Monday, November 17, 2008

Review of Pagan Christianity

The history of Christian doctrine and ecclesial practice has long been a passion of mine. There is something distinctly unsettling about the way and the why of our corporate actions. Too many doctrines that ignore or downplay passages of Scripture that don't seem to fit. Too many practices that seem well and good, but were added by the powerful to either protect the regular Joe Churchgoer (positively) or to keep the regular from becoming the powerful (negatively). The question that Viola and Barna explore in this small tome (with powerfully small-type footnotes) is "Are we doing Church 'by the book'?" Their answer: no. Unsettling? Yes. Completely convincing? No, but mostly because of internal faults, not faults of evidence.

At the start, Viola and Barna (and the main author seems to be Viola, with Barna there for his research clout--henceforth I'll refer to both of them as "Viola") set a polemic, rather than a neutral tone. A neutral tone would convey something more like an academic feel, which Viola makes clear is not his intention. Such a book would "be read by a few people" (xx). An academic writing style does not necessarily a dull book make, however. Viola often descends into quite harsh and inflated polemic, which is often contracted and softened in the "Delving Deeper" sections that end each chapter. However, rhetoric aside, the writing style betrays an underlying anti-intellectualism that pervades Viola's vision of the Church. He speaks often of how the institutional church of Protestantism depends so much on the intellectual sermon to build spirituality in its listeners--a practice that he and I would both agree has negatively affected the church. He also lambasts seminaries as being too academic (my experience with seminaries, interestingly enough, has tended towards the opposite direction)--opting for what he calls "Spirit-led, open-participatory meetings and non-hierarchical leadership" in the church: non-ordained, non-theologically trained leadership in the Church. I actually don't disagree with him, at least superficially, but I am concerned that a voice of studied reason within one of these meetings would be marginalized as not partaking enough of the "Spirit", where everyone brings a message, a psalm, and whatnot. While it seems that this was Paul's practice, as per the Corinthian correspondence, the first generation believers, even the Gentiles, had a greater grasp and understanding of the Hebrew Scriptures than most church members do today. I've heard highly educated people say some stupid things in church, but that doesn't mean theological education is a bad thing--it needs heavy reform. His system of apprenticeship (the "elders" teaching the youngin's of the congregation) would work as long as the "elders" were properly educated themselves--something he leaves up to the post of the "church-planter apostle" who gets trained by? The answer is unclear, but Viola presupposes some sort of "apostolic succession" (as all Christians do, whether they realize it or not), especially as he says that the ekklesia shouldn't follow the ways of the historical Church, but should follow its teachings (262). Here, though, is where the anti-intellectual bent of the book becomes positively schizophrenic. Viola, for all his historical research, has not combined the historical practice of the church with its historical beliefs. Would the Church have called synods, councils, creedal assemblies without the rise of the one-bishop rule, the college of bishops, and the institution of a clergy-laity system? Would our historical, creedal doctrines have taken the shape they did without the influence of the church-state marriage (both Arianism and Nicene orthodoxy were heavily politicized doctrines which gave the Caesar power of the decisions of the church--an outcome that was quickly regretted, but never alleviated by rethinking the doctrines outside of a pagan, Greco-Roman philosophical milieu)? Probably not. However, he says "the historic creeds can be helpful guideposts to keep a church on track when it comes to the essential teachings of the faith" (262). The problem is that with one goes the other: you cannot reject the teachings of ecclesial practice without calling into question the doctrines that gave rise to them. If one wants cake, one must eat it as well.

The Viola concept of worship also has some issues to be dealt with. Once again, the issue isn't necessarily evidence, but the way it is presented. Peppered throughout the book is that phrase already mentioned: "Spirit-led, open-participatory meetings and non-hierarchical leadership". The problem here is that Viola never really defines what that means. To figure it out, as footnote readers will quickly become weary and wary of, you must read some other book he has written. This tactic is less about saving space as it is about making money: to figure out how Church should really be, you must buy another book. To figure out God's "eternal purpose" other than "saving souls", you must buy another book. Not to mention that Viola never mentions any other books, by scholars perhaps?, that back up his view of the Church or God's eternal purpose. Only his own get highlighted. Of course, theology should never be dictated by the more learned, eh?

