Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Jesus would have been a poor church growth consultant

Some recent events got me thinking about why church organizations seem to be obsessed with high-profile PR and organizational growth. When I compare that with how Jesus went around his business, the two seem quite different.

Particularly in the gospel account of Mark, Jesus repeatedly tells people who have experienced and witnessed miracles to not tell anyone. When Jesus drives out a legion of demons from a man, the man wants to follow Jesus. But Jesus, instead of taking along this “trophy”, tells the man to go back home.

During the first phase of his ministry, Jesus’ popularity increases and at one point five-thousand men gather around him. With a miraculous feeding this would be the perfect time to pitch some good PR to increase his numbers. But instead Jesus talks about “eating flesh” and turns most people away from him.

On Palm Sunday throngs of people gather around Jesus as he enters into Jerusalem. He is in perfect position to gather more of the masses around him and take over the city. But instead he retires to Bethany and then gets himself crucified. By the end of the week only a handful of women and John are left to see Jesus die on the cross.

If Jesus was a church growth consultant today, he wouldn’t get hired.

What was Jesus possibly thinking? Didn’t he want the good news go to all the world? Why reject PR opportunities handed to him? Why intentionally trim the number of people following him?

The reason I can think of is that Jesus valued fidelity to his values over any kind of growth. Jesus didn’t want people who were only around him for adventure, thrills, and the potential for promotion, power, and profit. Jesus only wanted people who were willing to put in the hard effort to learn his ways. Jesus knew that only fidelity to his way would keep his people together over the long haul. Growth in numbers without fidelity to Jesus’ character would be worse than The Way going the way of extinction.

Self-promotion was antithetical to Jesus’ way. Jesus knew his Body would naturally grow as healthy members multiplied organically, not through high-profile PR or focus on “growth methods”.

Maybe Jesus was an expert church growth consultant. Just not the kind churches today want to hear.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

My worldview might be Orthodox

I just read a post by Frank Schaeffer over at Patheos, titled, Why Evangelical Bible Idolatry Sucks and Why I Go to a Greek Orthodox Church Even Though It’s A Mess Too. The way he describes his theology and worldview, as formed by the Greek Orthodox church, many aspects are very close to how I’ve come to see things. Does that make me more Orthodox in comparison to other branches of Christianity?

What are some of the examples of Orthodoxy that resonate with me? Here are a few examples, in order.

“Love Trumping Theology”

I find the above phrasing a tad confounding. It means, “The practice of love takes priority over theological correctness.” Schaeffer writes,

This loving “swooping up” also changes brains by producing a sense of benign tribal belonging, in this case to a mostly benevolent tribe. It isn’t about correct belief, let alone if the Bible is “true” (whatever that means) but about the brain-changing effect of community and the humbling mystery of unconditional love experienced in the “ordinary” in a sacramental context.

Absolute Certainty is Unattainable

Religious belief is a personal conviction based on available knowledge, personal experience, and ultimately, personal choice as to what to believe.

To believe something – rather than just stumbling into a malleable opinion — you’d have to have considered all the options. And that’s impossible.

Perfection is Found Only In Jesus

The Bible is not perfect. Is it not inerrant or infallible. It is a record of human thought describing God.

If Jesus is God then Jesus has the right to contradict the very imperfect book in which he has the misfortune to have his biography trapped. Jesus transcends the book he’s trapped in. He does this because he is the perfect fulfillment of an imperfect human tradition.

Jesus is more important than the Bible.

Jesus does not “fit” any “biblical interpretation,” which makes the text less important than him.

Christus Victor

Legal, forensic, penal-substitution models of the atonement are rejected as false and harmful ways of representing Christ’s work on the cross.

Jesus introduces the transforming possibility of nonviolence and forgiveness to our retributive primate way of being human that ensnares the rest of the Bible.

