Monday Morning Quarterback

Note: Monday Morning Quarterback is a weekly post reviewing Sunday, the busiest, most stressful, most gratifying day in the week of a pastor/parent/spouse/citizen

Song of the day:

6:00. Out of bed to look over the order of worship for the first time all week and put some thoughts together for Time with The Children. Instead, spend the time commenting on Landon’s blog. Brewed the last of the Klatch Roasters Flavored Christmas Blend. Christmas 2013 come soon!

9:00. Respond to Jr. High student’s suggestion of a “Nerf war” at youth group with, “Sure, sounds good.” Consider it worth entertaining overt gun violence for the sake of student leadership.

9:15. Sit in with the high school Sunday School class to learn that my presence makes the volunteer teacher nervous. Spend the rest of the day wondering if my newly shaved head transforms me into a menacing spectacle.

10:17. Introduce the guest musician during Time with The Children without warning him. He looks up from his last minute preparations flustered, obviously happy to be here.

10:36. Curse myself for giving away my worship bulletin to the acolyte. We’re singing off the inserts, music the guest musician has written himself. He notices my hands are empty and he lifts his hands from the keys to retrieve a song sheet from his Bible, peering over his glasses and offering it to me. Shuffle over to the piano. Retrieve it. “Thanks.” Tuck tail back under robe.

10:43. Nudge Parish Associate towards the piano to retrieve the next song sheet we don’t have. I had my turn.

10:52. Offer communion. “The cup of salvation.” The cup of salvation.” “The cup of salvation.” “The cup of salvation.” “The pup is dalmation.” “The cup of salvation.”

11:43. Family grocery store run. Wife peels away to get a B-12 shot. That’s a thing, right? Shots in the grocery store? Sure. Okay. I’ll get some peas.

1:27. Assemble four jar salads from ingredients wife has carefully selected, chopped, and arranged in a grid on the kitchen table. Woman of Valor!

2:17. Recline on the couch, dishes to clean yet, droopy-eyed, and mutter into a pink Disney Princess walkie-talkie: “This is daddy. Need a nap. Over.” Four year-old obliges, coming downstairs to retrieve the radio from my fake sleeping chest and covering me with a blanket. Burst with delight.

2:35. Text high school students about youth group: “I’m cool. Please think I’m cool. Please come to youth group tonight so I don’t feel like a useless stooge. Ha ha.” Or something like that.

4:53. Dive into the Digital Literacy and Citizenship lesson with junior high students. Screaming, yelling, arguing, dog-piling (translation=good lesson). And this video:

5:41. Cut junior high student leader loose to orchestrate his Nerf war. 17 minutes of set-up followed by three minutes of the war. Good activity. See you guys next week.

7:08. Atone for jar salads with two slices of pizza, six cookies, and a Coke. Youth group food will kill me.

7:34. Catch my breath. Riotous laughter with high school students and adult leaders. Note in the moment gratitude for this community of 10 or so people who genuinely like each other and who have only come together since September. Wonder how this happened.

8:41. Attempt to lead students in Lectio Divina reading of Isaiah 60. Watching one student sleep, open-mouthed, reclined on a couch through the whole exercise. Not watching the time. Parent arrives for pick up during last reading. Resolve to replace batteries in youth room wall clock.

9:02. Adult leader pats my shoulder and says, “That was good” on his way out the door. Esteem tank, full.

9:17. Cajole gas station attendant into turning on the air compressor for free. No cajoling needed; she’s happy to do it. People are basically good and kind. Squint at tire print for max PSI. Can’t see it. Use phone as light. Use phone to look it up. Dummy.

9:34. Watch highlights from day’s football games, recalling the days when I could actually watch them. Note prior self-pity over this arrangement mostly gone. Mostly.

Christianity After Religion: A New Vision–Believing (Or Why Brian, Landon, And Chad Are Always Right)

Finally, a useful proposal for confirmation in a progressive mainline church.

After four years of half-heartedly running 9th graders through a doctrinal gauntlet of the divine attributes, Christology, and the authority of Scripture, Diana Butler-Bass has given clear voice to the nagging sense I’ve had that trying to tell young people what Christians believe is a fool’s errand. It’s doesn’t help them. It can only leave them with a choice: do I also believe that Jesus miraculously healed people and that God is all powerful? The clear implication is that if they don’t, then they’re not Christians and shouldn’t say that they are.

While the “Belief” chapter in Butler-Bass’s new book Christianity After Religion: The End of The Church And The Beginning of A New Spiritual Awakening never addresses confirmation directly, the implications for it and for every expression of Christian formation are far-reaching.

