Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Merry Christmas

Merry Christmas, everyone!

Been doing Christmasy things the past week. Some fortunate few (or, as Fenris Ulf points out, maybe not so fortunate) of you will be getting an actual Thames family Christmas letter, which we've risen, "up from sloth," as Ignatius O'Reilly says, to produce for the first time in years. We've also declared a partly-principled, mostly-mandated-by-budgetary-concerns Limit On Gifts, which is going fairly well in reducing the craziness of the season.

So happy to see the peaceful denouement of John Hammett's and Andrew Jones's online discussion of emerging church stuff. Real discussion can be done in a God-honoring way. I hope to follow up my small contribution to that discussion with the mystery of Mark's New Website in January.

Saw "Chronicles of Narnia"; great. Six more just like it, guys.

LGBC had its most hilariously cute Christmas pageant this past week, starring Ali as a baby Jesus about the same size as mother Mary (played with gravitas and slender hips by Judah Rudd).

Pregnancy seems to be breaking out all over. Good thing we got vaccinated some years ago...

Look, I still think that telling the story tells: that Jesus was found by astrologers, whose calculations and whatnot still led them to Jesus; that, as Augustus said, it really was better to be Herod's huius than his huios--his pig than his son; and that, when you get right down to it, an im-manu el, a with-us god, is a dramatically different thing than an against-us god, a not-with-us god, a happy-to-do-without-us god, or even a within-us god. The human reality is that companionship is actually more intimate, because less subject to self-centered counterfeiting, than immanence. God knows this, and, for all the real truth in the God-is-in-you bits, at bedrock came as another person, not as a deeper me, or a depth within me, let alone as something outside and distant. Up close and personal isn't a bad translation of the Hebrew Immanuel. Since I need forgiveness as well as meaning, a right relationship with others as well as a suitable self-concern and identity, a "god who is there" is just what I need right here.

I go to Baltimore and New York on Tuesday the 27th, so I'll try to blog Christmas afternoon or Boxing Day.

Tuesday, December 13, 2005


It's like I've entered a second teen years. I i.m.'ed for the first time last night. I feel so young. Thanks. L & D, for helping me through my maiden voyage.

On to more interesting fare.

Aaron Flores had one problem that may not have been obvious in his data set design. It's that 'emerging church' was a term that arose within the movement, but not across all of it. And it was not the original term, or an official term, or anything of the sort. Lower Greenville has never called itself an "emerging church," even though it fits the profile of that term as it's being bandied about right now.

I think this links to another issue. A lot of us out in the culture fancy ourselves wordsmiths, or clever persons, or wits full half or quarter. At any rate puns, scabrous word plays, neologisms, and the like are liberally larded through our culture-reference-saturated daily speech. We come close sometimes to that Next Generation episode where the Enterprise crew encountered a race that spoke only in literary allusions. This means that we're constantly coming up with, trying out, and keeping or discarding terms. On the other hand, we're irritably intolerant of labels imposed on us, and of stereotypical anything, including stereotypical modes of expressing ourselves. This must be frustrating to existing church personnel looking in on this thing. There's a lot of in-talk, as John Hammett notes, terrific diversity, and a visceral allergy to nouns. In Lower Greenville we're constantly coming up with verbal clauses ("the ones doing X") or etymological neologisms ("synergist," from the Greek sunergoi, coworker) to substitute for an objectionable term (say, "deacon").

So we are bound to sound evasive or flighty when a pedestrian Merriam-Webster type (which is what most good people are, lest we scoff) with an engineering approach to Kingdom work (and we need such folks) tries to pin us down on what we're saying. But we're not. For one thing, a bunch of us are creative types and early adopters--pioneers rather than engineers. A lot of us are educated and intellectual. And there is both the techy and the international side to the web by which we communicate. All of which means that we have so much fun with language, and are so intent on crafting a stereotype-proof discourse (often because of our evangelistic relationships), that we actually don't communicate too well to regular-Joe existing-church Christians.

