Friday, December 19, 2014

We Hate Youth

Over the past few months I've been reading a lot of "intro to youth ministry" kinds of books, to sort of reorient myself to what most people mean when they say "youth ministry." I suspected that I would discover (again) that the dominant approach to youth ministry is to view it as a task of development, as the church's endeavor to create mature Christian adults who do ministry and pray articulately and read the Bible a lot. But I've actually been surprised at just how strongly this suspicion has been confirmed. Even if some frame it in the less dubious (though still somewhat dubious) category of "spiritual growth," the dominant approach to youth ministry is to develop people from one thing to another and to foster maturity from immaturity. (Some have argued, of course, that youth ministry has failed at this... but if that's so, it's not for lack of trying!) And even those who've tried to see value in adolescence can't seem to help themselves from defaulting back to a developmental assumption.  

Youth ministry, as I'm rediscovering, is more about adulthood than it is about youth. It's more about the expectations of maturity than it is about locating God's action in the concrete and lived experience of adolescents themselves. It's more about where they're headed than where they are--it's about getting "from here to maturity." 

But for me, this begs the question: do we even like youth? Do we like young people? Or are we so in love with adulthood that we can't tolerate seeing adolescence as a desirable social practice? Are we so in love with maturity that we just have to influence the immature toward our standards of maturity? We seem to love youth about as much as we love a lump of clay before it becomes a pot. 

My suspicion has been that youth ministry is more about adulthood than it is about youth. This suspicion seems to be getting confirmed around every corner. And while I do not wish to contend with the fact that development is gonna happen, I wonder if our obsession with development--our preoccupation with "growth" and "formation"--has kept us from actually valuing young people. Girding ourselves in the concrete shoes of condescension, we're slow in seeing where God is at work in those places we've pre-identified as stagnant, immature, and un-adult. I fear, by grafting ministry into the work of development, we're missing out on the action of God in the location we've so arrogantly called "immaturity." 

Monday, December 08, 2014

All Lives Have Value

In the wake of the recent events in Ferguson and New York, I have been unsure what to say. At a time of racial injustice and coercive violence--a time when, as our campus minister Jan Ammon put it, " men and women and youth are losing their lives at the hands of those who are to protect them"--I have struggled to put words to the situation. In some ways I am shocked. I am shocked that now, in 2014, we still have to hear stories like these. I am shocked that now, in 2014, such autocratic abuses of power would go pretty much unpunished, even endorsed by the a country that fancies itself a global moral leader. In some ways I am frustrated. I am frustrated at the very real complexity of the situation--the fact that it's never as simple as it seems. Why are these stories being told and others ignored? Why has this controversy been so polarizing and divisive? (I only have to glance at my Facebook feed to see that not everyone is approaching this issue with the same assumptions or through the same lenses). I am frustrated by the humanity of oppressors and I am frustrated by the dehumanization of people on both sides of the controversy. And in some ways I am tragically and horrifyingly unsurprised. I am unsurprised at America's racism. I am unsurprised at the masking of murder with jargonistic euphemism. I am unsurprised that a country with violence in its veins would tolerate killing in the name of its own authority. I lament how unsurprising this whole situation really is.

I don't know what to say. I don't know how to say it without simply adding to the noise. And this is why I think that grief and lament are the most appropriate stances in the situation. While neutrality is intolerable in its own way, there is also no room for stone-throwing. Non-violent protest, specifically the die-in's that have been demonstrated across the country, make sense to me. They show solidarity and they cry for justice but they do not (at least not ideally) dehumanize or degrade. It is a way of standing in the middle, weeping for the world, saying "if only we knew the way for peace!"

Today, about 350 Princeton Theological Seminary students and faculty members participated in a demonstration in downtown Princeton (read about it here). While I struggle for words, I think I'll borrow the words that Jacqueline Nelson, moderator of the Association of Black Seminarians at PTS, shared at the demonstration:
"Our faith compels us to declare that all lives have value... Regardless of our background, color and social status, we as a church must stand on the side of justice for all and proclaim that enough is enough. We will no longer tolerate racist and oppressive systems."
God, may your kingdom come...

