Category Archives: personal

Theological Education in “Azusa”

In my last theological education post I described the model of Azusa proposed by Cheryl Bridges Johns.  Again, the name is a bit misleading. When I think of the city Azusa, I think of the closest movie theater to my hometown growing up, and an example of a concrete/asphalt suburb that developed in the 50s and 60s before civic landscaping was a priority.   Split in half by the 210 (Interstate 210), it’s more of a working class town with recent renewal projects. Route 66 is a straight arrow through the northern portion alongside which sits Azusa Pacific University.

In my experience of formal theological education, it was on my commute to Fuller. It was the city before Irwindale and after Glendora, the east half of the drive before getting to the 605.  More recently, now on the other side of theological education, it is the city where I first taught theology full time. Teaching at APU radically influenced my experience and understanding of theological education. But that’s not what Johns is referring to.azusaacrepair

She’s not talking about the city of Azusa in her framework. At least I’m pretty sure she’s not.  She’s talking about the Azusa St. revival, which started in the city of Los Angeles on Bonnie Brae Avenue. The revival that began on one street moved to Azusa St, which is about 25 miles from Azusa, California.

So, really, she should call her model “Los Angeles.”  Given that the Pentecostal movement more formally began in Topeka, Kansas that might be the most fitting name. That said, Azusa is much more evocative than Los Angeles, and entirely more so than Topeka.  Sorry, Topekans. Bias against the fly-over states predates the ability to fly over them.

Yet, Azusa St (if not Azusa, CA) still does fit because while the movement itself began in Topeka, blossomed on Bonnie Brae Ave, it took root on Azusa St as a theological movement that spread throughout the world.  As a model of theological education, it seeks after holistic learning and expression.

Cheryl Johns notes, “Its paideia would enculturate students into an inviting and yet dangerous landscape of education where the disciplines of science and the humanities interact to formulate new paradigms. At the core of the curriculum would be an all-consuming passion for God and the kingdom. Visions and dreams would be honored as well as highly technical scholarship.”

That’s a handful of a description.  What it comes down to is orientation. What is the orientation of a theological education? Is it about becoming better citizens in a given society? Is it about becoming esteemed within the structures of academic life? Is it about being a faithful participant in an established ecclesial tradition? Is it about drawing others into the life of Christ?   Each of the cities we discussed so far orients in one of these directions.  azusastreet

The Pentecostal emphasis focuses on becoming whole in light of the dawning Kingdom of God.

If that sounds outside the realm of theological education, then that’s another indication of how the Modern project has so totally dominated contemporary discussions. In this project, we look for objective knowledge or pragmatic expression. In the Pentecostal approach, learning about the world coincides with expressive participation in it and for it.

This is ultimately pragmatic, but not always immediately so. It enters into the mystical and transcendent as it radicalizes hope in a new way of encountering life.  We become who God has made us to be in the fullness of our particular gifts in the context of a community.  In effect, the Pentecostal model adds a “lab” requirement to theological learning, in which all that a person is becomes honed and sharpened.  A person is invited to risk utterances and expressions in the rhythm of the Spirit, a risk that should be coupled with discernment. This discernment isn’t about negating a person, however, it is about helping them best determine the ways in which God is using them to contribute to the whole community.  Ideally at least.

This has been a worthwhile discussion for me personally as it has pushed me to think about my own theological influences and journey.  Most of what I’ve shared so far has been part of long-term reflection. But this discussion on Azusa (St.) got me thinking about the importance of my informal theological education, especially prior to going to Wheaton.

Growing up, my family had a lot of financial and health issues. Pervasive. These led to a lot of less than voluntary moves, assorted other upheavals, constant encounters with crisis.  In one of the brief relatively stable times of my life we lived in Santa Barbara where my dad was a branch manager for a security company. We had moved up there from eastern LA county and where my mom had gotten involved with a flock of charismatics.  We had been going to a Wesleyan church but then in the new place started attending an Assemblies of God church.

LFC-FBI don’t remember a lot about the theology of the church, just the assorted odds and ends that stand out to a 9-10 year old boy. My first clear memory of speaking in tongues was at what I think was a Mario Murillo event at the church. I could be wrong about it being Murillo, but I do remember speaking in tongues, probably around age 10 or 11.  I felt a call to ministry not long after that.  But life twisted and turned, forcing us to leave the sun-kissed Santa Barbara area in summer of ’87, and returning back to less than ideal circumstances in La Verne, CA (about 12 miles east of Azusa, CA and 37 miles east of Azusa St.). Less than ideal because both financial and health issues entered into even sharper crisis for a extended time.

We went to church, but I don’t remember having any connection with church.  If there ever was a time in my life where I just felt a non-relationship with God this was it.  Probably a lot of clinical depression and other issues in the mix but a major part was the upheaval of a community.  While my parents worked at a boys home in the city, we lived for a year on that campus, which was located in an upper-middle class neighborhood.  We found a place to rent across the street where we lived throughout my time in high school. But we were in desperate straights. I have a wonderful immediate family who I love very much, as good as a family as a person can ask for in terms of love and commitment.  But everything else in life was caught in turmoil. The youth groups I attended tended to be of the entertain ’em and sneak in a bit of Gospel approach, targeted for upper middle class kids.  I had zero connection with that life and with that message.  I had good friends and a loving family, and even a renewed life with God borne out of constant lament, but my connection to church was tenuous.

