Sunday, August 31, 2014

A Quick Review of 'Liquid Church' by Pete Ward

This is a good book! Pete Ward gives a thoughtful and imaginative image of a flexible, missional, and relational identity for the church. Centralizing relationships, "fellowship," and encounter, Ward takes "congregation," church buildings, and worship services out of the center of church life and identity. Instead of identifying church with what happens in the four walls of the church building on Sunday morning, Ward identifies church with "informal relationships." As he writes in the introduction, "...the first move in imagining a liquid church is to take the informal fellowship, in which we experience Christ as we share with other Christians, and say this is church" (2). This seems to be the right move. Centralizing the person-to-person encounter over against the church program or worship service (and especially putting the latter in the service of the former instead of the other way around) is not only an appropriate contextual move, given the consumer culture of the US and the UK, but it is a throughly biblical and theological turn. Ward shows this by weaving together interpretive sociological examination of his context with normative theological claims. Ward attests to the missional shape of ecclesiology, orienting relationships towards participation in the mission of God.

This book, however, is not without its problems. It warrants all the appropriate cautions of missional theology and, most significantly, in its pragmatic applications, Liquid Church has perhaps too optimistic a view toward the culture at large, particularly consumer culture. Responding to the church's knee-jerk reaction against consumerism, I believe Ward is too quick to baptize consumerism and social media without giving significant attention to the pitfalls of these cultural phenomena. Although the pragmatic applications of Liquid Church raise questions, there is a critical apparatus built into Ward's normative move that allows us to accept the book's overall direction even with proper caution.

Again, this is a good book. Wonderfully practical and refreshingly theological.

Friday, August 29, 2014

Of Wrath and Love: a review of 'Theology of the Pain of God' by Kazoh Kitamori

Theology of the Pain of God by Kazoh Kitamori should certainly be appreciated for its place in history, as a precursor of sorts to later and better formulations of the theology of the cross (I think, in particular, of Eberhard Jungel's God as Mystery of the World, Jurgen Moltmann's The Crucified God, and Douglas John Hall's The Cross in Our Context), and for its particularity as a Japanese contribution to the conversation (even if Kitamori "remained outside of Japanese theological circles"). But despite the gratitude with which it should be received, it seems to me that it should also be received with some suspicion. I am open to the possibility that I may have contextual and hermeneutical differences with Kitamori which make it difficult for me to fully embrace his project but I should still name two specific issues that I must take with Theology of the Pain of God.

First, while I agree with Kitamori's assessment that "everything hinges on the cross... the essence of God can be comprehended only from the 'word of the cross'"(47), I believe that he fails to make the resurrection of the crucified Jesus explicit from this axiom. Indeed, "the cross is in no sense an external act of God, but an act within [God]self"(45), but in what sense does the resurrection help us interpret this act of God and the pain of God on the cross? If the ontological priority is given to the past and the present, then the experience of Christ's future as normative is either rejected or obscured. In other words, while Kitamori rightly sees the cross as God's taking of death into God's very self, God's "eternal essence," the taking of death into God's self in Theology of the Pain of God is never explicitly for the "sake of life" (as Jungel would clarify). Something is left to be desired in Kitamori's eschatology in this regard. It is not Moltmann's eschatology of the resurrection whereby God identifies Godself with the crucified Jesus. It is rather, an eschatology "fused with this pain" (144). We are not, by the resurrection and the ontological priority of the future, put at odds with the injustice of the cross in the present (as we are in Moltmann). Instead we are ourselves to find joy in the pain, "pain must be our function" (64), and thus, it seems to me, pain itself is sacralized. This is problematic.