Monday, December 01, 2014

Theology as Autobiography

Theology is always, to some degree, autobiography. I've become convinced of this. I've heard it launched, however, as an accusation. I've heard some theologians accuse others of casting their theology in their own experience or "creating God in their own image," as though their own theology is innocent and objective; their assumption being that a good theology should drop from heaven instead of being birthed from someone's lived experience. Even if we wanted to believe that the doctrine of revelation implied that theology should be clean, without any human finger prints, I don't think we can help but speak from our own stories and relationships. I don't think we can hope to construct a theology that is not autobiographical, nor should we!

Some will be offended by this idea. Some will assume that if theology is, in some way and to some degree, birthed in human experience then it will always be self-referential, self-affirming, and ultimately self-serving. If that were the case, then I think it would be right to be offended and distressed. It would mean that there's nothing outside of us, acting upon us, and encountering our experience. But the fact is, God does act, God is outside of us, spilling over the edges of our experience. And theology, though it is autobiographical, is not merely self-referential or self-serving. In fact, because theology is autobiographical, it cuts us to our core and hits us where it hurts... challenging and transforming us in the midst of our life experience. Theology, as autobiography, is not merely a story of the self (it's not merely epistemological). Theology is a story of the self encountering God (it is an ontological collision). It is birthed in the human experience of the being and action of God. It is the story of the self encountered by God, and such an encounter does not merely affirm one in their experience, but "...awakens pain over the present internal and external enslavements of human beings" and of the self (Moltmann, On Human Dignity, 16).

Autobiography does not betray theology but, rather, gives it a heartbeat.

In my own theological work (if I can call it that) I've been working closely with Moltmann's eschatology, putting it conversation with the sociological literature of childhood studies, and directing it to the church's ministry to young people (youth ministry). The conceptual thread that runs through all of this is that human dignity precedes the assumptions of human development. Eschatology is not about development, its about redemption. And what's normative for youth ministry is not the "formation" or development of young people into maturity (even spiritual maturity), but the attention they deserve as actors in the social practice of adolescence, regardless of the standards of development imposed upon them. What's normative for youth ministry is not formation but seeking, as Andrew Root puts it, " share in the concrete and lived experience of young people as the very place to share in the act and being of God" (Bonhoeffer As Youth Worker, 7).

Not only is this autobiographical in the sense that it explicitly applies to my own experience in youth ministry, but I am discovering that it is autobiographical in that it directly challenges and convicts my own sense of self. It is ironic that I—someone who has become so obsessed with "advancing," someone whose sense of self-worth has become so dependent upon my ability to produce and perform—would choose to endeavor to write a theology of youth ministry that liberates it from gerontocentric standards of development. Perhaps I am doing this precisely because I need it and long for it. In this way my theology, though autobiographical, has been anything but merely self-affirming and self-referential. In fact, in a way, it has been painful.

I have encountered God in the very place at which I am my weakest and most frail. And I am being transformed. I think that this may be the way the doctrine of revelation works... not as a static and objective fact that drops from heaven, but as God working in the the lives of people, coming from outside our experience but, in a sense, being birthed in it.

This is, after all, the Advent season... perhaps it's appropriate to look to Mary's birthing of Jesus as a paradigm for theology. It's not just something that comes upon us, but as that which comes upon us, it comes from within us and wears our skin. 

Saturday, November 29, 2014

The Dawn Will Break Upon Us

I've always loved Christmas carols. I'm the guy who, as soon as it's culturally acceptable, usually right after Thanksgiving, turns the station to whatever radio station is playing Christmas music. By Christmas day I'm usually ready to be done, but by November, I'm already anticipating "Jingle Bells," "Frosty the Snowman," and "Chestnuts Roasting On An Open Fire." (And since my 1-year-old son, Henry, has been born, there's added joy in the season because I love finding ways, even if they don't make much sense, to insert his name into Christmas songs [i.e. "Henry the Red-Nosed Reindeer," etc.])

