Category Archives: religion

Imaging Theology

What do you see when you think about pursuing God?

I remember the professor in my first theology at Wheaton asking a similar question.  He asked what image of God do we find most appealing: lord, king, savior, and so on, drawing from different expressions of God in the Bible. I answered, “King,” reflecting my sense of calling at the time to go questing in search of light, wisdom, pursuing obedience. I was reading a lot of Stephen Lawhead back then too and I found his King Arthur trilogy particularly inspiring.  So, I liked the royal attributes of God and the associated chivalry of the Christian life. At least as I understood it.

A lot was uncertain in life, then, and I wanted to make sense of it, and make sense of it in a way that brought meaning and hope in the midst of overwhelming and impossible struggles. Clinging to the stories of great adventures, purpose, meaning, helping me navigate the great swath of senselessness  and yearning that had characterized my life up to that point.  Life almost kept working out, doors just about opened, opportunities mostly resolved. I was drawn just far enough to keep on, always defeated enough to prevent satisfaction.   It had to mean something, because I knew there was something more drawing me onward.

It was chivalry of Quest not battle. I knew there was truth and falsehood, good and evil, heroes and villains. But I didn’t want to conquer others or really even debate them.

I saw Christ as King, and myself as a dogged, if imperfect, servant.  So now, when I think about what my image of theology was in my earlier years, this one probably fits, though I wouldn’t have understood the question the same way then.

It’s not very sophisticated. It is quite earnest. And it was an image that kept me going through uncertainty and a myriad of distractions. I identified with Galahad and his search for the grail, so maybe this one is even more particular.

It probably didn’t help I read books like The Interpretation of the New Testament with its mentions of champions, and entering the lists, and suchlikes. Made it feel like a struggle worth fighting for. Though not initially in theology.

That was an image that sparked my interest in law school–fight for justice–through my senior year and onwards. Only after continued reflection on that direction did I make left turn into seminary, as the Quest kept driving me. The image stayed, mostly, the same. AA service. A sacrifice. A goal. A noble path.

A Quest.

Theology was about doing, performing, accomplishing, advancing, discovering and transforming.

I saw the grail. But I couldn’t take hold of it during my seminary years.

Toward the end of that season, I was feeling burned out by church politics and dysfunctions.  I was enthralled by the depth and hope in my study of theology and Scripture.  What I was seeing as the possibilities in and with God was finding expression in ministry but kept running against a wall of something that I couldn’t address or even name.  Every time the grail would near it would dissipate. I was nearing exhaustion in the Quest and went to the Getty museum to find some restoration.

I wandered through the halls, letting my thoughts wander amidst the art and scenery. Not seeking anything, just wanting a break from the usual.

Then I saw this small painting by Caspar David Friedrich:

It was like a cool pool of water on a hot day.  I dove into it.  Stood there for a while taking it in before moving on to continue my museum wandering. The painting stuck with me, tugging at me well after I got home. This was it, I realized.  What? I asked myself.  I don’t know, I replied.

I have a lot of conversations like this with myself.  The thoughts morph into a prayer of sorts, asking for wisdom.

It came to me after a while. Be, don’t do.  God is asking me to be with him, not do for him.  To rest in him, to walk with him, to seek him, not perform or accomplish. Being, not doing. The image clarified a driving whisper in my soul to enter into prayer, restoration, amid nature. I found myself drawn away from the city and the busyness of social expectations. I visited the mountains and found the same melody played by wind and trees and raven calls.  A theologian is one who prays truly, Evagrios once wrote.  And that was the call that came through that painting.  It was my new image of theology that replaced the quest.

So, I moved to the mountains beginning an extended season of theological refocusing, a neo-monastic approach to life and theology that was alternately breaking and exhilarating, renewing and frustrating, all of it exposing my self to my self, no longer offering distractions to avoid dealing with the inner chaos. The wave crashed over me, carried away a great deal of clutter, leaving me emptier and free.  A walk in an extended dusk, sun always on the horizon, never setting, risking being for the sake of being.

