Loyalty, love, and stability

I’ve been reading quite a bit lately about monastic traditions, including some reading related to a recent and ongoing movement that has been dubbed “new monasticism” (see also here and the Schools for Conversion web site). Missio Dei, founded by Mark Van Steenwyk of Jesus Manifesto is an example of a self-consciously new monastic community.

I just finished reading Inhabiting the Church by John Stock, Tim Otto, and Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, a book that explores the nature of vows in the church and particularly the threefold Benedictine vow of obedience, conversion, and stability “from the perspective of people who grew up in the Protestant free-church tradition”, as they repeatedly say throughout the book. While the first two aspects of the vow are worth exploring and highly valuable for those of us who want to seek Jesus faithfully in postmodernity, I want to mostly talk about the third now – stability.

Two biblical words that resonate throughout the whole book are the Hebrew chesed and the Greek agape. Chesed is usually rendered “loyalty”, though more traditional translations often use “lovingkindness”. Agape is, as many of you probably know, a word for “love”, rendered as “charity” in many older translations, that specifically refers to a kind of self-denying love that gives without expecting anything in return. Chesed is a loyalty that transcends concern for one’s own self, the kind of loyalty that is often ascribed to God in the Old Testament – and it is charged to Israel to be a people of chesed for God and for each other in their ways of living. It is perhaps most memorably demonstrated in the story of Ruth, who demonstrates chesed for Naomi to the point where she is willing to leave her home and lose her familial identity in order to love Naomi. Ruth’s story is one with deeply subversive potential, and I will try and blog about that more in the future, but let me say for now that most scholars see the book in its finished form as post-exilic, and so possibly written as a counter to the nationally isolationist tendencies found in Ezra-Nehemiah. The faithfulness of a foreigner bursts out of the prominent categories of Israelite tradition, particularly the traditions of the law and wisdom, and it is this faithfulness that produces a lineage resulting in King David and his messianic dynasty.

Agape is likewise subversive. In a world where we are defined as consuming beings and where all material items, people, potential vocations, services, etc. are seen primarily as objects for consumption, to love another without expecting any return, simply because of her/his intrinsic worth as a human being created in God’s image is a truly radical act.

It seems that even from our birth we are steeped in the Disney mantra “follow your dreams wherever they take you”, regardless of whether that place is near or far from home. In our Christian culture we even glorify this impulse by celebrating missionaries and individual preachers, teachers, and workers who travel far and wide to “do God’s work”. Now, I’m not saying all these people are necessarily wrong, but does it not occur to us that perhaps we have so deeply imbibed this mindset that we might be missing the riches of the Gospel in our places by looking ahead to the next? To put a new spin on an old proverb, the grass is greener on the other side because that person spends his time cultivating the lawn instead of looking around for new and ostensibly better things.

Benedictines take a vow of stability, to live in the monastery until they die, only leaving upon permission of the abbot, generally for the business of the monastery. As an oblate, I too will take a vow of stability – not to live in the monastery, nor necessarily even to be rooted to one place until I die, but for stability of heart. The other week at our oblate chapter meeting here in Evansville Father Brendan came to speak to us about the vow of stability. He made one of the deepest statements I have ever heard, and one upon which I will continue to ruminate for years to come: “If you’re not finding God where you are, you’re not going to find him somewhere else.” What if we Christians were so committed to finding God where we are that it would take the voice of God specifically calling us to send us somewhere else? What if we rejected the individual American dream of prosperity and adventure and instead processed our thoughts, feelings, and desires with a community of fellow Jesus-seekers to discern together whether a possible course of action was really God-inspired, or more of a distraction?

The vow of stability is rooted in chesed, loyalty that puts the community of believers, the body of Christ, and the voice of God speaking to us in our place above our own easily-manipulated desires, thoughts, and feelings; it is based on agape, love that counteracts the individualistic consumerist orthodoxies of our society. If we can find true stability in God the insecurities of our time will have no power over us, and we will be enabled to follow God in any time and place, if only we can follow God where and when we are now.


Christ-archy and “faithful improvisation”

I do not believe that one has to be anarchist to be a faithful follower of Jesus.