While in junior high, I became friends with a guy whose dad was a Foursquare pastor in town. After floating along in various churches, which had various problems of holding on to good pastors, we started attending this Foursquare church. FourSquare_church_logo

And it was here that I had my first real encounter with Azusa (st.) theological education.  Now the basics were that of most youth groups at the time.  Fun, games, a bit of singing, bit of teaching, very young youth pastor, still attending Life Pacific at the time.  Deeper than the basics, however, was the freedom and investment this pastor gave.  We were invited into an exploration of depth of our understanding and expression. We were given space to take risks, some of which bore fruit and some of which still haunt me with their awkwardness. I was invited into discovering the Spirit’s work in my life, a work of developing leadership, prophetic, prayer, music, expressive exploration that wasn’t always profound but was allowing me to hone listening to the Spirit’s work in my life.

After high school, I began attending another church, one that was not formally Pentecostal, but which I think was just as interested in fostering this Azusa (st) approach. It was the Flock that Rocks. NewSong is now considered one of the proto-emerging churches, launching the Gen-X ecclesial movement, and otherwise expressing a postmodern style, though with Modern framework behind it still. It was Conservative Baptist in formal connection, though hardly anyone would know this.  This was my home church during some radically different phases in my life and in its life.

The early experience was the most vibrant, where everyone was under thirty, most everyone was single, and the church had manifold ministries in all sorts of directions based on the interest and passions of those involved.  I was part of a setup-teardown crew (it met in a gym) and part of a small group, one that was really a holistic house church in the way that it transcending a weekly meeting and became a community in life together.  I got a chance to teach, to experience transforming worship, to see the vibrant nature of a body of women and men expressing and learning the life of Christ in the context of eastern LA county.

Then I went to Wheaton. Where life was Athens and that had little room for Azusa.  The freedom and vibrancy got packaged back into a box. There was certainly spiritual growth for me, but it became highly isolated as I just didn’t fit well into the model of Midwestern Reformed ecclesial assumptions. I didn’t know how much freedom and learning I had prior to Wheaton and how it radically shaped my responses to my time there, disappointing and frustrating me while I learned what Athens could teach.

To be sure, my time at Wheaton was far from entirely negative. As I’ve written before, I met God at Wheaton, but I wasn’t able to process this learning into a positive embrace of joy and renewed life. I certainly was not able to express it freely and as the particular person God was forming me to becoming.

My critique of Azusa, however, is that in emphasizing the subjective side it can prioritize the expressive over the contemplative and intellectual. It can become unmoored from tradition and then get caught up in the more dramatic, more glittery, kinds of Spiritual moves.  People are still people and people tend to want to show off, appear more mature, do great things for God while not grounded in God.

As my mom suffered from severe health issues, a lot of people saw her as target, a way of somehow proving their own spiritual adeptness. They were oriented in competition and performance, not love.  My wife had encounters with Pentecostals when she was younger who likewise were spiritual bullies of sorts, insisting on a narrow range of expressive spirituality rather than understanding the broad work of the Spirit in a person’s life.  Neither of these experiences are uncommon. There is a certain elitism and performance expectation that if not pursued results in alienation or diminishment. If expressive spirituality is a sign of faith, then lacking particular, expected results becomes a sign of unbelief. Only that isn’t the case, not whatsoever.  Spiritual expressiveness does not always indicate spiritual maturity or Spirit-endowed wisdom, both of which seem a priority for true theological education. And the work of the Spirit can often be profound in non-dramatic expressions.

I’ve not been a part of a formal Pentecostal institution, but my impression has been they tend to be a hybrid of Berlin and Azusa, with the classroom formal education not fluidly interacting with the expressive.  Fuller Seminary has some history with an attempt at integration, with its “Signs and Wonders” course becoming a lab for expressive experimentation. That was not without its own problems and critiques, however, to say the least.

Azusa type theological learning gave me a sense of my calling, propelled me into a confidence of exploration, but gave little depth in continuing to navigate through dark nights and deep valleys of the soul and life’s continued crises.

It was in a dark night that I first heard told of another city, and it was in that “city” that I found restoration and renewal.  This city isn’t unknown, but it isn’t included in these frameworks of theological education, so I’m going to add my own creative contribution to the framework.  Next up: the city of Skete.

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Interlude

Being a travel writer sounds like good fun. Go to exciting places and meet interesting people. Find out all sorts of new customs and try out flavors of foods you’ve never even heard of before.  Write about the exotic experiences to others, highlighting the good, maybe mentioning only a sliver of the negative.

It’s interesting that when we want to watch shows or read books about exciting destinations we tend to turn to expert travelers. It’s the residents who know more about a place. They’ve dwelled in its history, know the neighborhoods to visit and the neighborhoods to avoid.  But, they know it so well, that it is easy for them to get bogged down in description.  We want a quick overview, after all. What can we see in a day and where’s a good place for dinner.

