Sunday, January 29, 2012

Faith and Fundamentalism

I have been accused on occasion of speaking, writing, and preaching as if I’m right and everyone else is wrong concerning issues of religion (and politics) (and everything else). That is probably so. It is the nature of declaring oneself, and one person’s persuasion is another’s elitism or fundamentalism. I do like to raise questions and would like to help others think through questions of faith and fact, but I guess I ‘m not very good at being gentle in these ways.

I am adamant against claims of Truth. I always distrusted such claims, but when I visited Northern Ireland in 2000, I became entrenched. What I saw and heard there, from Presbyterians and from their history (not the official teachings of the denomination there) was so serious that I will emphasize it here: CLAIMS  TO  TRUTH  ARE  OPPOSED  TO  PEACE. Truth leads to discrimination against and ultimately killing people because they disagree with the teachings of those with power. Simple truth. Maybe that one has a capital “T.” There can be no peace among peoples if they are claiming Truth over acceptance or at least tolerance of other beliefs.

Marcus Borg has accused some progressives of  “fact fundamentalism” or imposing enlightenment values on the Bible. He says this of Richard Dawkins and other “new” or “angry” atheists of recent years, and he said it in the ‘90's about certain scholars of the Jesus Seminar. His argument is that Biblical writers did not seek scientific evidence for truths, and we should not expect them to do so. We need to return to experiencing faith that allows the Bible to be true without being literally or factually true.

Borg actually helps many people with this by offering a definition of “faith” as “seeing.” Faith isn’t just assent to doctrines or even trust in God or Jesus. Faith is adopting a particular way of seeing the world, life in it, and the cosmos. Faith is a worldview. Science then is a “faith.” What I had done as a young man was to adopt Jesus’ way of seeing the world, as expressed in his teaching and way of dying.

The Jesus Seminar and I lost a great scholar and friend when Daryl Schmidt, then Chair of the Religion Dept. at Texas Christian U. In Ft. Worth, died suddenly in 2006. For the last six years of his life, Daryl led the Paul Seminar, specifically translation of Paul’s letters, now published in . The Authentic Letters of Paul: A New Reading of Paul's Rhetoric and Meaning The huge problem addressed in this "Scholars' Version" of the text is how to read Paul without reading him through Augustine, Luther, and Calvin.

One of Daryl’s most important contributions, I thought, was the insight that Paul did NOT say that “a person is justified...through faith in Christ.” (Galatians 2:16) Daryl notes that English translations up to 1881 (including the King James) translated this “the faith of Christ.” This Paul uses in arguing from the parallel “trust/faithfulness of Abraham.” (Romans 4:12,16) We are not asked to “believe” in (or “on”!) Jesus, but in the words of the Cotton Patch Gospels, we are “to live the way of Jesus.” It is this philosophical wisdom not the pre-scientific worldview of Jesus that attracts many of us, e.g., “The rain falls on the just and the unjust.”

Actually, the fundamentalism of the late 19th century that causes such grief today grew out of a marriage of orthodoxy and the enlightenment at Princeton Seminary. Archibald Alexander, Charles Hodge, and Benjamin Warfield chose not to fight rationalism but to make literalism rational. To believe in scripture means that it has to be "true" even in the senses put forward by the sciences.

Alvin Plantinga, philosopher from Notre Dame, has become popular with his book, Where the Conflict Really Lies. He has a rationalist argument against “naturalism,” the view that there is a single, non-supernatural reality. Plantinga also has adopted the view that philosophy doesn’t matter (!) because there are no foundations in philosophy to which we might point. I heard him on NPR today and understood him to be calling in a deus ex machina to explain why or how Jesus happened to perform so many miracles as are recorded in the Gospels. Anyone who can logically argue a case for Jesus performing miracles deserves some sort of prize.