Let me say that again: I do not believe that one has to be anarchist to be a faithful follower of Jesus.

I say that lest I be accused of “theological” divisiveness over my “political” beliefs, as I have been accused in the past. While I do not believe the “theological” can so easily be divided from the “political”, we must nevertheless remember that we do live in a world that not only makes such a distinction quite easily, it does so as a basic tenet of modern social thinking. Regardless of the practical and historical problems with such a distinction, it is part and parcel of the world we inhabit, and a good many people who sincerely desire to follow Jesus make the distinction.

I’m going to take that statement a step further now – I believe one can be a participant in partisan American politics and be a faithful follower of Jesus. The higher one goes up the ladder, from voter to local office to state office to the various levels of national office, the more difficult I believe it becomes, but I do not think it impossible. I do think there is a basic contradiction between the things expected of one as a public official and the expectations Jesus has for his followers, but I am not the one to ultimately judge an official’s state of righteousness before God. The truth is that it’s doubtful there is any one mode of political engagement that is absolutely faithful – every modern way of engagement is likely compromised at some point or another, and that includes the method of not engaging (which I tend to think is practically impossible anyway, but some have tried).

But, and I know you saw the but coming, that does not mean there are not ways of existing politically that are MORE compatible with being a follower of Jesus than are others. For example, being a neoconservative who supports using military force to implement “free trade” policies, using the WTO club to pull the rug out from under local economies, and gutting social programs in favor of corporate welfare is (I would say) much less compatible with being a follower of Jesus than other ways of engagement. While I believe that an anarchic approach to Christianity is the most faithful mode of engagement in the present world, I do not wish to kick my sisters and brothers who favor other political views to the curb. I do pray daily that God would show us all the right path, which should not be confused with praying that God would show THEM the right path (though if I’m honest I’ll say the thought crosses my mind from time to time), but I do not believe in excommunicating someone just because s/he is a Republican/Democrat/Green/Socialist/etc.

The truth is that no one today can claim to have it “all right” with regards to how s/he applies Scripture to today’s world. Are there approaches that are more fruitful than others? Absolutely. But the fact that we are in many ways quite far removed from the worlds in which the Bible was written, with the pervasive codes of honor/shame, limited goods, patron/client, reciprocity, dyadistic personality, and so on written into the worldview just as deeply as unlimited goods and individualism are written into ours.

N.T. Wright takes what I think is a very helpful approach to the Bible in this regard. First, he points out (as does Robert Webber in his excellent Ancient-Future Faith) that the early Christians did not begin their faith with the Bible (they didn’t have it all put together yet!), they began with Jesus. The purpose of Scripture is to witness to Jesus and to provide the church with the paradigm for life in the world as followers of Jesus. He conceives of Scripture as a 5-act drama with an epilogue at the end. The 5 acts are 1) Creation; 2) Fall; 3) The story of Israel from Abraham to Exodus to the conquest to the monarchy to its corruption to the exile to the return and into the intertestamental period; 4) Jesus’s life and ministry to his death on the cross and resurrection; 5) The history of the Church, which includes Acts and the Epistles. The epilogue is Christ’s second advent when he comes to fully establish the Kingdom.

The interesting thing is that we only have the first scene or two in the fifth act… and then a long blank spot until the second coming. We are, in fact, writing the rest of the fifth act, which is quite a long fifth act but considering that even if you’re a young earth creationist there were at least 4000 years from the creation to Jesus’ first coming we may have a ways to go yet, as we anticipate the end of the story in its epilogue. Wright maintains that, in the meantime, we practice what he calls “faithful improvisation”. We know what has come before us in the story; we know how the story ends. With that information, we seek to inhabit the story faithfully, finding our place between what has been and what will be. Wright lays this all out in very easy-to-read-yet-profound terms in The Last Word.