The "non-hierarchichal leadership" clause, repeated over and over again to provoke Pavlovian egalitarians to drool, is suspect. He speaks of "informal" elders and leadership, which is what I take his meaning behind "non-hierarchical" to mean, however any sort of leadership, no matter how fluid, is hierarchical. The family is made up of husband-wife-children hierarchy that is, yes, mutually submitting to one another (at least as Paul conceives it). Just because there is mutual submission does not take away that there is hierarchy. God-Jesus-Church also exhibits the same qualities ("God is the head of Christ; Christ is the head of the Church; etc"). Once again, just because Jesus submitted himself to die for the Church does not make an egalitarian situation: he is Lord Messiah, we are his ruling council (a meaning for ekklesia that Viola ignores). The problem he has, as readers of the book no doubt notice, is with a static leadership that creates passivity among the regular Joe Churchgoer (to borrow from the recent pagan presidential race). Fair enough, but the language used to describe what the Church should be needs to be precise and accurate. There is leadership in the people of God and it is hierarchical, just not rigidly so. The orthodox Jewish community, interestingly enough, gives some creedence to this view. The older members (dare we call them elders?) teach the younger members who will take their place in business, religious training, and social activity: it isn't rigid, even the rabbi has an outside job to support himself and he is always teaching other members of the community how to rightly exegete the Scripture and Talmudic tradition. Protestantism could learn a lot from this system, but hierarchy is still there. The question isn't hierarchy or no hierarchy, but which hierarchy?

So far, this has been a fairly negative review. However, I did appreciate the historical research and the clarifications that the book offered. If it were rewritten, it could be a major catalyst for change in the Christian world. However, as it stands, it is self-defeating and will only cause disappointment in the authors and in the lives of those who take up their style of polemic and ambiguous definitions.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

For the Next Four Years

I don't know if you voted today or who will win. If you know me, you know that I don't care about either thing for various reasons. What I do care about, though, is seeing a change in the way we Americans do things. Politics, for what it is worth, is about the ability to extract involuntary taxes from various groups of the populace or the whole of the populace. Civil governments may use the resources for good things or bad things, but the point remains that civil government uses violence to collect taxes (Don't believe me? Then don't pay your taxes next year.) I do not believe that Obama or McCain, or anyone else for that matter, will be able to extract enough taxes or inflate/debase the currency enough to "solve" America's problems without creating massive new ones. So, over the next four years, regardless of who you voted for (or didn't), I'd like to ask you to join me in rethinking what politics are about. The only way to do that isn't really to waste our time discussing the relative merits of Socialist Warmonger A versus Warmongering Socialist B. Instead, during the next four years consider doing one of these things to become more self-governing:

--start a business that your community (within walking distance from your house) needs
--talk to a scared young girl who is pregnant and help her through the adoption system
--help an impoverished person to stand on their own two feet, regardless of whether their poverty is their fault or the systems or just plain bad-luck
--insulate your house
--repair a bike and use it for your small chores and errands and also to reduce your dependence on the Industrial-Military-Medical Complex
--learn to cook and share with your neighbors and the poor
--learn to bake and share with your neighbors and the poor
--learn to sew, mend, darn, resole, or some other task that could help your neighbors save money and reduce the relentless asinine commerce we are so subjected to
--learn to maintain and improve your house/rental property; look up the defintion of usufruct
--(from Kevin Craig) write/speak to a politician once a month about how they can reduce/eliminate taxes/government programs--make sure to tell them how you are reducing your and your neighbors dependence on them!
--grow your own vegetables/fruits, or exercise your consumer preference and power by helping local farmers meet your needs/demands
--help your neighbors/friends/family members settle a conflict peacefully

I'm sure there are other ways that we can act free, even though our freedoms are becoming less and less by the year. I'd love to hear your ideas in the comments.

