Monday, May 31, 2010

The Faith-based Initiative and Congregational Change -- Sightings

Over the weekend, I posted my own thoughts on Mark Chaves' Christian Century article (one that is getting picked up later this week by Ethics Daily.  How prescient I was about the importance of the question, was confirmed not only by the offer to repost on Ethic's Daily, but in Martin Marty's Monday Sightings post, for he too has chosen to focus on the Chaves article. 

I invite you to consider the question -- what role should congregations be expected to play in providing social relief?  And how might the government partner?  These and other questions have been raised -- here is Marty's response.

Sightings 5/31/10

The Faith-based Initiative and Congregational Change
-- Martin E. Marty

“Did the Faith-based Initiative Change Congregations?” asked astute sociologists of religion Bob Wineberg and Mark Chaves last April. The answer: No. Chaves, based at Duke University, follows up with a revision in The Christian Century (June 1), “Congregations Say No to the Faith-based Initiative: Thanks, but No Thanks.” He is referring to the Congress-launched program to tap the energies and genius of religious organizations, “including congregations, to meet social needs.” Recognizing that the program had been controversial from the first, often on grounds coded as “church-state relations,” Chaves analyzed follow-up studies to see whether the tapping had been productive. Again: No.

Chaves is anything but an anti-institutional, anti-congregational muckraker, doomsayer, or secular snob. His career is devoted to assessing what role crucial institutions like congregations (parishes, mosques, synagogue) can and do achieve. We can picture him having hoped that this innovation would work. “Catholic Charities, Lutheran Social Services and Jewish Family Services” do work big time, he notes. It’s hard to imagine American voluntary life without such large agencies, something the “spiritual but not religious” or “religious but non-institutional” citizens don’t often notice. But, once more, “did the faith-based initiative have any impact on congregations? Did it prompt congregations to get more involved in providing social services?” Again, No! and No!

Failure followed because those in charge worked with false assumptions. One was “that congregation-based social services represent an alternative to the social welfare system.” No, they don’t. Chaves: “The reality is that there is no such alternative system in the religious world.” Congregations are not an alternative; their social services depend on “the current system.” “It is much more common for a congregation to plug into an existing program than to start a new one.” False assumption two: that “congregations represent a vast reservoir of volunteer labor.” Do they? No. Most congregations are small, internally diverse, peopled by believers who can’t all be mobilized to serve. Pay no attention to the anti-government and anti-taxing people who say we can all take care of the neighbor in need just by being generous one at a time or as congregations.

Don’t write congregations off; Chaves does not, by any means. He simply observes what they are good at. “Congregations are good at mobilizing people. But they are good at mobilizing small groups of volunteers to conduct well-defined tasks on a periodic basis,” most notably disaster relief. They do well collaborating with organizations “like homeless shelters and Habitat for Humanity,” that are good at using the best congregational resources: “small groups of volunteers carrying out well-defined, limited tasks.” The room for fresh definition is vast; the number of limited tasks is without limit.

Chaves consistently is suggesting, based on rich data, that those who want to dream of non-governmental or non-secular forms of addressing social needs are utopian. Congregations play an enormous role in the economy of social care, but they have to be free to find and exercise that role in partnership, along with, and at the side of non-congregational approaches. The anti-government, anti-tax, anti-secular Bible-believers have – or should have – a problem with Paul’s Letter to the Romans, 13:4, where “authorities,” a.k.a. “government,” “is God’s servant for your good;” or 13:6, “For the same reason you also pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants.” We see.


Bob Wineberg and Mark Chaves, “Did the Faith-Based Initiative Change Congregations?” Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly (March 2010).

Mark Chaves, “Congregations Say No to the Faith-based Initiative: Thanks, but No Thanks,” Christian Century (June 1, 2010).

Martin E. Marty's biography, current projects, publications, and contact information can be found at


On April 6, 2010 Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, spoke at the University of Chicago Divinity School in an event sponsored by the university’s Theology Workshop. This month’s Religion and Culture Web Forum brings audio from Land’s discussion, titled “Christians, Public Policy, and Church and State Separation,” and offers reflections on the event in an introduction by David Newheiser, Ph.D. student and coordinator of the Theology Workshop at the University of Chicago.


Sightings comes from the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School.

Jesus Manifesto -- Who is Jesus?

Jesus Manifesto: Restoring the Supremacy and Sovereignty of Jesus Christ
Leonard Sweet and Frank Viola have published a new book entitled the Jesus Manifesto: Restoring the Supremacy and Sovereignty of Jesus Christ.  (Nelson, 2010).  I received an advance copy, with the proviso that I would, at the very least, on this day, put up their statement about the book's release (see the bottom of the page).

I have yet to read the book, beyond the Introduction, so a review is not yet available from my pen.  But, from that introduction, I deduce that the authors, one a Methodist Historian and Professor of Evangelism at Drew University and the other a conference speaker and author, wish to reclaim the centrality of Christ to the message of the Christian faith.

In the introduction they note that there was a time when the church failed to take seriously the humanity of Jesus, but now in many sectors it is the opposite.  They seek to offer a third way, between left and right poles.  They call for a new engagement with Christology The degree to which they succeed remains to be seen (as I've not read the book to its conclusion). 