But as verbal as we are (Andrew's 'generation text'), this is exactly the sort of problem we know how to overcome should we decide that we want to do it. We have done it in many cases with recasting Christian realities in accessible terminology for postChristian people and cultures. We can do the reverse; we can explain emerging realities in the language of Zion. We may have despised it earlier in our careers, but even the stereotyped churchy talk is, in the end, talk--talk which we can talk, which we can retrieve and reenliven if we need to in order to contact other parts of the Body we need to communicate to.

Friday, December 09, 2005

Campus News and Views

Hey. It's cold. Get some tea, and settle in for Mark's longest (and most exciting, knuckle-whitening, time-flying) blog posting ever.

First, watch this space for the announcement of the grand opening of Mark's other blog, the Oh-fish-al one, what with documents to browse and ignore, or download and bury in a big pile of Utne Readers, and other nifty features. Coming soon to a server near you.

Am cuckoo-for-CocoPuffs over Basil Wiley's The Seventeenth Century Background, whose title doesn't fully reflect the gripping nature of the subject matter or the scintillating writing style. If I had an unbelievably boring life, where all the excitement could be in my imagination, maybe I could write like that, which would be cool.

This will be the Christmas of Blowing Leaves at the Thames household. Jonathan is headed to Mexico for the whole break. We finally finalized that I'm going to the American Philosophical Association (now online!) in New York the week after Christmas. (The cool bit about that is that New York is much too expensive to stay in, so for all but one night I'm going to be based in Baltimore with the absurdly, laughably gorgeous Naseem and Ruben.) Dawn is going to work as hard as a hippie with granola-and-yogurt in sight but just out of reach. Beth will, I'm sure, have exciting plans, although they are currently tba. So there'll be much scattering, not much gathering. Those of you given to prayer might pray against moroseness on the parental part: me and Dawn have to love this arrangement for it to work. It is all colored by The Situation. Those who know what that is, and who are therefore among those whose love will cover over the multitude of various people's sins implied, I also encourage to pray specifically that an equally exciting option emerges for S., the Man of Artificially Yellow Hair. He now has more art history notes than used kleenaxes around his desk, an important threshold to have crossed.

I was delighted to follow the last two weeks' discussion regarding emerging church carried on largely through Andrew Jones's blog and revolving around John Hammett's ETS article on the subject. So much peace and wisdom injected into things by those two guys, in the midst of their different perspectives. No good cause will be served by attempts by existing churches to quench the Spirit in the name of good doctrine--it didn't help in the first two awakenings, and I'm tempted to paraphrase and apply Gamaliel's advice, and say, if emerging / postmodern is a human thing, it'll pass like all things human; but if God's in it, it needs and deserves support. But just as true is the fact that only the Enemy's cause will be served if emerging leaders think of themselves as better than others, or if we drown in their (our) own hipness, or go buy melodramatic and self-serving martyrs' complexes off the discount persecution shelf down at the Leader Attitude store, or fail to acknowledge, respect, and indeed, celebrate our continuity with the historic tradition of the united church. John and Andrew both, in their different contexts, with their different foci, I think very much wish not only for the Spirit to always have freedom but also for new expressions of church to be as authentic to the Gospel as they are to the practitioners of them. It can't heal if it isn't real.

Shpeakin of which, I was interested to note that the British medical journal, The Lancet, in carrying a series of articles on different religious groups' perspectives on end-of-life issues, had a category (where one might have expected something like "evangelical" or "Protestant," since they had "Catholic" as well as "Jewish" and so forth) called "Traditional Christian." I don't know the authors of the article, but their definition (buried in a long second paragraph) of traditional Christian is interesting: the consensus of the first millenium of the Church--that is, when it was united, before not only the Protestant Reformation of 1512ff. but also before the Catholic / Orthodox schism that culminated in 1054. And this gets back to an issue John had raised.

Almost all emerging groups I know of use the Apostles' or Nicene Creeds as their doctrinal statement. These are "conciliar" documents, that is, they come from the period before Christianity's division into denominations, and are products of the practice and theologizing of the churches that led to the seven (or so) so-called general councils of the church. Not only is this true in emerging circles, many of which have evangelical roots of some kind, but there has also been an enormous outpouring of books, commentaries, guides, etc. on the (Apostles') Creed over the past ten or fifteen years in academia, both evangelical and "mainline" Protestant. C.E.B. Cranfield, Alister McGrath, Michael Horton, Luke Timothy Johnson, and many, many others have written guides to Christian life or thought in the form of (non-academic, popular) commentaries on the Creed, joining older ones such as Karl Barth's. I find all of this interesting.