Monday, October 20, 2008

The Snark, oh the Snark

This last week or so I've been confronted with the need for change. My sense of humor has been getting the best of myself and my friends, starting a slow process of alienation from them. I'd best explain...

Humor for me is a way of being. It is in my blood: my dad and his dad trading barbs, my dad and myself trading barbs, etc. It is our way of communicating. However, I'm noticing that it is also our way of keeping real human interaction to a minimum. When you snark someone, if they are not on the same wavelength as you (as no one really is), then it is going to push them away. I'm thankful enough that one of my friends told me to stop; another friend has drawn away, and I don't blame him.

Humor, in that way, is a means to power. If you tear someone down, even if it is "all in good fun", you position yourself in authority. You are better than them, even in a jocular sense. It is fitting to me, I guess, that this would be the form of power I struggle with. I've spent so much of my life avoided and forswearing power. I was warned by my collegiate advisor to be careful how I led; not to not lead, but to be wary of my own ability to sway people--an ability that at the time I didn't even know I had. Now, years later, I do know that I have that power and not just because I inhabit offices of authority as a business owner or professor. I've had friends tell me that they hang on every word I say, that they've changed their opinions because of mine. I've always been a tad bit confused about that, though, since I rarely actually set out to change anyone's opinion. In all my aversion to power, however, I developed a way to lead. Instead of working out some godly way to lead my family, my friends, my employees, and my students, I've turned to a sick sort of dark and malicious humor to assert dominance. It isn't a question of whether to exercise authority or not, but how authority is going to be exercised. I'm not, by nature and by gifting, a follower, but I've been so uncomfortable with leading that I don't know exactly how to do it rightly and justly.

And so, I set off down a long road of discipleship, always keeping in mind that passage in Matthew: "the Gentiles lord it over their subjects, but it shall not be so among you, whoever wants to be greatest shall become the servant of all." The pagans lord it over through malignant humor and I'm not called to be a pagan. Funny how my means of human connection do the exact opposite. Funnier still how I long ever more piquantly for connection with every barb I trade.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

The End of the Exile

Now that Tom Wright has brought the concept of the exile to the mainstream conversation, there are some questions to be asked. That the "end of exile" is an important piece of salvation in Christ I take for granted. I recommend either Wright's The New Testament and the People of God or Brant Pitre's Jesus, the Tribulation, and the End of the Exile for starters.

The basic thrust is this: the end of the Babylonian (and in Pitre's arguement the Assyrian) exile is necessary for the Messianic "new age" to arrive. That is to say, one of the major promises made to Israel/Judah in the latter Prophets (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, etc.) is the return of these groups to "the land". Recently, while reading David Klingenhoffer's Why the Jews Rejected Jesus, I noticed that this reason for rejection came up often. It is, however, not a problem much dealt with in Christian theology: we tend to look at "return from exile" passages as
Rapture passages.

The problem arises, of course, because the return of either group, did not happen within Jesus' lifetime or Paul's. In fact, Paul, in his missionary journeys, seems to hedge more towards the one Abrahamic family of Jew and Gentile, even to leaving the synangogues (and the Jews therefore) when they responded in disbelief. However, this is balanced with his statements in Romans 9-11, where he speaks of the bringing in of the Gentiles (then followed by the Jews? depends on who you ask) as the "salvation of all Israel".

I think that Jesus, though, does talk about this. Compare Matthew 24:31 with Deuteronomy 30:1-5. The destruction of Jerusalem is tied directly to the return from exile; paradoxical, yet fitting as Jesus has cast Jerusalem into the role of Babylon and Assyria. However, it does still leave the question of how will God return the exiles, especially since "land" and "temple" have been redefined by the Messiah's appearance.