Writing about theology has the same problem.  There are a lot of tour guides out there.  Offering a quick trip through various doctrines or topics. And there are a number of residents, who have lived a long time in the world of theology, providing an in-depth study of the history of a particular corner, but not really speaking a language most people can understand.

That’s the tension I’m feeling.  Give too quick of an overview of the various models–the “cities”–of theological education and I risk oversimplification. Say too much and I get bogged down without ever getting to my main goal in these musings.  It’s like being on a road trip and getting distracting by the sights along the way rather than getting to the destination.

But, to get somewhere you have to go through other places.  My hope in not just describing the models but sharing a bit about my own story with them was intended to give some brief depth. I’ve spent time in most of these “cities” (except Geneva) and so I’ve gone beyond the superficial and know what each place is like in different seasons.

On a personal note, I’m using this blog as a way of sketching out ideas and exploring themes.  Some have bemoaned blogs for their tendency to encourage unedited publishing.  That’s certainly a danger. My writing can certainly use editing. Yet, blogs have an immediacy that makes them useful, hopefully even a conversational encouragement.  Blogs aren’t a fully formed systematic theology. They’re much more like Table Talk, where the table can be as wide as the whole world.

I’m also trying to practice writing.  One of my goals is to get back into a more fluid, even conversational, style.  And that takes practice.  For instance, one of my problems in writing, speaking, and teaching is that I spend too much time on prefaces before getting to my main point. This post originally was intended to be my discussion of the “cities” of Azusa and Skete. But then I wrote a preface that’s too long.  Now the preface is its own post and doesn’t nearly as crowded.

I like places with less crowds.  My writing should have less crowds too.

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Experiences in Theological Education I

I’ve been part of the Evangelical Christian world my whole life.  I grew up in a variety of sunday schools, children’s programs, student ministries.  I attended public schools from kindergarten through high school, so up through age 17, the church was my primary form of theological education.  My parents were both educated at fine Evangelical Christian institutions (my dad graduated from Wheaton, my mom graduated from Biola), so I had wonderful resources at home as well.  It wasn’t until I myself attended Wheaton that I entered into the institutional world of Christian education.

As I think about a theology of Christian education, I cannot help but think about my own experiences. I am not, after all, considering theological education purely from the standpoint of a teacher.  Before I started teaching, I had several decades of experience being taught, to varying degrees of success. In thinking about my experiences, I realize I’ve spent time living in each of the “cities” at various points.

For a great, succinct summary about the models of theological education see Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen’s article from a few years ago.  Really, for a great, succinct summary of almost any topic in Christian theology, see something he has written.

For now, I’ll offer just a brief recap and share about my time living in these cities.  David Kelsey got the framework started by using “Athens” and “Berlin.”  The Athens model reflects a classical approach exemplified in Greek education and later on was the model of the early church. The goal in “Athens” is to form character, to know God, to become a Christian in full–knowledge and practice.  This emphasizes personal development and spiritual formation.  Clement of Alexandria called a truly educated Christian a “gnostic,” one who truly knows, as he tried to redeem the term that had been co-opted by heretics.  The key is holistic learning.  Athens

From the first time I stepped onto Wheaton’s campus I was flooded with their emphasis on integrating faith and learning.  We had chapel three times a week, in which we would interupt the regular flow of campus life by sitting in our assigned seats and listening to great Christian leaders, Wheaton faculty, ministry teams.  I generally made full use of my allowed skips (I think we had 8 back in the day, but I can’t remember exactly), while even then valuing the opportunity for what it was. These chapels were inspirational, convicting, worshipful, community-building, and only very occasionally frustrating or numbing.  I generally got some coffee and a plain bagel from the STUPE on my way to chapel, so that likely helped.

We had a Pledge that mandated not doing certain activities.  It also encouraged doing other activities, but never with the same force.  There was strong peer encouragement to participate in a ministry, and even as this wasn’t required, most everyone I knew was involved in one or more teams.  Faith was integrated into every class, often passionately so, though never in ways that diminished the quality and depth of the teaching.  Wheaton had a lot of community activities, though I was not very connected. I had good friends (especially my junior and senior years), and yet I think back on Wheaton as characterized by radical loneliness.  God was shaping me, and that meant some radical deconstruction alongside intense learning in a broad liberal arts context.  Wheaton-Sign-Christ-and-his-Kingdom-Permission-300x200

That I was a very strong introvert and was dealing with untreated clinical depression (that was likely both neurochemical and related to current life issues), didn’t help my connection with others, but did seem to drive me deeper in Scripture, theology, and especially church history. I found counselors among the ancients and saints of the faith.  In almost every way, Wheaton was a profound time of transformation, and yet because I was so far from my roots, from what was a strong community back home in California, it wasn’t all good transformation.  I disconnected my spirituality from the experience of deep community and commitment.  God was certainly good even in my troubles–there are some truly good people I got to know there and I’m not sure I could find a better overall education–but I didn’t have guidance how to navigate the various hardships of my life and really finished quite a bit broken.