Consider this summation of why focusing on “what” Christians ought to believe is problematic in the second decade of the 21st century:

As science, history, and psychology offered ever more sophisticated understandings of the universe and human experience, some Christians became increasingly hostile to secular knowledge, building museums to creationism, proclaiming that America is a Christian nation, and excommunicating those who would question the existence of hell. Put simply, as they reacted to unbelief, certain Christians asked for more belief about increasingly unbelievable things.

In order to redefine the religious question of “what do I believe?,” Butler-Bass proposes two “spiritual questions”: how do I believe? and who do I believe? This is going to be my new rubric for engaging confirmation, like, now.

Take the former:

How differs from what. “How do I get to your house?” “How would that move change my family’s life?” “How do I love?” How is the interrogator of direction, of doing, of curiosity, of process, of learning, of living.

In short, “how” is experiential.

“Who” is also experiential. “Who” is about my experience of a relationship with a person and of that person’s authenticity. “In the emerging spiritual culture, what matters much less than who is sharing the news, and the messenger has become the message.”

“Who” is about privileging relationships in faith formation.

Take my friends Brian, Chad, and Landon.

Brian is in charge of a church agency responsible for making recommendations about controversial matters related to denominational investments. For over 10 years, I’ve known Brian as a faithful, responsible, trustworthy friend. What I believe about his agency’s recommendations has as much to do with my friendship with Brian as it does  my objective reading of the issues themselves. Not because he’s my boy and I’ve got his back (as true as that is) but because I can’t believe that he would stake his faith and conviction to a recommendation that wasn’t worth those things. I know he wouldn’t.

Same thing with my friend Landon, a friend of nearly 20 years and a hopeless malcontent who’s always looking to upset someone’s apple cart. What I have experienced in my long friendship with Landon is a person who authentically engages matters that I and others leave alone. I’ve come to trust my sense that if Landon is stirred up about something, then perhaps I should be to. My relationship has taught me that he doesn’t get twitterpated about insignificant things.

Also Chad. Chad is typically my first call when I have disquieting questions, not simply because he’s a theological gangsta who quotes Moltmann in his sleep, but more importantly because he pays close attention to my questions and never answers what I’m not asking, whether I’m asking about the Reformed understanding of providence or the merits of a new Android smartphone. My relationship with him has taught me that Chad’s a reliable cat, and I’m tilted toward belief in everything he says.

What relationships shape how you believe? Are you totally comfortable privileging those relationships in parsing out the stuff of faith, or does that feel too subjective?

What does a theology grounded in relationships of trust and authenticity look like?

Previous posts on Christianity After Religion:

When Religion Fails

Questioning The Old Gods

The End of The Beginning

The Beginning

Alec Baldwin, Nakedness, and Despair: A Plea for An Artful Theology

I was privileged recently to participate in a series of posts on Ecclesio called Theology as Art alongside Landon Whitsitt and Mihee Kim-Kort. Here’s my post in that series. First, though, here’s the link to Landon’s and Mihee’s posts. Actually, Landon’s post is an adaptation of a monograph he wrote, which you can purchase here.

“We know what art is! It’s paintings of horses!”

Jack Donaghy

The assertion, “Theology is art” is as good a fault line as you’ll find dividing the splintered halves of what remains of Christendom. Recent events in my own denomination–the PC(USA)–are only the latest jolts issuing from the bad-tempered subterranean feuds over truth and authority that have caused all of western protestantism to walk lightly for the past three centuries.

On one side of that apparently widening divide are the Jack Donaghys of the fold. They, like the fictional NBC executive from the sitcom “30 Rock,” see “art” as self-centered, indulgent, and hopelessly subjective and are far more eager to be guided by reason and ratings in their deliberations.

Donaghy’s antagonists, TV writer Liz Lemmon and her cast of maladjusted writers and actors, is of course waving stupidly from the other side.

I’m a partisan in that dispute, and my first name ain’t Jack, Jack.

I am increasingly convinced that the Landon Whitsitts and the Mihee Kim-Korts of the church world are driving the caravan I want to join, even though there are other caravans to join, and even though these make better promises: of a re-polished establishment gauntlet; of relevance; of success. But as one who is continually being converted to a gospel that embraces doubters and exclaims “My Lord and my God!” at the spectacle of human weakness, I’m hopelessly attached to this rag-tag caravan of three-wheeled Schooners with their tattooed sails and artsy, bespectacled drivers.