Because we are improvising in performing the next part of the story we inhabit, it is NOT ok to simply do whatever we want and put the “Christian” stamp on it. We must drink deeply from the wellspring of living water and dig in to the words we have to guide us, the story of God’s interaction with the world through Israel, Jesus, and the church. But because we are, fundamentally, improvising, I believe my place is to call others who call themselves Jesus-followers to better understand our place in the story we inhabit even as I am trying to understand it better myself, not to tell them they’ve got it all wrong. I desire to point to the ways Jesus and his earliest followers were radical within their contexts as inspiration for us, that we may likewise be radical within ours. I wish for my story to be a part of this grand story of Scripture, and for my life to be defined by it.

I invite and encourage you to come with me.

What Would Jesus Deconstruct? 2

In the last installment of What Would Jesus Deconstruct? I looked at Caputo’s brief account of Charles Sheldon’s book In His Steps and the question of “What would Jesus do?”. He finished the section by saying the question hinges on the one word, “would”, and the “would” draws us into the realm of hermeneutics. It is at this point he calls upon deconstruction, which he has called “radical hermeneutics” in other works.

Caputo points out that the heroes of Sheldon’s book are people who “renounce the profit-making motives that drive capitalism and give up luxury and success for the sake of living among and working on behalf of the poorest of the poor” (p. 25). While the current atmosphere of globalized capitalism recalls the “Gilded Age” in which Sheldon wrote, “the original force of Sheldon’s question has been turned upside-down in the barrage of bracelets and televangelists preaching personal wealth as a sign of God’s approval.”

With this in mind he recalls the opening scene of Sheldon’s book, a fairly pastoral scene (literally) in the church where “the best dressed, most comfortable-looking people” of the town have gathered – when a destitute, dying bum breaks onto the scene, turning the situation upside down – turning harmony into cacophony.

Caputo asks “what would Jesus do – if he ever showed up some Sunday morning? Turn things upside down.” The last first, the meek and poor inheriting the earth, the hungry given good things and the rich sent away empty. Peace? Not peace, but the sword. Family values? No, rather hating father and mother for the sake of the kingdom. Instead of confirming us in our ways and congratulating us for our virtue “we would stand accused” having ignored the plank in our own eye for the speck in that of our neighbor.

Or, to put things in deconstruction terms, “into the sphere of the ‘same’ (the familiar, the customary, the business-as-usual of Sunday services) bursts the ‘advent’ or the ‘event’ of the ‘other,’ of the ‘coming of the other,’ which makes the same tremble and reconfigure” (p. 26). Sheldon opens the novel with a scene of deconstruction.

Caputo says the “event” of Jesus is that of a deep deconstructive force. Whereas deconstruction has been called the hermeneutics of the death of God, he presents it as the hermeneutics of the kingdom, as an interpretive move that helps get at Jesus’ prophetic nature. Jesus breaks into the 1st-century Jewish scene and takes a stand with the “other”. Deconstruction delivers the shock of the “other” to the forces of the “same”, which could also be put in terms of delivering the good, the “ought to be” to the force of being, the “what is”. In this sense, Caputo says deconstruction brings good news to the church – one could say it brings the Gospel to us in the form of that which turns our world upside-down.

The other in deconstruction is not a devil, but rather a figure of truth. “Things get deconstructed by the event of truth that they harbor, an event that sets off unforeseeable and disruptive consequences”, which may be enough to get the event of truth labeled as a devil (or, for that matter, crucified).

What Would Jesus Deconstruct? 1

Before beginning a discussion of the book proper, it’s worth mentioning that What Would Jesus Deconstruct? is the second book in the Church and Postmodern Culture series from Baker Academic. Caputo’s volume comes after James K.A. Smith’s quite helpful and eminently readable (that is, intended for a non-specialist audience) Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism? Taking Derrida, Lyotard, and Foucault to Church. Smith undertook a brief analysis of key aspects of the three philosophers on whose symbolic shoulders stand the philosophical and cultural movement(s) known as postmodernism/ity and how, rather than undermining it, their ideas can actually support the church – particularly in helping to reveal the ways the church has become captive to modernism/ity.

