Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Educating Christians

Wheaton College

The way higher education at the PhD level is set up puts a premium on original research as the basis for being acknowledged by one’s peers as having achieved the status of an academic doctor.  As in the sciences, most of the humanities still provide ample regions in which to explore and do work that no one else has done.  My observation about the areas of Biblical Studies and Christian Theology, however, is that they are much more crowded, and that it is much more difficult to carve out a niche where one can satisfy the original research aspect of advanced studies.  There simply are too many people trying to say something original about increasingly small patches of intellectual territory.  A trip to a research library and to their section on Biblical Studies monographs bears this out. There one will find shelves and shelves of books with exceedingly obscure titles on topics that could only be loved by their author (and loved only because it was his/her ticket to a PhD). More often than not, these published PhD theses had a publishing run of maybe 300-400 books, and prices in excess of $100, most of which were sold to libraries such as the one you are standing in to look at them.  And while we academic doctors often look down our noses at ‘popular’ books that sell thousands and tens of thousands of copies to the great unwashed masses, surely there is something to be said about having one’s work actually read, as opposed to sitting in the dark stacks of some library and existing notionally as a line item on some CV.

The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary

The prolific Evangelical theologian Roger Olsen seems to bear this out in theology as well.  In his most recent blog post ‘What’s left for Theology to Do? Some Musings aboutTheology’s Future’, he explores the perception that there is nothing new in theology.  An obvious example has to do with Christian doctrine.  There is actually no such thing as ‘new’ Christian doctrine.  Nor is there such thing as a new heresy.  After nearly two millennia, what poses as new today is likely merely the latest reincarnation of ideas that have been circulating around Christianity for centuries, having been dealt with by Christian thinkers in one generation only to reappear in some subsequent generation to cause a stir until it is dealt with afresh by a new generation of Christian thinkers.  Two current manifestations of this would be Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormonism, both of which claim to be new and fresh revelations of God, but which are actually the latest manifestation of 3rd and 4th century heterodox teachings (variations of Arianism and Gnosticism, respectively) posing as ‘real’ Christianity today just as they did with considerable success back then.

Fuller Theological Seminary

It is a measure of just how wedded Western Christianity is to Enlightenment assumptions about knowledge that this discussion is even possible.  Christian doctrine and the Bible is treated as if they are academic subjects which can be parsed and explained as one of any number of other academic subjects.  Advancement to the upper levels is dependent upon mastering vast amounts of other people’s academic productions, and of arguing about everybody else’s ideas about the issue one is dealing with.  A case could be made for pursuing either as a kind of intellectual history.  But such a designation gets one further and further afield from how the Bible and theology are actually used by the people who care about them.

Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary

None of this has anything to do with actual faith.  I was told by my own supervisor at an early point in my writing to ‘cut out the uplift’.  The intense subjectivity of religious experience evidently has nothing to do with the supposed objectivity of academic research.  The headlong rush by Christian colleges and universities to secure academic credibility has succeeded in academizing areas such as Christian education, pastoral ministry, Christian counseling, as well as theology and Biblical studies.  But at what cost?  Increasingly, these areas of study have been effectively removed from the church and from any sort of relational context and placed instead in an academic context where mastering knowledge through reading and attending lectures, taking exams and writing papers, supply the markers for successful acquisition of  adequate knowledge to advance to the next course.  In other words, it is entirely possible to be a profoundly knowledgeable theologian, an expert in Biblical studies, a whiz at Biblical languages, a marvel at hermeneutics and exegesis, and at the same time to have little if anything to do with being a follower of Jesus Christ, or what the New Testament describes as being a Christian.  Western Christianity’s abdication to the academy for the formation of its leaders guarantees that the suitability of those leaders to actual Christian ministry will be a matter of sheer luck and not intent.  And men and women who themselves are not disciples can hardly be blamed if they are not making disciples.  We’ve trained all these people to do really well in classes, not so much when it comes to being a Christian.