The light switch turned on in 2007.  I felt drawn back to the world, back into a form of busyness without chaos. Doors perpetually closed began to swing open, paths revealed themselves, opportunities awakened.  Yet the theological task was not fully illuminated.  I was being called to go, but to where?  To what? The old assumptions of the Quest tried to marshal their forces, but that wasn’t the image I had anymore.  It was more of a Way, a journey, a walk into the mists.  The images were also now more my own. As I thought about how I conceived this new season a picture from a hike came to mind:

I walked along this dirt road fairly regularly during my time in the mountains, with it also often one of my jogging trails.  Forests have moods and on this foggy day it was a somber place, wet and still.  I couldn’t see too far, but kept walking, knowing there was beauty at every step.

I went off trail, to places I hadn’t gone before, trusting in what I did know to orient my journey.  I didn’t have a goal besides the journey itself, entering into the mystery with expectation.  This is the image of theology I had through my PhD studies, and one that in part continues to call to me.

More recent imaging of theology in the next post.



Posted in ministry, religion, spirituality, theology | Leave a comment

Religion is everywhere.

People assume religion has something to do with having a deity. Not all religions have that. In teaching a world religions class, every so often I would start a class by asking what a religion is. At the beginning of the course there were a lot of opinions. By the end, after we had studied just 4-5 world religions, students were fairly flummoxed about finding an answer that would encompass every approach. There are even wide distinctions within a given religion about belief in deity or supernatural.

Mostly religion has to do with a conception of meaning and purpose for people. Religion is generally more anthropology than anything else.

What gives us identity? What fulfills us in our self? As a community? There are historic answers that are oriented in light of deep tradition. There are more contemporary answers that have more free-form, buffet quality. But how we answer that is still our “religion,” if we are to have anything other than a narrow, insular perspective on global religious life.

The various religions are, in fact, suggesting very different modes of being within the world, how to understand how we are being our true self and how reality is formed, and forming, around us.  Again, even within specific religions, answers can vary widely about what it means to be a real human, what values and priorities we should have, how we should understand and respond to those around us.  religions

This is a big reason why in each of the religions we studied, there’s always someone who says, “X isn’t a religion.” Those who are participating fully in a religion see their participation as encompassing their whole being.  Indeed, it’s a very narrow subset of Enlightenment assumptions that thought that religion only encompasses a small sphere of life, that it can be privatized at all.  In reality the only religion that can be truly privatized is that of a person in solitary confinement.

Everyone is oriented by some system of priorities and values and assumptions in which they can navigate their sense of self and progress in this sense of self.

This isn’t to say that religion is only anthropology, that there’s nothing of importance to the rest of the topics.  Indeed, Christianity grounds its anthropology in its understanding of a particular God who worked and works in particular ways within history–past, present, and future.

It is to say that coming up with an orienting philosophy doesn’t require a deity. We’re all oriented by some assumption of how the world is and how we fit in it.  Atheism isn’t a religion itself, but neither are atheists somehow absent a religion.  They just don’t have a god they believe in that is part of their orienting beliefs.  Neither do a good many Buddhists.

That’s the difficulty with many contemporary political and social discussions. There are distinctions made about religion that are themselves religious statements, often assuming a set definition about what gives a person meaning, how we should define ourselves and others, what part of our self is most important and what parts can be put into a box, private and hidden from view.

What does it mean to be truly ourselves? What should we pursue? What should we discipline or diminish? These are questions that frame religion in each person’s life, oriented by something or someone, though not always in coherent way.

Everyone has a religion.  Everyone has faith in some assumption, or idea, or goal, that that is what will bring satisfaction, giving them hope and purpose in their pursuit.

The question I ask isn’t whether someone is religious or not, but what their religion is. If it matches up with an established world religion, that sometimes makes understanding them a little bit easier but not always.  A fair amount of people speak one religion and live another.   And they don’t necessarily want this pointed out. A good many people have a vague amalgamation of goals, driven by separate systems in their life, many not at all cohesive.