Perhaps that's why the Lukan infancy narrative has always been among my favorite parts of the bible. In Luke Chapter 1, we find what I like to think of as the first Christmas carols (perhaps it'd more appropriate to say "Advent hymns"). I've written before about Mary's song, which perhaps doesn't get the attention it deserves, but Zechariah's song gets even less attention. Perhaps it's because Mary's a much higher profile character in the Christmas story than Zechariah, although, in their time, Zechariah would have been a bigger deal than Mary. After all, he was a priest--and not only that, he was a priest whose wife, Elizabeth, also came from priestly stock--and Mary was just a poor girl from Nazareth. And perhaps it's because Zechariah was John the Baptist's father and, let's be honest, we don't really talk about John until closer to Lent, right?

But despite the lack of attention it receives, Zechariah's song is full of hope and exemplifies the kind of anticipation and proclamation that should be associated with the Advent season. Upon the birth of his son, Zechariah bursts into song, singing,

“Blessed be the Lord God of Israel,
for he has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them.
He has raised up a mighty savior for us in the house of his servant David,
as he spoke through the mouth of his holy prophets from of old,
that we would be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us.
Thus he has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors,
and has remembered his holy covenant,
the oath that he swore to our ancestor Abraham,
to grant us that we, being rescued from the hands of our enemies,
might serve him without fear, in holiness and righteousness before him all our days.
And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High;
for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways,
to give knowledge of salvation to his people by the forgiveness of their sins.
By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us,
to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the way of peace.” Luke 1:68-79

Now, before we break it down and look at specific part of the song, it's important to recognize its context. First, widen the lens to Zechariah's own story. Zechariah was a pretty important guy. He was a priest, married to a daughter of priests. Months before this, Zechariah was serving in the temple, something he would have done about twice a year, for a week at a time. On this rare occasion, Zechariah was chosen for an even rarer privilege. He was chosen, by lot, to offer incense in the temple, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity! But just in case you were beginning to think that John's birth was just another product of Zechariah's high standing and good fortune... just in case you thought John's birth was just the prolongation of Zechariah's present success, the story is interrupted!

See, even though Zechariah was, in all other ways, a successful and fortunate man, his wife was barren and it's implied that they were too old to conceive a child. This barrenness haunts the otherwise good fortunes that surround Zechariah's life. With all the wonderful possibilities, there is this looming impossibility.

Rather than simply developing, rather than finishing with a description of this all-important temple service, the story is interrupted... it's interrupted by an angel named Gabriel. While Zechariah is alone to offer the incense, the angel meets Zechariah not in the possibilities that surround his life, but in the impossibility. The spotlight is turned away from Zechariah's fortunes. "When Zechariah saw him, he was terrified; and fear overwhelmed him" (Luke 1:12). But the angel said to him, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you will name him John. You will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. ...even before his birth he will be filled with the Holy Spirit. He will turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God..." (Luke 1:13-16). The angel interrupts what was a story about Zechariah with a story of promise. Not only will Zechariah have a son, impossible as that is, but this son will be filled with the Holy Spirit, he'll be a prophet, and he'll turn Israel to the Lord their God. Zechariah's son John will herald the messianic age, the coming of the kingdom of God!

Now to understand the impossibility of this promise we have to widen the lens just a little further, beyond Zechariah and his situation to the people of Israel and their situation. See, Israel is the chosen people of God, but they're living under Roman rule. And, for the most part, they are living under Roman oppression. The large majority of the people of Israel, living in Palestine, are living in relative poverty, heavily taxed by the Roman authorities, including their puppet king, Herod, and heavily obligated by a religious system that demands sacrifices. Something like 5% of the population owns about 90% of the wealth, and hunger and sickness are very real and immanent threats. But perhaps the worst problem is not that Israel is ruled by Romans but that the people of God are ruled by Pagans. Israel was void of any legitimate prophets and essentially, God was silent. In a world where the power of the gods was proved by the prosperity of their people, this was a deeply existential dilemma and legitimately raised the question, is our God for real? Is our God really in control, really the one true God? Can our God possibly deliver us? Is the promise true?