I'm beginning to think that "angels" as Matthew 24 has it is not the best translation. Better to go with "messangers"--Jesus sends out the messengers to gather the exiles unto himself; Paul speaks of the heralding of Christians bringing about the salvation of "all Israel". The exile has begun to end with Jesus; his people bring it to a definitive conclusion by their faithful work through his Spirit. Certainly gives a different look to evangelism.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

John 14:2-6 in Historical Perspective

The Gospel of John is sort of like the highest peak in a mountain range. It is the benchmark by which all other mountains are measured: the mountaineers all boast of their ability to climb it, but few ever accomplish it. In modern American evangelicalism, however, those who have claimed to climb it have stridently asserted its ease for the newcomer to the faith, with many disastrous effects. John is, and will remain, one of the most opaque books in the Christian Scriptures. Almost every dialogue that Jesus has in it ends with confusion: whether Nicodemus, the "crowds", the "Jews/Judaeans", or his own disciples. Confusion seems to be a reigning theme throughout the book--while on the surface many things seem simple, even the "teachers of Israel" struggle with the words and actions of this mysterious Rabbi, whom John would claim as the historical embodiment of God's long-awaited message of salvation. This should warn us enough to not base entire systems of Christology, eccesiology, or soteriology upon the text: we don't understand it enough to do so. However, its mystery has led many to invent and propagate many doctrines that seem to work prima facie with the text, but do not upon further investigation. The text of chapter 14 has suffered much at the hands of neoPlatonic evangelicalism, so it is my focus today.

Looking at the mountain, however, I do not claim that it is easy to climb, or that I have successfully climbed it. I have not. The book largely remains a mystery to me, so I undertake this exegesis with a healthy amount of fear and trepidation: my interpretation of this passage, though I think it works well with the historical background and the overall message of the book, is tentative and subject to revision, both by me and by others more qualified than I. Such is the nature of all theology, even the theology that has long defined our communities of faith.

"In my Father's house are many rooms; if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and receive you to myself; that where I am, you may also be. And where I go you know, and the way you know." Thomas said to him, "Lord we do not know where you are going and how can we know the way?" Jesus said to him, "I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me."

The keys to understanding this passage are two: the Temple and Jesus' Messiahship. That the book of John is primarily concerned with Jesus' claim of "Messiah" (and not, as is often supposed from the prologue, his divinity) is manifest from the end of the book: "...these are written that you may believe Jesus is the Christ, the son of God, and that believing you may have life in his name" (20:31). What exactly that means, however, will take us to what the Messiah was to accomplish.

If the Messiah was supposed to be like David (his son, in fact) or like Solomon or like Zerubbabel in Zechariah, then his main activity was to be the building/restoration of the Temple, and therefore God's throne, for God's people. Any Messiah that did not accomplish a Temple-building action would not be a Messiah, but a fake and a fraud. Hence the charge laid at Jesus' feet in all the Gospels: "Destroy this Temple and in three days I will raise it up." The Messiah would build and outfit the eschatological Temple expected since the days of Isaiah and the other great prophets. Part of this would be the "preparation" of various priestly rooms and vestibules in the Temple precincts--the places where they lived while on duty or cooked the sacrifices, etc. There were, judging from the accounts of Chronicles and Ezekiel (in the vision of the great eschatological Temple) many rooms.

But none of this would matter except that regularly in the Old Testament, the Temple was referred to--not with the Hebrew word for "temple" which was reserved to describe the holy of holies--by the word for "house". In other words, the Temple was "my Father's house".

Jesus, his face set towards the confrontation with the priests and the Pharisees, tells his disciples that he is going to accomplish the great Messianic act of building the true Temple of God. Once he has accomplished that, he will receive his disciples to himself, that is, he will install them as the true priests of God's Temple--not the disinherited Sadducees or the would-be defenders of Israel, the Pharisees. The disciples, because of their allegiance to this King, would be rewarded, much like the priests and aristocrats that followed David were rewarded once he finally had his rule established. So Jesus' statement, "and where I go you know, and the way you know" takes on a cryptic tenor to his disciples: he has filled them in with no details. They do not know the plan of attack, as it were, nor the strategy for rescuing God's Temple from the Romans or the Judaean leadership. So Thomas says, "Lord, we do not know where you are going, and how can we know the way?"