Which is why prophets tend to have a difficult road. They are resisted by those who begin with different assumptions about humanity and the world. They are resisted by those who claim those assumptions but don’t particular want these to be their real orientation.

We’re all–well maybe almost all–most committed to justifying our own hypocrisies and pointing the finger elsewhere.  Avoiding blame has been a driving religious ideal throughout human history.

Where will our hope come from?

That’s the key religious question.  We. We’re in this together. Hope. Have a driving conception that things aren’t limited by our current experiences.

We hope. These are what makes us human, despite ourselves.


Posted in religion | 8 Comments

A Political Lament

We are easily seduced by the forces who emphasize division and anxiety to rally against those who share our common confession of faith.

This political season exemplifies how easy we become Cain, or Joab, or Judas.

Left and Right both do it, finding it all too easy to establish identity and meaning and hope in a candidate. We rail against the other, making our brothers and sisters the others, condemning them for their intransigence even as we are exactly the same.

We assume we are on the side of Christ because we abhor the right people and their representatives.  Crucify them, we yell, they deserve it.

We say, “God, I thank you that I am not like other people.”
“Thank you I am not like those Trump supporters.”
Or, “Thank you I am not beguiled by the Clintons.”
“Thank God I  do not join with those evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector.”

There is no liberation in this. There is no peace.

We are poseurs not disciples.

God, have mercy on me, a sinner. Because I am seduced in the same ways.

Posted in politics, religion | Leave a comment

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

Theologian as Prophet

As my PhD in theology is still somewhat fresh, and my career is in what might be best called a nebulous phase, I think a lot about what it means now to be a “theologian.” I’m a professional at that, after all, so I should really know what that profession is about. I’m still wary, honestly, about using that term as it seems so, well, grandiose. But, what else would I say?

That’s what my professional education and training is in. Evagrios of Pontus would suggest that a theologian is someone who prays truly and someone who prays truly is a theologian. I’d like to think that I fit that, or at least I fit that better as I go along in this life. Is that it then?


I like Evagrios’s comment but I mig ht make a suggestion, one that incorporates that and extends it into a profession. Dare I say calling? Is there a charism fittingly labeled as “theologian” in our era?

I tentatively think so. I’ve been considering this for a while and my musings got a spark in the sermon notes printed in the church bulletin this past Sunday. (For the sermon, here’s a video)

There’s four sections in the notes, and so I’m going to do a post per section, adding my musings to the comments by Scott Daniels. I think the role of theologian can (though certainly not must) fill the role of prophet, and as such this gives theologians both a calling and an orientation in the church, something both theologians and the church have often ignored.

From the notes:
The Work of the Prophet: Deconstruction and Reconstruction

  • The prophets fulfilled a very important–if dangerous–role in the nation of Israel. Generally speaking, there are three key leadership roles in the OT: prophet, priest, and king. The problem with kingship (and the prosperity it represents) is that it seems inevitably to erode the radical uniqueness of God’s people in the world.

Who serves the role of “king” in a Christian sense? Jesus, of course. As savior and lord, Jesus is the head of the church, he is king of kings and lord of lords. There can’t be two heads and while we may certainly have power structures in churches and society, there’s only one in charge of the mission. It’s a messianic mission empowered by the Holy Spirit. Messiah and Spirit and Father. The king in the OT was a cultural accommodation, meant to provide a visible headship, an immanent analogy. Of course, a king hates being limited to analogy so often took on airs of absolute power. Nowadays, there’s none that can or should serve that role.

We have immediate access to God through the Son in the Spirit, and any hierarchy is more parliamentary than royal in function. That being said, kings represent the temporal order of things, the political and legal systems in this world. We do have those systems and wherever else our allegiance might be, we participate in these systems. Who is our king? Who defines our status and participation, who is included and excluded. That’s a big question, but moving away from the present one. Let’s move on…

  • Priests take care of the day-to-day spiritual needs of the people and administer the worship taking place in the temple. Priests, however, tend to be status-quo kinds of leaders. They are no less prone to corruption than are kings. Too often the priesthood becomes a religious prop for the reigning monarch–whether they are good or bad.