It disturbed John when I said this--and it disturbs me a little, too--but it seems to me that maybe two or three things are going on here. One is the sense of relief that postmodernity brings: maybe we don't have to stay in modern debates any more. Rather than solving them, or taking sides in them, we can just skip them, set them to the side, as inappropriate to the evolving sociocultural context, or as badly framed, or as based on limited and perhaps erroneous presuppositions (like the poor physics I saw bandied about in the open theism debate). But if you just say, well, I'm not saying there was no value to or no truth gained in modern theological debates, but just say, those issues aren't valuable to me/us, and so those truths, while true, aren't ones we wish to prioritize, then it puts you either out in third-world theological discussions, or back in pre-1500AD (pre-1000AD?) discussions.
But this lifting of the eyes and broadening of interest, while generally laudable, runs a risk. As John noted to me, it would be a bit biased, although psychologically understandable, for the postmodern church (which Leonard Sweet says has an "openness to the past") to take insights from all the church's experience and learning everywhere except from modernity. And while the Orthodox may shake their heads at the Western (equally Catholic and Protestant, because modernist) obsession with precision and definition in theology (past what the Orthodox think we're capable of, whether it's transubstantiation as the mechanics of communion or penal substitution as the mechanics of atonement), nevertheless surely truth hard-won should not be cavalierly dropped (even if inerrancy, say, or Calvinistic forms of predestination, are not important issues in either the conversion or discipleship of postmodern people).
Secondly, lurking in the idea that modernist theological concerns are simply ignorable is always at least the possibility that the emerging leader or postmodern Christian who thinks thus does so at least partly because they think postmodernity is good and modernity bad, or postmodernity better than modernity, or something like that. This misses the presupposition underlying the Christian attitude to fallen society, that comes logically before even Richard Niebuhr's celebrated (and recently SkinnyPolled) set of alternative approaches to culture. That presupposition is missiological. Christians' first posture towards the world as it is is that it is 1. created in the image of God, and therefore good and worthy of both respect and encouragement 2. fallen into sin, and therefore requiring correction, and sometimes opposition, and 3. needing salvation, and therefore something we are to take the initiative to enter and to engage there in relationships which, by the very nature of them, inject Jesus into that partly-God-structured, partly deformed-and-evil culture.
The message to us now, oddly enough, is one of those kindergarten lessons. If emerging church people want to be affirmed and encouraged by existing church people, the way, on their side, to make that happen is for them to affirm and encourage the work and ministry existing church people do in the modern context in which they find themselves.
The third point about the emerging church's interest in pre-schismatic Christianity, which is the one I find very encouraging, is that it is born partly of a heart-longing for unity in the Body. The evangelical experience since the 1960s has been that conservative Protestants have more in common with each other than with their liberal denomination-mates. But then the prolife movement has shown evangelicals that sometimes that is also true of Catholics: that conservative evangelicals have a great deal in common with orthodox Catholics, despite past histories of enmity. (I wish conservative evangelicals would realize that they have more in common with orthodox Catholics and Orthodox than with secular conservatives.) At any rate, the lesson learned, at the upcoming generations' level anyway, is that unity is possible, and better than local partisanship. This is good news for the Body of Christ.
I had a bittersweet experience sort of along this line. The local Methodist church had a woman pastor a couple of years younger than me. She had previously been a churchplanter for the conference, working to start new Methodist churches in poor, ethnic neighborhoods. She believed in Jesus and in evangelism and in church. Many other things I don't know what she believed; I probably wouldn't have agree with her on lots of them. Anyway. So I came to feel that God wanted me to get to know the pastors in the area, and to just pray for them personally. When I went to have coffee with her the first time, she spent like the whole time trying to make it clear to me that she was totally okay with the gay thing. I said, Look, God hasn't asked or even allowed me to have any opinions about you or about your opinions at all. All He's said is for me to pray for the pastors in the area. Period. But she assumed that if I knew the scoop, I would hate and oppose her. Sigh. Granted, that reach would be longer for an ideal-typical evangelical than reaching out to the prolife, pro-Bush Catholic priest in the neighborhood. But still, you get the point: unity, always and only achieved at a cost, is still a virtue not best observed in the breach, or in consequenceless lipservice.
The early church focus is also good news for evangelism. In John 17 Jesus says, more or less, that if we're not unified, then there won't be any reason for worldly people to think that we're on to anything. Again: partisan cheering for one's own side is something worldlings understand perfectly well. But unity across difference impresses. If in the modern era birds of a feather liked to flock together, and hence church growth theory based evangelistic growth on developing "homogenous units" of believers, I think in the postmodern context, while people certainly feel safer with their own "kind," not only are many of those demographics breaking down, but people find compelling things that cross what normally would be boundaries: diversity legitimizes in my world. Heterogeneity is the desideratum of a group desiring to show as well as tell people about the difference Jesus makes--namely, that his difference effectively trumps other differences, without flattening people or cultures out.
So the move to the Apostles' Creed, to "historic Christianity," to an "ancient future," to first-millenial "traditional Christianity," all these things, while having risks, are, I think, good things. I think I'll go listen to some Celtic music now.