Which makes me see how holistic formation functions best in a context of committed community.  At home I had the committed community, but I didn’t have access to the depth of learning or exposure to the great teachings of the Church. I didn’t have guidance about how to truly integrate my faith, learning, and myself in a coherent way.  Wheaton was, as I look back, a white martyrdom, a giving up of what gave me security, what gave me comfort, what made sense (because it made very little sense that I would or could go to Wheaton for many reasons).  I was indeed crafted into a daily following of Christ that sustains me to this day.

Kelsey’s second model is “Berlin.”  This is the university model, especially in tersm of a research university. The goal here is learning and applying critical reasoning to categories of learning. It is a training of the intellect in accumulating and compiling information, an increasing pool of resources used to analyze and create understanding.  Such understanding then can be deployed in the professional tasks that require such learning. In theological education, this would be used in vocational ministry or academia.  Berlin

My MDiv studies very much reflected this model. Fuller Seminary was created as a new institution for Evangelicalism that emphasized critical learning and thinking.  The courses were structured to teach the essential categories of seminary education, namely Scripture, Church History, Theology, and Ministry. It was 144 quarter units of learning, about 3 classes per quarter.  There was a weekly chapel, but it was not mandatory.  As far as I can remember, there was little emphasis on prayer or personal spiritual formation. That’s not to say these were seen as irrelevant or unimportant. They were emphasized as vitally important! Just not seen as part of the course of formal study.

As a commuter student driving in from about 21 miles away, I very rarely attended chapel (they did not compare well to Wheaton chapels). While I had acquaintances and co-laborers, I did not develop deep friendships. There were some wan attempts at discussion groups, but these were stilted affairs, rigid and limited in scope.  Everyone attended classes for learning but then spiritual life was the role of the church. I did take an elective on Spiritual Disciplines at the end of my first year, which certainly did emphasis a more holistic approach, but it was indeed an elective. With generally very large class sizes, there was hardly any personal tutoring. I did make some key connections with Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen, but the fruit of this did not really ripen until many years later.

I did learn a great deal.  I learned deeply of Scripture, the original languages, becoming pulled into systematic theology for the first time, finding resonance in church history, fuller-theological-seminarylearning about the vocation of ministry–how to preach, how to teach, how to respond to questions about faith struggles.  Unfortunately, this high quality of education was itself disconnected from my church experiences, which had varying levels of extreme dysfunction and success.  I was caught in the storm that is the church of our era, and I didn’t know how to navigate to a place of stillness and renewal.

Those are my experiences with the first two cities in the framework. I’ll save my discussion of the others for another post.

Before I go, though, it is worth noting that while Fuller was created firmly in the Berlin model and was still quite entrenched in this during my MDiv years, after my graduation it has gone through a shift.  There was a reduction of required credits for the MDiv, and it was mostly the core content classes that got cut or combined. Meanwhile there is now a set of four required classes with the title “integration studies” that bring together spiritual disciplines and pastoral/church practices.  These four classes respectively focus on calling, worship, community, and mission. They really do add a fair amount of holistic learning and reflection in the seminary process. Meaning that nowadays, theological education at Fuller might best be understood as “Budapest,” a city that is in between Athens and Berlin.

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On Being a Theologian

It’s always a little uncomfortable when people I don’t know well ask me what I do for a living.

“I teach for Fuller Seminary,” I say.

“Oh? What do you teach,” they invariably respond.

“Theology and Church history,” I reply, not wanting to add the various other topics I teach to the list. Those sum up my specialties.

“…,” they generally respond, at least for an extended moment.

I’ve learned to expect this uncomfortable moment and that gives me pause in my responses. Which isn’t right, I know. I should be bold and confident in responding about what is both my vocation and my calling.

“Why I teach theology and church history!” I should say with expectant respect.

Yet, I know that when I give my answer about what I do most people don’t know what to say in response. I have a bit of an alienating job title when it comes to small talk.  Which is problematic because I have a fair bit of trouble with small talk to begin with.

I really could use a job title with a conversational hook, like my teacher friends whose jobs involve relatable subjects and relatable experiences with kids and learning.  Or my friend who works for the Grammys.  “Who have you worked with?” “What are they like in person?” Or a friend who leads art classes at wineries. Now that’s a job that can go all sorts of different conversational directions.  So many more come to mind.  Jobs that bring conversation with them.

theologianI teach theology. People don’t seem to know what to say about that.

I am, to be even more bold, a theologian.

I confess being insecure about using that title.  But what else should I call my job? I do, in fact, read about, write about, and teach theology.  Even still, I’m uncomfortable about that being my job title.

In contrast, most people are comfortable with their job titles (even if they don’t always like their jobs). Titles are usefully descriptive.

Job titles give an indication about how a person spends their time. How they make their money.

I doubt scientists trouble themselves too much with assuming the appellation of one who  studies and teaches science. That is a badge of honor.

Painters paint.  Bankers bank.  Plumbers plumb. Electricians electrify. Politicians politicize. Teachers teach.