Priests are the key players in the religious system, a system that involves making connections between the transcendent and immanent, between the ethereal and earthly. It also involves navigating perceived paradoxes in life, giving meaning to our role in the universe. The trouble is that in this system, there is the expectations of the system. People expect the system to function in a predictable way. Priests (or pastors) are conditioned to performing their duties in a predictable way. The establishment of a rhythm is itself part of the system. But in times of corruption or issues of life or faith that are outside the orientation of the system, a person can find emptiness, desolation, exclusion.Prophet-Elias-Grk-ikon

I encountered this in junior high and early high school, during a season of extreme financial stress in our family, coupled with major health issues, there was no resonance in the churches or youth groups. They were oriented towards middle and upper middle class religious system.

Meanwhile, my family was struggling to eat and pay rent and struggled with knowing where God was in the midst of a crisis in which almost all our family and friends were Christians but we were left to struggle alone. For the most part–I had very close friends during this time that were sustaining influences, true community, even though I didn’t know then how to express my hurt or need. It was just life as it was and it had nothing to do with church.

The religion system just didn’t reach into our lives, and the religious system is also susceptible to corruption. Arbiters of heaven and hell, transcendence and coherence, can use this power for their own benefits, financially, socially, psychologically.

This is a big reason why I struggle with the emphasis of church as the kingdom of God. It leaves no room for critique. It also prioritizes the religious system as the whole experience of life. If you’re finding value or success in that system (as does, for instance, people Stanley Hauerwas) it makes sense to commend it. If you’re on the outside, then you’re told to get on the inside, because that’s where you’ll be filled. jesus_scrollThis isn’t to reject the religious system, but rather to suggest there needs to be a critical voice, one that calls the church (and its leaders) towards deepening, towards refocusing, away from tendencies that are not values of Christ’s mission or the Spirit’s work.

The Church, after all, may always be pointing towards a kingdom, but it’s not always the kingdom of God. Sermons, for instance, can be very powerful messages of God’s word. They also, however, can embed distortions and symbolize unfortunate power structures and disoriented theology (by prioritizing one person and one medium as the expression of the Spirit in a church setting). The pastor, for better or worse, is part of the religious system that is the church so reflects the values and priorities of this system, sometimes more than the people who are present, who are the people Christ values and the Spirit is working through.

The sermon notes continue:

The prophets, on the other hand, come from outside the political system (they are usually weird and antisocial in some way) and speak the word of the LORD to the king and to the priests. This is why they often are persecuted because they speak from outside the system, to the system. The word of the LORD from the prophet is therefore often hard for the people to hear. When the people finally are able to hear the deconstructing word of discipline from the prophet they are then able to hear the reconstructing words of hope from that also flow through the prophets.

To the system, but not of the system. That seems a great description of the role theologians can play. The idea that the prophetic must somehow be anti-intellectual or unlearned is a great mistake. Often it is the people who spend the most time with the texts who are able to discern the trends, the “signs of the times,” the message of God for a moment or generation. The Holy Spirit works in spontaneous ways but also in deeper gifts, charisms of learning and teaching and discernment.

The trouble, of course, is that theologians may give their allegiance to other systems. The education industrial complex system, for instance, which creates structures of power, meaning, identity, success that often orients a person’s passion into patterns that buttress the system rather than lead to truth or transformation. So, the idea of a theologian as prophet might be both a call and a challenge, for both the church and those who have made it their life to study and teach the ways of God.

There are more notes to muse on, so there’s more to come.

Posted in academia, musings, religion, society, theology | 1 Comment

Summarizing contemporary politics and “ethics”

Just finished reading Niklas Luhmann’s Introduction to Systems Theory.  First, I’ll say this might be the most difficult book I’ve read.  Partly because I don’t have a background in sociology, mostly because Luhmann is a very dense and meandering writer.  But, I think there’s something in what he writes that is worth considering, and that really describes the state of society as well as any other.  The trouble is that the state of society should not itself be a model for Christians or the church. Yet, far too often Christians attach religious justification for acting just like the people around them are acting.  Both sides do it, and that embeds conflict within what should be a unified voice in Christ.