I offer a few excerpts from the intro to get a conversation going:

Christians have made the gospel about so many things -- things other than Christ.  But Jesus Christ is the gravitational pull that brings everything together and gives it meaning.  Without him, all things lose their value.  They are but detached pieces floating around in space.  That includes your life. (p. xxi).
And then they write:

So what is Christianity?  It is Christ.  Nothing more.  Nothing less. Christianity is not an ideology or a philosophy.  Neither is it a new type of morality, social ethic, or worldview.  Christianity is the "good news" that beauty, truth, and goodness are found in a person.  And true humanity and community are founded on and experienced by connection to that person. (p. xxii). 
The authors claim that the church suffers from a Jesus Deficit Disorder, so that other items and terms have replaced Jesus at the center of the conversation.  And so, they suggest that we return to the question Jesus posed to the disciples:  "Who do you say that I am?"  

As I said, I've not read the book so I can't comment on their positions, though from the endorsements by and large they come from evangelicals of some stripe or another.  But I think the question warrants a discussion -- who is Jesus for the church today?  Who is Christ for you?  Is he the center or is he not?  

Thomas Nelson is releasing a new book called Jesus Manifesto: Restoring the Supremacy and Sovereignty of Jesus Christ by Leonard Sweet and Frank Viola. This book will be on special discount from on June 1st, the date of the release. You can learn more by going to Endorsements by Rowan Williams, Matt Chandler, Calvin Miller, Ed Young, Jack Hayford, Shane Claiborne, Ed Stetzer, Reggie McNeal, Mark Batterson, Gregory Boyd, David Fitch, Steve Brown, Dan Kimball, Margaret Feinberg, Mark Chironna, Francis Frangipane, Todd Hunter, Alan Hirsch, Chris Seay, Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, Anne Jackson, Craig Keener, Ken Ulmer, Tommy Barnett, Sally Morgenthaler, and others.

Remembering the First Memorial Day

I noticed it on Wikipedia, and then again on David Crumm's blog, Read the Spirit.  In his reflections for Memorial Day, David Crumm, former Religion writer for the Detroit Free Press, reminds us that the first Memorial Day, then called Decoration Day, hearkens back to an event in 1865, when 10,000 African Americans, all recently freed slaves, gathered to mark the graves of Union soldiers, who had fallen in battle in South Carolina.  I'm including part of the conversation in this extended quote.  David has other information that provides context and definition.

Real Story of Our “First” Memorial Day

Here’s why it’s important to remember—and spread word—about the real story of Memorial Day. Yale University historian David W. Blight undertook the groundbreaking research that is changing the way this milestone is understood. He published his findings in a 2002 history, “Race and Reunion.” Even the History Channel’s current “History of Memorial Day” video ignores the stirring 1865 chapter of U.S. history that Blight finally uncovered. (Over time, scholars expect that our collective “history” will be restored to include the 1865 event. Wikipedia’s version already includes this 1865 revision. Or, really this represents a restoration of the record.)

The first Memorial Day was marked by former slaves in Charleston, South Carolina, who created proper, individual graves for fallen Union soldiers who had been buried en masse near a Confederate prison camp. For most of the 20th century, however, the “first” Decoration or Memorial Day was credited to Waterloo, New York, mainly because the freed slaves of Charleston, South Carolina, didn’t have the connective clout enjoyed by the men promoting Waterloo’s ceremonies. News of the Charleston effort never spread across the U.S. and eventually vanished from our national memory. Of course, the Waterloo effort was noble, too, but its claim as our “first” now must be qualified as perhaps a “first in the North.”

According to Blight’s research: On May 1, 1865, 10,000 former slaves gathered at the cemetery site they had rebuilt and elaborately decorated in Charleston, South Carolina. Their courage is inspiring, because they were making a large-scale public demonstration of their love and respect for fallen Union soldiers—within weeks of the end of the war. Their brave actions easily could have brought their families into harm’s way from white neighbors who still strongly supported the defeated Confederacy.

Preparing for that first Memorial Day was an expensive, back-breaking effort in which a proper cemetery actually was built from the ground up by African-American volunteers prior to May 1. On a spiritual level, these freed slaves were intent on starting their new lives by literally digging up and reshaping a key part of their past. The site of this first Memorial Day, once a local race course, had been a Confederate prison camp where Union soldiers’ bodies were heaped in a mass grave. Volunteers prepared for May 1, 1865, by digging up the discarded remains, burying them properly, adding a wall around the cemetery, plus a proper arched entryway for visitors. The site, today, is Hampton Park. If you know Charleston, you’ll realize there is no Civil War cemetery there now. Eventually, these remains were moved again to a new U.S. national cemetery in Georgia.

To read more, click here.
It is good to remember the foundations of our observances, for they may surprise us. 

A Reflection and a Prayer for Memorial Day

Memorial Day marks the beginning of summer.  Baseball, barbecues, the Indianapolis 500, and memorial observances.  It's easy to forget the real purpose of the day in the midst of all the other activities.  For many today is a day to lay flowers and wreaths, attend memorial observances, and reflect on friends and family who have passed on.

Memorial Day was began as Decoration Day after the end of the Civil War.  Over time it has expanded and became what we know as Memorial Day, being established by law as a national holiday in 1967, with the current positioning on the last Monday in May beginning in 1971.  It has its roots in honoring war dead, and it has expanded over time to be a time of remembrance of all who have died, especially those who die in service to country. 

So, on this day may we stop to remember those who have died, including those who have died in service to country.  On this day, I want to stop to remember two pastors who have influenced my life, both of whom have died rather recently:

Gary Wells -- my pastor and friend while living in Eugene, OR in the mid-1980s.  Gary was Pastor of Northwood Christian Church in Springfield, OR until his retirement.  He also taught in the area of pastoral ministries at Northwest Christian University.  Gary had a knack for pushing you beyond your boundaries, making you think about the way you comported yourself and how you spoke.  He was a good man.