It is here that Jesus brings together his understanding of his vocation and God's eschatological plan. Jesus is not going to restore the Herodian Temple or prepare it for God's worship (which required the sacrifice of animals to "make atonement" for the altar and sanctuary, etc.). That Temple Jesus already judged and condemned in chapter two. Instead, Jesus is going to the cross to symbolically destroy the current Temple and raise a renewed, everlasting Temple in its place. "Destroy this Temple and in three days I will raise it up" referred not to the Jerusalem Temple, as his interlocutors and false witnesses assumed, but rather to his body, his flesh that had been made the dwelling place of God's word, his plan of salvation. Now the "atonement" of God's final dwelling place with man would be secured by the death of the Messiah; the establishment of that Temple as where God would forever meet with his people, the connection between heaven and earth, would happen as that Temple was raised from the grave, never to be defiled (as the other Temples had been) and never to be destroyed. He would receive them to himself after his resurrection, making them cornerstones in his Temple, leaders over his body (the origin, I suppose, of Paul's metaphor).

The way to make this happen though, which the disciples must follow, is the way of Jesus' humiliation and crucifixion. They must follow, they must be faithful to his vision of what the Messiah is and is supposed to do, if they wish to be the priests who appear before the Father: there is no other way.

This interpretive schema, which has many resonances in the following verses ("we will come and make our home with him, etc."), brings together many disconcertingly fragmented bits of traditional Johannine interpretation. The indwelling logos from chapter one, the indwelling Spirit from chapter 14, the many claims to supersede the Herodian Temple and the Saduceean priesthood, and the tension between what was expected of the Messiah and Jesus' cryptic actions. It also pulls the interpretation out of some neoPlatonic and Philo-based worldview that posits Jesus as basically advocating non-Jewish mysticism and world-escapism. Instead, it puts Jesus squarely within the Jewish Scriptures and forces the choices that his disciples would have to make: not "pie-in-the-sky", but rather allegiance in the "here-and-now". Even on an initial ascent up the mountain, one can see that the ending vista is beautiful and even promises glimpses of the Promised Land.

Saturday, August 09, 2008

The Difference Between Desire and Actuality

I want to write.

I want to write about love and hate, freedom and tyranny, theology and everyday life, thoughts I have and thoughts I should have had (and hope aren't copyrighted intellectual property), about education and its enemy schooling, about what makes me tick, about the Church and her Lord and the world it wants--wrongly--to leave behind.

But every time I start, something comes up. A new thought, a twist in the mind that changes how I feel, and the uncomfortable humility needed to express possible wrongness. I need to live under the general impression of rightness, we all do, but wisdom is recognizing the tenuousness of our positions, the need to rethink, to disagree with ourselves a year, ten years, or a few seconds later. But that is hard to do--with writing comes a commanding presence, a sit-up-and-implement to your audience that is difficult to retract. Even though I'm in no realistic position to start riots, revolutions, or rebellions, my words are still heard somewhere, even if it is only in my own head, where I tend to be the most impressionable. And what about my students? I'm not haughty enough to believe that any listen to me a second longer than they have to (many don't listen to me during the seconds required anyway), but what if? The power of the written word is not to be taken lightly, you never know where you are going to be quoted. Teachers have the harsher judgement, so do marketers, the teachers of our age, or at least the ones we actually listen to.

Think about that famous line from Isaiah: "My word shall not return to me void, but accomplish the purpose for which I sent it." The word, the message of God's love for the world so that He would sacrifice His Son, the message made tangible made flesh, the word saying "it is finished" with Isaiah not far in the background.

And yet.

I wrestle, in both my professions, with content-less words. In coffee, since taste is largely (but not totally) subjective, descriptors of coffee, of drinks, is tentative and sometimes plain misleading. The concept of quality has lost almost all meaning due to the collusion of national, lowest-common-denominator chains and poor excuses for independent shops claiming the high ground simply because they are trying to out-Starbucks Starbucks. In religious education, since the Bible has been misused every since the first word was spoken, by charlatans and the righteous alike--injecting meaning in the words to fit a preconceived paradigm inside of seeking the meaning-filling given to the words by the original authors (a process, it must be noted, that never ends, hence our endless obsession with having the words defined once-for-all for us by confessions, creeds, and traditions, themselves a process, woe!). Words thusly treated, whether by "baristas" or "theologians" become meaningless, but still retain power because they can mean whatever the more powerful want them to mean.

