Sunday, December 30, 2007

Happy New Year!

New Year’s Day is a big deal everywhere I go. It is not always celebrated on the same day, as many cultures traditionally celebrate according to the lunar calendar or at the beginning of a different season. In America we grown accustomed to the ball dropping at Times Square, fireworks, a toast, and Dick Clark. This revelry is matched throughout Southeast Asia. Every ethnic group takes pride in their grandiose celebrations of their New Year’s day. The Chinese decorate everything in red and gold and spend several days visiting friends and family, giving the kids red envelopes with crisp new bills in it and eating the culinary delights that only the Chinese imagination could have created. In the Philippines the firecrackers get so big they rattle the house (and, all too often, take off an appendage) and if one has a gun they point up and shoot. The noise level is unbelievable. The celebrations of New Year’s (Tet) in Vietnam must be similar, as it was the occasion for the Tet Offensive to occur unnoticed for too long during the Vietnam war.

In the American celebration of New Year’s, the most spiritual it gets is making New Year’s resolutions. But mostly it is a big party. I was talking to friend of ours in Indonesia who comes from a tribe that is predominately Christian. For his tribe, celebration of New Year’s is far more important than Christmas. Church worship services are an absolute must. When we told him that we don’t gather with our church on New Year’s day (unless it happens to fall on a Sunday), he was appalled. He asked about it a couple more times to make sure he understood correctly. Another year has passed in which much has happened, how can we not worship the author and sustainer of our lives?

When we think about cultural events such as New Year’s Day, we have a proclivity to do a surface comparison of the celebration. To us, it is just a big celebration and little more. Thus when we view other cultures we only look as far as the big celebration activities. But these celebrations often have a much deeper and meaningful side to it that goes unnoticed. Why do so many cultures bring out the most obnoxiously loud firecrackers for this occasion? Why do the Thais splash water on each other? The underlying answers take us deep into the worldviews of each culture. Of course, we don’t expect that because there is little spiritual significance to the ball dropping in New York or Dick Clark. It illustrates just how secularized we are in America, no matter our creed.

As followers of Jesus and children of the most high God, it would behoove us to resacralize these moments. I’m not suggesting that we create a ritual for the sake of having a ritual. Neither am I suggesting that we work up another service at church so we feel better about ourselves. It does seem appropriate, however, to have a moment where we reflect on the gracious activity of the Almighty during the passed year.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Learning and Eating

There is a relatively new website (http://www.freerice.com/index.php) that raises the consciousness of world hunger while helping improve our abysmal vocabulary. For every vocabulary word you guess correctly, you donate ten grains of rice. I know...that is a small amount of rice...so, tell others about it. And the cool thing is the vocabulary quiz adjusts the level of difficulty as you go along. Thus, it is a challenge for us all.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Sadhu Sundar Singh: Follower of Jesus

Every once in a while, someone emerges from the vastness of our global-historical mosaic that stands out as one who really followed Jesus. One such person was Sadhu Sundar Singh (1889-1933?). Here are a few thoughts about the devout follower of Jesus inspired from reading his biography by Phyllis Thompson. Raised in both Sikh and Hindu spiritual practices, Sundar Singh was very hostile towards Christianity to the point of destroying a Bible. While still a teenager, on the verge of suicide, Sundar called on a sign from God. He describes the experience:

I remained till about half past four praying and waiting and expecting to see Krishna or Buddha, or some other Avatar of the Hindu religion; they appeared not, but a light was shining in the room. I opened the door to see where it came from, but all was dark outside. I returned inside, and the light increased in intensity and took the form of a globe of light above the ground, and in this light there appeared, not the form I expected, but the living Christ whom I had counted as dead. To all eternity I shall never forget his glorious and loving face, nor the few words which he spoke. ‘Why do you persecute me? See, I have died on the cross for you and for the whole world.’ These words were burned into my heart as by lightning, and I fell on the ground before him. My heart was filled with inexpressible joy and peace, and my whole life was entirely changed. (Sundar Singh, as quoted in Thompson, Sadhu Sundar Singh, 18)

The changes in his life were immediate and the repercussions were also immediate. Sundar was disowned by his family and community. After eventually finishing his schooling, Sundar took on the life of a Sadhu (holy man) traveling barefoot from village to village teaching about the way of Jesus. He chose not to ask for money or support, but relied on the grace of God through local villagers as he went along.