Hence my affinity for the proposition about theology being art, even though (or perhaps because) I don’t consider myself an artist.  I just really want an artful theology. That’s what I’m after, really: theology done artfully. I guess if “Theology is art” is an argument in the indicative, then I want to give the “Let’s do theology artfully” pep rally in the imperative. And that starts by dealing specifically and confidently with artists.

By “artists” I don’t simply mean those recognized as “artistic” for their superior technical skill or for their temperament or for their acute sensitivity. I do mean them, maybe even primarily them, but I also and completely mean everyone else. I mean each adherent of the Christian faith as a theologian and therefore an artist.

If anybody should indeed care about an art-theology, then they must be made to care about art-theologians. We need to more and more situate the believing subject squarely in the center of whatever theological discourse is emerging. Claiming theology as art in a meaningful way probably means celebrating individual theologians’ experiential, limited, contextual, grasp of theology’s object, God, and not perpetuating anymore the modern preference for objective, dispassionate, propositional, wrapped-in-printed-text, discourse as more theologically reliable.

Such an embrace of subjectivity as a reliable carrier of truth will alarm those for whom the rules and conventions of theology hold primacy of place. And with what I hope is seen as an artful posture, I want to embrace their alarm and allow it to set some of the terms of an artful theology.

Because “artful” also means attentive to rules. An artful theology must be a conventional theology, and there’s no more critical convention of theology than the insistence upon talking about God. Theology is God Talk. That’s it. The moment we start talking about something other than God, the God Christians see revealed in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, then we’re not doing theology any more.

Being versed in conventions needn’t mean cramming our heads with Barth and Augustine, though (it certainly could). Primarily, it means becoming thoroughly versed in the many and various best practices worked out over two millenia of Christian talk about God. For example: paradox. It’s a pretty reliable practice of Christian theology to make two apparently contradictory assertions at the same time:

Jesus is fully human.

Jesus is fully God.

That’s as conventional as Christian theology gets, and an artful theologian will not only be committed to the content of that convention but also to its carrier, to the form, the structure, of the paradox. And he will only depart from the tried-and-true best practices of theology when he has a really good reason to do so. He will, in the words of one Godly Play trainer, “Know the rules well enough to break them effectively.”

And, yes, please God may he break them. May he break them without telling us he’s breaking them. May he surprise us, scandalize us, delight us, all by spurning those dictates of God-talk that he learned in the academy, not because he’s intimidated by them but because he owns them and can restrain himself from mimicking them to please the ghosts of his systematics professors.

Improvise. That’s what I’m getting at. Artful theology is improvisational, which means that the artful theologian is one who is well aware that the discourse may get away from her. She knows that she’s not delivering a scripted monologue but participating in an unpredictable sketch about a milkman, a librarian, and a professional wrestler all on a boat together in the middle of an amusement park. Naked.

Here a caution is in order. Improvisational does not mean unprepared. The best improvisational actors are the most practiced ones. They are thoroughly prepared. Even though everything they do and say during a performance is spontaneous, it all issues from a rigorous routine of preparation that involves lots of repetition and doing things uniformly and predictably.

Finally, an artful theology will be a depressed theology, even a despairing one. The ear-severing Van Gogh will be more our model than the toothy-grinned Tony Robbins. Because art and theology both have to do with longing, and the artist or theologian who isn’t despairing probably isn’t longing. Exacting artists destroy more of their work than they display. This isn’t false humility or shrinking self-esteem, but captivity to unattainable standards of clarity, of depth, of rhythm of which we see only brief and fleeting glimpses. Which is maddening. And holy.

The Pea in Landon’s Mattress: Like-Mindedness and Sleepless Nights

Landon Whitsitt has posted a thoughtful and carefully considered response to my last post. He’s been irked since the NEXT Church Indy event, and my post pushed the right buttons to bring that irk . . . age clearly into focus. You’re welcome, Landon.

You should read the post, you should read Landon’s book Open Source Church when it comes out this spring, and you should read his Open Source Gospel ebook now. Landon is an innovative thinker who is widely read and who leaves fewer stones unturned than most when it comes to proposing a way forward for 21st century mainline protestant Christianity.

Also, we’re tight. He and his wife sang in my wedding. I baptized one of his kids. You get the idea. Speak uncharitably of him and I’ll hurt you.

What Landon takes issue with is my lack of alarm at the like-mindedness that characterizes both the NEXT Church conversation and the Fellowship of Presbyterian Pastors one.  Much of the criticism aimed at that latter group centered on its lack of gender, ethnic, and vocational diversity (they’re mostly white male pastors of big churches).