Theologians theologize. They speak about God.

That is quite a weighty subject. A noble subject.  It is the driving subject of most of my life, taking center stage during the last twenty years.  I am, I might say, God-obsessed.

Though at times I might rather say I am God-haunted.  I can’t let go, not that doing such is a theoretical impossibility, rather that I am not necessarily the one who has been doing the holding.  I’ve been shaped, pulled, turned, bumped, cajoled, empowered, envigorated at various points to keep at this topic of theology. It is my profession, both vocational and confessional.

I am not insecure about the topic, that it is important and worthwhile. In thinking about the title “theologian” I am confronted with insecurity about myself.

I know myself, for the most part.  Dare I use the title “theologian” to describe who I am and how I live?  Do I genuinely theologize?

I remember what I’ve done. What I’ve said. My mistakes, my frustrations, my doubts, my sins. I think about others who have known me over the years, during seasons of confusion, instability, hypocrisy.  Not that I’m the worst of sinners or have some deep horrible secrets.  But enough to cause me to consider my current role with echoes of embarrassment and shame about who I’ve been at times, and who I sometimes still am.

Maybe that’s why I’m drawn to theologies of hope, which do not discount the past but invite the past into a renewed reflection in light of God’s work in Christ.  I am not a theologian because I deserve the title, but because I seek to be someone who moves past the past into celebrating revitalization and experiencing new patterns and perspectives that are more fully oriented in God’s work and identity.

I speak, teach, write words about God as part of the continuing process of seeking what is more, better, possible in my life and in the lives of those around me. Like Paul says in his letter to the Philippians, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it.  But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.

A theologian is one who prays truly, the early Christian leader Evagrios wrote, adding, that one who prays truly is a theologian.  In and through my life I seek to pray and pray truly. Theology is not a destination, it’s a way, and being a theologian is about walking on the path, understanding how to use the map and compass, recognizing the flora and the fauna, sharing this with others who are interested.

Even if I am who I know I am–most unlearned and least among the faithful–God has invited me to be who I fully can be in light of the fullness of who he is.  It is a task I humbly embrace, a calling that compels me to live and learn and act and teach, daily entering into again my humility and my hope.

Hasten, O God, to save me; come quickly, Lord, to help me.  In that prayer I find my confidence.

 

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“As we have long ago pointed out, what we propose as our subject is not the discipline which obtains in each sect, but that which is really philosophy, strictly systematic wisdom, which furnishes acquaintance with the things that pertain to life. And we define wisdom to be certain knowledge, being a sure and irrefragable apprehension of things divine and human, comprehending the present, past, and future, which the Lord has taught us, both by his advent anClement alexandriad by the prophets.

And it is irrefragable by reason, inasmuch as it has been communicated. And so it is wholly true according to God’s intention, as being known through means of the Son. Ad in one aspect it is eternal, and in another it becomes useful in time. Partly it is one and the same, partly many and indifferent–partly without any movement of passion, partly with passionate desire–partly perfect, partly incomplete.

This wisdom, then–rectitude of soul and of reason, and purity of life–is the object of the desire of philosophy, which is kindly and lovingly disposed towards wisdom, and does everything to attain it.”

~Clement of Alexandria, Stromata, 7.7

I like the idea of “systematic wisdom”.  That seems a grand task and a noble goal.  A  long road to be sure.  I’d like to think that’s what I’m trying to accomplish in my present pursuits.  Is someone who pursues that a Systematic Wisdomian?

Also, I like the word ‘irrefragable’ and am going to try to use it in conversations this week.

I’ve been digging deeply into Clement’s work the last few weeks as I work on a new chapter. I’m very taken by him–once again.  I first read his work as an innocent pre-seminary student and it’s interesting to see how what I read then really shaped how I entered later study.  It’s always good to read an author before you know how you’re supposed to read them.

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Life

I was on a bit of a roll there for a bit, posting more frequently than I had for a while. Then it happened: life.  I’m a contemplative, highly introverted and so socially sensitive.

That makes being a teacher a rewarding, yet draining, experience. My batteries get low, and then at the end of a long and very busy season I barely have time to recharge just a bit before jumping into the next thing.

My 2014-2015 school year just came to an end this past week.  Four classes of theology during the Spring semester at APU, followed by a 5 week “summer” intensive that started immediately after Spring ended.  Yet, it’s still Spring and not even summer.

I have two classes starting up online with Fuller in a couple weeks, material I’ve taught before but with a different structure of classes at Fuller than previous quarters, I have to prep it all like it was new.

I just finished grading my APU class.  I have most of the Fuller class in place, with only the myriad of little details to sort through.

Contemplation and the writing that derives from it just has slipped away for the moment.  But I have hopes. There’s a North wind blowing in and with it an invitation towards new rhythms and patterns.  I find myself thinking about writing and then writing, musing even. I have hopes in that. Writing is a both a goal and a sign for me, a discipline to pursue when I feel distracted but when it just starts leaking then pouring out, it’s an indication my heart and mind and soul are discovering renewal.

May the musing re-commence.