From the Series Preface, by Smith:

“Current discussions in the church – from emergent “postmodern” congregations to mainline “missional” congregations – are increasingly grappling with philosophical and theoretical questions related to postmodernity… Postliberalism – a related “effect” of postmodernism – has engendered a new, confessional ecumenism wherein we find nondenominational evangelical congregations, mainline Protestant churches, and Catholic parishes all wrestling with the challenges of postmodernism and drawing on the culture of postmodernity as an opportunity for rethinking the shape of our churches” (p. 7).

With that in mind, it is worth recounting here that the subtitle of Caputo’s book is “The Good News of Postmodernism for the Church”. For Caputo (and unlike many believers, both “conservative” and “liberal”), the postmodern challenge to modernity is good news, challenging the ways the church has become entrenched in narratives that carry it away from its calling as a people faithful to Jesus.

Caputo opens the book with Charles Sheldon, a turn-of-the-century Kansas pastor. Sheldon is little-known among modern evangelicals, but they’re likely familiar with the subtitle to his 1896 book In His Steps: “What Would Jesus Do?”. It may surprise people today to discover that this book, whose subtitle has become an epitome of Christian cliché, was one of the major inspirations for the Social Gospel movement in the early 20th century. Caputo notes that this flies in the face of the Christian Right’s tendency to use the question as a kind of weapon against those who disagree. It also goes against the question’s having been made a bastion of Christian consumerism, since the question of what Jesus would do repeatedly comes up when people in the book are faced with a situation that requires them to deal directly with the needs of the poor and destitute, those who had been left behind by the spirit of progress and the ideals of capitalism and individualism that were prevalent at the time.

For Caputo, the question is “a very tricky two-edged sword” (p. 19), and one that should just be used against others but, citing Levinas, “put with ourselves in the accusative”, question ourselves and our relationship to the suffering world, instead of using a “beam, as in a two-by-four, to slam others” (p. 24). “Everyone wants Jesus on their side”, he says, instead of the other way around. Caputo argues that the question itself has no bite unless it is also biting us – otherwise it tends to be a way to get others to do what we want them to do, but doing so under the cover of Jesus.

Caputo then takes a brief look at the word “would” within the question. “Would”, he says, carries all the weight in the question, and draws us into the question of hermeneutics. He quotes Nietzsche, who said “there are no facts, only interpretations” (p. 25), and says the question itself poses another question – that of how much work can actually get done once the question’s complexity is considered. It is here that he calls upon deconstruction for help.

What Would Jesus Deconstruct? (introduction)

The latest entry in the Church and Postmodernism series from Baker Academic Press is What Would Jesus Deconstruct? from noted deconstructionist/philosopher/theologian John D. Caputo, professor of Religion and Humanities and professor of philosophy at Syracuse. I got my copy in the mail today, read the first chapter, and was very nearly blown away. I’m only one chapter into it, but I really think this may be one of the best books I’ve read in the past couple of years – so I’m going to do a series summarizing and commenting on it.

Caputo believes deconstruction can both serve the church and call it to be what it is supposed to be as the representative people of God on earth. After some exploratory comments he starts with some comments on Charles M. Sheldon’s social Gospel classic In His Steps (the book from which the love it/hate it question “What would Jesus do?” comes) and from there enters into a conversation between Derrida, the Bible, Dostoyevsky, church tradition, and the rest of the world.

One of Caputo’s first assertions may surprise some folk who are used to the idea of deconstruction as a kind of negative dialectic, but he says that first off deconstruction is a hermeneutic of truth, not of its relativization, but of its realization. While any expression of truth that exists in language or in societal structures is by nature deconstructible, truth itself is not deconstructible. It is particularly when these small-t truths masquerade as Absolute Truths that they are subject to deconstruction. Furthermore, deconstruction is not a kind of power play that is done to a situation; rather, situations deconstruct themselves due to the instability between what is and what is presented.

As the series progresses I will present and engage Caputo’s arguments starting with the beginning of the book and ending with the end (though I suppose this convention of reading may itself be deconstructible). What would Jesus deconstruct? Caputo’s first answer to the question may surprise you – he says Jesus would deconstruct the church.

Next time: we dive into chapter one.