Reformed Theological Seminary

The Eastern Churches have a different emphasis.  Human pride being what it is, I am sure Eastern Christians would have more than matched Western Christian’s achievements when it comes to academic advancement.  It’s just that a millennium of life under the Crescent in many Orthodox lands, as well as a century of brutality under the Hammer and Sickle in many others have meant that almost all Orthodox energy has gone into merely surviving.  But even so, there remains a different perspective on the place of theology in the life of a Christian for the Orthodox.  Theology is not something we take courses to ‘learn’.  Kallistos Ware writes, "Theology, mysticism, spirituality, moral rules, worship, art: these things must not be kept in separate compartments. Doctrine cannot be understood unless it is prayed.’ (On Prayer, 60).  Instead, as Evagrius of Pontus said, ‘A true theologian is one who prays truly, and one who prays truly is a true theologian.’ (P.G. 79, 1180B)

Asbury Theological Seminary

It is a relatively easy thing to master a subject area like theology, to advance in skills necessary for Biblical studies, to acquire the professional credentials needed to climb the ladder of churchly authority.  It is another thing altogether to pray, to seek God, to repent.  This may be one of the reasons that we in the West are more like the world around us than we would perhaps like to think. Which explains a lot, actually.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Holy Week - Crash Helmets Required

Accidents are by definition unexpected.  I was jogging down a hill at dawn several months ago, and before I had time even to think much less react, I was on the ground hard, having slipped on a patch of black ice that I never even saw.  As a five year old, I was so excited to try out my new fishing rod that I went down to the dock by myself, where I carefully baited my hook and the cast it so hard that I fell into the cold April water and went under.  If my older sister hadn’t noticed that I was gone and then heard a splash, I wouldn’t be writing this today.  Some of us are in situations today that, had we known this is where our paths would take us, we might have opted for plan B.

For the disciples, the week that we are about to commemorate was one accident after another; we might call it, anachronistically, a train wreck in slow motion.  Nothing went right.  Matters became increasingly muddled.  At every opportunity Jesus deliberately steered the ship towards the rocks.  They never took him seriously when he spoke plainly of going to his death.  They were holding out for a kingdom and were sure that Jesus was just feinting with his words to keep his powerful adversaries off balance until the right time.  And now that the right time had come, Jesus was instead purposefully snatching disaster from the jaws of glorious triumph.  The events of this week left them utterly disoriented.

We Orthodox are about to enter Holy Week.  For those on the outside, the list of services scheduled for the run up to Pascha (Easter) is staggering.  Even for us Orthodox, it’s daunting.

April 14th  (Holy Monday) - Presanctified Liturgy 6pm
April 15th  (Holy Tuesday) - Bridegroom Matins 7pm
April 16th  (Holy Wednesday) - Presanctified Liturgy 6pm
April 16th  (Holy Wednesday) - Holy Anointing 7:45pm
April 17th  (Holy Thursday) - Vesperal Liturgy 5pm
April 17th  (Holy Thursday) - Matins / Passion Gospels 7:30pm
April 18th  (Holy Friday) - Royal Hours 8am
April 18th  (Holy Friday) - Vespers / Shroud Procession 6pm
April 18th  (Holy Friday) - Jerusalem Matins 9pm
April 19th  (Holy Saturday) - Vesperal Liturgy noon
April 19th  (Holy Saturday) - Midnight Office 11:45pm
April 20th  (Holy Pascha!) - Divine Liturgy 1am
April 20th (Holy Pascha!) – Paschal Fellowship Meal 3am
April 21st (Bright Monday) - Divine Liturgy 8am

Having participated in this cycle of services in Nairobi, and now in Virginia, the multiplication of services is an invitation to walk with Jesus in his last week.  These services are full of Scripture, both the gospel stories themselves, as well as light shed from other parts of the Bible on what was going on and what it all means.  These services are full of prayer, attempting to comprehend the incomprehensible.  It is enough that God becomes a man, and even that this man becomes a slave.  But to watch as the incarnate Son of God takes deliberate steps towards execution as a Roman criminal is incredible.