He knew, true son of India that he was, that in the saffron robe of the sadhu doors would be open to him that would otherwise be closed. He would not be qualified to preach in the churches but, clad in the robe of one who was known to have taken the path of renunciation, he could reach the villagers, the common people, even the high-caste women secluded in their zenanas. (Thompson, Sadhu Sundar Singh, 42)

He possessed a passion to proclaim Jesus to those who had never heard about him. This passion took him to the heart of Hindu India, to what is now Pakistan among Muslims, to the Buddhists of Tibet. Hunger was his constant companion and the travails of the Himalayas were ever-present. He was scorned, persecuted and even left for dead. While some of these events certainly scared Sundar deeply, he always clung to the deep joy of Jesus in his life.

Sundar was thoroughly Indian in thinking and culture. When he devoted himself to Jesus, he became immersed in the Scriptures. He avoided the westernization that characterized many Indian Christians. The institutions of Christianity did not know what to do with Sundar, yet there was a recognition that this man understood what it meant to follow Jesus in his own cultural context.

He was not perfect, nor did he pretend to be. But how is that there are a few people that really seem to capture what devotion to Jesus looks like? What is it about the rest of us that is holding us back? What are we holding on to?

Sunday, November 11, 2007

The most important thing we can do

As I have been reading, ruminating, relating with friends, I have come to a conclusion that never should have taken me this long to come to. It all comes down to discipling and being discipled in the way of Jesus. Given that some of Jesus’ last words were to go everywhere imaginable and make disciples, I don’t know why I have been so slow in this realization. A friend of mine, Jason Elder, is striving to make disciples in Memphis. He captures the idea beautifully below. Be assured that the friend in SEAsia is not me.

Got a call from a friend today who's been in SEAsia doing some really neat work with some people groups who really need it. I was so inquisitive as to how "baby believers" grow. This fascinates me so much. I wake up and go to sleep thinking about it. I mow the yard and make the bed thinking about it. I look out the window and at the auburn sky and I think about it. It consumes me. How can someone foster spiritual growth in another person in a way that is translatable in every sphere of their life? What are the essentials of the faith? What does it mean to be a follower of Jesus here and now as we prop our elbows on the same table? Man, just hearing my friend talk stoked this fire in me, sent the embers flying.

He has seen people come out of prostitution and then begin, literally, a dozen house churches/home groups in less than 6 months. It's not at all glamorous and he admits it is hard work, but when my ears heard his words it was like an electrical storm in my heart. Yes, Jesus in our midst. Yes, Jesus and me and you and our jacked up lives. Yes, people seeing how we treat one another in the midst of our sin and saying, "Enough of my religion! I need that!" Can that really be happening in this world? Why can't it happen here?

I think that it is happening and that many believers in Memphis are longing for that to happen. A church that is honest and broken and doesn't go around with a spiritualized caulk gun trying to artificially cover the deep cracks in our lives. We need a demolition! Something in me says, "Yes, this is what others want. This is what I want!" I don't want to just meet, neither in a church building, city building, or a house in the neighborhood without seeing grace come down and fill our souls. I look forward to the day that we see that happening in our church. Lord, hasten that day. O, God, for your glory and yours alone.

Jason intimates that we are so busy playing church and doing stuff that we are not really going after the transformed life of Jesus. For so many Christians, following Jesus is normal. Don’t do the really bad stuff, do the occasional good thing, and mind your own business. What Jesus has shown us is something much more RADICAL. There is nothing normal about being a follower of Jesus!

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Worldview Confusion

The other day I happened upon a website that “helps” you evaluate your worldview (www.christianworldviewnetwork.com). Most of the questions had to do with the American government and the founders intent for various government institutions. First of all, can we not evaluate the biblicalness of our worldview apart from views of American government? Are we not called to be citizens of heaven?