Until Jesus, the Bible is the story of retributive sacrifice to an angry “god” modeled on a pagan paradigm. Jesus ends sacrifice. Jesus is the opposite of a “substitutionary atonement.” He is the contradiction of human conceptions of justice projected on a “god” created by pagans and Jews in our own retributive image. This is where Jesus smashes “atonement theory.” Jesus’ death is an act of grace not the violent continuation sacrifice. Jesus’ death stops the sacrificial principle — the dark side of religion – forever.

Value of Uncertainty and Relationships

Modernism and the Western European influence place great value on certainty. Salvation does not require certainty. Rather, it requires community.

Some of the earliest Church Fathers — who themselves were partially responsible for the formation of the canon of the New Testament portion of what would (400 years later) become “The Bible” — believed that portions of “Old Testament” scriptures pointed to this apophatic anti-certainty anti-theology approach…

The more mystery-orientated Orthodox Church is less split than the more theologically inclined Western Church with its Reformation and all that followed…

The more you read about the Word the less you know the Word because the Word does not live in a book but is an actuality to be experienced. Truth is not to be found in writings about The Truth but only in The Truth within a living, not academic relationship…

In Jesus’ day, holiness codes of “correct belief” kept Jews from experiencing the full rich human community. They lived in separation from the “other” and the “unclean.” Likewise virtually every church today — including the more juridical and right wing and evangelical-influenced parts of the Orthodox Church — has some form of holiness code… And Jesus courted disaster because of the way he showed extraordinary mercy to those who had been deemed “outside” the grace of God…

According to the humble apophatic tradition the goal of discipleship is not about making sure we behave so that God will accept us. It is rather about maintaining strong relationships with other people and through that action, through this “spiritual kiss,” as St. Maximos says, the soul comes to the Word of God, because it gathers to itself the words of salvation—in other words mercy and love.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Sermon: God’s Unorthodox Provision

Text: 1 Kings 17:8-16; Luke 4:25-26
Audio MP3 (18 minutes)
Location: First Presbyterian Church, Petersburg

This sermon takes a look at the story of Elijah and the widow of Zarephath. Typically the story is seen as the example of great faith of the widow when she, through faith in Elijah’s God, she provides for him first. This sermon takes a look at the story from Elijah’s perspective: how he is commanded to go to the heart of Baal worship and ask for help from a pagan, a woman, and a widow. This is a story of God’s faithfulness to his servant by providing for him through someone completely outside of cultural and religious orthodoxy.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Being Consumed–Consumerism

The following are excerpts from the second chapter, “Detachment and Attachment”, of Being Consumed: Economics and Christian Desire by William T. Cavanaugh. This chapter is a critique of the modern consumer culture and the ways in which it is at odds with biblical teachings. The chapter concludes with suggestions on how Christianity should approach the “things” of this world.

The first chapter excerpts can be found in this earlier blog entry.

“What really characterizes consumer culture is not attachment to things but detachment. People do not hoard money; they spend it. People do not cling to things; they discard them and buy other things.”

“In a consumer society, detachment occurs in both selling and buying, and anything can be sold: healthcare, space, human blood, names (‘Tostitos Fiesta Bowl’), adoption rights, water, genetic codes, the rights to emit pollutants into the air, the use of one’s own forehead.”

“Consumerism is not so much about having more as it is about having something else; that’s why it is not simply buying but shopping that is the heart of consumerism.”

“Consumerism is an important subject for theology because it is a spiritual discipline, a way of looking at the world around us that is deeply formative. In many ways, consumerism has affinities with the traditional Christian views of how we should regard material things. We will need to explore where consumerism and Christianity converge and where they party ways.”

“For many people, consumerism is a type of spirituality, even if they do not recognize it as such. It is a way of pursuing meaning and identity, a way of connecting with other people.”

“The problem is a much larger one: changes in the economy and society in general have detached us from material production, producers, and even the products we buy.”