Dawkins says “We believe in evolution because the evidence supports it, and we would abandon it overnight if new evidence arose to dispute it. No real fundamentalist would ever say anything like that...” Naturalists or evolutionists do not assert that there is no god; only that there is no evidence for a god. The problem really lies in the claims of revelation, from hearing the voice of God directly or through scripture. These things “make sense” within the circle of faith (belief in the fundamentals of supernaturalism, revelation, and divine beings). Again, I say that the language of religion is metaphor and myth. If everyone in the room understands that we are speaking in those ways, I am willing to expound the Christ myth passionately. Unfortunately, everyone doesn’t, so I am inclined to play the anti-fundamentalist fundamentalist.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Christian Century Plugs Blog!

This week I am proud to pin the logo of “Christian Century Blogs” to the right side of this page. I wish I could say that they adopt only the best blogs, but their criteria was more along the lines of: Have you been around six months or more? Do you post at least once a week? And, Do you talk about theology? Here I am.

I have been reading CC since July 1968 when I first moved to Chicago. (Maybe they rewarded me for my faithful long-term subscription!) In the late ‘80's when I returned to Chicago, I served on the Communications Committee of the Church Federation of Chicago with James Wall, then publisher. Sometimes we met in his offices on S. Dearborn, in a classic early 20th century architectural gem. (I can’t remember the name of the building on the south side of the Van Buren Street El. That's the library neighborhood now. I miss Chicago architecture.)

Jim Wall has a blog in which he shares his experience and wisdom, especially abut the Middle East and the religious and diplomatic snake pit that it is, and how the U.S. has done so much to stir it up. When I told Jim in his office that I had been reading CC since 1968, he surprised me by saying, “Then you don’t believe in the virgin birth.” I replied that I had never believed in the virgin birth. He replied that he had to have had something to do with my liberal outlook, and he had.

CC is not what it was. It has become more slick, and it broadened its base. By becoming less “predictably liberal,” it avoided the death that came to Christianity and Crisis. Harvey Cox had said that about C&C. I still read CC but I am continually disappointed when the underlying belief in the supernatural comes through. Now the virgin birth is simply assumed. Martin Kahler wins. (I will blog on him sometime.)

The CC is guilty of nearly total and derogatory dismissal of the Jesus Seminar and its work. The late William Placher said in CC that the books of the Jesus Seminar should never have been published. A book by Dale Allison titled almost like Martin Kahler’s The So-Called Historical Jesus and the Historic, Biblical Christ was praised in ‘08.

What saves the Christian Century is that it does strive for balance and inclusion of many opinions and covers many aspects of faith and church life, and the arts. The best thing in CC is John Dart, the news editor. (I have followed him since he wrote in Theology Today in the ‘80's on why Jesus doesn’t laugh in the gospels. It’s to distinguish him from the gnostics.)

“Spirituality” has replaced “faith” in much of Protestant and Catholic thinking and practice. An article on "Holy Listening" (Dec. 15) covered this topic well, but was so positive toward this emphasis in the churches that I rolled my eyes half a dozen times. Robert Warren wrote this response that I will second:

"Holy listening has gone on for too long. The rise of so-called spirituality in the churches has coincided with the fall of Christian social work and action. Few Christian clergy or lay-people are involved in movements for social change. Precious few of them are active in the antiwar movement and in movements for LGBT rights, immigrant rights and community organization.

"It is ironic that the great spiritual leaders have been the most socially and politically active leaders. Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., Desmond Tutu and the Dalai Lama led the way to social change from a spiritual base. All of the books on spiritual change call for action to follow prayer and meditation.

"Spirituality in the churches today is ingrown, self-centered and inward-looking. True spirituality will result in the active search for peace and justice in all corners of the world."

I had reviewed the explosion or implosion of spirituality in the churches in the early ‘80's. My sermon that resulted was entitled “The True Spirituality of Social Justice.”