Christians in America are not transitioning very well to a post-Christian society. For some reason, Evangelicals have it in their heads that we can legislate American back into good, solid, 1950’s Christianity. I am thankful for the late missiologist, Lesslie Newbigin, and the Gospel and Our Culture Network who beckoned us to approach the West humbly and missionally. We shouldn’t be playing the same political manipulation games as the rest of the world. We should be markedly different, characterized by our love and forgiveness.

I’m not saying that we should enclose ourselves in little Christian pods away from the world of politics and power-grabbing. We should actively engage the world, but it should look different than it currently looks. Yale professor, Lamin Sanneh challenges us with these words:

“How well Christians manage their great pluralist heritage in these twilight years of the twentieth century will have enormous implications for the kind of society people live in.” (Lamin Sanneh, Translating the Message, 6)

This quotes—obviously written at the end of the twentieth century—encourages to this differently about society as a whole. Society-at-large is not Christian. When will we figure that out! We need to focus on growing in our Jesusness and inviting others to enjoy the new life Jesus offers us. A brief look at divorce rates, pastor immorality, and church splits shows that the church is not acting very different from the world. They don’t know we are Christians by our love. We need to recapture the essence of being a disciple of Jesus and resembling a community that embodies Jesus.

Sunday, October 7, 2007

Book Review: Exiles: Living Missionally in a Post-Christian Culture



There have been an alarming number of reports, articles, books and studies that have called attention to large numbers of committed followers of Jesus that no longer enthused about the institutional church. Many feel guilt or bitterness about this. For some, the bitterness has been destructive to their own lives and relationships with fellow followers of Jesus. In Exiles: Living Missionally in a Post-Christian Culture, Michael Frost seeks to offer challenging encouragement to those that have embarked on this journey. His goal is not to heap cynicism on top of the troubled institutional church, but to offer a navigational manual for exiled Jesus-followers in a complex web of cultures and ideologies.

Frost blends current and academically reputable biblical reflection and striking cultural exegesis with a vivid style of prose. Frost offers a juxtaposition of the stereotypical soft, glowy portrait of Jesus with a Jesus that was most certainly edgy and controversial in his counterculturalness. “The stories in the Gospels, far from being soothing bedtime stories for baptized children, are the most dangerous element of the Christian experience. They are radical, daring, unsettling, disturbing, even frightening.” (Frost, Exiles, 11) This understanding of Jesus calls his followers into a life different from the safe, suburban, sedentary drone.

Frost questions many of the assumptions and blindspots that characterize evangelical Christianity. Inaction in the areas of injustice, the environment and the persecuted church illustrate lacuna in the church’s imitation of missio Dei. Frost’s research is impressively diverse as he quotes from alternative news sources, popular media and sundry experts. These are no longer issues that can be ignored, diminished, or put on the back burner but are a vital part of the way of Jesus.

While Frost directs his book towards what he calls “exiles”, there is a strong undercurrent that is critiquing traditional church practice and proposing an ecclesiology that is at once biblical and proactively engages culture. This is where I find Frost to be the most engaging. Years of practical experience, deep and varied study and observation of Jesus communities all over globe give him rich insights and incisive analysis regarding how Jesus-followers should journey together. “My concern is that too many exiles are taking this journey alone.” (Frost, Exiles, 112) In response to this concern, Frost describes ways of gathering creatively and missionally in the midst of “the host empire.”

There are some points for which Frost’s solutions are overly simplified. Globalization, corporate enterprise, and development in the world’s most destitute places are extremely complex issues. While there are more than a few problems with privatization, local enterprise in developing countries suffers due to the insufficiency of public utilities. Terrible acts of oppression and violent hatred are inflicted upon those of different ethnicity, religion, or gender daily. And followers of Jesus need to make sacrifices to reduce the violence and aid the oppressed. However, appealing to our western governments to step in only confirms suspicions from the rest of the world that the west is not finished being imperialistic colonizers. This does not mean that the church should stand by idly, rather seek solutions that do not involve our hegemonic governments.

Even in these weaknesses of the book is the strength that Frost is calling on exiles to put down People magazine and grapple with these issues affecting God’s creation.