The Qaddish and the Lord’s Prayer

The Qaddish, named from the Hebrew qadosh, “holy”, is one of the central prayers in Jewish worship. It is very old, going back to pre-Christian times. The Qaddish, in one of its shorter versions (from an ancient Jewish inscription) says:

Magnified and sanctified be his great name in the world He created according to His will. May He establish His kingdom during your life and during your days, and during the life of all the house of Israel, speedily and in the near future. And say Amen.

There are also other variations, including one for Rabbis to pray in their training, ones for funeral and burial rites, and others (the above is actually a half-Qaddish).

As you can see, this is quite similar to the first part of the Lord’s Prayer, and indeed many scholars have called the Lord’s Prayer Jesus’ version of the Qaddish. A more literal translation of the opening to the Lord’s prayer than our liturgical forms tend to utilize is instructive here (actually mine is probably more like the Amplified Bible than anything else):

Our father, the one who is in the heavens,
May your name be sanctified (or made/known as holy);
May your kingdom come (or appear, or come into being),
Your purpose (or will) come into being (or be accomplished, or be done)
Just as in heaven, so also upon the earth.

If Jesus did adopt the Qaddish for his prayer, from where does the rest come, all the stuff about forgiving and daily bread and the like? Scot McKnight, a leading emerging church theologian, proposes a solution in The Jesus Creed.

McKnight refers to Mark 12:28-32 as the “Jesus Creed”, his opening of the Shema to include Leviticus 19:18’s command of loving your neighbor. The Shema (Deut. 6:4-5) was the fundamental text of Jewish monotheism, and devout Jews would recite it twice a day (the Qaddish was also recited multiple times daily along with other prayers). McKnight speculates that Jesus may have had his disciples recite the Shema with Lev. 19:18 added when they prayed. Jesus expanded the fundamental command of Judaism to include not only allegiance to and love of God, but also love of neighbor – the basic duty of life extending both vertically AND horizontally. The inclusion of both love of God and neighbor in the Jesus Creed mirrors the two sections of the Lord’s Prayer, and McKnight argues that Jesus is essentially doing the same thing with the Qaddish that he did with the Shema – expanding it to include dimensions of God’s glory and of his kingdom and also of life together based on love of neighbor in a community dedicated to living God’s kingdom as reality. In other words, as he says, if you love God you pray the first part of the prayer, and if you love your neighbor you pray the second.

Each of the petitions of the Lord’s prayer is subversive and perhaps even revolutionary: God is not distant but he his our Father; it is his name that should be exalted on the earth and not the name of any other ruler or power; for his reign to be fully manifest in this world, displacing the reign of other would-be lords. These fairly jump out at us from the page, but the petitions in the “love your neighbor” section are equally explosive.

To pray for our daily bread echoes the experience of Israel in the wilderness as God provided manna – just enough for each day, with no hoarding possible, no way for anyone to gain greater influence or power through God’s gracious gift. This undermines the nature of an affluent culture by declaring trust in God, not accumulation, as basic to our way of having needs met. To pray to be released from our debts as we release those in debt to us is an outworking of the principle of Jubilee that subverts a society based on debt and unequal economic power relations. To pray to be not lead into temptation but delivered from evil (or the Evil One) stands as a bulwark both against the tendencies of an oppressive society to call those who could to join the oppressors as well as the tendency of the oppressed to undertake violent revolution.

For the kingdom, the power, and the glory are yours, forever and ever. Amen.

Jesus Manifesto to relaunch 10/22 as collaborative effort

Mark van Steenwyk’s blog, The Jesus Manifesto, exploring how to follow Jesus in the context of American Empire is on a short hiatus while he gears up for its new collaborative future. He will continue to write as much as he has before, but now instead of a solo voice it’s going to be more of a chorus, I guess you could say. I’ve been a longtime admirer of the blog, and now I will be one of the contributors, having committed to posting at least biweekly. I’ll have to sort out a bit what’s going to be the difference between my posting there, my posting here, and my posting at the Submergent site, a conversation for emerging church-influenced Anabaptists (or Anabaptist-influenced Emergents), but it should be good. I highly recommend adding both sites to your feed reader.