Even so, I am happy to have the connection with the Century.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Deja Vu: Ortberg’s Vision for Church - and the Trivialization That Others Caused

I watched John Ortberg’s 38 minute sermon, Welcome to the ECO. Let me say that he did a marvelous job of re-defining “hell.” I had been critical of the quotes reported from the sermon, however; Ortberg did what a good progressive might do. He re-defined the word and concept so that “Hell is when marriages end, lies are told, when a child is unloved or uneducated, when racial differences divide a street or city or church, when money is hoarded....” He wasn’t literal. Hell was treated as a symbol and metaphor.

John wants a church to which people can and will devote the whole of the rest of their lives. He is passionate for a church that will change the world. He wants a church where meetings don’t waste anyone’s time, but where leaders will meet to to learn and share and encourage each other. He warns that people who don’t want change can go elsewhere, but that a true church would seek out the whiskey guzzling, smoking, child abusing wife-beater. This is all good stuff.

I’ve been here before, 1966-1972. I was a member of a congregation in Chicago (Lincoln Park Presbyterian) that thought it could be and do this. The United Presbyterian Church opposed war, supported my conscientious objection claim, and stood for civil rights. It paid money for bail and defense in civil rights cases, even Angela Davis (This is another story.). We marched in witness to the teachings of prophets and Jesus. We sought the Kingdom of God and broke the bonds of the Westminster Confession. We did so much justice action and creative worship that we burned ourselves out.

By 1974 when I was in my first parish, the pastor of that church, who had been my mentor, left ministry. He was quoted in the Chicago Tribune as saying “The church of the ‘70's is a betrayal of the church of the ‘60's.” John Ortberg was a Baptist until 5 or 6 years ago, so he didn’t live through this and may not know all this obscure but I think important history.

Has John ever faced members who were executives of a Fortune 500 company, whose policies were unjust? I have. Has he faced military folk about war? I have. The big givers in the late ‘60's told the church leaders “No more of this social action crap.” They introduced a business model of church organization. (“PBE,” or Planning, Budgeting, and Evaluation.) “We will make sure that Angela Davis and anti-war and pro-gay stuff never has any power in this organization again.” (I heard this years later directly from Bill Thompson, who had been Stated Clerk of the church at the time.)

One result was that John Fry, pastor of First Presbyterian Chicago and friend of the Blackstone Rangers wrote a book The Trivialization of the United Presbyterian Church (Harper and Row, 1975). He was a member of the committee that wrote The Confession of ‘67. (It was the draft of this document that set me on my career in the church.) Fry recounts how the new confession began with Jesus Christ, not God, and not Scripture, as previous creeds had. This was from Karl Barth, as was the theme of “reconciliation,” intended to refer to the coming together of God and people through God’s work in Christ and our work of risk-taking justice (from Dietrich Bonhoeffer). The Gospel as Reconciliation became trivialized as patching up differences.

The Layman was established to counter the social justice emphasis of C-‘67. This they trivialized by arguing over theology rather than the racism and war and poverty that the Confession addressed. (They are still at it.) Biblical “social justice” was trivialized into “secular humanism.” The powers that imposed a completely new organization of the denomination then trivialized “reconciliation” into  “mission,” and then trivialized mission by labeling everything “mission” so that no one knew what it meant any longer. John Ortberg should note that the address initiating the Lay Committee insisted that the Lay Committee would not criticize from outside but would remain inside the church, not threatening the “tenets” of the church, but opposing only policy and programs. Thus was all of the conflict and disputation of the past 40 years in the PCUSA established and maintained.

Church organizations have a life-cycle. If you want a new church, walk away from one that doesn’t like change or won’t reach out to the hurt, harmful, and homeless. You can’t change ‘em in your lifetime.Bill Easum taught us this in the ‘90's.

Ortberg opposes “Secularism.” He seems to use the word in its basic meaning – Anything outside the church is secular. The church of his vision preaches Christ who draws all people together who then all devote their whole selves to the church’s community and mission and living holy lives. This describes a high demand church. Presbyterians tend to be low-demand churchgoers. Low demand may mean only that these people live out their faith quietly in their work and families. They just might not want to have friends only in the church or to go to numerous church events during the week.