Without equivocation I recommend Michael Frost’s Exiles: Living Missionally in a Post Christian Culture. But be ready to be challenged on some of your thinking.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Starting from Scratch- Indigenous Development

Kenyan writer, Binyavanga Wainaina vividly describes Kenya’s jolty climb up the development ladder in his Vanity Fair Article, “Generation Kenya” (July 2007, pp. 84-94). His story is insightful for three reasons; he was there on the streets of Nairobi, he is not a macro-economist with calcified views of what should and should not happen, and he is a good writer. I will attempt to recount for you a little of the story he tells, only with less erudition and description.

Wainaina describes a Kenya that in its youth (independent since 1963) was off to a slow but steady start. But then infrastructure collapse, corruption and power-grabbing throttled the nation into tailspin in the 1990’s. Kenya had corporations and established formal businesses that began to tank. Banks became irrelevant to the average person. Education did nothing for earning a good job. Bars were the only places thriving. Then, an influx of upstart traders began vending used clothes and recycled, refashioned plastic on the streets. Soon the economy seemed to be surviving primarily on subsistence farming and these street vendors. The vendors began to organize into markets and the formal retail businesses collapsed. “The informal sector in Nairobi became the engine of the economy.” (89)

The combination of leftover imperialism (foreign corporations operated in a Kenyan’s name) and an unchecked central government meant that most of the established business in the country was a fa├žade or fast declining into irrelevancy. Wainaina describes the effect on the mindset of the people: “We were a kind of mindless soup, waiting for upliftment from the gods above.” (90) A few large companies and just handful of leaders were not taking Kenya in the right direction.

Just as the informal sector of illegal street vendors became more robust, so did the drive of the people to see their nation changed. Elections to choose a new leader (after a president that clung to power for 22 years) provided a burst of empowerment. “The usual tribal chauvinism and crude political sycophancy vanished. Nations are mythical creatures, gaseous, and sometimes poisonous. But they start to solidify when diverse people have moments when aspirations coincide.” (90) On the day of elections, Wainaina observed: “For one day, the idea of Kenya and its reality were one thing.” (90). A new leader was elected. Enterprising vendors developed responsible, self-sustainable businesses from developed-world refuse.

The author is clear in communicating that all of Kenya’s troubles are solved. Graft is insidious, infrastructure is lacking, disease and poverty are rampant, but this new generation of Kenyans put their nation on the road to development. Often these things are all, we as outsiders, can see. But the economy is growing and Kenya is growing into its own.

We fool ourselves too often when we suppose that our outside businesses and aid will be the perfect remedy to restore a nation to growth and development. For Kenya, the established businesses and plantations were not the key. Now, there are thriving businesses that started from absolutely nothing. There are banks that serve the common person with respect and financial help. It is incumbent on us, the outsiders, to encourage such grassroots efforts instead of bolstering our stale, foreign institutions.

Friday, September 14, 2007

You Can't Run, You Can't Hide: The Ubiquity of Postmodernism

Like so many others, I have been following the discussion about the emerging church. “Emerging church” is one of my google alerts which points me in the direction of blogs of prolonged pontification of the praises of the emerging church as well as vitriolic vituperations condemning emerging church advocates to eternity in the kiln of the devil’s destiny. I have been reading and observing with rapt attention to the church’s response to a transition in culture and worldview (I’ll let you, the reader, sort out the difference between culture and worldview).

In the midst of the rising tide of blogs, books, and babble I occasionally come across something refreshing. That was the case this morning when I read John Hammett’s “An Ecclesiological Assessment of the Emerging Church Movement.” The spirit with which he wrote and considered the theological issues of the emerging church was respectful and amicable. Hammett articulated some weaknesses of the emerging church movement as if he was trying to lovingly persuade the emerging church to consider the weaknesses, not trying to start World War III. My biggest complaint about the article was its brevity. I would have liked to have seen Hammett proffer a lengthier assessment. With respect to Dr. Hammett, there are a couple of points on which I differ. This is a response to his response to the Emergent response to D.A. Carson’s critique of the emerging church.