“There is no need to romanticize preindustrial society. But the difference in our attitudes toward material things can hardly be overemphasized. We used to make things; now we buy them.”

“Not only do we not make the things we use; more and more, we don’t make any things at all. Why should we care? Perhaps because it has something to do with widespread negative attitudes toward work in our society.”

“In a reversal of Genesis, ‘man is treated as an instrument of production, whereas he … ought to be treated as the effective subject of work and its true maker and creator.’ The people who make our things are referred to as ‘labor costs,’ which naturally need to be ‘minimized.’ And one of the key ways to reduce labor costs is to move production overseas, where wages are much lower and protections for workers are much more lax.”

“Naomi Klein argues that the goal of a transnational corporation is a kind of transcendence of the material world. Such a corporation

attempt[s] to free itself from the corporeal world of commodities, manufacturing and products to exist on another plane. Anyone can manufacture a product, they reason … Such menial tasks, therefore, can and should be farmed out to contractors and subcontractors whose only concern is filling the order on time and under budget … Headquarters, meanwhile, is free to focus on the real business at hand – creating a corporate mythology powerful enough to infuse meaning into these raw objects just by signing its name …

After establishing the ‘soul’ of their corporations, the superbrand companies have gone on to rid themselves of their cumbersome bodies, and there is nothing that seems more cumbersome, more loathsomely corporeal, than the factories that produce their products.”

“Most of us would never deliberately choose our own material comfort over the life of another person. Most of us do not consciously choose to work others to death for the sake of lower prices on the things we buy. But we participate in such an economy because we are detached from the producers, the people who actually make our things.”

“Globalization has increased our awareness of, and sympathy for, other times and places. At the same time, however, it produces a detachment from all times and places… Because our consumption can take us anywhere, we are nowhere in particular.”

“This detachment tends to characterize our attitudes toward the products we buy. Far from obsessively clinging to our stuff, we tend to buy and discard products easily… The products we buy are mute as to their origins, and the people we buy them from can tell us little. Products say nothing about where they come from and how they are produced, and we scarcely bother to wonder.”

“This does not mean that we have become indifferent to the products we buy. On the contrary, as human relationships fall away from the process of buying products, relationships become more direct between ourselves and our things… Marketers know that consumption could never keep pace with production if encounters with products were encounters with inert things. The product must be made to sing and dance and enter a new kind of relationship between itself and the consumer. Over the course of the twentieth century, marketing moved from primarily offering information about a product to associating certain feelings with a product… ‘Branding’ – that is, getting people to identify with a particular corporate brand – is about creating relationship between people and things.”

“Such relationships [between people and products] are not made to last. There would not be a market for all the goods that are produced in an industrialized economy if consumers were content with the things they bought… The economy as it is currently structured would grind to a halt if we ever looked at our stuff and simply declared, ‘It is enough. I am happy with what I have.’”

“the truth is, however, that we do not tend to experience dissatisfaction as merely a negative. In consumer culture, dissatisfaction and satisfaction cease to be opposites, for pleasure is not so much in the possession of things as in their pursuit.”

“Consumer culture is one of the most powerful systems of formation in the contemporary world, arguably more powerful than Christianity. While a Christian may spend an hour a week in church, she may spend twenty-five hours per week watching television, to say nothing of the hours spent on the Internet, listening to the radio, shopping, looking at junk mail and other advertisements.”

“Such a powerful formative system is not morally neutral: it trains us to see the world in certain ways. As all the great faiths of the world have attested, how we relate to the material world is a spiritual discipline… ‘Corporate branding is really about worldwide beliefs management.’”

“Consumerism has certain affinities with the great faith traditions of the world because, as we have seen it, it trains us to transcend the material world.”

“[Things] are not ends but means toward the enjoyment of God. According to Augustine, created things are to be used, but only God is to be enjoyed.”