And yet.

The meek shall inherit the earth. The haughty, the prideful, the powerful shall be disinherited, not only from the Kingdom of God, but the earth as well, but the world of language as well too. Language is truly powerful when it most closely conforms to the usage of the Kingdom; when the Spirit fills mere human words with power to image the inSpirited Word; when 'yes' means 'yes' and 'no' 'no'.

Language only works for us when we reject the hubris of being God/god/gods and be humans, with all the interpretive difficulties that are part of our created nature. Inheritance implies power, meekness implies the lack of power, but the phrase makes sense since to think of ourselves as the prime meaning-makers of our words brutalizes the speaker and the listener, destroying the power that was sought after; whereas words properly placed edify--construct like the New Jerusalem--speaker and hearer in the presence of God.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

The Beaver Falls Manifesto: Part Two

In part one of the BFM, I said this:

"God has called his people, the Church, to be leaders is restoring this world (and all its parts) to their original created purpose and glory." Part two, I hope, will help to unpack this statement in a practical way. If you are any sort of a regular reader of this blog, then you will know that my idea of what the Church is and is supposed to be about has changed over the years. I am much more "high" Church than before, yet hold tenaciously to the "democratic" impulse behind Ephesians 4. My individualism has in many respects broadened to be cognizant of community, especially that of the Church. Individualism becomes idolatry if it is not subservient to God's sovereignty, which commands and commends care and love towards the Church, the community of God's people in this world. The difficulty with doing this, though, is that it is too abstract. Oftentimes, loving the saints means inaction and sentiment. If the Church is placed, though, is neighborhooded, then that love can take great form and can overflow into the mission of the Church--the healing of the world, starting with the neighborhoods and cities we are in here and now. With that said, here now are some propositions for the second part of the Beaver Falls Manifesto. As always, these are incomplete thoughts to be refined and expanded in community dialogue and action.

I. If the Church is to lead the way in the God-ordained restoration of Creation here in Beaver Falls, it must become both more unified and more diversified. More unified in that individual churches must recognize their unity in Christ, based on his historical work of redemption. Regardless of what we think about the fineries of theology or the subtleties of practice, what we are and what our mission is is based on the death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. More diversified in the sense that our churches must become more neighborhooded as their primary concern. The old parish model, long abandoned in this area (and in Protestantism generally), has much merit to commend it. Churches, as much as possible, should serve the needs of the neighborhoods immediately surrounding them, not the needs of far-off places. As much as possible, our membership rolls should reflect the local demographic and be filled with local addresses. This is not to say that outside members should not be accepted (such would be foolish), but that those from outside the walkable area around the church should be trained and equipped to set up a community church from their area, or given the tools to reform wayward churches that are already there.

II. The Church must expand its concept of its mission to be more in line with that of Romans 8 and similar passages. The Church's job, its God-given mission, is not "saving of souls" in a dualistic sense, that is, of "getting people to heaven." The Church's mission, as always, is to be the agent through which "Your kingdom come, Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven." Jesus has already done the great eschatological act of inaugurating the kingdom through his death, resurrection, and enthronement; our job is to continue, by his Spirit, the work of restoration through the proclamation of the gospel. The gospel comes with power, the power to see things changed, not to try and escape. The goal is not to escape to heaven, but to bring the order, the shalom, of heaven into the earth in anticipation of the Day when both heaven and earth shall be renewed.