Hammett challenges the notion that the church should be about responding to postmodernism. Hammett quoted Ed Stetzer as saying that some places are not experiencing the shift towards postmodernism, and thus the church in those places does not need to respond. He also states that the traditional church still appeals to a large number of people seeking out a traditional church. My response to this goes back to our understanding of postmodernism in general. How does one gauge the postmodometer in any given place? We too easily fall into the habit of gauging worldview with a few outward signs. San Francisco and Seattle are easily considered postmodern because of globalization protests, grassroots activism, subversive artistic expressiveness, and a higher proportion of observable Goths, body art, and vegans. In some ways, these outward signs demonstrate postmodernism’s free roam in those places. I contend, however, that a study of suburban and small town America would reveal that the traditional modernist worldview is, at best, under review. I have spoken with good, church-going, soccer moms whose theology is more influenced by Oprah than the Bible. It is hard to know how much MTV, movies, and reality tv inform one’s worldview. I saw churches in the South (not responding to postmodernism) send their youth off to college with a simplistic, don’t question, modernist view of Christianity. The plurality of worldviews and ideologies in a college environment completely decimate the young Christian’s faith. This is because churches are not responding to postmodernism.

Something else in Hammett’s response is also related to the macro-understanding of postmodernism. Much of the emerging church response to the traditional church critique of postmodernism is due to the fact that it is often portrayed as a one issue worldview. Relativism is certainly one common characteristic of postmodernism. But it is one of many. Whether or not one accepts that postmodern epistemology is at the core of understanding postmodernism, relativism is not the only characteristic. Much of the evangelical critique of postmodernism has reduced everything down to relativism, which is then understood to mean anti-truth. (I am thankful that Hammett did not simplify postmodernism in this way.) Most people perceived to be postmodern did not decide truth was the enemy and must be annihilated at all costs. In the sudden exposure to a plurality of worldviews and perspectives, people faced confusion about truth. The response from many in the truth was just to yell their view of the truth louder than everyone else, which did not really help people understand truth. I believe there is absolute truth, and that truth is embodied in Jesus Christ as revealed in the Scriptures. But I also believe that my understanding of the truth is obscured by my culture, experiences, tradition, and ultimately sin. It is not truth that is vulnerable, but my firm grasp of it. Going back to the main point of understanding postmodernism, it cannot so easily be reduced to a concise definition and it will not produce one worldview. Modernism was a slow-developing thing with its roots in different movements, cultures, and sociopolitical contexts. Some of what we call modernism had its roots in the humanism of Erasmus, the priesthood of the believer espoused by Luther, the emergence of the nation-state, etc. The Enlightenment came along and propelled modernism further. Multiple worldviews have been profoundly influenced by modernism as diverse as Marxism, psychology, secular humanism, and many expressions of Christianity (I recognize that these worldviews are somewhat intertwined). In the same way, postmodernism can trace its roots to a multiplicity of locations spanning a century of time. Deconstructionism, pragmatism, and anarchism are very different but each postmodern in its own way. The emerging church ought to be about contextualizing to these emerging worldviews. That is, critical contextualization is needed, not haphazard adoption of anything and everything postmodern. There is a lot of talk about “hypermodernism” or “post-postmodernism”. It is my view that we have not arrived at postmodernism yet. We are in a transition period between modernism and postmodernism. Thus expressions of hypermodernism are evident everywhere, as are examples of fully developed postmodernism. We are currently in the turbulent transition time between the two.

Hammett makes the comment that “emerging churches” are still a minority of the churches out there. I suspect, however, that there are a lot of pastors that are reading many of the same books the emerging folks are reading (and writing). There are a lot of traditional church members that are asking questions about the worldview transition going on. There are a huge number of churches that are connecting with the postmodern worldview without ever being labeled “emerging” or “postmodern”, it is just who they are.

Hammett makes a strong point in that we need to approach postmodernism critically, as we do any new culture. But I think what so many from the emerging perspective are saying is that postmodernism is no worse than modernism. Each has devastating snares and wonderful opportunities for the church. Thus both modernism and postmodernism need to be understood critically.

