Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Swinging From The Chandelier: On Regret in Youth Ministry

In the church, alcoholism (in its various forms) is usually somewhat coldly approached as primarily a moral issue, especially when it exists among teenagers. Too often our ministry to young people is dominated by a kind of moralistic fear. Christianity is made into a moral code (including the reading of scripture as a moral virtue), and youth ministry becomes about making sure kids behave morally (though, instead, we use the word "Biblically" or "Christ-like").  In our preaching to youth and in our communication to adults as well, we use partying and alcoholism as typologies for sinful living. The person who drinks too much is synonymous with someone who's life is a mess. And while it's true that alcoholism does make one's life into a mess, by framing it the way we do, the guilt of the alcoholic individual is solely emphasized. But what if, instead of criminalizing alcohol and partying by focusing our vision on guilt, we considered the deeper, more ontological, issue of shame--the issue of the person desperately trying to hold their identity together?

I'm not usually one to get obsessed with pop-music, and it might just be because my family is out of town and I have too much time on my hands, but lately I've been addicted to Sia. My wife, Amanda, introduced me to her music pretty recently and I wasn't that interested at first. But lately, I find myself clicking from one youtube video to another, captivated by her music and her voice. Her video of "Chandelier" has been wildly popular, featuring 11 year-old Maddie Ziegler of Dance Moms. I'm not sure how much thought most people are putting into the song and the video--many, I'm sure, hear it as just another pop-song about partying--but with its serious (even dark) tone, it's far deeper than just a cool video with impressive choreography. The relevance to youth ministry should be unmistakable, not only because of the subject and content of the lyrics but also because of the implications of an innocent 11 year-old dancing to it. This is not someone on whom we would be compelled to pass moral judgement, and yet here she is, swinging from the chandelier, as it were.



I'm surely not qualified to analyze this video too technically, but I do think we have a lot to gain from thinking about it. There's a tragic sense to it, even in the facial expressions of Ziegler. There's this sense of pain and shame that bubbles beneath the surface of each smile, each stare. There's vacillation between joviality, innocence, and desperation. The choreography is a blend of beauty, sadness, and silliness. And the lyrics match these sentiments. It's worth mentioning, too, that when Sia performs this song live, she hides on stage, her face invisible to the audience (either hiding in the corner or face down on a bed while someone dances in the foreground). Not only does this shift the focus away from her as Sia and onto the child or the drama under the spotlight, but it points to the detachment of the performer from her audience, the detachment of the person from community. Through all of this, she highlights the problems of alcoholism, but quite differently than we normally do in youth ministry--centering not on guilt (indeed, decidedly not on guilt) but on shame--not morally but, in a sense, ontologically. The issue is alcoholism, but the issue really isn't alcoholism. The issue is shame, the depletion of self, and the refusal to regret.

In my own experience in ministering to kids in the church, I've noticed a propensity to detachment from regret, a detachment from community, a suppression of deep feelings of shame. I can remember specific times, in discussing with kids some of the less positive choices they've made,  when talking about forgiveness of guilt just didn't seem to be the right antidote because they didn't really feel guilty.  In fact, while they could admit that their decisions may have been poor, they refused to really deal with them at all as burdens. "I did what I did. Mistakes are how you learn in life. So I don't regret it. YOLO." It was another way of saying, "I don't want to deal with regrets, I don't want to bear the burden, so I'm just not going to regret." And thus, they disconnect themselves from the people with whom they should be in community, dealing with problems and bearing one another's burdens. They turn, instead, to more and more mechanisms of detachment, suppression, and isolation (i.e. the party scene or narcotics or maybe even online gaming).

In the second phase of a longitudinal study of youth and religion, researchers encountered this refusal to regret and the subsequent disconnect from any depth of community. In his forthcoming book, Bonhoeffer as Youth Worker, Andrew Root mentions this. Taking cues from Christian Smith, he writes,
[Young people] told many stories to the interviewers, tales of incidents and episodes that led to brokenness, pain, and devastation. But as Smith says, they refused to say they regret these happenings...It seems this generation, for cultural reasons, has chosen to regret nothing, saying things like, 'yeah, I got pregnant, had an abortion, became addicted to alcohol, and lost a job before moving in with a guy that was totally bad for me, and all this hurt my relationship with my mom. But honestly, I don't regret it; it's just what it is.' This very mentality shows that there are significant events to regret but that the young person has chosen not to. But choosing not to...takes her farther and farther from community (207-208). 
Perhaps the "cultural reasons" to which Root refers are precisely the dominant insistence upon treating these things all primarily as moral issues, thus piling guilt on top of shame. In order to avoid the guilt, they suppress the shame.  Sia--not only in her intentionally and beautifully crafted choreography in the video but also in her live performances of the song, facing away from her audience--testifies to both the shame and the subsequent disconnect that happens in the suppression of shame. In churches we perpetuate the refusal to regret when we oppose all sin as immorality and when we elevate superstar spirituality over brutal honesty. We create spaces in which bearing one another's burdens is actually counterintuitive, where moral perfection and conquest of sin is the goal. Instead we increase burden by communicating that, in fact, they should have no regrets because regrets morally wrong.

What I think we in youth ministry can learn from Sia and, more importantly, from kids themselves, is that the issue with alcoholism and things like it is not so much the alcoholism itself. It is not, at least in this context, to be treated as a static moral choice. Rather, the real issue is shame... more importantly, the suppression of shame. Perhaps, above all, what we need from our youth ministries is not new mechanisms to keep kids sober and well behaved. Perhaps, instead, we need our youth ministries to become safe places for kids to regret with one another, to share their regrets and to bear one another's burdens. What we need is for youth ministries to be communities of confession (not just sharing lists of the bad things we don't regret, but actually confessing them as regrets), where shame is real and grace (not just forgiveness) is proclaimed, where we are accepted and affirmed even in all our weakness. All in all, we need youth ministries to be communities--real communities where honesty is valued above any ideal of good behavior or moral purity--where young people are invited out from the corner and into the foreground.

