rather than as mechanical rituals or mere symbols. We do not deny that God may strengthen the faith of believers in new forms and in providential ways. Nevertheless baptism, proclamation, and the Lord’s table, which were ordained by the Lord to be observed faithfully until the end of the age (Mt 28:19-20; Mk 16:15; 1 Cor 11:23-26; Mt 26:26-29; Mk 14:22-25), have sustained and nourished the people of God through the ages as we make our way through this world. In and through these remembering practices, God’s grace and Christian obedience converge in a visible sign of the new creation. By repeating these signs we learn to see the world as created and redeemed by God. The Spirit who proceeds from the Father through the Son makes the performance of these practices effectual so as to seal and nourish the faith and freedom of believers.

Baptism is a sign of our fellowship with the crucified and risen Lord. We are buried with Christ in a watery grave (Rom 6:3; Col 2:12), and we are raised by the Spirit to walk in the resurrection life of the new creation (Rom 6:4-5; 2 Cor 5:17; Gal 3:27-28; 6:15; Col 3:1). Our rebirth through the Holy Spirit (Jn 3:3, 6; 1:12-13; Tit 3:5; 1 Pet 1:3, 23) is sealed in baptism until the Lord comes to consummate our salvation (Acts 2:38; 10:47-48; 19:5-6; 1 Pet 3:21-22; 1 Cor 12:13; 2 Cor 1:21-22; 5:5; Eph 1:13-14; Rom 8:23). Because we have been claimed in the waters of baptism, we are reminded that our lives are not our own but have been bought with a price (Col 2:20; 3:3; 1 Cor 6:19-20). Thus by baptism we enter into a covenant of mutual accountability and discipleship with the community of the faithful (Mt 18:15-20).

Preaching becomes a sign when those who preach and listen witness the judging and reconciling grace of God’s Word (Eph 1:13-14; 1 Cor 14:24-25; Tit 3:9; Heb 4:12). Gospel proclamation is more than the utterance of human words. Preaching is the Word of God only when by the power of the Holy Spirit it becomes God’s own speech that brings the new creation within sight. Whether it is in hot gospel preaching, elegantly intoned sermons, or plain and simple messages, God graciously declares the liberating Word which seals salvation through our proclamation of the gospel (Acts 10:44; Rom 10:13-17; 1 Pet 1:23). Gospel proclamation may be performed by all who are gifted by the Spirit and called by the church (Acts 11:19-21; 1 Pet 4:10-11).
The bread is a sign of Christ’s body, and the cup is a sign of the new covenant in his blood (Lk 22:19-20; 1 Cor 11:23-26). As we remember Jesus in communion through the bread of fellowship and the cup of life (1 Cor 11:24-25), the Lord himself is with us (Mt 26:26; Mk 14:22; Lk 22:19; 1 Cor 11:24, 27-29) declaring that we who are many are one body (1 Cor 10:17; Eph 4:4-6). In the Lord’s Supper the Spirit thus signifies and seals the covenant that makes us one with Christ and one in Christ with one another. Yet we must continually strive to learn in the company of our sisters and brothers what it means to be a people that are reconciled and reconciling, forgiven and forgiving (1 Cor 11:17-22; 2 Cor 5:17-21). Thus each time we remember Jesus in communion we renew our pledge of faith and are renewed by the grace of God as we envision the coming fullness of the new creation (Mt 14:25; 26:29; Lk 14:15; 22:18, 30; Rev 19:9).

Baptist reflections on “the sacraments” have for too long been fixed on late medieval and early modern theories. As modernity draws to a close, it is a fitting time to revisit afresh these practices and their significance for the people of God. We reject all accounts of these practices that would limit the presence of the risen Lord to the performance of the enacted signs as we also reject all accounts that deny the reality of his presence in their enactment. The Lord is present and active both in the performance of these remembering signs and with the community that performs them. Yet the greater threat in the believers church is not from false understandings but from neglect of practice. Baptism has been superseded by the evangelical invitation. Preaching is being displaced by other media. The Supper is so infrequently observed that Christians starve for lack of nourishment. We reject all attempts to make the church and its practices incidental to our relationship with Christ and one another. We call others to the freedom of the faithful communal enactment of the Lord’s remembering signs.