The Kingdom of Heaven is not a system within the world, but too often the language of the Kingdom is used in ways to perpetuate the systems of the world. Neither is the Kingdom of Heaven a later, supernatural reality. It is the expression of the Lordship of God in and through our whole lives, God’s will be done on earth as in heaven put into practice in daily and particular situations.

This has been part of my frustration with a lot of Christian ethics over the last many years and always pops up again when there is some kind of national news that highlights the conflict.  Those in the Church do not offer a unique voice (like Jesus did) but far too often position themselves among the established sides.  Jesus never dodged questions but he did reinterpret the underlying reality that should be addressed. Far too often, we (and I’ll include myself) take the contemporary systems at face value, adopting their forms of truth and priorities and values, then become more aligned to others within that system than with those who share the same supposed confession in Christ.

Anyway, this came to mind because of something Luhmann wrote near the end of his text:

The key statement for this purpose is my claim that conflicts themselves are systems. Conflicts are systems because one creates a situation that limits the bandwidth of variation concerning the other, if one treats him as an opponent and acts in a correspondingly aggressive, defensive, or protective way in his presence. He can no longer proceed at will. Of course he can (if he really can) walk away, shrug his shoulders, and say that all this is of no interest to him.

In typical social situations, however, when one does not have the option of leaving, the notion that there is in fact a conflict, or even a mere insistent “no’ as an answer to repeated interpretive offers, is a motive that produces a system, which is to say, a motive that organizes connectivity.

For instance, it may lead to the creation of coalitions, to the search for resources, and to the idea that everything that is to the other’s disadvantage is to my advantage. A friend/enemy relation is formed, which is an extreme simplification of the real situation…

Here, the organizing power of conflicts can be seen in social coalitions as well as in their themes. If someone contradicts a partiuclar point I have made, I generalize his opposition and suspect that he will also contradict me on other issues. From this viewpoint, moral perspsectivs serve to generalize conflicts. After all, if someone has shown himself to be ignominious, he is so in every respect and not just hte one that I happned to notice.

Whenever I argue morally, I have the tendency to generalize conflicts! The formula is that conflicts are an excellent principle of system formation…

The question is whether such a formed system can be justified in light of Christ’s work.  Even when pacifism finds empowerment in this system of conflict, there is a self-contradiction at work that suggests a less than thoroughly Kingdom oriented ethic.  Or, when supposed Christians insist on establishing the inerrancy of the Bible through the embrace of this conflict established system, they too are self-contradicting the supposed example we see in the New Testament Gospels and letters.

When we embrace the system of conflict in the cause of Christ, we are taking the name of the Lord in vain, taking up God’s cause but rejecting his method, his model, his Kingdom that is not the peace of Rome but the peace of Christ.

Posted in musings, politics, religion, society, theology, writing | Leave a comment

Unsatisfying churches? Or maybe a real reason millenials (and others) are leaving the church

Jane McGonigal has a very interesting book called Reality Is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World.

McGonigal is a video game designer. What does she know about getting people involved? Well, 174 million Americans are gamers, boys and girls, men and women, who play video games. If you are under about 45, then you almost certainly grew up playing video games.

Now they are ubiquitous. All sorts, with all kinds of goals. In fact, some of the most profitable apps on smart phones or tablets are games. Designers are in it for the creativity, sure, and with this there’s an immense amount of psychology and overall understanding of human nature.

They’re not in it just for the creativity, however, there’s an immense amount of profit. So, game designers are, we might say, on the leading edge of what draws people in and what keeps them coming back for more.

Many games aren’t isolated experiences either, with some of the most popular being online multiplayer worlds, forming whole communities in the process. And there’s an immense amount of time and energy involved, involving intricate collaboration, mastery of skills, repeated application and practice, growth, development.