LLoyd Saatjian -- LLoyd was until his retirement, Senior Minister of First United Methodist Church of Santa Barbara.  LLoyd was a dear friend, a supporter when times got tough, a strong and resilient leader in the community, and a pastor par excellence!   I remember so clearly on the morning of September 11, 2001.  I was President of the Clergy Association in Santa Barbara.  I stepped into the office and the phone rang.  It was LLoyd asking:  What should we do?  And not only that, but offering his church to host a community service.  That was the way LLoyd was -- he saw something that need to be done, and he got on it.  My life has been enriched deeply through our friendship.

I also remember Ben Palmer.   Ben died some nearly twenty years ago now.  He served in the US Navy during World War II.  He was a Lt. Commander, and commanded a ship that captured a Japanese naval vessel.  I remember Ben, not for his naval exploits, but for the influence he had on my life as a child.  My Grandmother married him during the late 1960s.  He was the Grandfather I never had.  He loved learning, reading constantly, including in the areas of philosophy and religion.  I cherish the times spent with him.

May we ask God's blessings on the memories of those who have preceded us in death, memories of those who have influenced our lives with their grace and wisdom.

Almighty and eternal God,
We pause this day to remember those who no longer walk with us in life.
We remember especially those whose lives have influenced our lives.
We remember their wisdom and grace,
Their guidance and direction
Their support for our ventures
Their humility and willingness to give of themselves for the good of others.
May their memories be treasured in our hearts and minds,
so that we might live in ways that honor this memory.


Sunday, May 30, 2010

Give God the Glory -- Sermon

Psalm 96

Music has the power to stir our souls and enliven our hearts and minds. Whenever Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus is played or sung, nearly everyone stands. They may even join in singing the chorus. It happened just the other day, when Pat concluded his recital with this very piece.

Why do we do this? Is it just habit or expectation? Or is it because this piece of music is so inspiring that we cannot take it in sitting down? What is important to point out is that the Hallelujah Chorus, like Psalm 96, calls forth from us, a declaration that God is sovereign, not just over our personal lives, but as the Psalmist declares, over “all the earth.” And so we sing:

“Hallelujah For the Lord God omnipotent reigneth, hallelujah”
And then, we proclaim:

The kingdom of this world is become the kingdom of our Lord,
And of His Christ, and of His Christ;
And He shall reign for ever and ever . . .
“Hallelujah For the Lord God omnipotent reigneth, hallelujah”

In this song of praise, we hear echoes of the biblical declarations of God’s reign, declarations like the one found in another ancient hymn, one that Paul included in his letter to the Philippians. This hymn declares that the one who emptied himself of glory has been raised up by God,

So that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father (Philippians 2:9-11).
 I don’t know what instrumentation Paul imagined for his hymn, but I expect it carried a sense similar to that of the Hallelujah Chorus and the 96th Psalm. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter if our songs are accompanied by mighty organs, simple guitars, or even no accompaniment at all. What matters is what comes forth from the heart as a declaration of allegiance, thanksgiving, and praise.

The 96th Psalm calls for us to sing to God a new song. The Psalmist invites us to join with the whole of creation in singing the praises of God, who is our creator. It is by classification an enthronement psalm, which acknowledges the reign of God, and in this case also declares the good news that God is at work bringing salvation, healing, wholeness, and hope to a world that is fragmented and broken. It evokes from us visions of God’s splendor, which is reflected in the beauty of God’s creation. And then, it closes by offering us promises of stability and justice.

1. Affirming God’s Glory and Greatness

And so, at the invitation of the Psalmist, we come before the throne of God, singing a new song that declares before all the creation God’s glory and greatness. In doing this we affirm that God transcends our boundaries and our lives. God is present with us and among us and even within us through the Spirit, but we are not God. Karl Barth speaks of God as being “wholly Other.” That may or may not be sufficient definition of God’s being, but it is a reminder that when approach God, we stand upon holy ground.

When Moses went to the mountain to receive instructions for God’s people, God reminded him that he stood on sacred ground and that he should take off his shoes. Here in this Psalm, we’re directed to:

Ascribe to the Lord, O families of the peoples,
Ascribe to the Lord glory and strength.
Ascribe to the Lord the glory due his name;
bring an offering, and come into his courts. (Vs. 7-8).
Come into God’s presence, bringing with you both words of praise that affirm God’s greatness, and bring signs of your devotion, offerings that affirm your allegiance to the one who sitteth on the throne of heaven.

2. Enjoying God’s Beauty and Splendor

Even as the Psalmist invites us to kneel before the Lord our Maker, the writer declares that “honor and majesty are before him; strength and beauty are in his sanctuary,” and then invites us to worship God “in holy splendor.” This is an invitation to enjoy the beauty and splendor that is reflected in God’s creation.

Consider the wondrous beauty of God’s creation, whether it’s the dunes along Lake Michigan, the deep blue waters of Crater Lake, or the majesty that is Mount Shasta. Each of us can name a place that is so beautiful that we can’t do anything except stand or kneel in awe. There are other expressions of God’s splendor that come from within us, as we are invited to co-create with God things of beauty and grace. This invitation is written into our very being, for as Genesis reminds us, we have been created in the image of God. And so, it is our calling to bring forth beauty and splendor in the world. It might be music, such as we see displayed by the choir or the organ. It might be a piece of art or a poem.