Just in case you were tempted to think that the coming of the messiah and the kingdom of God were just extensions of Israel's history, the story is interrupted! It is interrupted, for Zechariah, with the announcement that his son is coming, " turn the hearts of parents to their children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord” (1:17). And just in case you thought that this interruption was a product of Zechariah's own faith and religious powers, in his unbelief he is silenced. Zechariah is made unable to speak and unable to hear until his son is born.

This is where Zechariah's song enters the story; not in the possibility of Zechariah's faithful action and not in the power of Israel's religious commitment, but in the silence of God, the silence of Zechariah, and the impossibility of human action. It is not in Zechariah's strength, but in his weakness that this song is birthed. It is not in what is becoming in the world, but what is coming into the world!

The season of Advent is a season of hope, but it is not, at its core, hope in the possibilities of the present. It is hope for God to act in the impossibility of the present. Jurgen Moltmann makes it clear that Advent is not simply about the future. He compares the concept of Advent with a simple concept of the future, he speaks of futurum and adventus. Futurum means what will be; adventus means what is coming… future in the sense of futurum develops out of the past and present, inasmuch as these hold within themselves the potentiality of becoming..." (The Coming of God, 25). He continues, “Just as the raised Christ does not develop out of the crucified and dead Christ, the novum ultimum—the ultimate new thing—does not issue from the history of the old" (28). Advent, as opposed to a simply hope in the possibilities of the future, anticipates and expects God to act, even where there is no human possibility that anything new can happen. Advent is about the expectation of the coming of God, to meet us in our weakness, and interrupt our story.

Now turning to the song itself, there are few key phrases that help us share Zechariah's Advent excitement.

He sings, "God has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them." Notice the present tense here. For Zechariah, the promise is as good as fulfilled! The future of God has entered the present and Zechariah can sing, as though it has already happened, "God's people have been redeemed!" This points to the "now and not yet" character of the Kingdom of God. In a very important and real sense, the salvation of God is not just something for which we wait. It is here and now. The heart of Jesus' message was "the Kingdom of God is among you!" (Luke 17:21). It's not just something we hope for or a place we get to go when we die. It is a present reality--or a future reality that has interrupted and transformed the present. It's true, we have been redeemed, here and now! Even while the Romans still rule, even when the present is so surrounded by impossibility, the kingdom is here!

He goes on to sing: "Thus he has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors." It may not be from Israel's own action that the Messiah comes, but it is certainly to Israel that the Messiah comes. It may not be hope from earth--from the potential of the present--but it is certainly hope for the earth! Zechariah sees this coming as a culmination of God's promises throughout history, as the validation and vindication of Israel's hope. It is an interruption, but it is an interruption of Israel's story.

"...To grant us that we, being rescued from the hands of our enemies, might serve him without fear, in holiness and righteousness before him all our days." This is both political and religious. It's not just that Israel is being restored to power... in fact, this is precisely where so many people missed the point of Jesus' message. The restoration is coming in a form that no one is expecting. But the real point of this restoration is not earthly power but the relationship of people with God.

"By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.” It is by God's tender mercy that this dawn is coming. And it's not just becoming... it's breaking upon us.

The Advent season is filled with words like "Joy" and "Hope." And these words are essential responses to the reality that we anticipate. But in this Advent season, let us remember that it is in weakness that God meets us. It is not that God expects us to ascend from our pain into joy, or to simply muster some hope from within ourselves. Instead, the joy and the hope of the coming of God breaks upon us and interrupts our pain and our weakness with the announcement that we will be saved.