Monday, August 18, 2014

The Collection's "Ars Moriendi"

I don't write about music very often. I'm certainly not qualified to be a music critic. But every once in a while an album or an artist comes along and I can't help but say something. I've written about The Collection at least once before (here). Ever since their music was first introduced to me, I've been captivated by it and intrigued by the complex blend of theological depth and sheer honesty in their lyrics. Their newest album, Ars Moriendi ("The Art of Dying), is an sustained reflection on death and is as deep and captivating as ever.

From their Kickstarter page:
Why do we die? What happens to us when we die? Why do we have life? How do we make the most of the time we have? None of those are new questions, but they have been recently and frequently brought up in our minds. At the same time, we see ways that, in our world, things get reborn and re-used for new and beautiful purposes. A tree cut down can be a violin making beautiful music. Spent fruit becomes fertilizer for more living things. Nothing stays dead; it all resurrects! Through the tough wrestling of death, we've started to see ways that new life has sprung.
Having recently read Jürgen Moltmann's reflections on death and dying, I have a fresh appreciation for the ethos of this album. Moltmann writes,
…Christian hope is the power of resurrection from life’s failures and defeats. It is the power for the new beginning at the point where guilt has made life impossible… Through his divine raising from the dead, Christ’s hope-less end became his true beginning. If we remember that, we shall not give ourselves up, but shall expect that in every end a new beginning lies hidden (In The End—The Beginning, ix). 
Christian hope, in other words, doesn’t avoid or deny the reality of death and the impossibility of the present, but it does look toward resurrection. It takes death quite seriously for what it is, even accepting it as an end, but in the midst of death it sees God’s identification with the crucified Jesus in his resurrection, it sees the presence and promise of the God of resurrection, and thus sees in every end, a beginning. Hope, properly understood, does not demand of us an ascent from hopelessness but itself descends with a word of promise into the reality of death and hopelessness. It promises resurrection. With hope dripping from every note, Ars Moriendi descends with a word of promise. 

In their reflections on death, The Collection's lyrics are not without their political overtones. They press against the impulses of any kind of hope which intends on avoiding or denying death. The kind of hope which justifies the perpetuation of power through violence, for example, a hope which wields death in order to avoid death is rejected. In The song "Garden," for example, they sing, "So I shot a man in Afghanistan... he said his name was Jesus and he never had an army. As he took his dying breath, the last thing that he thought he’d tell me is 'Its better to die for nothing than to kill just for your country.'”

The themes of the album point to the theology of the cross and not without the appropriate and ironic sense of hope. We're asked to look in the unexpected places, the dark and dirty places to find the presence of God. One pointed lyric says, "You walked around and you planted seeds, your kingdom came up from among the weeds and the men all cried while staring at the trees saying, 'what are we supposed to see?'" The whole album carries in it a somewhat ironic but altogether appropriate tone of hopefulness, even in naming and reflecting on death. A lyric which may, in a sense, capture the ethos of the album says, "And the weight of the world does not rest on your shoulders. No, it strains and it bends on the same arms that hope sends.  So don’t carry it now! Lower it down! When faith dies and hope flies, then love must prevail or else this all means nothing."

Ars Moriendi is a beautiful album, musically as well as theologically. 
 

A Review of "Bonhoeffer as Youth Worker" by Andrew Root

http://www.amazon.com/Bonhoeffer-Youth-Worker-Theological-Discipleship/dp/0801049059I was recently able to read Andrew Root's forthcoming book, Bonhoeffer as Youth Worker (coming out this October)In this book, Andrew Root--a pioneering theologian of youth ministry--once again takes a courageous step by offering a book that will appeal both to youth workers and to theologians (particularly, in this case, Bonhoeffer scholars). For the Bonhoeffer scholar, he offers Bonhoeffer's ministry to young people as a hermeneutical lens for interpreting his life and work. Conscious of the "Bonhoeffer phenomenon"--in which everybody tries to claim Bonhoeffer as their own (as the ultimate evangelical or the ultimate political radical, or the ultimate liberal) by zeroing in on one aspect of his thought or experience of his life--Root looks to present Bonhoeffer's youth ministry as a consistent lens for understanding his development of thought. Bonhoeffer's theology didn't develop out of the ether, but emerged from his relationships and from his engagement in the concrete lived experience of the young people to whom he ministered throughout his life. Bonhoeffer scholars who read this book will see Bonhoeffer in a new light. Reading him as a youth worker allows for a fresh perspective on the great German theologian which gives potential to new contextual interpretations of his theology.

To youth workers, Root offers Bonhoeffer as the "forefather" of the "theological turn in youth ministry." Identifying the theological turn specifically as ministry which "seeks to share in the concrete and lived experience of young people as the very place to share in the act and being of God," Root shows how Bonhoeffer pioneered this turn in his own youth ministry and, in so doing, Root offers Bonhoeffer to youth workers as a great teacher, their forefather. Youth workers who read this book will find in the life of Bonhoeffer examples of relational youth ministry that will enhance and challenge contemporary youth ministry strategies. The final two chapters of the book will be of significant importance (in fact, they could be read on their own) for youth workers as Root walks through the implications that Bonhoeffer's two most popular works have for the practice of youth ministry. He will challenge the ways we typically think of discipleship and community and challenge us to new ways of ministering to the young people in our churches.

Andrew Root says in his introduction that "this books comes out of great joy." This was not, first and foremost, a book written out of necessity, but a book that Root simply wanted to write. On each page, Root's joy in the project comes forth and it's truly a blessing to the reader who shares in this joy. The book is just seeping with insight and it's truly a pleasure to read.