Yet the NEXT gathering betrayed much of the same bias (far less so, though, in the area of gender), and that has caused many hopeful progressives to throw up their hands in despair. Landon is among them.

He writes:

Regardless of a group’s defining characteristics, when group members are similar, they tend to become cohesive – or “like-minded” – fairly quickly. The more similarities, the faster the cohesion is achieved.  This cohesiveness is deceptive. We interpret it as a good thing because it seemingly allows us to get our work done more effectively and efficiently. But the actual effect of this cohesion is that it promotes reliance upon the group to such a degree that members become insulated from outside opinions.

Insulation from outside opinions is a serious threat, and Landon is right to worry about it. But I don’t agree that cohesion in a like-minded group has to lead to this effect. Both the Fellowship and NEXT groups have thrown their doors wide and invited everyone in. How people are greeted when they accept the invitation–that will be the test of insularity. It’s not a foregone conclusion.

More to the point, I don’t think any association of individuals who are trying to change an institution can get very far with an unlimited plurality of opinion. It just won’t work. I’m no slave to the mantra of efficiency, but conversations like NEXT and the Fellowship PC(USA) are after some kind of concrete change. That requires a modicum of like-mindedness.

Both James Davison Hunter and Steven Johnson were mentioned at the NEXT gathering, and both have written about the importance of “networks” in innovation and cultural change.

Hunter says this:

the key actor in history is not individual genius but rather the network and the new institutions that are created out of those networks. And the more “dense” the network—that is, the more active and interactive the network—the more influential it could be. This is where the stuff of culture and cultural change is produced.

Johnson says this by way of explaining the rapid rate of innovation that took place as people transitioned from nomadic hunter/gatherer societies to life in cities:

In the dense networks of the first cities, good ideas have a natural propensity to get into circulation. They spill over, and in that spilling they are preserved for future generations.

Both Davidson and Johnson used the descriptor “density,” which I think is far more helpful than like-mindedness.  The latter is a marker of the former. From a Christian theological point of view, we could substitute “community” or “kinship” for density and bring the issue more clearly into focus: how do dense networks that begin with like-minded thinkers expand to become effective communities characterized by diversity?

The church is charged to model Kingdom-of-God type community. To me, that means people at cultural margins are heard equally with those in “tall steeples.” It means that racial and gender diversity are not optional. And, for Presbyterians, it means that pastors’ voices are not privileged over the voices of Ruling Elders.

Both the NEXT and the Fellowship efforts have serious holes with respect to that charge, as has been amply pointed out by Landon and many others, and as those efforts’ organizers are well aware. But I don’t see those holes as crippling, at least not with respect to the NEXT gathering, for two reasons (I’ll save my reasons for limiting these qualifications to NEXT for a later post):

First, networks aren’t about themselves but the people in them. The people behind the NEXT conversation are people both Landon and I trust. I trust them to have their eye on the need for a diverse community of voices as they host conversations about contentious subjects. This first one, admittedly, got away from them, and you can’t expect people in progressive circles to let something like that go. They haven’t.

Second, it’s a beginning. One of the organizers tweeted in response to Landon’s post that the planners of NEXT saw the Indianapolis event as a “beta” test and not a “full release.” This was not the launch of a strategic program but of a conversation with undetermined outcomes.

The pea in Landon’s mattress is a divinely-inspired caution against self-righteous retreat into safe enclaves of shared opinion. I hope that pea gets into all of our mattresses. But I also hope we can reach in there, take the pea out, look at it carefully, and decide if it’s really worth losing sleep over.

For me–right now–it’s not. But that could change.

God Complex Radio and Landon Whitsitt

Thanks to Landon Whitsitt for guest posting last week. Be sure to keep track of Landon’s ongoing book project, where he’ll be working out his understanding of open source technologies and how churches can (no: must!) use them.

Also thanks to Landon for the opportunity to be part of the most recent episode of God Complex Radio with the actor, theologian, and poet, Callid Keefe-Perry.  Be sure to subscribe to the GCR feed, so you don’t miss any episodes. Ever.

Introducing Landon Whitsitt

Introducing’s first guest poster: Landon Whitsitt.

Landon will be posting here over the next several days.

Pastor, radio producer, blogger, musician, author, bearer of a rockin’ new tattoo, and close personal friend of 16 years, Landon knows more things about more subjects  than anyone I know. He’s a careful thinker who tries out new things with a shocking lack of reservation. That is the quality I envy most.

Be sure to check out Landon’s posts over the next week.