Friday, August 24, 2007

Stark Contrasts? The Gospel and the Privileged





Is there hope for the privileged?

Sometimes you hear that the privileged and educated are not open to the gospel. It is almost a truism in some circles that open people are poor, less educated, and rural. When you look around the areas of the world where there are populations of new believers, that mostly appears to be the case. Philip Jenkins, author of The Next Christendom, goes so far as to say that: “By 2050… [the world’s average Christian] …is above all likely to be an extremely poor person...” (1)

Some have been relating to sections of the world’s middle and upper classes for decades without seeing a single person coming to faith in Christ, and few continuing in their faith. This is no small matter since for example in India the upper and middle class is possibly 300 million people strong (roughly the same as the entire population of the United States.)


Some encouragement from the early church.

I’ve recently been reading a book called The Rise of Christianity: How the Obscure, Marginal, Jesus Movement Became the Dominant Religious Force in the Western World in a Few Centuries by Rodney Stark. Reading Stark’s study of the early church has encouraged me to harbor hope for the urban privileged and educated. The overall thrust of the Bible certainly has a special concern for the poor, but it also states that God loves the whole world. There are instances of God redeeming rulers, priests, tax-collectors, and apparently large privileged urban populations.

Stark argues that a consensus has developed among New Testament historians that the early church was not mainly made up of the poor and uneducated, but rather the early church was based in the middle and upper classes, was relatively privileged, educated and highly urban. He also notes that statistically there is no reason to believe there were any rapid mass movements to the faith happening. The numbers could have been extremely small in the early years and with only very modest growth rate could have reached half the population of the Roman Empire by the middle of the fourth century. Both of these points encouraged me that those relating to the educated middle classes of the world are not wasting their time. And even if there are only small handfuls of Christ-followers in the early decades, this is not very different from how things went in a movement that changed a whole civilization. We needn’t write off the world’s cities, educated and privileged. They seemed to have been on God’s heart in significant ways in the history of His people.


-Sdawg

(This was a guest post authorized by the Swooping Crane.)


NOTES

1. “Companions of Life” [http://www.christianvisionproject.com/2007/03/companions_of_life.html]

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Just one acceptable theory of atonement?

Increasingly—or so it seems to me—the penal substitution theory of atonement has become reified as the sole, legitimate theory accepted by “orthodox” Evangelicals. I have seen a number writings that indicate any openness to other theories of atonement is a departure from “biblical” Christianity. This is surprising to me. My theology and history classes indicated that a multiplicity of atonement theories have been propagated by well-known and highly respected theologians. Moreover, Scripture offers up several different word pictures for understanding the death of Jesus.

The fact that the penal substitution theory has become the only “correct” theory of atonement further confounded me as I discovered it to be a later development. In fact, two sources I consulted place its origins in the second millennium of Christian history. Don’t hear me wrong, I’m not saying that the penal substitution theory of atonement is wrong. I concede that there is amble evidence in Scripture to indicate that it is a viable theory. But, is it the only legitimate possibility?

Friday, August 17, 2007

A curious phenomenon

Using “Google Alerts” I come across a variety of blogs. Occasionally, there is a blog that is one of those ultra-conservative, anti-everything blogs. What I find very curious about those blogs is that, inevitably, those are the blogs that don’t have a place for comments. They are so concerned about accountability for heresy and wrong teaching, yet don’t offer their own writings up for critique or reproof. Hmmm…interesting.

Two blogs visited recently are of this nature: Jeremy Green’s http://sbcpastor.blogspot.com/2007/07/memorandum-camel-method.html and Ken Silva’s http://www.apprising.org/archives/2007/08/the_emerging_ch_6.html . Three things are striking about these blogs. First, their dogmatic views come at you like a bullet train with a steam roller attached to the front. Second, their views come across as uninformed. Their “research” comes only from written literature and then compared with stalwart theology of yester-century. Some of these bloggers need to get out and mingle with lostness for a while. And thirdly, the lack of any feedback loop (as mentioned above). I once had a friend that felt it was his duty to deliver the gospel to people no matter how understandable, and then the recipient is culpable to respond to it. It is as if I can quote John 3:16 to a bunch of people in a language not their own, and I am relieved of my responsibility to share the gospel. Conservatives are going to have to learn how to communicate their views to non-conservatives and be willing to take criticism.