You can preorder your copy of Bonhoeffer as Youth Worker now and get it as soon as it comes out in October.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

The Feed Truck?

Innovation and creativity are not highly valued in every church setting. Many will pay lip service to such things, but most churches are quite comfortable in conventionality. They might have some interest in painting the walls a different color, but the structure is altogether fine. Now, I am, in fact, fairly comfortable with convention and I don't think there's anything necessarily wrong with that. I'm totally fine with a church that just wants to worship God together and participate in God's ministry, and if that doesn't involve "thinking outside the box" so much, then so be it. You can be creative in ministry without being "original," as it were. But the church needs expressions of ministry that don't fit the norm of conventional church structures. The church needs people who are willing to do crazy things and really think outside the box. The church, especially now, needs innovative people to do innovative things.

Well, the church of which I'm currently a part is doing some interesting things in terms of its mission/ministry to the community. I'm sure it's not the first church to take up something like this, but given the fact that it's a fairly traditional United Methodist Church in New Jersey, I think starting a Food Truck is a little outside the box. They're not just starting a Food Truck as a way to covertly evangelize the community. They're doing it, I think, in order to be a witness of ethical business, ecological responsibility, and healthy social engagement. Check out the website and read about their hopes for their ministry. The folks who are behind this are some of the most genuine and creative people I've ever worked with.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Why Jüngel for Andrew Root?

After reading Andrew Root's Christopraxis a couple of months ago and talking through it with some friends, there was a question that lingered for me. Why Eberhard Jüngel?

In the past, Root's clearest influence has been Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Of course, he displays that his theological sources are manifold in his various works, drawing off of Kiekegaard, Barth, Douglas John Hall, Kathryn Tanner, Ray Anderson, and even Moltmann with consistency (not to mention the folks to whom he looks in his interdisciplinary turns; such as Christian Smith, Jeremy Rifkin, Martin Buber, and others). But in his book Christopraxis, something of a foundation defining work for Root (if not a field-defining work for everyone who does practical theology like he does), Root introduces in full force what most readers will see as a new conversation partner. Before Christopraxis, unless I'm missing something, Root only used Jüngel in one section of one chapter in The Theological Turn in Youth Ministry, and only a few times in the later chapters of The Promise of Despair. With all these other more familiar conversation partners, why turn to Jüngel? Why, especially, turn to someone so extremely technical? After reading Christopraxis I went and read Jüngel's God as Mystery of the World and I'll just say, it was no easy read (I read God's Being is in Becoming last summer and it wasn't much easier). Also, why turn to someone to whom readers of practical theology in the United States are likely oblivious? Why, when Moltmann and Bonhoeffer are sitting on the sidelines, would you start Jüngel? Was Root just flexing his theological muscles or was this choice more intentional?

Without getting too technical with Jüngel's theology, I wanna offer a perspective on why it was not only rational for Root to engage Jüngel, but pretty brilliant.

In Christopraxis, more than ever before, Root situates himself in the broad spectrum of practical theological reflection. While in previous works, Root has had one clear opponent (whether it be "influence" in Revisiting Relational Youth Ministry or "Individualism" in The Relational Pastor) against which he clarifies his position. But in Christopraxis he positions himself between two extremes (and, as always, it's for the reader to decide on the validity of the cosmology). Where by positioning himself against influence in Revisiting, Root may have lead people to criticize him for being of the opposite extreme, in Christopraxis he makes sure the reader won't make that mistake. Positioning himself in a "critical realist" perspective, Root rejects both "upward" and "downward" conflations of reality. Neither reducing everything into epistemology (i.e. the "epistemic fallacy," 194-197), nor negating the epistemological into the ontological (perhaps by speaking of reality only from the "divine side" as Root seems to think Andrew Purves does, 75-83). For Root, practical theology is about divine and human encounter. It favors ontology, the real, over epistemology, but does so with clear attention to human experience (particularly, human experience of divine action). As Root writes, "...practical theology should reflect deeply on human action, but it should do so as ministry, exploring empirically the shape of human ministry as encounter with distinct human subjects that witness to participation through action in the divine being itself" (170). Human experience is thus, in a sense, the text to be exegeted, but only within a framework in which "reality [or ontology] always overspills our epistemological conceptions" (192). Or to put it another way, "critical realism heightens the importance of practical experience and yet does so by opening avenues for practical experience to actually be true experiences of divine encounter" (221). To put it simply, Root never wants to confuse human action with divine action or God's freedom with human freedom. Mobalized by the theology of the cross, which positions God's being squarely within human experience but also confesses the impossibility of human action, Root is able to do what practical theology has had a hard time doing--namely, attending both to "time and eternity" or divine action and human action in proper relation. Thus, his practical theological method is defined neither by the narrow application of doctrine, nor by the mechanical focus on human practices, but by attendance to divine and human encounter.

We can see this pattern throughout Root's work. In giving credibility to youth ministry as a theological endeavor (or "taking theology to youth ministry"), which has been, I believe, his most significant contribution to the practical theological world, he's never been about simply teaching theology to kids nor has been about creating strategic and effective systems or practices. He's always been about the theological. In his forthcoming book, Bonhoeffer as Youth Worker, he describes this theological turn.
"A youth ministry that turns to theology seeks to move young people into forms of formal knowledge (to assimilate to the doctrinal). A youth ministry bound in the technological seeks to increase numbers and behavior. A youth ministry that turns to the theological seeks to share in the concrete and lived experience of young people as the very place to share in the act and being of God."
Again, we can see the insistance upon the importance of concrete lived experience (i.e. his rejection of the "theology" turn, or applied doctrine), but also insistence upon the centrality of divine action (i.e. his rejection of youth ministry as "technology"). And we see this throughout his work (one could say that he saw both the turn to "theology" and the "technological" in the influenced-based relational theology with which he took issue in Revisiting).