Why am I mentioning this with a title focused on the church? world-of-warcraftWell, these are the sorts of expressions that fills the rhetoric of pastors in sermons across the country, and world. Learn, grow, community, practice, express.

McGonigal notes the success of a game like World of Warcraft [a game which I’ve actually never played]. “Every single day,” she writes, “gamers worldwide spend a collective 30 million hours working in World of Warcraft.” Why?

Here’s her explanation:

Although we think of computer games as virtual experiences, they do give us real agency: the opportunity to do something that feels concrete because it produces measurable results, and the power to act directly even if what they’re manipulation is digital data and virtual objects. Until and unless the real work world [the church, maybe?] changes for the better, games like WoW will fulfill a fundamental human need: the need to feel productive.

That’s what it takes for work to satisfy us: it must present us with clear, immediately actionable goals as well as direct, vivid feedback. World of Warcraft does all of this brilliantly, and it does so continuously.”

John Wesley, I think, had an intuitive grasp of this. Sanctification coupled with communal feedback provided a form of continuous actionable goals. The early church, and many churches around the world to this day, had the challenge of martyrdom, where faith is constantly tested and faith either broken or built.

Most churches today operate with a very passive model. There’s very little actionable quests, almost an entire lack of direct, vivid feedback.

Should there be changes that reflect what game designers understand and put into practice? Could churches be the ultimate role-playing game? That’s the sort of stuff I’m thinking about tonight.

Posted in church, communitarian view, psychology, religion, spirituality, theology | 2 Comments

Roger Williams and the life of Faith (part 1)

As I’m studying for my comprehensive exams, I’m getting back into reading my major research from the last few years on topics of church history.  My first major study focused on Roger Williams, Anne Hutchinson, and George Fox, trying to explore their basic contributions in light of a developing understanding of the Spirit and a desire for true religious freedom. This search for religious toleration wasn’t about them wanting to live more loose or godless lifestyles, they sought to be more Christian, embracing the fullness of the Christian life in increasing ways.  In doing this they often ran up against the barriers of the established church in their context, who were also supporters of a good Christian life, but wanted that life to make a lot more orderly sense.  The three I studied wouldn’t accept that version of faith, so pushed back, often to their own detriment. But they leave a very interesting model for us today in how they lived, what they said, and what they wrote.

I’m pretty caught up in my studying and in my teaching an online course on theological studies.  So, my blogging has fallen off. Hopefully this post and those that follow give a good insight into what I’m studying, how I’m going about this education process myself, and what is inspiring me these days:

Roger Williams is primarily now known for his contribution to the idea of separation of church and state in American history, yet it is fairly clear Williams was not primarily a political philosopher, nor was he, it seems, even primarily driven by the relationship between the state and the church.[1]  Rather, this was an ancillary topic to his significantly stronger drive. Even as he did not continue on in active ministry, nor does it seem he ever found a settled place in any particular religious community, Williams was a man who was driven by his quest for a deeper relationship with God, one that could not be separated from any part of his life, and one which insisted on an increasingly sophisticated coherence of doctrine.

It is in the context of Williams’s continued theological drive that we should place his various contributions. This includes his largest writings, which relate to religious persecution and religious freedom. Rather than being religiously open to whatever wind was blowing, Williams was, on the contrary, very particular in what he thought was acceptable religious doctrine. Indeed, he was so exact in his theological demands that one of the major causes of his earliest separation with the churches in Boston was his assertion they should be entirely separate from the Church of England, separating not only in geography but also in affiliation. Toleration, for him, meant something very different than it does in contemporary culture.[2]

Although, most of his major writings were written in a defensive posture, arguing against civil persecution and maintaining a strong call to respect freedom of conscience, in his Experiments of Spiritual Life and Health, and their Preservatives, we are given insight into his positive spirituality, which almost certainly was more of a constant pursuit of his rather than his occasional, combative and controversial writings.[3] While away on a trading trip, Williams received word his wife had been very sick and almost died.  In Williams’s consistently intellectual response to crisis, he penned a theological, indeed pastoral, encouragement to her to aid in her recovery. More than merely pastoral, however, it is likely that here, in the time of his wife’s crisis, Williams exposed a great deal of his own self.