5. We affirm freedom and renounce coercion as a distinct people under God rather than relying on political theories, powers, or authorities. We believe that when God’s people live together as a colony of heaven (Phil 1:27; 3:20; Col 3:1-4; Heb 11:8-10), the gift of God’s freedom will keep them from the reach of all worldly rulers, powers, and authorities. We therefore affirm the historic free church conviction that the church is to be disestablished from the control of the state (Mt 22:15-22; 1 Pet 2:11-17) and from the use of coercive power to enforce and extend the gospel (Mt 5:21-26, 38-48; 26:52; Lk 9:51-56; Rom 12:14-21). We further believe that in order for our free church witness to be faithful we must do more than seek institutional independence of civil authorities. We must also continue to press for the independence of the church from the idols of nationalism, racism, ethnocentrism, economic systems, gender domination, or any other power that resists the Lordship of Jesus Christ (Gal 3:27-28; Acts 10:34), who disarmed and triumphed over the rebellious powers in the cross (Col 2:15). We cannot merely accept the disestablishment of the church through the cultural forces of secularity, the political measures of government, or the judicial interpretations of courts. The disestablishment of the church is constitutive of its identity as God’s called-out community which foreshadows the coming reign of God as does no other community. Nor can we accept terms of agreement with nation-states which sequester the authority of faith to a private, internal, individual, and narrow sphere. The gospel we proclaim is a public message for all people. It speaks to the external lives of believers. It calls out a distinctive community seeking to embody the reign of God. It makes all-encompassing claims about the world. We affirm the disestablishment of the church as the faithful form of the church’s social existence.

The disestablishment of the church is not just a curious fragment of Baptist folklore, but if the designation “free church” is to be more than an empty phrase it must refer to a distinctive way of living in and engaging the world. We believe that in the pluralistic society of North America, only a church that is politically and culturally independent can convince its own and others of gospel truth (Rom 1:16). The community of people that is to be a “city built on a hill” (Mt 5:14) is not any worldly power or authority. This exemplary community is the free and faithful church of Jesus Christ. Gospel freedom misunderstood and misused turns the church into a tool of the powers and authorities (Eph 1:21; 2:2; 3:10; 6:12; Col 1:16; 2:10, 15; Tit 3:1). The skills we learn in the baptized and remembering community help us to resist these powers that otherwise would determine our lives. Only such a distinct people can make known to the powers and authorities of the present age the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things (Eph 3:10). In a free and faithful church, the community of the baptized together with the whole of creation can know that there is a God who is the beginning and end of all things and especially of our freedom (Rev 1:8).

We reject any attempt to establish a vision of the church, whether Baptist or any other, by means of civil or political power. We thus reject all such constantinian strategies. Although we attempt to live at peace with all people (Rom 2:10; 14:19; 2 Tim 2:22; Heb 12:14) and to seek the peace of the earthly city (Jer 29:7), we do so with our eyes on the peace of the other city (1 Cor 7:15; Heb 11:10; Rev 21:1-2), whose citizenship we share (Eph 2:19-22), whose politics we practice (Phil 1:27; 3:20; 1 Pet 2:11-12), and whose Lord alone is our peace (Eph 2:14-15; Col 1:21-22; Heb 7:2, 15-17; Rev 1:4). Thus we heed the call to be salt and light, engaging the world and challenging the powers with the peace and freedom of the gospel (Mt 5:13-14). We therefore reject any and all efforts to allow secular political versions of church-state separation to define the boundaries or the nature of our witness as the free and faithful people of God. We call others to the freedom of faithful and communal witness in society.

Among Baptists today this witness is in danger of falling to ideologies of the right and of the left that are foreign to the content and direction of the gospel. To many observers the crisis may appear to be merely a manifestation of the culture wars that pit conservatives against liberals, people of color against ‘white America’, women against men, interest group against interest group. What these agendas call freedom is what the gospel calls bondage to the false gods of nationalism, classism, or narcissism. The tragedy for Christians is that the culture wars have overwhelmed and co-opted the agenda of the church. The struggle for the soul of Baptists in North America is a struggle against all these false gods. It is, therefore, not a struggle between one such god and another. Yet some Baptists believe that it is. We disagree.
Ideologies and theologies of the right and the left, as different as they may appear, are really siblings under the skin by virtue of their accommodation to modernity and its Enlightenment assumptions. Some Baptists (in the tradition of E. Y. Mullins’ Axioms of Religion or D. C. Macintosh’s Personal Religion) embraced modernity by defining freedom in terms of the Enlightenment notions of autonomous moral agency and objective rationality. Others (in the tradition of the Princeton Theology and The Fundamentals) have reacted against modernity, but ironically they perpetuated the same modern assumptions through the individualism of revivalistic religious experience and through the self-evidence of truth available by means of common sense reason. It is not a question of whether these adversaries have adopted modernity. Both drank deeply from the same waters even if they have done so at different wells. We believe that this accommodation to the individualism and rationalism of modernity weakens the church by transforming the living and embodied Christian faith into an abstract and mythic gnosis (1 Tim 1:3-7).