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the broken state of public discourse

Anyone who is online and involved in segments of the opinionated classes–religion, politics, academia, etc.–quickly realizes the minefield that is public conversation.  The goal isn’t necessarily to contribute to the gathered understanding, but rather to establish yourself on a side, or show that you are one of the good people.

For instance, it’s pretty common for me to read something like, “If you don’t say _________  about _______, then you don’t understand or believe the Gospel.”  There’s always an interest in tying Jesus not only to a particular goal but to a particular stance.

I think I’ve been reacting to this for a long while.  And honestly, at my core I’m a fair bit rebellious. I’m resistant to being told what I must say or write.

I’m a rather opinionated person, to be honest, so it’s not that I don’t have a response to issues that are happening in this world. More, my recent silence to events or issues has more to do with really what is a postmodern critique. I’m suspicious with how public discourse is being used to perpetuate cycles of dysfunction.

There are sources of power that depend on such dysfunction in order to maintain their own authority.  Politics and Media are chief among them, as they must fuel disorder to maximize the psychological and social distress which they then can exploit. Religious leaders often have the same goal.

These systems establish authority and meaning for a class of people who then seek advantage within those systems or find themselves alienated or demonized. A fair amount of people who say things aren’t actually grounded in substantive understanding or belief.  They say what they say to establish themselves as faithful players in the system.  The winds change, they do too.

This is why much (most) public discourse is not really as much as a conversation as a antagonizing pattern of establishing the good people and the evil people. People rush to vocalize their stances so as to maintain or build their status in the particular system they aspire to find meaning in.

Religion, politics, academics, etc. it’s all the same as with pop culture: people tend to be less concerned about truth, beauty, or real consideration of the moral or aesthetic issues and more concerned with aligning themselves with those who can provide favor and advantage.

Tenure is supposed to secure freedom of thought in academia, but it misses the social pressures in seeking intellectual validation and approval by peers. Salvation by grace is supposed to secure freedom of thought in theology, but grace has long been coupled with proofs of one’s status as graced–toe the line of theological and ecclesial conformity or you will be rejected as having never received grace.

I’m working on a new book project this year, on the topic of liberation, and I’m currently reading through some books by Jean Marc-Ela, an African theologian.

When people must be on the lookout, like tracked animals, the development of a literature of paean and laud to the established regime translates into a form of prostitution  to which intellectuals are condemned for the sake of their families–in order to spare their elderly parents or their sisters and brothers the unpleasantness sure to ensue if a writer or speaker does not toe the party line.

Silence is as suspect as speaking or writing–paradox of paradoxes–since it can be interpreted as a form of disapproval of the prevailing regime.

Voluntary marginalization is a dangerous and precarious option where the multitudes are made to kneel before the idols of the day, ready to convulse in a hail of knee-jerk reactions at a moment’s notice.

It is not difficult to imagine the conscience drama in certain intellectual circles where writers and speakers are constrained on every occasion to utter the oracle pronounced to be the thinking of all citizens. Here, to speak in public means to repeat a discourse already heard.

The obligation to submit to official conformism fosters a parrot mentality, in which any critical reflection is a threat of dissidence and schism. The mind is locked up in a repetitious liturgy of the world of myth.

Without free thought there can be no progress in any area, and the triumph of unanimity that checks that free thought demands a whole ritual, currently manifested in the bowing and scraping to established regimes… The unity established through a one-party system is galvanized by the banishment of any form of dissidence labeled as threatening to public security.

Does this mean avoiding any public discourse? No.  For me, however, my sensitivity to the structures of power and how discourse is co-opted by the powerful for their own gain has led me to step back as I deal with my own temptations and, honestly, dependency.

I need approval and acceptance, not for a social sense of self, but because as of summer I need employment and income.  I see what I am told I need to say and think in order to gain status, who I must reject and who I must align with in order to get books sold, contracts, employment. I realize this and can’t get away from a verse that has afflicted me since seminary.

Woe to those who go down to Egypt for help, who rely on horses, who trust in the multitude of their chariots and in the great strength of their horsemen, but do not look to the Holy One of Israel, or seek help from the Lord. (Isaiah 31:1)

I say afflicted because as this passage stands out to me, I’ve stepped away from doing the things I should be doing in order to find the status I want or need.

I see this need, this interest in looking for those who may satisfy my very real concerns, and then seek to hold onto my integrity by not playing the game as it is being played.

Where is real freedom to be found?  It is very freeing to be on the outside, where dependency on approval for status and livelihood is not an issue.  But it is also a place of isolation and need.  The outside doesn’t pay that well, nor feed or house my family.

My security is bought at a price.  So, find a system to cling to–Right, Left, Populist, Academia–and commit to it, overlooking the faults of one’s “own” while demonizing those others.  That’s the temptation.

Real issues are used by people in power to secure their own power, they not only do not seek to alleviate the core problem such resolution is against their self-interest. They utilize the true believers and idealists to further establish their own gain.

Politics (on both sides), social causes, religious zeal; full of abusers and the abused, the latter often taking on a Stockholm Syndrome pattern of devotion to those whose self-interest drives the dysfunction. Public discourse is often more a game of social maneuvering than a pursuit of the fullness of truth.