He could not visit her in person, but he could send her what he thought was his best self, his best contribution to his family and to the broader society. He writes, “I send thee (though in Winter) an handfull of flowers made up in a little Posey, for thy dear selfe, and our dear children, to look and smell on, when I as the grasse of the field shall be gone and withered.”[4] This “handfull of flowers” consists of three main sections, which indicate the progression of the spiritual life through being drawn by God into his presence, into confidence and spiritual health, ending with practices of preservation of a strong spiritual state.


[1] For excellent studies on his contributions to the debate over the relationship between church and state see Timothy Hall, Separating Church and State: Roger Williams and Religious Liberty (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1998) and Edmund S. Morgan, Roger Williams: The Church and the State (New York: Harcourt Brace & World, 1967).

[2] For Williams the key issue was the role of the civil authorities in responding to spiritual disputes. He writes, 7:179, “…Christ Jesus never cald for the Sword of Steel to helpe the Sword of the Spirit that two-edged Sword that comes out of the mouth of the Lord Jesus.” Williams greatly expanded on this basic theme in his books, The Bloody Tenent of Persecution and The Bloody Tenent Yet More Bloody.

[3] “It is true, I have been sometimes prest to engage in controversies, but I can really and uprightly say, my Witnes is on high… At other times I have been drawne to consider of the little flock of Jesus, his Army, his body, his building… At present, I onely examine who are the personall and particular Sheep of Jesus Crhsti, his Souldiers, his living materials, though scattered, divided, and not compos’d and ordred at their souls desire.” (Roger Williams, 7:48). In the foreword to this work, the publishers write, “For the student of Williams this devotional book is of basic importance. Placed alongside the two Tenents it shows how Williams’ ecclesiastical radicalism arose out of a profound Puritan piety. Here is the ‘root of the matter’ which even Cotton Mather admitted was in him.” (Roger Williams, 7:43).  This does raise the question, “What kind of Puritan piety?” Puritanism is more properly understood as a reaction against the established Church of England and as such can be defined more in terms of what it was against rather than a settled set of emphases, even if there were common shared themes. See Jerald C. Brauer, “Types of Puritan Piety,” Church History 56, no. 1 (1987). Williams’s theological questioning was certainly pushing his ecclesiology in decidedly different directions than the established Puritan movement of his day, and one can surmise this ecclesiological exploration was driven by broader theological and spiritual roving.

[4] Roger Williams, 7:56.

Posted in emerging history, history, religion, spirituality, theology, writing | 1 Comment

Oden Fest 2011

This past Saturday, Amy and I had our first shared creative event. We celebrated my book release and her CD release at Two Rivers Church in Oak Grove, Oregon. I’m hoping to post some more pictures and such from the event. For now here is a recording of the entire event, for your listening pleasure:

Posted in Amy, audio, emerging theology, Exodus, God We Wouldn't Expect, Holy Spirit, How Long?, It's a Dance, Jesus, missional, personal, professional, religion | 3 Comments

Marriage, Singleness, and Sin part III

Here’s a summary of what I’ve tried to say so far, and if I didn’t say it, here’s what is at the root of what I am planning to say:

  • Sin is about identity, not about the law or rules.

  • Christian conversations about singleness and marriage have tended to emphasize the role and place of sex, with a longtime assumption that the body is lesser or even evil defining what theology has said about these topics.

  • Singleness was seen as a higher calling, when the body is seen as lesser or evil. Because a single person is not, presumably, caving into their physical weaknesses and is pursuing a supposedly higher calling.

  • With the Protestant reformation, all things Catholic were opposed, and this included monasticism. So, marriage was seen as a higher calling, almost from the very beginning, because it contrasted with the Catholic position. This did not necessarily, however, bring with it any new or profound reflections on the role of marriage. Being married was enough of a statement it seems.