John Ortberg quotes his mentor in saying that some churches (like the PCUSA) have hay but can’t get it down to the goats. (He acknowledges that we had some good teachings and values.) Other churches don’t have hay, but know how to feed the goats. Well, good luck, John. I applaud the passion, but I would rather you take your marbles and leave, so that the PCUSA can work out its problems without the thousand cuts of death from the right.

Monday, January 23, 2012

ECO Focuses on Adultery

In my previous post I neglected to explain why the Fellowship of Presbyterians wants a new denomination, or at least to leave the PCUSA. The basic reason is that these are folks who cannot abide the ordination of gay and lesbian persons to ministry in the church, and do not want recognition of “marriage” of gay and lesbian couples. (I have more to say on the role of mission and theology in this protest. To sum it up: The PCUSA is a dying and dead church because it is too liberal and says OK to gays and lesbians.)

Homosexuality is not explicitly noted in the documents of the Evangelical Covenant Order of Presbyterians. By the way, this name follows the recent practice of not including the name of the traditional denomination in the title. It will be known as ECO not ECOP. Probably a good thing.

The “Essential Tenets” are found in ECO's Theological Project document. These fundamental beliefs follow the “Faith of the Church Catholic,” “Faith of the Reformation,” and “Faith of the Reformed Tradition” named in chapter 2 of the former (2009-2011) Form of Government. However, one new thing (there may be other things added or left out) is added: “Living in obedience to the Word of God.” This section lists ten ways in which “Progress in holiness is an expected response of gratitude to the grace of God.” These ten ways are based on the Ten Commandments.

Commandment 7 is the one prohibiting adultery. I have always understood this to be based on and to more broadly speak to the need for us to be faithful to one another in all our relationships. Here we read that we are to: “maintain chastity in thought and deed, being faithful within the covenant of marriage between a man and a woman as established by God at the creation or embracing a celibate life as established by Jesus in the new covenant.” Marriage as belonging to a man and a woman is traditional. Chastity and celibacy entered the Presbyterian vocabulary(!) about 15 years ago. Celibacy was stated to be the only acceptable way for persons of homosexual orientation to exist within the church. The PCUSA has now rejected this language and therefore is considered apostate to the new, post-modern traditionalists.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Irony Abounds with the Formation of the Evangelical Covenant Order of Presbyterians

Two 19th century scholars, Ernst Troeltsch (Social Teachings of the Churches) and Philip Schaff (History of the Christian Church) impressed me when I was in seminary. I can’t remember which one of them noted that Catholicism tended to draw critics within and make places for them (think of the different monastic orders), and Protestant church bodies tended towards division and schism. Two opposing worldviews are involved: One says we can live together even with great differences, and the other says no we can’t. It’s the Edwin Markham poem:
"He drew a circle that shut me out 
Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout 
But love and I had the wit to win; 
We drew a circle that took him in."

Within Presbyterianism during the 20th century, there was a great movement towards unity. In 1958 the Presbyterian Church of North America merged with the Presbyterian Church in the USA to form the United Presbyterian Church USA. In 1983 the UPCUSA merged with the mostly southern Presbyterian Church in the United States to make the current Presbyterian Church (USA).

It is now clear to most people that the latter merger did not end the civil war. Beliefs and practices which had been southern-regional were adopted nation-wide. Ultra conservative groups in the south now had a national audience and broader base, and united with conservatives in the UPCUSA to make mischief everywhere for decades. Whether this mostly reflected broadly national political and social divisions or was the expression of the lower spirits of our Presbyterian natures is still at question.

Every year or two in my career there has been a new issue which has rallied the conservatives to accuse the rest of us of apostasy. Every year or two there is a new organization of conservatives (and then of liberals) to do battle. The Layman, organized in the ‘60's to combat the adoption of the Confession of 1967 and a Book of Confessions (as opposed to the Westminster standard), is a constant gadfly and worse. They have been urging congregations to leave the denomination over each conflict. And so we have seen the creation of the Presbyterian Church in America (they won’t ordain women and use the Westminster Confession) and the Evangelical Presbyterian Church (they assert that each congregation owns its property). Both disliked the denomination’s involvement in civil rights, opposition to the Viet Nam War, and official adoption of a woman’s right to choose an abortion.