III. The Church, as a neighborhooded people, has claims that it may rightly make on its covenanted members. (Here I must be careful, as I do not believe that the unwieldy and bloated bureaucracy of much of the "Church" is a true representation of what the Church really is). The work of the Church, the rebuilding and restoration of its local areas through its neighborhood churches (note the capitalization distinction), is more important than school or athletics or business. In the life of the people of God (what I mean by Church) all of these loyalties find their true expression in Christ--the ultimate loyalty lies in Christ alone. However, in this loyalty to Christ alone, we see Scripturally the place of the Church by his side. This is where the distinction between Church and church becomes vitally important. The Church is the life of the people of God, that collection of all God's saints, the ones who are called by Him to do His will on earth. The church is the local body of believers, whether in a neighborhood, a presbytery, a denomination, or a sect (Catholic, Protestant, Orthodox, what have you). The church is the institution; the Church is the people. In that sense, the specific action of the church (corporate worship) must not claim superiority over the total lives of the Church. A fine distinction, but an important one nonetheless.

More to Come...

Sunday, July 06, 2008

Science V. Faith

The old division of science against faith doesn't work. "Faith," properly understood, is just another term for allegiance, for loyalty. The modern scientific worldview itself calls out for loyalty, not unlike the various Christian scientific perspectives. As Dooyeweerd or Clouser or Seerveld might suggest, all knowledge comes out of a faith commitment--an allegiance--to some god or God or gods. The question, rather, is "hubris v. mystery" of which both science--the human study of the Creation, and religion--the human expression of Creator worship, can partake. In the public debate about evolution and creationism, religion is seen by many as the embattled, somewhat quaint, needs-to-be-defended part against the ruthless, "atheistic" science. However, it wasn't that long ago that various "religious" faiths battled all over Europe for the domination of regular people trying to live their lives. France, as I've heard from missionaries, still carries the scars. Religious hubris, whether "Christian" or "scientific", is still a plague.

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Maybe wisdom is found when we realize that regardless of how independent we become, we still need others.

A Modern Tragedy

I see college students all around me asking the same question over four (+) years. It is the question of career and calling. Many come to college (like myself) to get clarity and direction. Many leave searching for that same clarity and direction (like myself). They are spending money and time in search of a career that will call out to them, saying, "I'm important! Devote your time, energy, and life to me!" But, in our industrial and informational economy, most careers do not have that sort of voice, but instead call out "Comfort, suburbia, and 'disposable' income!" even at the expense of pleasure from work or working close to where you live or coming anywhere close to any reasonable vision of the good life. The tragedy is the disconnection to people or place.

Professions, of course, have their place. We must have great training in various ways of work, etc. (whether or not they all, or even most, need a college degree is another point altogether) but without some sort of higher allegiance to human things the professions are essentially rootless, which is to say, mercenary. Luther called this sort of wandering the "masterless men" and not in a good way.

The various professions, which seem to expand every year, used to be rooted in community. If a community needed a pastor, or a lawyer, or a doctor, then a young person would take up the call, receive education, and return to the community older, wiser, and able to take up the calling. Now, for various reasons, the community needs are not met, much less even considered. This is not to say, though, that the community one is raised in is the community one is called to. But it is to say that the concept of 'calling' is properly located with people and places and only secondarily to profession. Where the call is to, or to whom it is, is the most important thing to determine--from there an adequate sense of what must be done to serve these two can much more easily come into focus.

I have a friend, a good friend, who embodies this. He and his family are called to the formal ministry because of their calling to serve the people of God and their home in Vermont. Currently they reside here in Beaver Falls, but always with an eye towards whom and where their calling comes from. I have often wished that their place of calling would be here in Beaver Falls, but I am not the one to determine that. However, their sense of whom and where gives drive and passion to what they are doing. I know, when I felt called to the ministry (many moons ago), that I quickly dried up under the pressure of having a 'calling' and no people or place. Now that I am working in community building I have a much clearer sense of what I am supposed to do. My role in my church (dare I say parish?) has expanded much more as of late, especially since the opening of BFC&T. My role at the shop has expanded as we try to improve the life of our community through it. Without the people here or this place, though, our shop would be reduced to the marketing-heavy, soulless coffeeshops that litter our strip malls and highways.