So, again, why Jüngel?

While Bonhoeffer is certainly the most important conversation partner in discussing the shape of the pillar of youth ministry and its theological rationale, Jüngel offers a structural framework on which the pillar can stand--one which profoundly resonates with Root's anxiety to preserve divine action and human experience in proper reference and relation. Since, as I said, Jüngel is such a hard read, I'll take my cues from John Webster (his book Eberhard Jüngel: an introduction to his theology) who says of Jüngel that "...above all he is anxious to avoid a reduction of the two-foldness of God and man to a single, self-consistent stratum" (4). While Douglas John Hall's and Moltmann's (not to mention Bonhoeffer's) theologies  of the cross are certainly (at least broadly) consistent with Root's, the anxiety of preserving divine and human identity is perhaps less explicit. Moltmann, for example, certainly with Theology of Hope and The Crucified God representing two sides of the same coin, resonates with Jüngel's motif of "the unity of life and death in favour of life" (see 71). But rarely is this underlying anxiety to "...elude any polarisation of divine and human freedom" (63) so explicit and technically constructed as it is throughout Jüngel's corpus. Webster writes of Jüngel's anthropology, "properly to distinguish between God and man is to affirm that they constitute irreducible duality in which neither is to be absorbed into the other" (93). It is from this vantage point, this theological commitment, that both Andrew Root and Eberhard Jüngel launch their theological projects. And it is this commitment to maintain the importance of human action without conflating it with the divine (and vice versa) that defines and pervades Jüngel's theology of the cross more explicitly than perhaps anyone else. "He puts down a challenge..." one which Root takes up, "to demonstrate on the basis of a theology of grace that human agency is interesting and important" (129). This makes him not only a logical but a brilliant conversation partner for Andrew Root. Employing Jüngel, Root avoids both of the extremes between which he wishes to situate himself, allowing him to remain biblical without being biblicist, personal without being impositional, and theological without being "doctrinal."

Saturday, August 09, 2014

The Myth of "Homosexual Practice"

My friend and former professor, Adam Ackley, recently wrote a great article for Huffington Post ("Better to Marry": For Christians, Gay Marriage -- Not Celibacy) about a trend in evangelicalism of churches willing to accept gay people as long as they remain celibate. Some see this as progress, given the fact that many of these same churches used to be of the persuasion that homosexuals should be “cured” through “reparative therapy” (which is now, as Ackley notes, illegal in many places). But Ackley is less thrilled. He writes, “…as a scholar of religion who is gay (and—by the way—currently celibate), I staunchly oppose this heretical Christian claim that the rare spiritual gift of and vocation to celibacy is automatically to be assigned to an entire group of people merely because of their affectional or sexual orientation (the gender of the two partners in a committed couple).” Ackley is clear and helpful in pointing out that sexual orientation does not imply a spiritual gift of celibacy. “Being gay and Christian does NOT automatically imply that one possesses what the Bible itself describes as a rare spiritual vocation or gift -- lifelong celibacy…”

This evangelical trend of demand for celibacy is, in fact, not new. It’s reminiscent of some of the language that some mainline denominations adopted, in early attempts to deal with LGBTQ identity in sexual ethics, wherein a distinction was made between homosexuality (read: LGBTQ identity or orientation) and “homosexual practice” (read: sexual activity in same-sex relationships). The demand for celibacy is dependent upon this distinction—the distinction between action and identity or between orientation and practice. By imposing the term "homosexual practice", they’re able to condone homosexuality (as an orientation) while still condemning the action (sexual activity in same-sex relationships). These churches, I imagine, think they’ve found a way to be accepting of homosexual people without having to accept homosexual activity. They think they can claim openness and still protect their heteronormative agenda.

The fundamental issue with trying to make such distinctions is that personhood is more complex than that. "Homosexual practice" is a myth. There is no healthy or authentic way to separate sexual practice from sexual identity. Personhood emerges from a complex web of interdependent relations including sexuality. One cannot isolate sexuality from the whole and suppress any action which appropriately corresponds thereto. Being and action cannot be separated. They are two sides of the same coin.

We don’t make distinctions between orientation and practice in heterosexuality. In fact, most of us would say it would be unhealthy to do so (except, perhaps, in the case of one given the “gift of celibacy”). This distinction is not one which LGBTQ people would apply to themselves either. It is the invention of heteronormativity, for the preservation of heteronormativity, being imposed on LGBTQ people. Indeed I have had colleagues who are gay and lesbian share their frustration with me saying things like, “My sexuality cannot be severed from my identity… Christians may think they’re being more loving by accepting me without my ‘sexuality’ but their efforts actually hurt more, as I see it all still feels like rejection…” Distinguishing practice from identity, orientation from action, and attraction from activity is just rejection in a more subtle form. And in a way, it's more devious for it tries to pass itself off as acceptance and openness.

If a church wants to continue to condemn same-sex relationships, let them do it honestly. The demand for celibacy and the corresponding distinction between homosexuality and homosexual practice may be clothed in good intentions, but it is nevertheless a form of rejection. If we are going to accept someone’s sexuality, we have to accept the appropriately corresponding sexual activity (and I would add, in the context of otherwise ethical relations). For we are not talking about a specific action or a crime, we are talking about human sexuality which is integral to human identity and personhood itself.

Sunday, August 03, 2014

Humility in Theology

People who know me probably know that theology is important to me. Not only am I skilled at morphing any casual conversation into a theological one (which is thoroughly annoying to most of my friends, I'm sure), but I am also an avid critic of "bad theology" wherever I see it. I care about constructing theology which corresponds to who God really is, what God is really like, and who people are in relation to this God.  I value the avoidance of lazy theology, theological apathy, and theology which gives witness to something that is not true of God and reality. I think theology is a big deal and it requires real discipline and hard work.