  • This means that while Protestants certainly emphasize the place of marriage, they keep up the tradition of not having a lot of depth to what it means to Christian spirituality to be married.

  • Having rejected the spiritual priority of singleness in the Catholic Church, Protestants have, as far as I can tell, absolutely no theology about the role of singleness. It’s not quite a sin, but to be single is, in essence, to be lesser. Something singles know even if they’re not explicitly told this. That’s why the goal of so many singles, and singles groups, is to find someone to marry.

  • The role of theology is to reflect on the practices and on the received teachings in order to find a more coherent understanding of God’s call in our life and to learn how to integrate this call into our lives.

  • In my mind, on the topic of singleness and marriage, theology has almost entirely failed at the above task. There is, really, no coherent theology about marriage and singleness, that I feel reflects what we are supposed to think about this topic. It’s not coherent.

  • Because it’s not coherent, when we try to apply fixes to perceived problems of marriage, singleness, or sex, we run into a huge problem. We only see the symptoms of the deeper problem, but have nothing to really address the underlying issues. When we only see the symptoms, we almost always revert to a very law based position. Marry because its right and God’s plan. Singleness is a curse, a social barrenness which is silently judged. Sex is only allowed in marriage. Thems are the rules.

  • The trouble with the law is that the law has limitations. It either runs out of things to say when new challenges arise. Or, it tries to say too much when new challenges arise. The best, Biblical, example is in the Gospels, where Pharisees accused Jesus of breaking the Sabbath because he healed someone. They built a hedge around the Law, and made all sorts of added rules about what is and what is not specifically allowed within the stated Law. Jesus disputed them. He told them that they didn’t get the underlying goal of the Law, they just cared about the rules. Jesus was right.

  • Marriage was discounted by the Catholic Church, and not allowed to clergy, because it was seen as a lesser state, essentially if not explicitly. The emphasis here is on the sin of the body, the weakness that the flesh demands, something that truly spiritual people are able to overcome. This is wrong.

  • Singleness is discounted in the Protestant Church because it is understood as a lesser state of life–following society’s embrace of status as an indicator of reality. This attitude of prioritizing marriage is, in essence, at the root of consumerism in the church. Don’t let anyone fool you. There’s all kinds of signs that are assumed to be indicators that God loves you more and that having more, doing more, of these things, means you’re more in tune with God. Being married is high on this list. Single people are also suspect because it is assumed they are much more susceptible to sinning–especially sexual sins. The temptations of the flesh are once again a defining part of the theology on marriage.

  • Sin isn’t about the law. That’s missing the point. Marriage and singleness are not issues of sin or holiness. That’s also missing the point. Instead, the Biblical teachings on singleness in the passage from Paul I quoted below, makes singleness and marriage an issue of calling and priorities.

  • In other words, it’s all about identity. It’s finding our identity in ways and thoughts and perspectives that are not grounded in God’s call for our lives. Sin is that which is not God. Sin is an expression of finding meaning in that which is not God. Sin is, in other words, misplaced identity.

  • What is our identity in God? That’s a huge question, but one that does have a distinction when it comes to marriage and singleness.

  • What are the other ways we can establish our identity? We can seek to establish our identity through violence, trying to dominate others forcefully. We can try to establish our identity sexually, by absorbing the identity of others into ourselves or by giving ourselves over to the identity of others. We can find our identity through possessions, money being a tool to give us meaning.

    We can try to establish our identity through food, or drink, or accomplishments, or even through depression or lack. If we use any of these to give us meaning and identity, we fall into sin. Married or not, rich or poor, whatever we are, if these things serve as the basis of our identity, we’re outside the calling of God.

So, what should Christian theology think about marriage or singleness and all the other associated issues? What could serve as the basis of a coherent theology of sexuality, singleness, marriage? I think 1 Corinthians 7 is a good place to start, so I’ll be talking more about that in the next post, and finally–finally!–getting to what I’ve been hoping to say all along.

Posted in church, emerging theology, Jesus, ministry, missional, religion, Scripture, sketch, society, spirituality, theology | Leave a comment