The second issue is related to the first and is, perhaps, more fundamentally problematic. Kitamori is preoccupied with human guilt and God's wrath, preoccupied with seeing Christ's death on the cross as the execution of God's wrath exacted upon Jesus on the cross. Under the spell of this guilt theology, Kitamori operates on the axiom of divine wrath and divine love. The pain of the cross is the pain of God's wrath and God's love finding themselves together in Jesus. "God who must sentence sinners to death fought with God who wishes to love them. The fact that this fighting God is not two different gods but the same God causes his pain" (21). It's unfortunate that it is here that Kitamori places the dilemma and root of God's pain, for it presupposes a notion of divine justice which demands wrath from God as a necessity. Not only this, but it obscures the more real and potent pain of a man crucified at the hands of human religious and judicial powers and God's identification with him. God, for some reason, must be the cause of Jesus' death in Kitamori. It is God who executes Jesus (again, sacralizing and also justifying the torture and execution of Jesus). "The God of the gospel causes his Son to die and suffers pain in that act" (47). I consider that bad parenting. I do not find it necessary or helpful to see God as the cause of the death of Jesus, at least not in this strong sense. Rather, God, in Jesus, opened Godself so fully in love for creation that God gave to creation, humankind in particular, all that it needed to destroy its creator. This is the vulnerability of love. The father experiences the death of Jesus, not as its cause, but as the victim, the one who must endure the death of a child. That is the way in which God fights with God on Golgatha--as one experiencing death and one experiencing dying. Here, I am inclined to think that Dorothee Soelle's famous criticism of The Crucified God in her book Leiden--that it was a theology of a "sadistic God" who kills his own son--albeit a misinterpretation of Moltmann, is actually accurately applied to parts of Kitamori. Obedience to Kitamori's God, and the joy he describes in this obedience, sounds tragically similar to the loyalty of the abused to their abuser.

All this criticism does not negate my aforementioned appreciation for this book. Again, I am grateful for it and cannot speak more highly of certain elements of its expression of the theology of the cross and rejection of the "theology of glory." But with such a preoccupation with divine wrath and human guilt, and without explicitly holding resurrection as the other side of crucifixion, it is certainly a good thing that later theologians offered fuller articulations of the theology of the cross.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Is Youth Ministry Pastoral Care?

Yesterday I noticed the UCC shared on their Facebook a link to a Red Letter Christians article titled, "Should Churches Hire Youth Pastors?" by Tony Campolo. One friend of mine commented that the the post was mostly just "click bait"--with little substance but a provocative title. And apparently I took the bait. Given the fact that I will likely be looking for youth ministry jobs in the not-too-distant future, of course the title caught my attention (plus, I was interested because the UCC was posting something about youth ministry). But I thought the article was a lot more than just click bait.

Of course Campolo knows and understands the importance of youth ministry. I'm sure he'd have no problem encouraging churches to invest in their youth ministries and hire youth pastors (how many years has he been a guest speaker at Youth Specialties?). But he's right to raise the question, if we're gonna hire pastors for a specific age group, why not hire pastors to care for the people that make up such a large portion of the congregation? Does not the pastoral care of the elderly constitute a hired staff position as much or more than pastoral care for kids? But there's the real question... and the real reason I'm interested in this article... do we actually even associate youth ministry with pastoral care?

By comparing the need for pastoral care for the elderly with the pastoral care for teenagers, Campolo (consciously or not) forces us to think of youth ministry primarily as pastoral care. This chafes, I believe, for many youth workers and pastors who prioritize youth ministry in churches. I think many who took the bait and clicked on this article (like I did) probably had the knee-jerk reaction of, "well, we need to reach the next generation to keep the church alive...." or, "if old people are already going to church, that's exactly why we need youth pastors!" These are not bad reactions. But what's the fundamental presupposition behind them? Why prioritize youth ministry over care for the elderly? Is it about pastoral care or growing the church? Or, to put it more pointedly... do we care more about self preservation than meeting the spiritual needs of the people in our congregations?

Youth ministry is still quite steeped in its history as a "technology" for the church (Andrew Root has used this terminology). We employ youth ministry to help solve the church's problems. The church is dying, so we revive it by getting more kids to come (and we get more kids to come by making it flashy and "relevant"). Young adults are leaving the church, so we turn to youth ministry to solve the problem. So youth ministry becomes more about growth and behavior than it does about actually engaging in the lives of the kids who are there. It becomes more about evangelism for the sake of preservation than sharing in the lives of young people as the location of divine and human encounter. With youth ministry as a technology (i.e., "if old people are already going to church, that's exactly why we need youth pastors"), pastoral care takes a back-seat to "reaching the next generation" and "keeping the church alive."

Of course I think we need to hire youth pastors in churches! I might run into some problems in the future if we stopped hiring youth pastors. But I think that youth ministry needs to learn something from its' parent discipline, pastoral care. As my teacher, Dr. Kenda Dean has said, youth ministry is still ministry. We need youth ministries that prioritize not just reaching the next generation or advancing kids to the next level of spiritual growth, but truly caring for the kids inside their walls--wherever they are on life's journey, with all their doubts and frustrations, even when they're not going to convert or "grow" spiritually. The pastoral care of youth, however few or many there may be, needs to get back in the front seat of youth ministry.

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 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.