N.T. Wright speaks of humankind being the reflection of God’s “wise, creative, loving presence and power.” God is enlisting us, in our very creation, “to act as his stewards in the project of creation.” Therefore, Wright states that:

Every act of love, gratitude, and kindness; every work of art or music inspired by the love of God and delight in the beauty of his creation; every minute spent teaching a severely handicapped child to read or to walk; every act of care and nurture, of comfort and support, for one’s fellow human beings and for that matter one’s fellow nonhuman creatures; and of course every prayer, all Spirit-led teaching, every deed that spreads the gospel, builds up the church, embraces and embodies holiness rather than corruption, and makes the name of Jesus honored in this world – all of this will find its way, through the resurrecting power of God, into the new creation that God will one day make. That is the logic of the mission of God. (Surprised by Hope, Harper One, 2008, pp. 207-208).
We speak of ourselves as being a missional church. Therefore, as we create beauty we express God’s mission by helping create a better world, a world in which God’s name is honored and praised because there is joy and there is hope.

3. Experiencing Stability and Judgment

As we reach the closing stanzas of this great Psalm, a Psalm that directs us to proclaim the good news of God’s salvation, we hear words about judgment and stability. As we’ve been learning in the Wednesday studies, salvation isn’t about being whisked away from this world by God. Instead, God’s work of salvation is about making the world whole, and as we experience this wholeness – not perfectly of course – we have the opportunity to participate in God’s work of healing that which is broken. It is, to quote Paul, our participation as ambassadors of reconciliation, even as God, in Christ, is reconciling us to God’s self, so that we might experience the new creation (2 Cor. 5:16-21). Salvation has a partner, and that partner is judgment. Now, in our study, we’ve also been learning that God’s judgment and justice aren’t about punishment and condemnation. Although, God separates that which is good and honorable from that which is evil and dishonorable, God is not doing this in order to punish or condemn. God’s judgment is designed to make things right so that there might be peace and good will on earth as in heaven. The Psalmist declares that God will come to judge the earth in righteousness and truth. If we trust that God is not just fair, but gracious and merciful and loving, then we need not fear God’s justice. Instead, we can find in this message a word of hope, for God is not abandoning us or this world, but God instead is seeking to make things new.

Even as God promises to come and judge with righteousness and truth, we also hear a promise of stability. The Psalmist declares that the “World is firmly established and shall never be moved.” Now, that doesn’t mean that the earth won’t experience quakes or other cataclysms. I suppose it’s even possible that California could break off and fall into the sea, making Las Vegas a beach town. Rather than hearing this in a geological sense, perhaps we should hear it in the context of living in a mobile culture. It is an invitation to put our roots down into God’s presence and entrusting our lives to the care of God. Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove writes of “the wisdom of stability,” and speaks of stability as being “a commitment to trust God not in an ideal world, but in the battered and bruised world we know. If real life with God can happen anywhere at all, then it can happen here among the people whose troubles are already evident to us.” (The Wisdom of Stability, Paraclete, 2010, p. 24).

With this promise of stability as our anchor in this world, may we join together with the seas and the fields and the forests, and sing for joy before the Lord, declaring that God is glorious and great. Yes, let us sing: “To God be the glory, great things he hath done!”

Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall
Pastor, Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, Michigan
Trinity Sunday
May 30, 2010

Saturday, May 29, 2010

The Faith Based Initiative and Congregations

I remember back when President George W. Bush proposed and saw implemented his Faith Based Initiative.  At the heart of this proposal was that the government would open up funds to be used by faith-based institutions, including local congregations, so that they could be alternative deliverers of social services.  I remember that our clergy group in Santa Barbara, made this a focus of conversation, dedicating one meeting to exploring it.  I went out and got as much information as I could (I was the President of the Greater Santa Barbara Clergy Association at the time) to distribute.  We had a guest presenter who was working with faith based initiatives come and speak to us.  We batted it around, wondering what it would mean for us and the communities.  We were in agreement that congregations should be involved in social service, but we were not all certain as to the implications of the project.

Well, it's been nearly a decade since that Office of Faith-Based  and Community Initiatives was formed.  Over the course of time, a number of the people brought in to lead it left their positions, discouraged at the way in which the Administration wanted to use it for political gain.  When President Obama came into office, he kept the office, but sought to reform it some and provide more funds for the initiative.  But while faith communities remain committed (or at least a good portion) to social service, the question remains -- what impact did it have? 

Yesterday, my copy of the Christian Century arrived in the mail, and the cover story is entitled:  "Thanks, but No Thanks:  Congregations and government funding."  The article, which is written by Duke Divinity School's Mark Chaves, offers an assessment.  His assessment from studying the data -- he's a sociologist of religion who conducted a major survey of US congregations -- is that it didn't really change the habits and activities of local congregations.  The program did raise the levels of conversation about such funding, but didn't actually eventuate into much in the way of increased activity.  

As Chaves examines the data, he concludes that the formulators of this project started with certain flawed assumptions.  What they misunderstood was the nature of involvement of congregations in social service.  They assumed that congregations could be alternative deliverers of service, and that all they needed was a bit of help in getting grants.  The problem is that there really isn't any congregation based alternative system of social welfare.  Most congregations participate in already existing networks of providers.  A good example would be our congregation's involvement annually in a local homeless shelter.  For one week each year we partner with another congregation to host or assist in hosting a rotating shelter.  It services about 30-50 people.  We provide a place to sleep and meals.  But we participate in a larger project that has no religious ties, and we only serve a small portion of the county's homeless population.  Consider Chaves's comment:

The faith-based initiative failed to change congregations in part because it tried to bypass existing networks and support systems in favor of putting resources into one small part of those systems.  Congregations are usually a part of these networks and systems; they rarely stand separate from them.  A better informed faith-based initiative would focus on building up the social service delivery network as a whole. (Chaves, Christian Century, June 1, 2010, p. 24).
The second mistaken assumption was the belief that congregations "represent a vast reservoir of volunteer labor."   Chaves writes that congregations are good at mobilizing people, but only if the tasks are well defined and on a periodic basis (like our involvement in the homeless shelter).  He writes

Congregations are good at mobilizing 15 people to spend several weekends renovating a house, or getting five people to cook dinner at a homeless shelter one night a week, or organizing ten young people to spend two weeks painting a school in a poor community. (Chaves, Christian Century, June 1, 2010, p. 24) 
The key is well-defined and short periodic efforts.  Asking congregations to organize and staff long term, ill-defined projects doesn't work so well.  Thus, we're great at working with Habitat for Humanity or providing relief support as with Katrina or Haiti.  Even if every church truly understood itself to be missional and devoted considerable effort and expenditure to outreach efforts, it's likely that they would become true alternatives.  What we're able to do is help support and extend those broader efforts provided by nonprofits and governments.  If people really want to get churches involved, then it's probably best to find ways of using their resources well -- and that means finding ways to mobilize small groups of volunteers for specific tasks.  It might be less exciting and less headline grabbing than trying to create an alternative mode of social service delivery, but it's likely to be more successful.

Friday, May 28, 2010

The Left Behind Fantasy -- Review

THE LEFT BEHIND FANTASY: The Theology Behind the Left Behind Tales. By William Powell Tuck. Eugene, OR: Resource Publications, 2010. xiv +157 pp.

Whether you’ve read them or not, it’s likely you’ve seen or at least heard of the twelve volume Left Behind series of Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins. In this series of books, a full-blown exposition of Dispensational understandings of the end of the ages is laid out – in fictional form. If you’re well-versed in Dispensationalism, perhaps from reading Hal Lindsey’s Late Great Planet Earth, you’ll understand to what the series title is referring. It is the story of what happens to those left behind when Jesus returns and snatches up the saints of God. For seven crazy years the anti-Christ reigns supreme. But according to this scenario, some of those left behind figure things out and come to Jesus and fight to defend themselves, even as they seek to win others to the faith – in anticipation of another return.

I must say, up front, that I’ve not read the books – though I have handled them on occasion at Costco. William Tuck, a retired Baptist pastor and author, on the other hand, has gone the extra step of actually reading these books. Indeed, he has read these books very carefully, along with other books on similar topics that have been written by the primary author (Tim LaHaye), in the hope of understanding both their appeal and their message.

What Tuck discovers is that there is a reason why they’re popular. They’re a good read – having lots of intrigue, violence, and even at least the suggestion of romance, all wrapped up in a Christian cover story. John Killinger, in his foreword speaks as well to the context into which these books have appeared. These are, he says, times that are “extraordinarily charged with the electricity of interfaith wars, heightened airport security, a parade of bombings in crowded international cities, and more recently, a nearly catastrophic global economic meltdown” (p. xi) Is it any surprise that many people might think these are the last days, and actually find a sense of hope in these books. Indeed, as Tuck notes in the book, the authors put the plan of salvation (a fundamentalist version to be sure) in each of the books. Tuck also notes that there is little evidence that masses of people have converted, but many Christians seem to have accepted this as the true and proper interpretation of the Bible. What he discovers in these books are a theology and interpretation of the bible that have dangerous implications.

In the course of a rather brief book, Bill Tuck introduces us to the plot lines, the characters, and the theology that is inherent in the books. Chief among the characters are Rayford Steele, an airline pilot who becomes a Christian, along with his daughter, after he is left behind. They help found the Tribulation Force – a sort of Christian A-Team – with Buck Williams (who marries Chloe Steele). There is Bruce Barnes a previously unconverted pastor – that is he wasn’t sufficiently conservative – who becomes the group’s spiritual leader and teacher. On the other side of the ledger there is Nicolae Carpathia, a Romanian President who becomes General Secretary of the United Nations, and then the Anti-Christ. Is it surprising that the Anti-Christ should be the head of the UN? Then there’s Peter Matthews, a Roman Catholic Cardinal who becomes Pontifex Maximus and head of the Enigma Babylon One World Faith. Finally, there are two Jewish leaders, Tsion Ben-Judah and Chaim Rosezweig. One is a rabbinical scholar and Israeli statesman who converts to Christianity, and the other is an Israeli statesman and scientist who assassinates Carpathia – who incidentally is raised from the dead.

Tuck not only gives the background on the characters, but discusses the background to this book – the books written by such noted Dispensationalists as John Darby (the founder of Dispensationalism), C.I. Scofield, Lindsey and John Walvoord, and explains the terminology that is found in the books, whether biblical or not. LaHaye suggests that his is the proper interpretation of the Bible, but Tuck makes it clear that the term rapture isn’t in the Bible, and the biblical foundations for it are thin (the closest text is I Thessalonians 4:17). Then there is the idea of a Glorious Appearing, a sort of second second coming, when Jesus returns at the end of the seven-year Tribulation, to set up his 1000 year reign. He explains how the idea of a seven-year tribulation emerged out of attempts to literally interpret texts like Revelation and Daniel. We’re introduced to terms such as apocalypse and millennium, the anti-Christ, the Beast, and the False Prophet. Tuck offers the Dispensationalist interpretation of these terms/ideas and then offers other interpretations – ones with more scholarly support – of apocalyptic and eschatalogical texts.