Since the patterns of certitude, privilege, and power that modernity engendered are passing away (1 Cor 7:31), it is time to admit that all theologies tied to the foundational assumptions of the Enlightenment will share the same fate. We thus urge our fellow Baptists to say farewell to modernity and its theological offspring because there is no other foundation for our faith than Jesus Christ (1 Cor 3:11). We further believe that the real struggle facing Baptist Christians today is for the embodiment of free, faithful, and communal discipleship that adheres to the gospel rather than submitting to intellectual and social agendas that have no stake in the gospel (Rom 1:16; Gal 1:6).

We embrace neither modern alternative. We call instead for a reclaiming of the Baptist heritage as we re-envision the study of Scripture, the life of discipleship, the embodiment of a faithful church, the enactment of remembering signs, and the disestablishment of the church from worldly powers. We believe these affirmations to be true to the gospel and to the best of our heritage as Baptists. We are convinced that by proclaiming this vision of freedom, faithfulness, and community the church can be renewed through the Holy Spirit. We invite those who disagree with us or have questions to engage us in conversation. Through such interaction we gain a clearer understanding of these issues which are essential for the flourishing of the church of Jesus Christ. We call upon all those who can join us in this declaration to do so, and more importantly to display it in the worship, work, and witness of the free and faithful people of God.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Saul Leiter II

I decided to spend a little more time reflecting on the beauty of Leiter's work.

This image is a little more intimate than many of his images. The woman writing (who knows what?) is in close range. We are separated by the reflective glass once again, and yet watch this woman write. The glass also functions as a a mirror making this a self-portrait of sorts (notice Leiter himself reflected with arms upraised on the right directly above the woman). Notice also the mirroring of shapes...the chairs, the cups and saucers, the tables themselves. While I have not studies Leiter's work greatly, I do think this is the first image that I have noticed his own reflection.

This image was my favorite from the show. It is a puzzle to understand... which layers are reflected and which are genuine? What is in front of me and what is behind? Certainly we see Leiter playing with the foreground and reflection ideas that I have been noting. But we also clearly see the the prominance of the color red in the awning, the hat, on the sign at the left, even the tonal ranges of the skin fall in that direction.

Equally interesting are the images of 4 different men reflected and real in the one image. On the right we have a largely frontal position, next a left profile, then a right profile, and then a back of the head shot. Not only has he captured reflections of 4 different men but in 4 primary angles.

This image is also nearly in greyscale save the human element once again protruding in from off the image. The red umbrella alerts us to the danger of the snowy passage across the street.

Once again we see Leiter's color usage and it is red again. Red is present in the bar sign, Walkers Gin truck box as well as the cab with its door swung wide. And our human element wears a bright red tie. The human element remains largely indestinct by the shadow cast by the hat which is only highlighted by the white cigarette protruding from the ray of light that catches the nose and lips of this passer-by. We also see Leiter's standard foreground work with the large box sliding off the right of the image.

Monday, June 2, 2008

Individualism, Confession & Forgiveness

My hunch is that the practices both confession and forgiveness are also radically altered by individualism. Confession whether to a priest or another member of the church has likely been diminished by the privatization of belief. One need not bare such intimate details to another authority precisely because those matters are between the individual and God. Within evangelicalism many would say that we are all in need of an accountability group. And such things are good. My fear though is that it has a great potential to devolve into group therapy, where confession and forgiveness are geared toward Bellah’s expressivist individuals. Hans Boersma suggests that underlying our individualistic notions of forgiveness and reconciliation is our quest for self-fulfillment. These narcissistic endeavors are concentrated on the effects of ones feelings rather than “the need to discern whether there are tragic misunderstandings or culpable wrongdoing and repentance.”[1] Forgiveness may slip into an “economy of exchange” where confession and forgiveness are more focused the emotional effects rather than truthful responsibility.[2] Could this be played out both vertically and horizontally, in relationships with God and fellow humanity?

[1] Hans Boersma, Violence, Hospitality, and the Cross: Reappropriating the Atonement Tradition (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2004), 209.
[2] Boersma, 211.
[3] Mark Driscoll, The Radical Reformission: Reaching Out Without Selling Out, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2004), 81-82. Driscoll is often lumped in with the Emergent but he would distance himself from that group and the subtitle is likely a shot in their direction.
[4] Boersma, 210.