Monday, November 17, 2014

A Short Reflection on Eschatology

"A promise is a declaration which announces the coming of a reality that does not yet exist... If it is a case of a divine promise, then that indicates that the expected future does not have to develop within the framework of the possibilities inherent in the present, but arises from that which is possible to the God of promise. This can also be something which by the standard of present experience appears impossible." Jürgen Moltmann (Theology of Hope, 103).
An eschatology which is projected from the present into the future, as a goal to be developed from the potential which exists in the present to fulfill it, is forced to work from possibility and reject the impossible. It is forced to harvest potential and reject that which has none. It begs for glory and rejects the cross. But an eschatology which is constructed "in light of its future goal" (Moltmann, 18), which does not correspond to but contradicts the present, which does not project itself into the future from the present but speaks judgement back upon the present from the future, gives hope not just to that which in the present has potential to be developed but has "hope for the whole of reality" (34). It depends not on the possibility of human action, but on God's action born from impossibility. It is the eschatology which can only be promised to the world through the event of God's raising the crucified Jesus to life from death. It "...sees in [Jesus] the future of the very humanity for which he died..." the humanity which does not escape but suffers death. "That is why it finds the cross the hope of the earth" (21). Therefore, as Paul concluded, "...your labor is not in vain" (1 Corinthians 15:58), even when that labor finds its object in the hopeless and broken present. For it is not the impossibility of our present but the possibility of God's future which sets the terms for our hope.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Youth Ministry As Ministry

This past weekend, I had the opportunity to go to the Youth Cartel Summit conference in Nashville, Tennessee. This was my first time in Nashville, so it was a fun experience just for that! Besides being in a fun city, the conference had a lot going for it. It was a creative format that allowed for deeper conversations. Rather than offering a bunch of seminars with "big stage" lectures dispersed throughout, Summit offered sessions featuring five or six short presentations (like mini-lectures) followed by a "digging deeper" session in which you were able to choose which speaker you wanted to engage more fully in a smaller group. You got a gist of what each speaker wanted to offer and then you got to pick one offering with which you wanted to get deeper. It was a really nice format with some really great speakers!

I've been to a lot of youth ministry conferences and seminars about youth ministry. And after this one, I've been reflecting on how we in the youth ministry world tend to talk about youth ministry. I'm not implicating the Youth Cartel in anything here. It's just a reality in youth ministry that I noticed again this weekend. We define youth ministry in so many different terms. If I were to survey the people at Summit, Youth Specialties, or the Princeton Forum, for example, and asked them to fill in the blank: "youth ministry is ________" I'd get a plurality of responses. We define youth ministry according to "mission," "formation," "discipleship," "teaching," "growth," even "development"... and there's nothing fundamentally wrong with all of these things. Most of the terms we use to describe and define youth ministry are appropriate, they're at least an important part of youth ministry... but why don't we think to define youth ministry according to the very word by which we refer to the practice--"ministry"? Why do we feel we have to find other words when youth ministry is, in fact, ministry

We define our youth ministries according to what we want to get out of them, according to the "telos", the place we want to lead the kids in our care. But if youth ministry is indeed ministry, then why isn't it defined as ministering to youth, meeting them where they are, loving them as they are, and leading them from there (if leading is still to be appropriate)? Why is youth ministry, in academic institutions such as Princeton Theological Seminary, designated under the heading "Education and Formation" instead of "Pastoral Care"?

I think what has happened is youth workers and leading thinkers in the world of youth ministry have reacted against the archaic ethos of youth ministry as "ministering to youth" as passive recipients of Christian ministry. Appropriately, they've advocated for youth as active members of the church and agents of Christian ministry (they're right to do this!). They wanted youth ministry not just to be the church's ministry to the youth and for the youth, but ministry of the youth. Appropriately, they wanted youth to see youth ministry as their ministry in and as the church. The problem, however, is that the pendulum has swung too far. By putting the ministry of the youth at the fore, the ministry to the youth has suffered and ministry's demands and claims upon the lives of young people have become normative.