Congratulations on making it to the end of the longest entry not posted by a certified loony in history. Hope you didn't get blogged down in the history and theology of it. I miss both of my readers when I don't touch base often enough. More later soon.

Friday, December 02, 2005

In the Bleak MidWinter

I suppose my title this time around is what is known as a shout-out. It's for our lovely Connie in England. It is the title also of an Advent poem by Christina Rossetti, sister to the PreRaphaelite painter Gabriel. That poem is one of Connie's favorites. Both parts of it are true: what it says--that midwinter is often bleak; there are Narnia-like places where Christmas rarely, if ever, comes, or is appreciated, even if it does. But also what it is: an introductory phrase, an incomplete clause, an adverb of time (or manner?) that gives the setting, but not the main noun or verb--not the main action. It is precisely in the middle of bleak winters that Father Christmas comes again, and Aslan moves. Welcome to Advent, all.

Reading. I have stopped halfway through Randall Collins's magisterial Sociology of Philosophies. I'm finishing Robert Bretall's Kierkegaard Anthology. I just finished Levinas: Basic Philosophical Writings. I'm slogging along on my article on Kierkegaard and Habermas for the conference in March.

I'm having lots of fun hanging out: thanks to Dawn for conspiring against my determination to be Grumpy Old Postmodern Guy, and to co-conspirators like the Rudds and Kent and Gail.

Our Utne Reader discussion group used to kid around that the best topic for a discussion that we never had was either "What It's Like Being Me" or "What It's Like Being Dawn" (which I think few of those folks could imagine.) Here's a bit of being me right now...Dante's Divine Comedy begins, if I remember correctly, It was noon, in the middle of a wood. In other words, at midlife, one's high point, the zenith of one's power and influence, you are lost. Deeply, deeply lost. In the way only someone with skills could be. (The neophyte, the tenderfoot, could never get far enough into the woods in the first place to get that lost, the kind of lost only scouts and pioneers can be.)

Like most things in my world, this sense of the pressure of being the "middle child" finds its analogue in The Lord of the Rings. I love how Theoden wakes up from his enchantment by Saruman (in The Two Towers) to find all gack he has to deal with: his son is gone, his niece has paid attention to him during years when he paid no attention to her. And meanwhile, there's just work, and all of the least pleasant and least rewarding kind, everywhere he turns, none of it at his initiative but all imposed on him. And he (as played by Bernard Hill) has the most fabulous facial expressions: grim determination, disgusted determination, the Aw, jees, you've got to be kidding look, the All right now what? look. All these great, very human feelings. But he is now fully himself, king not only of others but of his own will. And he goes ahead and thinks hard, makes decisions, does the work. In midlife. At noon. But in a dark wood.

We wake up, and it's late. Already. Always. But maybe at least in my case I had to live a little to realize fully just how much better late is than never.

Props to Community sister Heather. She apparently failed to get the memo telling Christians to wring their hands over other people's problems rather than use them to help those folks. Good for her.