This is not my usual kind of post, but I needed to get it off my chest.

Friday, July 20, 2007

De-Ritualized: Organically Free or Empty Structure

Piggy-backing on the previous post, I’m ruminating on the notion of liminality and communitas. It occurred to me that in Michael Frost’s beautiful explanation of these concepts from Victor Turner that it was in the context of ritual/ceremony that this idea developed. In Exiles: Living Missionally in a Post-Christian Culture, Frost moves toward application in secularized circumstances. In other words, any harrowing or adventuresome group experience might catalyze communitas. Examples were given of rights activists and church mission trips creating communitas. Carl Starkloff wrestles with these same anthropological concepts in his article “Church as Structure and Communitas: Victor Turner and Ecclesiology” (Theological Studies v. 58 (Dec. '97) p. 643-68). Starkloff brings a Catholic perspective on the same topic and thus has a heightened sensitivity to the value of ritual.

My background is thoroughly Evangelical Baptist, thus the element of ritual has always been minimized unless we were talking about Wednesday night fried chicken. Americans (and Westerners in general), for a long time, neglected the importance of rituals and ceremonies in everyday life. Even the church has worked very hard at minimizing or commercializing our symbolically-rich ceremonies. The rituals that are observed have been reduced to an express version of the former. Funeral ceremonies have become lighter life celebrations. Wedding ceremonies are lightning fast and then its on to the reception. The rich symbolism is hardly given a second thought.

In this void of meaningful rituals and celebrations, individuals and groups are scrambling to create their own or dig them up from obscure corners of history. Among the ritual ideas proposed by Carole Kammen and Jodi Gold (Call to Connection: Bringing Sacred Tribal Values into Modern Life, 1998) are ceremonies for a woman’s first menstruation or the return to singleness after a divorce. They also submit ideas for ritualizing Christmas and Thanksgiving. (Kammen and Gold, 215) Isn’t it remarkable that people have to create rituals for Christmas because all they see is frenetic gift-buying and commercial hype?

Kammen and Gold demarcate a void in our culture. Their solutions, however, come off as cheaply manufactured imitation ceremonies. The fun might be as long-lasting as the novelty of a theme-party. Once it is over, it is time to move on. They are attempting to reintroduce forms without the meaning.

Evangelicals have taken the opposite approach, locating the focus squarely on the meaning devoid of ritual form. Monological exhortations (“sermons”) have become the primary focus in the primary gathering of the church. Even in churches that still celebrate the sacraments in ritual manner, the deep sense of awe and mystery seems noticeably underwhelming. It has become too staid and thus no longer a ritual that demands communitas.

This has become a meandering line of thinking. So, to rein these thoughts back in, how do we celebrate in ritual the rich meanings of Christ in forms that spur us toward liminal experiences and theretofore communitas?

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Finally Understanding Liminality

Liminality is a term used by the well-known anthropologist, Victor Turner. During my graduate studies I had a professor who was keen on the notion of liminal space. It is was consistent part of his church planting jargon, but I must confess I failed to understand the concept. I later attempted to read an academic article about Victor Turner’s use of liminality and communitas. This article only served to befuddle me further, as it was mired in uber-academic language. In my mental filing cabinet I labeled the concept as “irrelevant, only theory.” That was…until now.


I have been reading Michael Frost’s Exiles: Living Missionally in a Post-Christian Culture. When I started reading the book, I was concerned that it was going to say the same hackneyed things everyone is publishing and blogging about; emerging this, emergent that, postmodern this, deconstruct that, yada-yada-yada. I have been on board with a lot of that stuff for years, lets start getting into some more depthy material. To my pleasant astonishment, each succeeding chapter—thus far (I’m in chapter 6)—has gotten better. In chapter five, Michael Frost teaches his readers a lesson about an anthropological term. It was his explanation of liminality that turned on the lights for me.