...There's my confession...

But with that being said, I think a distinct feature of Christian theology is that it requires as much, if not more, humility as it does precision. Indeed, if our practice of theological reflection is to reflect its object in any way, grace and charity are of even higher value than accuracy and clarity. This does not reduce the value of accuracy or the stakes of speaking truth with clarity, but it does (frustratingly at times) condition the way we should conduct ourselves in theological dialogue. It's still ok to say that some confessions are right and that others are wrong. But if we go about the conversation with a posture of authority, with a posture of certainty, and if we lob insults and charges of heresy at one another with ease, we miss what's really at stake in theological reflection. If we are so laser-focused on our own perspective that we cannot even listen to the perspective of another or if we are so one-sided that we cannot see the other side of the coin, we miss a part of what the task of theology is really all about.

What's at stake for theology, unlike some other academic disciplines, is that it its object is actually a subject. Theology reflects on a God who is not a thing but a person. And theology does not stand over but under or alongside its object. Indeed the greatest reason that theology requires humility and charity is that fundamental to it is not just understanding of but trust in the God on whom it reflects. We must trust because we know we cannot fully apprehend. And as those who trust in Jesus, our corrections of our colleagues are corrections of our fellow sojourners in discipleship. Because this trust and this relationship with God are so fundamental to theology, it becomes true that real accuracy of theology becomes dependent upon humility in theology.

Saturday, August 02, 2014

What is Practical Theology?

I recently finished reading Opening the Field of Practical Theology, edited by Kathleen Cahalen and Gordon Mikoski. In this book, fourteen of the nations top scholars in the field of practical theology contribute chapters, offering snapshots of various approaches and trajectories in practical theology. If one began with the assumption that practical theology was a fairly monolithic discipline or methodology, this book would certainly challenge that assumption. Opening the Field does not look to clarify what everyone means when they say "practical theology"--as though they all mean the same thing--but instead it opens up and invites the reader into the lively conversation that is practical theology, with its various definitions and approaches. One quickly realizes that while some things are shared among practical theologians (i.e. "respect for the self-identification of other theologians, ...emphasis on context, and the emphasis on interdisciplinary studies" p.271), there is in fact much diversity in the various histories and theological heritages from which different approaches emerge, the key figures to which they refer, the understandings of the relation between theory and practice, and the sources and norms of each discipline. Different people ascribe different degrees of authority to the biblical witness and to the human experience. Some approaches prefer to make ontological claims, others epistemological ones.  And yet, there is apparently enough commonality between different approaches for them to stay in conversation (which is why the editors of this book chose to describe it as "a conversation" in their conclusion).  

As someone who is relatively new to this field of study (at least at this more defined level), this book was important. It exposed me to approaches to practical theology both familiar and foreign to my own. I was both affirmed and challenged. And, while the field is no more tidy (perhaps it's even a bit more messy) than it was to me before I read this, I feel I have some windows through which to engage the conversation. 

So, what is the field of practical theology? It's a conversation about ministry, about God's action and human experience... and Opening the Field of Practical Theology will help you find a way in to the conversation. 

Friday, August 01, 2014

Are Christianity and Political Conservativism Inversely Proportional?

When I am feeling snarky, I tend to think that political and religious persuasions exist in an inversely proprtional relationship, such that the only way for political conservativism and American nationalism to exist is for Christian discipleship to be reduced. Of course, this is only when I am being snarky... and a little arrogant. The truth is, someone can certainly be devoutly Christian and passionately conservative at the same time (conservative Christians, in fact, will find it hard to imagine any alternative), just as someone can be devoutly Christian and politically progressive. It is arrogance to assume that every Christian should have to agree on politics. 

While the inverse proportionality of political conservativism and Christian discipleship may not be completely true, I do think there is truth in it. 

Several weeks ago I quoted a famous liberation theologian, saying essentially that Christian devotion to the Kingdom of God means opposition to economic poverty and social injustice. One conservative friend responded quite ironically that, yes, this is true... and that is why the thousand year reign of Christ after the rapture is so important. Of course, this response certainly does not reflect the point of liberation theology... especially in the context of the quote I was citing. My friend--innocently, I hope--missed the point. While liberation theology, at its best, calls us into participation with God's redemptive and liberating activity and reminds us of the fundamental importance of God's solidarity with the "least of these" (Matthew 25) in history, my friend had reserved Christian hope to heaven and to some future event outside of history and thus reduced the gospel to inward piety and personal belief (he made the opposite mistake that some liberation theologians make). Social justice, liberation, solidarity, equality, ministry (by a certain definition)--these are not his problem because, in his view, they're God's problem and God will take care of them after the rapture. When Christianity is reduced to getting into haven after death, hanging out with Jesus in the eschaton while the world burns, then there's no real rationale for anxiety over injustice or struggle for equality. Just wait for Jesus and read your bible in the morning... there's plenty of room for political structures which protect your wealth and preferentially benefit the powerful.

It wouldn't be fair to identify political conservativism, as such, with preference for power, indifference toward the poor (since it's their own damn fault anyway), American nationalism, militarism, and special interest in the accumulation and preservation of wealth... but, let's face it, those impulses are more common within conservative political ideologies. This is the hint of truth in my original, though faulty, proposition that political conservativism and Christian discipleship are inversely proportional. While not all conservatives are this way, those impulses listed above which does describe some conservatives are, in fact, inversely proportional to Christian discipleship. It is only when Christianity is reduced to a purely "spiritual" and ahistorical belief system--as opposed to a normative claim concerning not only inward piety but also the being and action of God in history and the corresponding human response--that one can possibly defend a position which gives preferential attention to the wealthy and, indifferent to the oppressed and marginalized, prefers to let social justice and injustice work themselves out. In other words, for a Christian to live with an ideology which perpetuates poverty and injustice, they have to have a Christianity that allows them to do so; a Christianity which, as such, can only be reductionistic. No Christianity which reserves concern for the poor and the marginalized to some future event and reduces discipleship to personal piety can ever truly be called authentic biblical Christianity. 