When the church's ministry to the youth puts the ministry of the youth--the expectation that youth will be formed into mature Christian adults or active agents of Christian ministry--before itself in such a strong way, then it tends to its own destruction. Let me say it another way: when ministry is so fundamentally about forming and "discipling" (whatever people mean by that term), then it no longer has a reason to apply to those who are not being formed, who will not conform themselves to the patterns of Christian ministry, or to those standards by which the church measures the success of its "mission." We must not forget that youth ministry is still ministry!--ministry to and not just of  the youth.

If we allow youth ministry to be ministry, then we are free to measure our success not by the output (the telos) but by the input (my friends Justin Forbes and Marcus Hong both helped me articulate it in this way). The "fruit of the Spirit" become just that--fruit of the Spirit, not the fruit of our labor. We can measure the success of our ministry not by the fruit we produce, but by the fruit the Spirit produces in us when we love kids, share their joy, nurture their peace, are patient with them (even if they don't want to do what think they should do), show them kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. If ministry to the youth is normative, then there is "no law against these things" (Gal. 5:22-23). We are free to minister to the kids in our care and trust God that formation and development will emerge therefrom.

Saturday, November 08, 2014

The Ontological Priority of the Future and the Dignity of the Present

I've been toying with how we can and should think about the future in theology and ministry for a while now. I've vacillated between speaking of the future as having "ontological priority" over the present and giving the present its own dignity by reserving from it any normative subordination to the future. I am trying to somehow strike a balance not by weakening the claim on either side but by saying both of these things strongly. I think that incarnation is the key to unlocking the dignity of the present under the ontological priority of the future. Here's me trying it on:

Since God's revelation of Godself always corresponds ontologically to God--since, as Ray S. Anderson says, "God's act of reconciliation is simultaneously God's Word of Revelation"--whatever new action or experience was taken into the life and being of God in Jesus Christ was true of God already according to the word of promise. Whatever new action or experience is taken into the life and being of God in the future is only new according to epistemology. Ontologically, however, the new corresponds wholly to God as God's very being and has always been descriptive of God. Whatever will be true in the future is true in the present according to promise. It is in this way that the future has ontological priority over the present. If God is revealed in history, then God is revealed in the transcendence of the future over the immanence of the present. If God is revealed in history, in the history of Jesus Christ, then the full disclosure of God is ultimately provisional as long as the present is open to the possibilities of the present. As long as the future is undisclosed, the revelation of God includes the hiddenness of God and a hope which relies on promise. As Andrew Zirschky just said, moments ago at the youth ministry conference from which I'm writing this post, "While the doctrine of Revelation is about the knowledge of God, it is also about the hiddenness of God."

Jesus Christ, therefore, as "...the image of the invisible God..." in whom "...all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell" (Col 1:15-19) is truly "the first fruits" (1 Corinthians 15:20) of the new thing that God is doing and will do in the world. He is God and therefore brings the future into the present in body and in spirit. He is the ultimate word of promise through whom we receive birth into a "living hope" (1 Peter 1:3). The Revelation of God in Jesus is without provision or reservation, but it is a revelation which has not only come but is coming. In Jesus' coming, in his death and resurrection (do not miss that this includes death!), the hiddenness of God is revealed. In Jesus, hiddenness is not resolved, but it is revealed. He comes to us as a promise, the disclosure of that yet-to-be-disclosed future.  Jürgen Moltmann wrote, " is proclaimed that [Jesus] is himself the resurrection and the life and that consequently believers find their future in him and not merely like him. Hence they wait for their future by waiting for his future" (Theology of Hope, 83). There is no future of God or for Christians but the future of Jesus Christ, there is not a future which does not correspond to the future of the crucified man from Nazareth. So now, the revelation of God is hope. We are liberated by hope to reject those things which do not correspond to the future of the crucified Jesus. War, famine, racism, sexism, discrimination, hunger, tyranny, dominance, poverty, death--we cannot hope for a future with these things. The expectation of these constitutes the sin of despair. The Revelation of God in Jesus Christ is the future of promised in resurrection.