One enters the storm of services simply trying to keep up with what is being chanted and prayed.  But something happens at some point during the course of these services.  I go from going through the motions of crossing myself, of bowing, of prostrating myself, of saying the responses, singing the hymns, chanting the prayers, to owning them.  The service, as a service, is just a reading through the liturgy; and as long as I remain on the outside, the service remains just a service.  But as with so many things Orthodox, the externals are deceiving, and are not even intended to be the reality, but rather a means into the real reality.  And just as an icon at one level is just paint on wood or plaster, but on another level is a window into the reality portrayed; so the service becomes a window, or the doorway, into the place where God is.  And in the case of Holy Week, the place where God is takes our breath away.  God is with disciples whose inability to get it comes to a dissonant climax during this week.  God is with mourning sisters and a dead brother.  God is with Israel and Jerusalem in one final supreme effort to extend his hands to a people who simply would not come.  God is with a thief being executed for his crimes.  And God is with us as he dies a bloody terrible death so that he might remove its deadly sting from our hearts.

At some point in the long liturgies of the week, we find ourselves in a different world, in a different place, seeing with different eyes, understanding with different perspectives.  It is very hard work.  And the liturgy has the priest saying repeatedly, and with good reason (!): ‘Let us be attentive!’  But maybe we have become so used to the virtual journeys afforded by our medias, ‘journeys’ or experiences that take us nowhere and cost us nothing,  that we forget that taking a real journey is never easy. There is always a cost.  And the purpose is always to take us to a different place.

Holy week is a time when accidents happen.  My reality, our realities crash into Jesus’.  Our moneychangers’ tables are flung to the side.  Our pharisaical presumption is left sputtering.  Our carefully constructed arguments against what Jesus might say are exposed as having missed the point entirely.  Our loud insistences that we can see just fine become further evidence of our blindness.  We watch our hopes for glory, security, power, control die a miserable death on a cross.

In the midst of this debacle, we hear Jesus’ call to deny ourselves, pick up our cross and follow him.  And by doing so these next few days, deliberately, we learn something of what this meant for him.  And something of what it means for us.  And we come out on the other side in a different place, profoundly grateful for the resurrection.

Holy Week is not for the faint of heart.  Crash helmets and seat restraints required beyond this point.

Full disclosure:  The idea of needing crash helmets at Christian worship services is not original to me.  Rather one of my favorite authors, Anne Dillard, put it this way:

Why do people in church seem like cheerful, brainless tourists on a packaged tour of the Absolute? … Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake someday and take offense, or the waking god may draw us to where we can never return.

—Annie Dillard, Teaching a Stone to Talk: Expeditions and Encounters (New York: Harper & Row, 1982), pp. 40-41.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Damned Lies

A lie is a misrepresentation of reality.  Some lies are told to avoid the consequences of responsibility.  Some lies are told in order to influence outcomes in one’s favor.  Some lies are told to establish or maintain control over another person or group of people.  Some lies are told to enforce an alternative reality on one’s spouse, one’s group, one’s circle of influence, one’s country.  All lies are an attempt to control one’s circumstances, and to change one’s circumstances to one’s advantage.  Lies are told by an individual to himself or herself to avoid realities that may be too painful to face.  Lies are told by children to avoid punishment or to gain advantage over a sibling or a peer.  Lies are told in marriages to avoid responsibility or to exert power or control over the other.  Lies are told at school or at work to gain competitive advantage over colleagues, or to give the impression that the work presented is one’s own when it was actually plagiarized from someone else’s.  Lies are told by leaders to avoid losing the trust of followers.  Lies are told by people to maintain an impression of reality that exists to their advantage.  Most of us live our lives entangled in a dragnet of lies.  Because lies are the currency of our culture, we scarcely even notice them unless they become so flagrant that we are forced by the incongruency and magnitude of the hypocrisy to deal with it.

Lies are believed because someone is ignorant of what’s being said and done.  Lies are believed because of laziness.  Lies are believed because of complacency; one doesn’t want to be bothered.  Lies are believed because of complicity; it remains more to one’s advantage to go along than to resist.  Lies are believed because of fear; one is afraid of what might happen, what one might lose, what one might suffer if one stands against the lie.