I am silent because I don’t want to play into that system, even as I am absolutely obligated to speak up about issues that occur in my immediate context.  We are called to be good neighbors not loyal partisans.

I am often silent now because I’m trying to navigate how to speak outside the system within the systems, holding onto the fullness of hope and identity in Christ rather than clinging to a meaning derived from ultimately false patterns of meaning. I want to be a prophet not parrot the false-prophets that abound on every direction.

“We must conclude,” Ela writes, “that an acceptance of conflicts of opinion and a divergence of options, without the reduction of the opposition to silence, is not really incompatible with the pursuit of national unity and the progress of the masses.” Nor is is incompatible with the pursuit of good theology, unity of the church, or progress in social questions.

And so I wait on the Lord to give me wisdom and words. The pressure of not waiting is backed by the threat of judgment and dismissal and rejection: say “this” or you are rejected. Silence is indeed suspect.

That makes the goal of waiting on the Lord a difficult, brutally difficult, task.  Because those who are not waiting insist others join them in their chorus.

Posted in academia, personal, professional, religion, theology | 20 Comments

mission accomplished

From a student paper:

Contemporary Christian Theology seems like such an academic topic, I was a sophomore, and my faith was incredibly new. I walked in, looked at the class, and saw I was way in over my head. But, as this class ended up teaching me, as well as the blog, I was completely in the right place allowing the spirit to work through me. Words like eschatology, Christology, and pneumatology were words that I never thought I’d grasp, but what I came to learn was that these concepts were ideas already stemmed within in me and were things that I had views on . It was amazing to hear different denominations’ viewpoints as well as speak on Catholicism as I haven’t really have not had the opportunity to share it in biblical studies and Christian theology classes before. Perhaps what I most understood through this class was the idea that theology isn’t about knowing everything, it is about using your life, understanding each other’s views, and knowing that at the end of the day, like everything, it is about Christ.

The class is Contemporary Christian Theology, a gen ed I teach at APU. I’m not sure I would have phrased it like this, but this does come close to my goal. And that I’m teaching students who are not going into further theology studies or ministries is even better. I translated academic theology in a way that helped. That’s something. Maybe not everything, but it’s something.

We’ll see where God leads in my pursuit of communicating all of this. My contract with APU was only for a year, and they are looking for someone with different background for next year (and the permanent position). So after this next semester? Do you need a theologian? Maybe it’s not only academia that needs more theologians… Maybe that’s part of the problem in a lot of respects.

For now, and for this season of life, I’m learning a lot in this present foray of academia (the positives and the negatives) and it is encouraging to know I’m helping others learn as well. What will the next season hold during this time of continued wilderness?

I await the Promised Land, keep walking forward, find strength and hope in the face of discouraging news, find renewal and encouragement in hearing very positive affirmation from others. I’m tired, to be honest, but the cloud hasn’t rested yet, so I, we as a family, seek what God has in store, further up and further in.

To live is Christ.

Posted in ministry, personal, speaking, teaching, theology | Leave a comment

Me and Tommy Jefferson

Big Five Personality Test

Out of 25 U.S. Presidents, you are the most like …

Thomas Jefferson

“I had rather be shut up in a very modest cottage, with my books, my family, and a few old friends, dining on simple bacon, and letting the world roll on as it liked, than to occupy the most splendid post which any human power can give.”

Compared to the general population, you are:

  • Low on Extroversion, indicating that you are an introvert who prefers calm environments to large social gatherings.
  • High on Openness, indicating that you are very impatient with the way things are and always on the look for the new, the untested, and the untried.
  • Average on Agreeableness, indicating that you alternate between being tenderhearted in some situations and tough-minded in others.
  • Average on Conscientiousness, indicating that you take a balanced approach between sticking to plans and deadlines and being flexible about updating your current goals.
  • Low on Neuroticism, indicating that you are relaxed, cool under pressure, and not shy about presenting yourself or your ideas.

According to a study done by Jeffery J. Mondak, Ph.D., your scores indicate that you are:

  • Not likely to discriminate on the basis of race or sexual orientation.
  • More likely to be pro-choice rather than pro-life.
  • Likely to feel trapped by the status quo.
  • Likely to enjoy complex and abstract discussions.
  • Likely to be more knowledgeable on academic topics.
  • Less likely to have a tolerant attitude towards smoking.
  • More likely to favor harsh criminal punishments over milder ones.
  • Less likely to watch TV and read the news, preferring instead to follow your own interests.
  • Less likely to mobilize your friends in your own interests, preferring instead to immerse yourself in your interests in solitude.
  • Someone who seems impassive to others, while being in fact quite sure of your own views.
  • More likely to enjoy fitness training and physical exercise.
  • More likely to nurture a few select beliefs that you regard as settled in stone.
  • Less likely to flirt with harm and danger.
  • Less likely to have insurance or to belong to a labor union.

According to a study done by Jayme Neiman, Ph.D., your scores indicate that you are:

  • More likely than the average person to enjoy bitter vegetables like broccoli and arugula.
Posted in personal | 2 Comments

Why Ravens?