To say "Jesus Christ" is to speak of transcendence in particularity (the "scandal of particularity"!). A universal promise is made in the life, death, and resurrection of one particular human being. This is, therefore, a promise not just for a cosmic ideal, but for the very ground on which the feet of Jesus walk, the very ground on which the cross of Christ stands. Therefore, hope if not exclusively about potential. When we orient our focus toward the potential which the present has to extend itself into the cosmic ideal of the future, we strip the present of its dignity. Not our true present, but only that present which can be developed into the future has value, and therefore the crucified are damned to their crosses. The revelation of God in Jesus Christ extends a different relationship of the future to the present. As Moltmann writes,“[Faith] sees in the resurrection of Christ not the eternity of heaven, but the future of the very earth on which his cross stands. It sees in him the future of the very humanity for which he died. That is why it finds the cross the hope of the earth" (Theology of Hope, 21). And as he says elsewhere, "Hope accepts the 'cross of the the present' in the 'power of the resurrection.' It takes upon itself the real unredeemed state of the present as it is, the torture and the pain of the negative, without resignation and without illusion." (Hope for the Church, 11). The present, therefore is not ruled by the future, but embraced and accepted by it. It does not demand the development of the present into the future, but proclaims the present's true dignity as not the future of its potential, but the future of Jesus Christ who dies in the darkness of the present. The future hope, therefore, has very little to do with optimism, development, or the work ethic of those who strategize to achieve a future for the present. It has, however, to do with the redemption of the present according to the power of the Holy Spirit through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Tuesday, November 04, 2014

Can the Gospel be Tweeted?

Several days ago I asked people to tweet the gospel. It was supposed to be an experiment of sorts, just to see how and if it could be done. In thinking about the dominance of social media in our culture as the vehicle and catalyst of human interaction, even as a location for community and communion, my friends and I wanted to know if the gospel could be shared there as well. Of course, if community and communion can happen on Twitter, then surely the gospel can too!

I didn't get a lot of response--perhaps people were as hesitant as I would be about trying to put the gospel into 140 characters or fewer--but some of the ways that this has been done include tweets like:
"Jesus is risen!"
"God gave life, sin brought death, man fell, Jesus came, death died, Jesus lives, and you can too!" "Jesus loves me this I know for the Bible tells me so."
"God is love"
"Jesus is God, God loves you, you can be forgiven."
"No Jesus, no heaven. Know Jesus, know heaven"

Now, entangled in this is the question, what is the gospel? What is the good news to which we sometimes so casually refer? Is the gospel something that can be summed up in 140 characters or even a whole book? Can it fit in a tweet? Can it fit on a bumper sticker? Is it something we can put into words at all?

When the gospel writers of the New Testament endeavored to offer the gospel, the good news, they didn't offer a statement or a thesis or even Creed. Instead, the gospel writers wrote stories. They described relationships, they made it personal because when they wanted to tell the gospel, they wanted to tell a person. They didn't merely want to offer information about Jesus. They wanted to offer Jesus.

See, we can sympathize with information. We can even become inspired by and passionate about information. But we cannot empathize with it. We can only empathize with persons. The fact is, even the gospels themselves aren't the gospel. The point of a story is never the story itself. The point of our stories is not the information they convey about us. The point is us. The point is the person. And we tell stories of persons in their relationships with other persons because persons are their relationships. The gospel narratives are not the gospel, they are stories about a person because the gospel is a person. The gospel is Jesus Christ himself whose very person is the person of God. Eberhard Jüngel wrote, “if thinking wants to think God, then it must endeavor to tell stories.”

That's what we miss when we "tweet the gospel." In a tweet, and in social media in general, we can share information. If we dig deep enough there the stories can be found and the persons can be encountered, even if only in some provisional way. But we usually satisfy ourselves with sympathy when what we really need is empathy. We satisfy ourselves with the safe distance of pictures and posts, when to truly encounter a person we need the person themselves--their relationships, their history, even their body. Social media will always only be a provisional form of encounter because every element of presence we can capture from a computer screen will always be conditioned and shrouded by the absence of the persons themselves.