Now we have the creation of a new denomination, the Evangelical Covenant Order of Presbyterians. “ECO” is cleverly modern. Proponents aren’t sure whether they will be a separate denomination or whether they will try to exist somehow within the PCUSA. How many would join is a question. Few are willing to take the big step of cutting ties with the PCUSA. For clergy it is often a question of pensions and insurance. An insurance plan has been worked out (Each will pay his or her full cost at a flat rate, rather than as the current percentage of income). An abbreviated Form of Government has been written. The piece de resistance is the written “Essential Tenets” of the new group.

Since the 18th century some Presbyterians wanted all clergy to “subscribe” to particular expressions of the faith. Others emphasized freedom of conscience to interpret scripture and express faith in newer ways. Peace has been bought with the formula that all must answer this question:

Do you sincerely receive and adopt the essential tenets of the Reformed faith as expressed in the confessions of our church as authentic and reliable expositions of what Scripture leads us to believe and do, and will you be instructed and led by those confessions as you lead the people of God?

However, no formal definition of the “essential tenets” was given. The perceptive reader will understand that “essential tenets” are the “fundamentals” of fundamentalism fame.

I see great problems ahead for ECO. You can’t write an essential that everyone will accept. At least not everyone will understand it the same way. Grace will not abound. Irony already does. ECO values the unity of the body of Christ and predictably quotes I Cor. 12. (Everything is better when supported by scripture.) The covenant to be signed includes this: “I will hold my personal preferences lightly and guard the good of the whole. (Philippians 2:1-4).”  These are the same people who are breaking with the body to which they have belonged.

Another covenant statement is “I will honor the sanctity of life above the claims of human freedom. (Psalm 8:4-5)” Is this about abortion? What about the great many whom we regard as heroes and saints died for greater human freedom. And what does this Psalm have to do with it? It is a puzzlement.

Many clergy have felt tied to the denomination by the Board of Pensions. No. They were and are tied by their own need for financial security. If you leave, you keep your pension. You just don’t add to it. Even if you stay in the denomination and leave your “call,” you need to buy your own medical insurance. If you want to live by faith, the church won’t stop you.

Some people just want their own institution. They want control and power. They don’t want to be only part of a larger institution in decline. The reality is that some evangelical churches grow, and so do some progressive churches. If they want to start fresh, without all of the stick in the mud traditionalists who won’t change (this is most of the churches and members of the PCUSA), that may be the best thing about leaving. What happens when the conflict begins again, and aging members of the new body don’t want the new music of 2050? What happens when someone sniffs new freedom from the restrictions of this new church?

One of the leaders of ECO is John Ortberg, a former Baptist minister from the Willow Creek church, now pastor in Menlo Park CA. [This demonstrates the dark side of liberalism: You allow everyone in and then they tell you that you aren’t pure enough for them.] Somehow many people are attracted to this kind of preaching: "The problem is not denominational ambiguity or ecclesiastical dividedness or even ineffectiveness.  The problem is that people are going to hell.... Our problem is hell; our job is to put hell out of business.”

Few speak of the deeper problem at the core of the churches: It is found in this statement of what ECO is about: Presbyterians they say, affirm “education and the life of the mind.” Even John Calvin didn’t see the seed of destruction in valuing education. First, someone will notice that the gospel of John is not like the gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, which have similarities. From there, Biblical studies are deconstruction incarnate. I am now reading 381 A.D. by Charles Freeman. How can we continue to do theology in the old ways when we know the political machinations behind the Nicene Creed?

Of course the new church folks are not institutional or theological in the old ways. They are “missional,” which means that the church will serve others and not itself. To complete the quote from Ortberg:  “I have zero desire to be part of a church that is OK with doing OK while hell is winning.” The image of hell aside, I can applaud those who want to be part of a church that is about more than being OK.