Ravens are important in many cultures and harbingers in more than one religion. It  is not hard to see why. Anyone who has spent a moment listening or watching must be struck with curiosity at what these aerial acrobats are about.  two ravensThey are among the most intelligent of birds. They are social, and talkative, with a complex language that shows regional dialects. Few animals show as much love for their own abilities as these birds. They fly, and they are aware how cool it is they do so. Drifting on a warm updraft, diving through a valley, riding the wind of battered air in storms and fire, wrestling with each other midair, they exult in their mastery of the sky.

A pagan site speaks of these totemic birds:

If a raven totem has come into our life, magic is at play. Raven activates the energy of magic and links it to our will and intention. With this totem, we can make great changes in our life; the ability to take the unformed thought and make it reality. The raven shows us how to go into the dark of our inner self and bring out the light of our true self; resolving inner conflicts which are long been buried. This is the deepest power of healing we can possess.

Though a mish-mash of do it yourself religions, this speaks of distant understandings, held by many peoples throughout time.

Norse mythology, of course, prominently features two ravens, companions of Odin, bearers of knowledge and information. Thought and memory is the meaning of their names. They are the embodied soul of the All-Father, whispering from his shoulder the goings on of the wider world. The Edda, an epic Norse poem, states:

The whole earth over, every day, hover Hugin and Munin; I dread lest Hugin droop in his flight, yet I fear me still more for Munin.

Because of these constant companions Odin has been called the Raven god.

This he is not.


Long before the Norse laid claim to mystical tales and the gold of other lands, the God of Israel revealed himself to be Lord and protector of all, even the ravens.

“He gives to the animals their food,” Psalm 147:9 reads, “and to the young ravens when they cry.”

“Who provides for the raven its prey,” God asks Job rhetorically, “when its young ones cry to God, and wander about for lack of food?”

He was answering Job out of the storm in chapter 38, replying to Job’s complaints not by direct answers, but by showing his character and power.

In return ravens served the God of Israel. Noah sent out a raven, which flew back and forth until the water had dried up from the earth. Ravens being what they are, it appears this one left the constraints of the boat for its own tasks. A dove was the next messenger, the one which came back.

The prophet Elijah ran into many troubles as he spoke the words of God to those who did not want to listen. He had power over wind and rain, and God had power over him. Savoldo Elijah Fed by the RavenA drought began, which parched the land.

In chapter seventeen of 1 Kings we read:

Then the word of the LORD came to Elijah: Leave here, turn eastward and hide in the Kerith Ravine, east of the Jordan River. You will drink from the brook, and I have ordered the ravens to feed you there.

So, he did what the LORD had told him. He went to the Kerith valley, east of the Jordan, and stayed there. The ravens brought him bread and meat in the morning and bread and meat in the evening, and he drank from the brook.


This is a website for those who now live near the Kerith, a place where water rushes through a narrow valley. God is calling many back as his own, and in doing this places them for a time in the midst of the wilderness, with drought and famine all around. There is water to drink, if it is sought, and food to eat by God’s gracious hand.

Many paths in this world lead onwards, but only one leads to the end. One travels with a goal in mind, and only those paths which take one to the expected end have perfect merit. There is only one path, the Way. Yet, along this path many sights are shared.

Forgotten views are highlighted elsewhere. Other paths may intersect, leading to their own interesting sights. Some travel far along, others stop very short. So, while there is only one way to the end, all others are worth consideration. For like the tale of ravens they remind us of our own stories, pointing us back to forgotten truths.

The Christian faith is ancient, laying claim to its history and the history of the Jewish people prior to the coming of the Messiah. The modern representations have lost much of the purview, limiting to specific words and angrily repulsing other voices. All truth is God’s truth. All those who hear truth, hear Yeshua. The Spirit moves wide and broad, teaching, reaching, grasping, enlightening. With an eye on the goal, and an open ear to hear the words which others speak, we walk together along the Way.

Moses knew this path. Into the wilderness and out he led the people, fully committed to the word of God, fully dedicated to the One who saves. To Hobab, son of Reuel the Midianite, he said this:

We are on our way to the Promised land. Come with us and we will treat you well, for the LORD has given wonderful promises to Israel! But Hobab replied, No, I will not go. I must return to my own land and family. Please don’t leave us, Moses pleaded. You know the places in the wilderness where we should camp. Come, be our guide and we will share with you all the good things that the LORD does for us.

RaveninflightNot of the people of God, but welcomed. Hobab knew what they did not, and could assist. In return, should he add his wisdom to their promises he would receive ‘good things.’ So we stand firm in our faith, with a listening ear and open mind to the work of the Spirit beyond our own understanding, trusting that it is he who draws people more than we. And thus we continue on the Way, trusting God will send ravens to bring food, everyday.
 

I wrote this about 6 or 7 years ago and it’s been a page on my website, though one rarely visited.  As I prepare for this new year, and all it entails, I thought it a fitting way as I renew my focus and thoughts.

Posted in personal, theology, writing | 2 Comments