So even tough it's not conservativism, per se, which is incompatible with and inversely proportional to authentic Christianity, there are impulses in political conservativism for which one must carefully watch out. 

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

How I Changed My Mind About Homosexuality

Roughly ten years ago, I was sitting in my dorm room at Azusa Pacific University in Smith Hall. Two friends--who are two of my best friends still to this day--were sitting in the room across the hall, doing whatever they were doing. I was intently focused on my computer monitor, anxiously following the presidential race between George W. Bush and John Kerry. While anyone who knows me now might be tempted to guess that I was hoping for Kerry to win, I was unambiguously in support of Bush. I was convinced that, as a committed Christian (as though I could assume that Kerry was not), Bush would be the one to lead America back to its roots as a "Christian nation." I wanted him to "finish what he started" in Iraq, to win the "war on terror." But most significantly, I wanted him to make gay marriage illegal. I wanted him to put it in the Constitution! That, more than any other issue, was my justification for supporting Bush as a presidential candidate. If nothing else, if Bush won, he'd put the grotesque sexual immorality of the gay agenda behind us. Now, ten years later, it's painful to imagine that I actually felt that way. Indeed, it feels like a confession to even acknowledge it. But that's the way I felt not so terribly long ago.

The issue of homosexuality is certainly a big deal in culture as well as (if not especially) in the church. Whole denominations are in shambles over it. Families are in crisis over it. America is divided over it. I think there are folks on both sides of the issue who think that the future of the church in America depends on our praxis concerning LGBTQ people. So the stakes seem pretty high.

Now I am definitely of the opinion that LGBTQ people should be fully included in the life and ministry of the church and society. That means 'yes' to marriage, ordination, etc. Theologically, I do not believe that sexual orientation is a determination in discerning the body of Christ. Although Paul had no concept of sexual orientation, I think his words from Galatians are pretty categorical: "There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus." Human persons are of equal dignity, not according to their social status, gender, sexual orientation, or economic position, but only according to the grace of God which precedes, invites, and anticipates a faithful human response. Therefore, it should not only be encouraged but expected that LGBTQ people be found in positions of leadership in the ministry of the Church. I think the whole moral arc of the biblical narrative points in this direction.

My presupposition here is that heterosexuality is no more legitimate than LGBTQ sexuality. Straight relationships, though more common, are not privileged over gay and lesbian relationships. Implicit in this presupposition is the presupposition that being LGBTQ is neither an act of the will (at least no more so than being heterosexual) nor is it inherently sinful (again, at least no more so than being heterosexual). I am convinced, though I am always open to challenges, that being gay is not a sin and neither is it sinful for someone to live out their sexuality just as any heterosexual person should. In fact, from a psychotherapeutic standpoint, I'd say it would be unhealthy for someone NOT to live out their sexuality. That doesn't imply that promiscuity is permissible. I still think, as an ethical norm, people should wait until they're married (fully and sacramentally committed to one another) before they have sex (are fully intimate with one another... intimacy and commitment should be in proportion, that is my basic sexual ethic...which is partly why it's important that gay marriages be permitted). But I do not apply any ethical standards to homosexuals that I wouldn't also apply to heterosexuals.

The deeper question that the church faces in this juncture of the conversation is the question of the authority and the interpretation of scripture. I do believe in the authority and the inspiration of Scripture. Indeed, I think it's appropriate to refer to it as Holy Scripture. I believe that the Scriptures are the written Word of God, to be interpreted through the Holy Spirit and through Jesus Christ, the living Word of God. But I also believe that Scripture is contextual (just like Jesus, it comes from a specific time and place). It is an ancient human text, even if it is sanctified by God. So in order to know what it means in any given passage, we have to do the work of exegesis. We have to consider the author's original meaning in its original context as best we can before we can understand what it truly means to tell us about God and ourselves. When we are exegetically diligent in interpreting those passages which have (in recent years) been applied to the issue of homosexual relationships, I think we discover that there is at least enough ambiguity there that we should not be too confident in imposing ethical judgement on LGBTQ people. I could detail arguments for each one of the eight (at most!) passages which have been employed by opponents of LGBTQ inclusion. But just to shed some light on a few, the story of Sodom is about gang rape (heterosexuals who want to abuse some angels... hardly a fair or comprehensive representation of LGBTQ sexuality), Romans 1 is about idolatry and excessive promiscuity, the Corinthians and Timothy passages are both probably about pederasty. Even if one were to consider homosexuality, in any one of these passages, as an interpretive option, it would have to be the least compelling when compared to the contextual alternatives.

The most important passages to consider are the Pauline passages and, to be brief, I think Walter Wink is right that "...the relationships Paul describes [when he describes "homosexuality"] are heavy with lust; they are not relationships between consenting adults who are committed to each other as faithfully and with as much integrity as any heterosexual couple." So we cannot conclude that Paul must have meant what we mean today when he used the word "homosexual" (which is contestable anyway) or when he talked about same-sex relationships, given our context in which many gay couples are monogamous and committed Christians, .

Given the full narrative of scripture, and particularly the ministry of Jesus in which the marginalized were affirmed and the outcast were included, I think we have much stronger biblical footing in the acceptance of LGBTQ people than we do in condemning them.