So when we endeavor to tweet the gospel, we must endeavor to tell stories because stories point beyond themselves. Whatever we say when we say the gospel must always recognize that the gospel cannot be said. It must be encountered. Jesus is the gospel. 

Monday, November 03, 2014

Christology Matters: A Brief Review of 'The Jesus Gap'

This weekend, since I have so much extra time on my hands (not true!), I decided to read Jen Bradbury's new book The Jesus Gap.

To be honest, it took me a couple chapters to appreciate what she was up to with this book. I was, first of all, tempted to nitpick all her theological points and demand stronger development of the Christology she considered to be "orthodox." But then I realized that while I think the questions I have regarding the theological presuppositions of the book are important, they really only distract from what's really happening here.

Jen Bradbury is not a professional theologian, per se, but she thinks that theology actually matters. And that's no small thing. In a field/profession/practice that has dominantly operated on the pragmatic and methodological level, reserving its theological reflection to the halls of the academy, Bradbury reminds youth workers that what our kids confess concerning the person of Christ actually matters. Bradbury turns the dial, even if just a notch, in the right direction. This book will help youth workers. She's not trying to build a Christology from scratch, but with the conviction that Christology matters, she uses some key Christological perspectives to expose a gap between what churches think they're teaching and what kids are actually learning and believing. Academic theologians will have to extend grace if they're going to appreciate what this book is actually about. Bradbury is a practitioner. She's not offering a new theological paradigm for youth ministry or anything like that. In fact, I'd say she's still operating largely on the methodological level. But she is inviting us to reorient our strategies away from merely getting kids to stay in church and toward the normativity of the gospel of Jesus Christ. She asks a wonderful and welcome question, "Why is it that we're more concerned with people leaving the church than we are with the church leaving Jesus?" (207). A great question, indeed! 

Thursday, October 30, 2014

The Practical is Theological

The reason I switched majors from Youth Ministry to Theology when I was in college was not that I didn't care about youth ministry. I never really stopped caring about youth ministry. It was and always has been my passion. However, because it was my passion, I couldn't stand it when people refused to see or dismissed the fundamental theological nature of the practice. I was frustrated by a program which centralized social sciences (psychology in particular) and even the methodological over against theology and the theological. At best, the dominant voices in the program used theology as justification, but there was a general anxiety to rush past any theological question that didn't seem practical, or to only illuminate those parts of the theological conversation which were obviously and immediately practical. The assumption was that theology must be practical and if it wasn't, then it was irrelevant. Theology, in its own right wasn't taken very seriously. Rather than allowing the practical to emerge from the theological, in some sense, the round peg of the theological was forced into the square hole of the practical... and when it didn't fit after being pounded with a hammer, it was tossed out.

My young peers in the practical theology department were probably as frustrated with me as I was with them. When they wanted to skim past a theological question, I was stubborn in staying with it. I insisted that it mattered how we perceived, for example, the divine presence in creation (was it really just a vertical relationship while human relationships are horizontal? I can remember one professor rolling his eyes at me when I stopped the class to question this assumption. He wanted to move on to the "real" point of the conversation). By and large, theology was a sort of obstacle, a speed bump (and, I should say, the people with greater theological affinities probably saw it as a necessary speed bump) we had to pass over, because we're good Christians, on the path to the practical. But I couldn't help but think that it had to be more important, it had to be essential, it had to be not just a speed bump on the path but the path itself as well as the destination.

If aspiring practical theologians don't stop seeing the theological as a speed-bump on the path to the practical, then they should admit that they are not practical theologians. They might be practitioners with certain theological affinities, but practical theologians don't merely insist that the theological must be practical (and thus roll their eyes at theological discussions which don't make themselves immediately applicable or accessible) but that the practical is fundamentally theological.