Victor Turner studied a people group in Africa that sent boys on a coming-of-age survival journey. These candidates for adulthood are sent into the wild to fend for themselves in the elements. The interesting observation that Turner made was that there was a special kind of bond that occurred among those boys that went into the wild together. This bond was more intense than our common understanding of community. The dire circumstances pushed this group of boys to their uttermost thresholds, therefore forcing these aspiring adults to trust and help each other interdependently. These boys then share a bond that stays with them until their deaths. This kind of bond, Turner labels communitas, community at a much more intense level. The consequences of this tendency are far-reaching. Turner states:

People of societies in a liminal phase are a kind of institutional capsule or pocket which contains the germ of future social developments, of societal change. (Victor Turner, as quoted in Frost, Exiles, 110)

Since most of the readers of this blog come from cultures that have nothing resembling this coming of age ritual, what does this mean?

Frost describes his intense quest for real community and coming up short. He notices a pattern of successive generations attempting a deeper, more authentic sense of community. Each time the efforts add to a long trail bitterness and disillusionment. His observation is incisive, “But I have come to realize that aiming for the community is a bit like aiming for happiness. It’s not a goal in itself.” (Frost, Exiles, 108) He goes on to describe how going on a common quest or mission can create a liminal experience. A group that goes on a mission trip together shares a new level of community.

Frost elucidates further on this topic with many more important observations. I have long thought that being on mission together can accelerate community. But I had not yet thought about the issues in such distinct ways. I also realized that I have been guilty of promoting mission in order to create community. This is a wrong-headed approach, mission should be done because we worship God by participating in his mission (missio Dei). Community is a beautiful byproduct of being on mission in community.

Monday, July 16, 2007

A First Posting

I created a new blog in which to converse with willing interlocutors and pontificate about missiological and ecclesiological ideas. Suddenly, it came time to inaugurate my blog with a post. I was at a loss, how does one immediately jump waste deep into the deeper issues of how theology intersects with sociology and anthropology. There is a part of me that wants delve right into issues of insider movements, modalities and sodalities, and postmodern expressions of faith in Jesus. But there is another part of me that feels like a need to warm up to such issues.

An issue that currently troubles me is how to reconcile the Way of Jesus with public policy and inevitable institutionalization. A simple reading of the four biographies of Jesus in the Scriptures seems to suggest that Jesus initiated a subversive movement. It was a movement that challenged the principalities and powers (mentioned by Paul) of the day. The mere news of Jesus’ arrival launched a province-wide infanticide campaign. The high religious leaders were continually unhappy about his existence. Static theological constructs, religious institutions, and political manipulating was suddenly being unveiled as irrelevant to God’s purposes of seeing his world become in tune with his wishes.

Jesus and his band of followers seemed like a little upstart group going up against dominating powers. This insignificant group of uneducated men and women continued the struggle even after their leader’s early physical departure from earth. In a matter of three hundred years, this smattering of peasants turned into a well-oiled ecclesiastical machine. So significant was this machine that politicians began to affiliate and enemy nations became weary of Christians in their own lands. It wasn’t much longer before the church was fully in bed with the state. Accessorized with the sign of the cross, politicians, clergy, and generals exploited every ounce of power they could out of the church. But, why not? Every politician is going to pander to the majority.

It is my desire to see as many people as possible change their allegiance to the Way of Jesus. I don’t just desire a few people to do so, I want the majority of people to do so (if not all). Equipped with the teaches and example of Jesus and bolstered by ever-present companionship, the masses coming to Jesus should spark revolutions of love, reconciliation and hope. We so often talk of societal transformation due to a movement towards Christ. And to a certain degree this kind of transformation occurs. Valuing humans of every socioeconomic level regardless of gender, ethnicity, and status are by-products of whole nations becoming “Christian.” The troubling part for me, is that the church always institutionalizes and joins in the power-grab of the rest.

Why don’t we see more of a drastic change when a culture becomes more than 50% Christian? Why are places that have an overwhelming majority of its citizens going to church still mired by poverty, racism, crime, and immorality (sometimes to a worse degree than places with a minority of Jesus-followers)?


So, there it is. I start of this blog with a question, quandary really.

Friday, July 13, 2007