But how did I go from being a hardcore defender of heteronormativity to a firm supporter of LBTQ equality? It didn't happen overnight. Again, it wasn't too terribly long ago that I was sitting in a college dorm room, anxiously anticipating the election of the last great hope for "traditional marriage."I want you to know that it was no easy path. I want you to know that it wasn't on an emotional whim or through some chance change of heart that I changed my mind. It was a long and frustrating path. You see, I'd placed a lot of stock in my position against gay marriage. I'd said a lot of... well... what I'd now think of as hateful things. I'd been clear about my position and, in a way, I'd married myself to it. I knew no other way of being a Christian. It's difficult to admit you're wrong, so either consciously or subconsciously, you build walls around your position to protect yourself from the alternative. Tearing down those barriers is no simple thing, nor is it comfortable. It means conflict. It sometimes means taking on labels you once attributed to your enemies. It means learning new ways of being you and being Christian.

The path from one idea to another is always a little uncomfortable, but when it's something you're passionate about, it can be very uncomfortable. I'm not sure where my path started, but it was always paved with the pages of scripture. I did not come to my conclusions by ignoring the Bible. Perhaps some have. But for me, this has always been an exercise in listening for the Word of the Lord. That's not to say I've always been perfectly faithful. At times I certainly had more trouble with scripture than others. I certainly had moments of great doubt, moments in which it seemed easier to ignore the Bible than to be shaped by it. But at every turn, it was scripture that I was wrestling with, not just some simple notion of preference or cultural assimilation. Someone can accuse me of reading the Bible poorly, but let no one accuse me of ignoring it.

I believe my change of heart probably started with Tony Campolo. Well, it actually started with something called the Youth Leadership Institute (YLI)--a conference for high school students funded through the Lily Endowment under the leadership of Robin Dugall at Azusa Pacific University. Even before I knew it, while I was still staunchly conservative, Dugall and others in his leadership (including Mike DeVries) cracked open a door. They introduced me to authors like Rob Bell (this was long before he came out in support of gay marriage), N.T. Wright, Brian McLaren, and Tony Campolo. It was at a YLI conference that I first started thinking about the "Kingdom of God" (which was the concept which set my whole theology, not just on this specific issue but on just about everything, off in the trajectory it still follows today). I read Campolo's chapter on the subject from his book (co-authored with McLaren), Adventures in Missing the Point. That's what was assigned to me at YLI. But it wasn't long after--probably just shortly after the 2004 election, in fact--that I read on and found Campolo's chapter on homosexuality. While he still took a conservative stance for reasons appealing to tradition, mostly, Campolo alluded to the possibility that the Bible was not as straight-forward on this issue as many conservatives seemed to think. While Campolo wanted to remain conservative himself, his chapter indicated that this was not a simple argument of "the Bible tells me so." In fact, I heard his own wife, Peggy, was on the speaking circuit as an advocate, on Biblical grounds, for the equality of gay and lesbian people. This was not my first exposure to a responsible exegetical/contextual reading of scripture, but it was the first time I had been challenged to apply those exegetical principles to the issue of homosexuality. I didn't change my mind, but the door had been opened. The simple answer I'd so vehemently defended until that point was no longer defensible. Eventually honesty broke through the layers of protection I'd built around the issue and I was faced with the ambiguity of the text surrounding homosexuality. The Bible was beginning to change me. Even if I wanted to believe that Paul was condemning homosexuality, I could not do so honestly without accepting the fact that there is at least enough ambiguity in the text for me to hear-out the opposition and especially to hear-out those whose lives were more directly affected by the issue--those who identified as LGBTQ.

Campolo (and the exegetical approach implied in his rationale) didn't change my mind, but he gave me a reason to listen to the stories of faithful Christians who also happened to be gay, faithful Christians who were lesbians, and eventually faithful Christians who were also transgender. Indeed, I discovered that part of the beauty of scripture is that is calls us to read it as real persons with real stories, not just as Cartesian machines of static rationality. Because the Word became flesh (John 1:1), we are challenged to read scripture in conversation with real flesh-and-blood experiences. It's not just timeless truths passed down from heaven in a bottle, the Bible is a beautiful story of real people with real encounters with God and we are to read it as real people (I learned this from N.T. Wright). Therefore, not only are we allowed to let the experiences of our neighbors speak into our reading and interpretation of the text, we are encouraged to to so by the Bible itself.

While I was in college, I began to meet people who were gay. Also, some people I had already known began to come out to me as LGBTQ. People who were Christians! Some people who were even preparing for ministry. If my heart had not already been softened a little through reading and studying God's Word I may not have been humble enough to ask them about their story, to ask them what they thought of the Bible, and to discover them as persons, not just as "gays." Words cannot express how thankful I am that these people had the courage to come out and be honest with someone so closed-minded as me. These people further challenged my reading of scripture. I discovered that they were not perverted, idolatrous, fornicators. They were people who loved Jesus. They were people who loved and were loved by other people. I could no longer convince myself that they exhibited what Paul was describing when he said "God gave them over to shameful lusts..." (Romans 1:26). I could no longer convince myself that Paul was talking about these people, their love for their partners, when he listed "homosexuality" among so many other obvious moral deficiencies. This was the first time that the Holy Spirit softened my heart enough to ask, could Paul have meant something else?

I had little empirical or Biblical justification left to support my position, but for some reason I still held on to it. By the time I graduated from college, I had only reached a point of "neutrality." I put that in quotes because I am not certain that neutrality actually exists in this debate. Desmond Tutu (another important influence in my spiritual development) said, "if an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality." But nevertheless, I got to a point where I was satisfied in saying, "I just don't know what I think."

In 2008, right after college a church in the conservative town of Ramona, California, (my hometown) took a chance on me and hired me to be their Youth Ministry Director. The church was a UCC church, in arguably the most liberal Christian denomination in the United States--which is something I lean on sometimes with my liberal friends, "I'm one of you, I served at a UCC church!"--but this church in particular was by no means liberal. However, I wouldn't exactly call them conservative either. The congregation, in terms of the ideals of its members, sported perhaps the widest theological and political spectrum of any church I've known. There were hardcore dispensationalist Zionists, flag-waving Republicans, borderline Unitarians, closet Democrats, gays and lesbians, and even a few would-be Pentecostals in the mix. I can only think of a couple of people who would really have identified themselves with the UCC as it stands. And here I was--a freshly decorated, enthusiastic Bachelor of theology with a huge man-crush on Rob Bell and a passion for ministering to teenagers and studying Scripture--there to be their Youth Pastor. Of course, it helped that my parents raised me in this particular church, but that's another story.