I came into the church as an idealistic young man for whom the teachings of Jesus were all important and pretty much all consuming. My question was “How do I live in the world as a witness to Jesus and the peace and justice he stood for?” That question never was answered because I became an official church leader (!)  Now things have moved so far that I have adopted the question Bob Funk asked me: “What happens if people stop being interested in Jesus?”

The PCUSA will have a better chance at the future without those who want to leave. Good-bye. Then the PCUSA needs to hire someone like Bain Capital to come in and write down all the crap that keeps the church in the 17th century (even in the 20th!). There are plenty of would-be church consultants, but I know of none who are honest enough to be up to the task: We need to build a church for a world where science is the predominant myth, where mystery and wonder can still be found in life itself, and people still need to belong to communities of caring. The question is always about which symbols and which traditions to keep, and how.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Toles for Top Code Breaker

“Relative linguistics” is a subset of the larger field of study of linguistics. When I discovered this in college long ago, I was entranced by Benjamin Whorf, who made it a big deal. He wasn’t a scholar and was mostly rejected by the guardians of academia, but he has earned a place. His theory was simple, but difficult to prove: Language determines worldview and culture. One of his examples was that the Hopi have no language for breaking time into increments, resulting in a worldview and religion that conceives of time as a single thing, another element of life like the air we breathe.

Two who have learned from Whorf are George Lakoff and Frank Luntz. George is a leftist who explains to those like himself why people are conservative or liberal. Very briefly it is this: Conservatives want a strong Father; liberals value a nurturing Mother. Frank is a conservative and tells his friends what words to use to push the right buttons and pull the right strings of the public.  E.g., re: OWS – replace talk of “capitalism” with “economic freedom” or “free market.”

Wouldn’t you like to know what Frank tells the GOP about race? I imagine: “Don’t say ‘nigger,” say ‘foodstamp president.’” We have another subset of linguistics called “racial code language.” These code words have rained on us since Obama announced his candidacy for president. They are words that have their own meaning but are understood to mean or reference something else. “State’s rights” can mean legalized racial discrimination. “Family values” can stand in for legalized gender discrimination. The kicker is that if we call someone on using this code language, they deny it and turn on you, accusing you of racism or immorality.

The political cartoons in the Washington Post are consistently on target and concise. Ann Telnaes does these clever animations (She has a video showing how she does it), but Tom Toles really finds the kernel of reality and twists it with a wondrous sense of humor.
I am stealing one of his copyrighted ‘toons in order to promote him and to let him express what I have found so difficult to explain. The point is that there has been a lot of coded racist talk about Obama these past 4 years and most people who use get away with it. Note that the cartoonist in the lower right is also calling the applause for Newt as racist. I think the problem is that this is still mostly subconscious, so let’s keep at this naming what we hear and see. The more people who are aware of it, the better.

Monday, January 16, 2012

King's Legacy is in Mandela, King, and Others to Come

Viktor Frankl in his classic, Man's Search for Meaning, notes that once a potentiality has been actualized, it is saved and lives on in our past. Therefore, we should seek to make real as many of our visions as we can.

On the birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr. I ask: Could there have been a Mandela without King? Could there have been an Obama without King? These three are closely linked in their destinies, achievements, and influence. Everything is related and influences every other thing. The idea of freedom may be the prime motivator of civilization.

I have a memory of the day of King’s assassination in ‘68: I was driving a taxi cab in Iowa City, Iowa. (I had just dropped out of the MBA program and was applying for other possible futures. We bragged that we had the highest educated cab force in the country, made up of guys like me, some with law degrees.)  I had to work that day, and sure enough, some jerk got in the cab and said “Hey, they finally got that nigger!” Through tears, I told him to please get out of the cab. Sadly, this stuff is still out there.