In the course of his discussion, Tuck introduces the reader to what he calls the Apocalyptic approach to those texts, like Revelation that seem to have a futuristic sense to them. It is this method that he uses to examine LaHaye’s theology of the end times. This interpretation, he suggests, represents the scholarly consensus view, one that insists that Revelation and similar writings must have been understood by its first readers. With that as the starting point, Tuck insists that the Rapture scheme found in these books simply don’t stand up to scrutiny. He writes:

Not only are their novels fiction but their biblical foundation for these tales is also fiction. No reliable biblical scholar, except a few isolated fundamentalists, substantiates their claims. Readers of these novels should be aware of this fact. Although LaHaye and Jenkins claim that they have broad support, this is not the case. (p. 70).

Tuck uses the relevant biblical scholarship to examine each of LaHaye’s scriptural claims and rebuts them. Particularly problematic in Tuck’s mind is LaHaye’s penchant for using texts that clearly speak of resurrection to support his rapture theology, including 1 Corinthians 15. There is, in the biblical record, only one parousia, or return of Christ and that relates to the general resurrection. Tuck is concerned that Dispensationalists have replaced the Resurrection, which is foundational to the Christian faith, with a rapture doctrine that isn’t biblical.

The interpretive scheme used by the authors is extremely literalistic, and yet this leads to some interesting interpretative gymnastics. What LaHaye fails to understand is that apocalyptic literature, which is highly symbolic, is not meant to be taken in such a fashion. His interpretations also fail to consider how these words would have been understood by the original recipients of the book of Revelation. In response, Tuck offers an interpretation that takes the words and the audience seriously.

Another important issue is the violence present in the books. At one point in the books, Christ appears on a white horse and “his words mow the soldiers of Nicolae Carpathia down like they are being shot with a rapid repeating machine gun” (p. 85). This violence, however, is part of the attraction, for the books have all the parts of an action series. But, the God who appears in these books is not at all attractive. Tuck writes that at times it’s difficult to distinguish the actions of God from those of the anti-Christ, Nicholas Carpathia: “They both issue out undeserved suffering on persons who either did not recognize who they were or were undecided in their loyalty” (p. 98). The reasoning is that God uses this suffering to get people’s attention, but is that an appropriate way for God to act? Does it stand up to the declaration that God is love? Does it represent the teachings of Jesus, which speak of nonviolence. And, while many Christians struggle with the idea of war, Tuck raises questions about the nature of this “Tribulation Force,” which “uses weapons of violence like hand guns and uzis, planes and helicopters, Land Rovers and trucks that blow up armored carriers and kill soldiers and utilize some of the most advanced technological equipment one can have to combat the forces of the Antichrist. While Revelation speaks of martyrdom for the faith, in these books the forces of God are an underground military force. As Tuck notes, the authors use as their model the Pax Romana not the Pax Christi. Violence, not justice, love, and reconciliation, is the nature of this vision. But then, in the presentation of judgment, God comes off not as one setting things right, but one who is vindictive – offering a choice between allegiance and punishment.

What is also missing from the books is forgiveness. Tuck notes that in this scenario, if you have the mark of the beast, even if you want to convert, it’s not possible. There is, also a rather negative view of the religious faith of anyone other than those who stand in their rather narrow viewpoint.  Catholics and more moderate to liberal Protestants are seen as apostate -- as are Jews, Muslims, and anyone else that differs from them.  There is, in this scenario, no forgiveness for them as well.

The books use fear as a means to an end. Conversion is the hoped for end, but it is not a conversion that stems from God’s love, but from fear of God’s wrath. Is this an effective tool for evangelism, Tuck doesn’t think so. In fact, the last chapter of the book offers an alternative way of coming to faith. In Tuck’s presentation, “authentic evangelism will show concern for the total person and will address the need for discipleship and the role of the Church in one’s spiritual growth” (p. 115).

Bill Tuck is to be commended for taking on a series of books that have garnered a lot of attention and have influenced the views of many Christians. He helps the reader understand, going into great depth, why these books don’t offer a responsible interpretation of scripture or view of life. In its place, he offers an alternative understanding of Christian faith, one that is truer to the vision of Jesus.  So, if you're looking for a book that responds to this series, this is a good place to start.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

The New Religion of Body Improvement -- Sightings

Cover for Zed Nelson's Love Me
Being that we've been talking resurrection and what it has to say about embodiment in this life and the next, I found it interesting that today's Sightings piece deals with the issue of religion and body improvement -- or more specifically, body improvement as a religion in and of itself.  There has been in recent decades a fascination within evangelical Protestantism with dieting, exercise, and make up, all in the effort, especially among women, to improve one's looks.  Now, it seems we're taking it to the next level with attempts to improve one's looks through surgery.  Now, I don't begrudge someone wanting to make use of cosmetic surgery, but as we've seen it can become addictive, for once you start down the path of improvement, where do you stop?  When will you be satisfied?  With these questions in mind, let us check out Jeremy Bile's essay.


Sightings 5/27/10

The New Religion of Body Improvement

-- Jeremy Biles

“The worldwide pursuit of body improvement has become like a new religion,” says photographer Zed Nelson in the introduction to his latest book, Love Me. His photos therein depict in loving, lurid detail evidences of bodily fanaticism around the globe – a preposterously muscled bodybuilder in Las Vegas, prosthetic nose implants in Beijing, the winner of a maximum-security-prison beauty pageant in Rio. But do these photos really point toward a “new religion”?