With such a wide spectrum represented in the membership, taking a hard stance on any controversial political or social issue was risky--homosexuality perhaps the riskiest of them all. Even if the leadership was unanimous in its position (which it probably wasn't... we never really talked about it), we knew that any position would divide the church. So I made the pastoral decision not to talk about the issue with my students at all. At the time I was sticking with the position of neutrality anyway, so this suited me. But there were times when neutrality was difficult. Being in a very conservative town, engaging in networking with other church leaders and youth workers, I was often shocked into liberalism by the ignorance and arrogance of some conservatives. But then, being part of the UCC, there were sometimes occasions in which I would sound like the token conservative in the room just because of my hesitation with the issue and because I wanted to affirm the authority of Scripture and the divinity of Jesus Christ. I realized then that I'm neither a conservative nor am I as liberal as it gets. I think I was (and still am) fairly balanced in my approach.

But because of my commitment to some notion of neutrality, because I had decided it was easier not to make a decision on the issue, I missed more than one opportunity for ministry. The worst part was, I knew I was missing these opportunities... I knew what an opportunity for ministry felt like and I knew what it felt like to miss one. When one of my students came out of the closet to me because it was the only church in town in which they felt safe to do so, and when I responded to them ambiguously--"well, we love you no matter what" or something like that--I knew I was missing an opportunity. This intuitive sense that I would have been a better minister if I had been able to simply say, "it's ok to be gay, God does not condemn you for it," was another huge step toward changing my mind. I wasn't participating in God's ministry of reconciliation and I could feel it, even if my neutrality didn't allow me to act on it.

The truth is, this was a tipping point for me. While theology, study of Scripture, and openness to the experiences of others played their important roles, it was ministry itself that was the most significantly persuasive factor. I ministered to more than one LGBTQ kid while I was a Youth Director, and with each one it became more clear, as I participated in God's ministry to them, that participation meant accepting them, learning from them, and giving them the good news that they did not have to be ashamed of themselves. I didn't shy away from being honest when I saw problems. Kids knew I didn't condone promiscuity or immorality. By the very end of my four years in Ramona, I had come full circle. I no longer believed that homosexuality was a sin. I had come to this conclusion, my heart softened by the Holy Spirit, through Scripture, community, experience, and intuition. But, because of all the risks involved and because of the pastoral decision I'd made (which I sometimes regret now), I tried to make sure that the only kids who knew my position were the LGBTQ kids in town. I didn't feel totally liberated to "come out" and offer my perspective until I began Seminary.

My first experience of Seminary education was not at Princeton Theological Seminary, where I am now, but at San Francisco Theological Seminary. It may not come as a surprise that SFTS is a somewhat more liberal seminary than, say, Fuller which was across the street. I only took a couple of classes there at their Southern California campus before it closed down and I transferred to Princeton. But the most important class I took there, and perhaps one of the most important classes I've ever taken anywhere, was not important in virtue of its content, per se, but in virtue of its students. Among the students of Dr. Charlene Jin Lee's class, "Ministry and Context," I was the only white-male-heterosexual. All the others were from distinctly different contexts and the only other white man in the class was gay. The LGBTQ students in the class, all of whom were older and wiser than I, inspired me. Because of the set-up at SFTS's Sothern California program, most of its students were already active in ministry. The LGBTQ students in that class were some of the most faithful and dedicated pastors I've ever known. Hearing their stories, listening to their struggles, hammered the point home. These were not perverted fornicators like the subjects of Paul's incitements. These were Christians, pastors, and people. These were people who I could not only accept but these people could easily be my pastors. These were people whose stories I could share and to whom I would bring questions, not only about sexuality, but about faith in Jesus Christ. This was my first proof that gay people could not only be Christians but pastors.

I am grateful now to be in an environment such as Princeton Seminary where I not only rub shoulders with wonderfully inspiring LGBTQ Christians, but I am empowered to share my perspective as their friend and colleague. I am in a place where I am reminded every day that one can be gay and a Christian and that the two are not mutually exclusive.

I changed my mind. And in so doing, I took on the same labels I so viciously lobbed at others--"liberal!" "heathen!" "compromised!" "one who ignores the Word of God." These labels are painful not in themselves but in that they serve as reminders of what I used to be, what I used to think, how I used to act toward the LGBTQ community. These labels hurt because they are salt in the wounds of exchanging one passionately held perspective for another. And, perhaps most of all, these labels hurt because they are accusations of infidelity to the very book that has brought me to where I am. If people know nothing else, I want them to know that it's not despite Scripture that I have come to believe in the equality and full inclusion of LGBTQ people, but because of Scripture. I want people to know that supporting gay people does not mean abandoning the Word of God, but it might mean actually listening to it.

Hopefully I have not repeated my mistakes of the past and simply closed my mind to opposition. I endeavor to always listen, even if people disagree with me, and to learn what I can even from those by whom I am threatened. It would be a shame to be just as closed-minded as I was before. But I have changed my mind. It is clear that I am no longer that college kid with a Bush pin, and the change did not come easily. Indeed, if ever my mind changes again, I pray it changes by nothing other than the leading of the Holy Spirit, no matter how painful the change may be.

A few books I'd recommend to those who are interested: The Moral Teaching of Paul by Victor Paul Furnish; Jesus, The Bible, And Homosexuality by Jack Rogers; and Homosexuality and Christian Faith by Walter Wink.