Mandela will not be with us long, I think. He is 94. He was absent last week at the 100th anniversary of the African National Congress, which he led. Thinking of the ANC, I listened to a wonderful CD of Amandla!, the powerful documentary from 2003. It proclaims the power of music for revolution. I commented in a recent post that non-violent revolutions were quite successful in recent decades.

Now I have tried something new: I posted my first YouTube video using Movie Maker Live for Windows. Seems easy enough, but all of the photos I included and the lyrics timed with the music, failed to publish successfully. I just want everyone to hear a sample of the music. (I think this dates from the oppression in S. Africa in 1959.) I will try to fix the video, but here is the music with a black screen:
Here are the lyrics:
Thina sizwe, thina sizwe esinsundu, 
(We the nation, we the brown nation)
Sikhalela izwe lethu 
(We cry for our land)
Elathathwa ngabamhlophe 
(That was taken by the white people)
Mabayeke kumhlaba wethu. 
(May they leave our land alone)
Abantwana be-Afrika 
(The children of Africa)
Bakhalela i-Afrika 
(They cry for Africa)
The 2003 documentary (108 minutes) may be viewed online free at:

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Walter Brueggemann Said It -- Occupy Everything!

Weeding out books, I found that I had 2 copies of Brueggemann’s Prophetic Imagination. One is a Second Edition from 2001. Opening it I found in the foreword comments about the church being “increasingly decentered and disenfranchised.” “...The likely ‘explanation’ is the long-term and deep force of secularization.... The consequence of this social reality is that the old confrontational model of ‘prophet vs. established power,’ which was a replication of the Old Teatament notion of ‘prophet vs. king,’ is increasingly difficult to bring off and without great social effect.... I suspect that whatever is ‘prophetic’ must be more cunning and more nuanced and perhaps more ironic.

The bold face and italic are mine. He is describing – The Arab Spring! Occupation! The current OWS movement is the prophetic imagination of 2011-2012.

Bruggemann describes “Prophetic Imagination” as first of all the expression of deep criticism of the present situation. This begins to dismantle the corrupt systems, all of which replicate the “royal” oppressions experienced by the Hebrews in Egypt. With the dismantling, there will be grief over the loss of the old and the suffering and death which all too often accompany the dismantling of empires and systems. (Actually, the number of successful, non-violent revolutions in the 1980's and 1990's is astounding – People Power in the Phillipines, Solidarity in Poland, the Velvet revolution in Czechoslovakia, the fall of the Berlin wall, the evaporation of the Soviet Empire, the end of Apartheid and the election of Mandela in South Africa.)

With the dismantling and the grief and suffering, prophecy requires an energizing through amazement of the people with pieces of a new vision for what is possible.

A friend sent this blog on Facebook today: John Vest finds this question in Bruggemann “How can we have enough freedom to imagine and articulate a real historical newness in our situation?” His answer lies in the embrace of pathos and the willingness to engage the very real possibility of our own death.

John then lists statistics of decline in the PCUSA. (Some of these were the #10 big story of 2011 in the Presbyterian Outlook.) One that was missed explains a lot of pain among ministers: There are now 2,200 ministers seeking calls (jobs) and only 450 positions. Ten years ago it was about 1,200 ministers and 900 positions. The number of candidates for ministry remains at about 450. All this because only 44% of churches can now afford a full time minister. And that because half of all churches are now under 100 members.
Church leaders tell anecdotes of vitality given by the Holy Spirit in the church, and claim to see signs of God’s activity for a future (New Life!) for the church.  But as John Vest reports, “there are also critical indications of death. Our declining numbers, aging congregations, diminished resources, and debilitating conflicts cannot be ignored any longer. We cannot move too quickly to obscure the grief of our situation with comfort or hope, as important as these are. We must embrace the pathos associated with admitting that what we are doing is not working. More bluntly, we must admit that we are dying in order to experience rebirth.”