There’s reason to think so. In fact, though the pursuit of bodily perfection is a global phenomenon, its roots may lie partly in American religion. R. Marie Griffith argues that religion, specifically Protestant forms of Christianity, has been a key influence on the conception and creation of American bodies. Protestant ascetic expressions of Christianity are invested in bodily “indicators of faith, each steadfastly promoting corporeal acts of devotion…while affirming that signs of authentic spiritual renewal [are] essentially grounded in the body.” According to Griffith, the ideal of bodily perfection – present throughout American history – rose to general prominence toward the close of the twentieth century, emerging from the evangelical devotional diet movements that first cropped up in the late 1950s. Promoting the belief that inner goodness was apparent in one’s outer aspect, this vein of devotion was built on the doctrine that “fat was sin.” A thin, firm, beautiful body, it was believed, was the visible reflection of goodness and godliness. Contemporary body disciplines “draw their source and momentum from specific Protestant patterns,” which presume that “fit bodies…signify fitter souls.”

The sundry forms that such disciplines take – exercise, dieting, and the like – have infiltrated the wider culture, permeating the American consciousness with anxiety about the body while shaping beliefs about beauty. Today the forces of globalization have propelled the American conception of the perfect body into the world at large, where it has inflected traditional Western ideals of beauty. Nelson notes an “increasingly prescriptive” standard of beauty that has given rise to ever more anxious attitudes toward the body, and thus to increasingly fanatical practices of bodily improvement.

Anxiety and devotional attention to the body are nothing new in religious life. Caroline Walker Bynum claims, for example, that “eating in late medieval Europe…was at the core of religious world-denial…. [R]enunciation of ordinary food prepared the way for consuming Christ in eucharist and mystical union.” But today’s body disciplines extend well beyond attention to diet. Rebecca Mead compares the modern obsession with cosmetic surgery to Christian asceticism. The surgery addicts she discusses describe their fixation in “the language of religious experience, with its wretchedness and its sublimity and its consciousness of transgression.” They display all the “self-scourging rigor” of medieval ascetics. Like Christian asceticism, Mead points out, cosmetic surgery is predicated on the possibility of human perfectibility – although she notes, “If for St. Teresa perfection required transcending the allures of the material and the sensual, adherents of the cult of plastic surgery undergo surgical mortification of the flesh in order to embrace the sensual life more fully.”

The new religion of body improvement shifts the aims of asceticism; the body is no longer a means to spiritual illumination but an end in itself. For today’s ascetics, transcendence lies within a form of bodily redemption; they seek to make of the mortal, corruptible body a perfect, youthful body. The bodily modifications Nelson and Mead document are motivated by anxiety about death and a corresponding longing for eternal youth – a desire for immortality – but the location of eternal life has moved from the heavens to the material world.

As the anxious desire for eternal youth increases, technologies and techniques for restoring youth become more commonplace. Plastic surgery procedures become rites of passage in the new religion of body improvement. The surgical breakdown and reconstruction of the body correspond to the symbolic dismemberment and reintegration of the body found in initiation rites across many religions. Today’s surgical rituals usher initiates from the imperfect to the more perfect, from the humanly mortal to the deifically immortal. There is something undeniably miraculous about such momentous transformations. Plastic surgery heralds a transformation of the very stuff of humanity. It portends a forfeiture of the “natural” body – a wish to transcend the mortal, aging body and a corresponding desire to be resurrected as immortal, like a god.

David Chidester acknowledges the increasing plasticization of the human body, noting that plasticity upsets the distinction between human and God. Treating the body as malleable, transformable, and perhaps even imperishable is a form of “plastic religion” that gestures toward immortality. In some sense, maybe this is just what it means to be human, and religious: to be ceaselessly engaged in experimentation with the possibilities of existence. “Whatever else religion might be about,” Chidester writes, “it is about limits.” If so, then today’s global obsession with exceeding the boundaries of the possible – achieving perfect, immortal bodies – is a religious phenomenon. Exalting and demeaning, liberating and lethal, godly and infernal, the pursuit of perfection still and always remains part of the religious project of testing human limits.


The introduction to Nelson's book can be found at his website:

Read Rebecca Mead's New Yorker article, "Proud Flesh":

R. Marie Griffith, Born Again Bodies: Flesh and Spirit in American Christianity, (University of California Press, 2004).

Caroline Walker Bynum, Holy Feast and Holy Fast: The Religious Significance of Food to Medieval Women, (University of California Press, 1987).

David Chidester, Authentic Fakes: Religion and American Popular Culture, (University of California Press, 2005).

Jeremy Biles teaches courses on religion, philosophy, art, and popular culture at various institutions in Chicago. He is the author of Ecce Monstrum: Georges Bataille and the Sacrifice of Form (Fordham University Press, 2007).


On April 6, 2010 Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, spoke at the University of Chicago Divinity School in an event sponsored by the university’s Theology Workshop. This month’s Religion and Culture Web Forum brings audio from Land’s discussion, titled “Christians, Public Policy, and Church and State Separation,” and offers reflections on the event in an introduction by David Newheiser, Ph.D. student and coordinator of the Theology Workshop at the University of Chicago.


Sightings comes from the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School.

Drill, Baby, Drill -- Well Maybe Not

There is (or was) a broken oil well spewing crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico.  The owner of that well, BP, has been trying all manner of ways of plugging this, but nothing like this has been tried at depths like this.  I've not heard much of a cry from the proponents of drilling lately, but hey if we drill for oil in sensitive places, these kinds of accidents are bound to happen.

So, it's time to vent.  First of all, we all must take responsibility for this accident, for it is our desire/need to drive cars that use gasoline that leads to the need to drill for oil in such sensitive places.  I am as complicit in this as anyone, even if I drive a smaller, relatively fuel efficient car. 

Second, I find it interesting as well that many of the same people that are calling for smaller government are the ones crying the loudest for government help.  I'll leave things there.