People and place, that is to say 'community', are necessary for human flourishing and shalom. Without them, the root dries and wandering commences. Bedouin societies aside (for they are a different category altogether), wandering is not a good thing. It may be necessary for a short while, but our society (and religion, unfortunately) have made wandering the rule, not the exception. Rootless plants cannot survive long and neither can rootless people.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Hamlet the Danish

Why is it that, when searching for a decent cheese danish recipe, the first line in all of them is "8oz can of premade crescent rolls"? If I wanted premade, I'd get it at the grocery store, which is about my opinion of every recipe that calls for some brand name end-product.

Anyone got a from-scratch recipe they care to share?

Sunday, January 13, 2008

You Don't Need A Teacher

It wasn't that long ago that the majority of people were not college-educated, or even high-school educated. However, now I hear more and more from students, friends, and even my own inner monologue, that "a Master's Degree is needed for a good job" or, the more cynical and depressing, "you need a Doctorate to get anywhere." The first questions, of course, are where "anywhere" is or what a "good job" is: the answer to these will reveal your biases and inner dualisms. The next, even more important, question is why we are letting this be the case. Why should a Bachelor's degree even be necessary for all but the most specialized tasks (engineering, laboratory science, etc.)? Why should our educational system be under this antiquated system of credits and hours, when that doesn't work for skill mastery such as music or cooking? We have, in fact, so inflated the status and importance of teachers so that earning equivalent degrees to them becomes more important than mastering the subjects and skills that they are purportedly offering. In the end, as I've said before, our educational system is not about education, it is about certification. Only by grasping this will any positive change be possible to the system.

It is not lie that many (if not most, if not all) students are not prepared for college (or for what college is supposed to do). Many come in not knowing why they are there, or what they are trying to get certified for, or (worse) what they are called to do for their neighbors, themselves, or their God. If 12 years of guided teaching hasn't shown them, we should wonder whether four (to six, to eight, to twelve...) more years of the same is really going to clarify things. By the time a person is eighteen, having another teacher isn't the answer, it's part of the problem--and I say that as a teacher of eighteen and nineteen year olds.

I can say this out of experience. In many ways, I can be compared to J.D. on the show Scrubs: I'm always looking for that mentor, that teacher, to come along and make it all better, all easy, and to form me professionally and as a person. While I believe that mentors are indispensable, the dependence on them, so much that I went to grad school to "be back in the classroom" is not only unhealthy, it is idolatrous. The need to be graded (a success indicator, but not the same as success) still drives many to this day. However, as graduation used to indicate, at some point a student goes from 'student' to 'graduate', that is, an independent actor able to take what they have learned and apply it towards their lives and callings. With education as certification, however, we have tons and tons of students who have no idea how to take their education to their lives, callings, or even careers--hence the need for further certification to show that you cannot produce and independent thought, but must rely on teachers to "show you the ropes (again)."

This isn't to say that teachers are to be blamed for it all; many teachers are caught in the same trap, but war against it. I've thankfully had many such teachers who instilled in me (whether intentionally or not) a desire to see things differently. If you are a student who wants to master your subject, the best things you can do to learn are to learn outside the classroom for the majority of your learning. Get in the library and read the history of your discipline, read your Bible, and analyze the foundations of your field. Start compiling areas where you see indiscrepancies, where former teachers seem to have fumbled or fallen into idolatry, and bring them up to your teachers. Many teachers, especially at State institutions, view their job as producing "new research": bring holes and problems with "old research" and challenge them (humbly and gracefully) to bring harmony. This will be hard--it is something I've avoided with all my teachers for fear of reprisal. But without problems, no paradigm can be changed.

It is true, education starts with parents (who aren't certified) to bring children into self-education, and sometimes teachers take the role of parents in guiding and certifying (which isn't a bad thing in itself), but education of anyone over the age of thirteen relies (and has always relied on) the individual themselves. The only way that you (or I) are going to get educated is if we take the initiative to actually do the work, try things out, and even fail...a lot. You cannot learn to cook from watching TV or reading cookbooks, even if they provide invaluable information and technique, nor can a cook do the work of food prep for you; you've got to make the muffins, the steaks, and the wontons if even you can call yourself free.