I haven’t read anything by Brueggemann lately, but I think he is saying to us now: Occupy Church! Occupy Theology and Biblical Studies! A very recent paper by Tim Van Meter is entitled: “Occupy Academia: An Analysis of Walter Brueggemann’s Journey to the Common Good and the Implications for the Empire of Academia.” Van Meter explores Brueggemann’s work and says: “perhaps a new definition of, and expectations for, academia can be built, one that focuses on the neighborhood of learning as an engine of societal change, versus an empire of academia as a means of subjugation and indentured servitude.”

So what is the next step for churches and students?  I think it is to act.  To “occupy,” if you will. One person, and then a few, need to stand up and shout –  not “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore!” – but “The system of the church/school is broken. The old ways don’t work any more. The old structures aren’t working anymore. The old faith isn’t working anymore. Let’s talk about it. Let’s not ignore it.”

Occupy Church! Occupy Theology and Biblical Studies! Don’t let a meeting continue as before without challenging its underlying premises. Think parables. Think symbolic actions. Let a thousand flowers bloom. Protest Empires everywhere. Every discussion about buildings, budgets, and ecclesiastical paper, e.g., is not a discussion of what has happened and is happening and will happen if people don’t wake up and do something really different that is related to the reality of confused Christians, the dysfunctional family life of churches and the nation, and the gap between rich and poor.

The PCUSA has many resources, long ignored, for the current situation. Such as this sample from the Confession of 1967: “The members of the church are emissaries of peace and seek the good of all  in cooperation with powers and authorities in politics, culture, and economics. But they have to fight against pretensions and injustices when these same powers endanger human welfare. Their strength is in their confidence that God’s purpose rather than human  schemes will finally prevail.” (9.25)

My old boss and friend, Bob Funk, wrote: “The one who lays a violent hand on his or her tradition must beware of falling statuary.”  Let’s be cunning, nuanced, and ironic. But let’s occupy. A great meme. The criticism which comes first is always easiest; the vision is more difficult. That shouldn't stop anyone; the vision comes as the statues are falling around us.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Occupy Embourgeoisement!

Reviewing favorite things of my youth, I have found a cd of Jacques Brel Is Alive and Living in Paris. I think it is timely to share this gem from '62:

Your heart feels so right
Your eyes swim in the beer
Where the barroom lights are hung
And with your friend Jojo
And with your friend Pierre
You drink a toast to being young
Jojo thinks he's Voltaire
And Pierre, Casanova
And me who proudly did not care
Me, I was a lover
And at midnight we watched the Lawyers pass
Coming out of hotels which had real class
We showed them our good manners
And we showed them our ass
And, oh, how we sang
   The middle class are just like pigs
   The older they get, the dumber they get
   The middle class are just like pigs
   The fatter they get, the less they regret
Your heart feels so right
Your eyes swim in the beer
Where the barroom lights are hung
And with your friend Jojo
And with your friend Pierre
Holding on to being young
Voltaire danced like a vicar
Casanova, he was too stout
And me who proudly did not care
Me, I drank till I passed out
And at midnight
We watched the salesmen pass
Coming out of hotels which had real class
We showed them our good manners
And we showed them our ass
And, oh, how we sang
   The middle class are just like pigs
   The older they get, the dumber they get
   The middle class are just like pigs
   The fatter they get, the less they regret
But your heart slows down
Your eyes do not flash
The hotel bartender sings our praise
Jojo's no clown
Pierre pays in cash
Among the bookkeepers we pass our days
Jojo now speaks of Voltaire
Casanova's just a book on the shelf
And, me, I proudly do not care
Me, I talk only of myself
And everybody knows
That we've got real class
There is not a night that we can pass
Those lousy kids
Who always show us their ass
And, oh, how they sing
   The middle class are just like pigs
   The older they get, the dumber they get
   The middle class are just like pigs
   The fatter they get, the less they regret.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Check It Out! New Blog - Church Books for Sale

For the new year, I will try to unload unneeded and unwanted books and cds that still have some value I think to someone. The alternative is to heat my garage by feeding the books to the fire, or recycling them. Visit Church Books for Sale - 2012. I will be listing HUNDREDS, yea, even THOUSANDS of books this year.