“The restlessness of consumerism causes us constantly to seek new material objects. For Augustine, on the other hand, the solution to out dissatisfaction is not the continuous search for new things but a turn toward the only One who can truly satisfy our desires.”

“Consumerism is a spiritual discipline that, like other spiritual practices, lends itself to a certain practice of community.”

“Consumerism allows us to identify with other places and other cultures through our purchases… [These identifications only offer virtual solidarity.] The virtual becomes a substitute for concrete political solidarity, or to put it another way, a fundamentally different act – consumption – is substituted for political action. In the Christian tradition, by contrast, one’s attitude toward material goods is closely tied to an imperative of concrete solidarity with others. When the rich young man approaches Jesus and asks what he must do to attain eternal life, Jesus says to him, ‘Go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor…’ For Jesus, detachment from material goods went hand in hand with attachment to Jesus himself…”

“According to Aquinas, humans have dominion over material things only ‘as regards their use.’ In other words, this is God’s world, and we are just using it for the time being. Any dominion we have over creation is given to human beings in common by God… We may posses property, but use it only for the common good, especially for the sake of the neediest among us.”

“In the Christian tradition, detachment from material goods means using them as a means to a greater end, and the greater end is greater attachment to God and to our fellow human beings… Consumerism supports an essentially individualistic view of the human person, in which each consumer is a sovereign chooser. In the Christian tradition, the use of material things is meant to be a common use, for the sake of a larger body of people… Paul says, the members of the body who seem weakest are the most indispensable… The poor and the needy are not just objects for individual charity; rather, they are indispensable because they are part of our very body.”

“There is no question about whether or not to be a consumer. Everyone must consume to live. The question concerns what kinds of practices of consumption are conducive to an abundant life for all.”

“In the Eucharist, Jesus offers his body and blood to be consumed.

Jesus said to them, ‘I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry’ (John 6:35).

The insatiability of human desire is absorbed by the abundance of God’s grace in the consumption of Jesus’ body an blood.”

“It would be easy enough to assimilate the consumption of the Eucharist into a consumerist kind of spirituality. The presence of Jesus could become another kind of commodity to be appropriated for the benefit of the individual user. Indeed, much of what passes for Christianity in our culture today is addressed to fulfilling the spiritual needs of individual consumers of religion… The practice of the Eucharist is resistant to such appropriation, however, because the consumer of the Eucharist is taken up into a larger body, the body of Christ. The individual consumer of the Eucharist does not simply take Christ into herself, but is taken up into Christ.”

“The act of consumption is thereby turned inside out: instead of simply consuming the body of Christ, we are consumed by it… In the Christian view, we do not simply stand apart, as individuals, from the rest of creation…”

“If we remain satisfied with the unity of our own communities, however, we have not fully grasped the nature of the Eucharist. For becoming the body of Christ also entails that we must become food for others. And this often involves moving beyond our own communities and comfort zones.”

“If we are identified with Christ, who identifies himself with the suffering of all [c.f., Matthew 25:31-46], then what is called for is more than just charity. The very distinction between what is mine and what is yours breaks down in the body of Christ. We are not to consider ourselves as absolute owners of our stuff, who then occasionally graciously bestow charity on the less fortunate.”

“Our temptation is to spiritualize all this talk of union, to make our connection to the hungry a sentimental act of imaginative sympathy. We could then imagine that we are already in communion with those who lack food, whether or not we actually meet their physical needs. We might even wish to tell ourselves that our purchases of consumer goods do in fact feed others – by creating jobs. But we have no way of knowing if such jobs create dignity or merely take advantage of others’ desperation…”

“Things are not ends in themselves; they are means to greater attachment to others. We are not to cling to our things, but to use them for the sake of the common good.”

“A sacramental view of the world sees all things as part of God’s good creation, potential signs of the glory of God; things become less disposable, more filled with meaning. At the same time, a sacramental view sees things only as signs whose meaning is only completely fulfilled if they promote the good of communion with God and with other people.”