Lies are an instrument of control and power.  Some lies are blatant, some are subtle.  All are ultimately destructive of genuine relationship.  Those who use lies do not view another person as someone to be loved, but rather as a thing to be managed and controlled.  The primary concern ceases to be of the other; instead the primary concern is attaining and maintaining one’s place, one’s power, one’s control, of maintaining the illusion, managing the perception of others, getting the right spin, preserving the advantage.  Liars are by nature self-righteous.  They are quick to defend themselves, quick to impugn the motives of their critics, quick to dismiss any reality but their own.  And they are incredibly effective.  Liars have done the calculus and feel it is to their advantage to misrepresent reality.  I know it will be a shock, but politics is driven to a great extent by lying.  Look closely at those gaining and maintaining power, be it in academic institutions, organizations, governments, even (especially?) churches, and one will discover a stunning dependency on lies to climb the ladder of influence and play the game of power and control..

When power and control is at stake in any relationship, truth is often the first casualty. And all parties collaborate.  The drive to attain power over another becomes a compulsion, and reality is bent to suit the purpose.  One can get as much of a hit winning an argument as with any narcotic.  Power and control can be addictive, with the dominant one needing his or her fix at the expense of someone around them.

When reality is misrepresented in relationships, and one demands that the other accept his/her perspective/analysis/depiction as the only valid point of view, violence is done to the partner’s self-esteem, self-worth and capacity to judge his or her own perception. This is often done in the context of conflict, and the partner is kept off balance by the never-ending barrage of reality-challenging demands and blaming and abuse intended to beat back any resistance.  They succeed because the partner will often do anything to preserve the relationship, or at least stop the conflict and the pain.  Both partners thus share a role in the lie.  One may make it, but the other one chooses to believe it.  Moreover, the relationship is often locked into perpetual miscommunication and spirals into multiple layers of conflict and dysfunction. Either way, the imposed-upon party often thinks he/she is going crazy.  In a marriage, the partner may assume that the other is just as well-meaning as she is, that they are both on the same page with regards to what love and reciprocity and mutuality are all about.  The imposed-upon partner may need the other regardless of how poorly they are treated.  In the meantime, the other is concerned about control, about getting power over.  Buttressed by his/her partner’s fear, too often it is a very successful strategy.

Writ large, this misrepresentation of reality is the strategy of choice used by many of history’s most notorious dictators.  North Korea provides a chilling example of what happens to entire populations of otherwise sane men, women and children.  Fear compels them to accept the leadership’s misrepresentation of reality.  They conform their lives to lies, and if they have concerns, they must keep them hidden and live with a bifurcated mind.  Once again, the misrepresentation of reality – the lies – become a means of establishing and maintaining control

I’ve been thinking a lot about lies lately – the lies we tell ourselves and others, the lies we believe and perpetuate.  I’ve come to see just how entangled in lies I’ve been, lies of my own fabrication and lies of my own enabling.  For some reason, despite my profession to be a Christian, I have a decided aversion to the truth.  I don’t think I’m alone, either.  My fear of rejection, among other things, has led me for decades to smother into silence the small voice that was telling my heart that something is not right here. My fear of conflict led me for decades to conform to another’s reality that was in conflict with what my heart told me.  My fear of failure drove me to keep trying, keep changing, keep doing what I was told only to have the misrepresented reality I was trying to embrace evaporate in my arms like a mirage.  I thought I was losing my mind.  Truth be told, I had.

Jesus introduces truth into every equation.  For this reason, we find Him fundamentally threatening.  Most prefer the comfort of our own reality than his.  Jesus warns those who would come after him that it will be costly, that it will involve self-denial, that it will involve a crucifixion: one’s own.  Jesus understood that our default posture is to live in misrepresented reality, in prisons of our own making.  But he also makes the startling claim that we shall know the truth, and the truth shall set us free.

A lie is a misrepresentation of reality.  That’s bad enough.  But it’s only when we believe those lies, whether our own, or someone else’s, that all hell breaks loose.  Literally.