Finally, I find it interesting that the President is being blamed for not handling this properly.  But, until the well is capped there is little that can be done.  This isn't the same as Katrina, and so those comparisons need to be dropped.  By all reports the Administration is doing all that it can, but as long as the oil spewing out, there's not much that can be done topside.  Hopefully this top-kill attempt will do the job, and ultimately it is the petroleum industry that has the know-how to get this done.  Then, when the oil stops, the job of cleanup can start and the government will be greatly involved. 

So, back to the point -- we can drill baby drill, but if we drill baby drill it's likely that such disasters will happen.  Are we willing to live with the possibility, or is now the time to get on with serious efforts at alternative energy sources? 

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Resurrection and the Nature of Salvation

We have been thinking about the resurrection of late -- both that of Jesus and more generally.  Resurrection fits in with other related issues, including judgment and salvation.  I'll leave off the discussion of judgment for the moment, except to say that in one form or another judgment does take place.  But more to the point of salvation.  

In today's study groups, we'll be looking at N.T. Wright's consideration of the "Hope of Salvation."  In that context we must ask what salvation entails?  Does it mean, being pulled off the earth to live in some "heavenly estate," most likely disembodied - a sort of Caspar the Friendly Ghost?  For our discussion, I'd like to throw out a statement from Wright's book Surprised By Hope.

As long as we see salvation in terms of going to heaven when we die, the main work of the church is bound to be seen in terms of saving souls for that future.  But when we see salvation, as the New Testament sees it, in terms of God's promised new heavens and new earth and of our promised resurrection to share in that new and gloriously embodied reality -- what I have called life after life after death -- then the main work of the church here and now demands to be rethought in consequence.  (Surprised by Hope, p. 197)

So, the question is -- how does our view of salvation impact our view of life before death?

Wright notes that the New Testament understanding of salvation starts with life here and now.  We enjoy it partially, but it is there for us to experience and live out.  As Wright ruminates about salvation, I'm reminded of the Disciples of Christ identity statement:  "A Movement of Wholeness in a Fragmented World."  What we do and say, the invitation we give, is a means to bring wholeness/healing/salvation to a world that is broken and fragmented.  We do not bring this in its fullness, but we work toward it.  

Wright offers:  

For the first Christians, the ultimate salvation was all about God's new world, and the point of what Jesus and the apostles were doing when they were healing people or being rescued from shipwreck or whatever was that this was a proper anticipation of that ultimate salvation, that healing transformation of space, time, and matter.  The future rescue that God had planned and promised was starting to come true in the present.  We are saved not as souls but as wholes.  (pp. 198-199).   
 Wholeness for a fragmented world -- salvation!

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Religion in the Land of None

Having grown up in Northern California and Oregon, I have a good sense of the religious proclivities of the people of the region.  Catholics, Mormons, and Pentecostals (of the 4 Square variety), do well but the rest of us, not so well.  But even there, they make up a small percentage of the population.  Oregon, Washington, and Alaska make up a section of the country where the non-religious have always thrived.  It's a land of individualism.

Keith Watkins, who has guest posted several times here, has written a post that invites conversation.  Keith is a religious historian, expert in the area of Christian worship, and father of the General Minister of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).  He notes a presentation awhile back, at which a presenter noted the demographics of the region.

In Oregon, Washington, and Alaska, 37.2% of the population can be called adherents; they claim connections with a church and participate enough to be counted. A slightly higher percentage, 37.8%, are identifiers who claim to belong but do not participate. The rest are nones: people who make no claim at all to religious affiliation. A high percentage of them, however, affirm that they are interested in spiritual matters.

Note the numbers -- nearly 40% identify but don't participate and then 20% don't belong to anything.  And yet, this doesn't mean that they're secularists or rejecting the spiritual, they simply don't desire to do so in conventionally communal ways.  This, has, of course always been the way of the West, but the question is:  to what degree is the rest of the nation following this path? 

To read more of this, click here and join the conversation at Keith Watkins Historian

Why the Resurrection?

I have been pushing on the question of resurrection, including its physicality, in a number of recent posts, including a guest post last week by Bruce Epperly.  I realize that this is a question that troubles many in the church and outside the church.  Many progressive or liberal Christians find the resurrection a distraction, or as a commenter put on a previous post, akin to arguing about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.  But, is it simply an outdated and distracting doctrine that we are better off leaving behind?  Is Easter, for that matter, a quaint holiday, better served by highlighting Easter Egg hunts and chocolate bunnies?  Is it simply just the sign that spring is at hand?  Or, is it, as it always has been through Christian history, the center piece of the Christian faith?  As theologian Jurgen Moltmann puts it: 
The Christian faith stands or falls with Christ's resurrection, because it was by raising him from the dead that God made Jesus the Christ and revealed himself as the "Father of Jesus Christ."  At this point belief in God and the acknowledgment of Christ coincide; and ever since, for Christian faith the two have been inseparable. (Moltmann, Jesus Christ for Today's World, p. 71). 
As I ask these questions, I want to throw into the discussion another lengthy quotation from N.T. Wright's Surprised By Hope.   Wright is likely more conservative than some of my conversation partners, and as has been stated in comments, he may seem to some stuck in the first century.  Be that as it may, I think that the Resurrection merits careful consideration, because I do believe it has important implications about the way we live in the here and now.    So consider this:

The point of the resurrection, as Paul has been arguing throughout [1 Corinthians], is that the present bodily life is not valueless just because it will die.  God will raise it to new life.  What you do with your body in the present matters because God has a great future in store for it.  And if this applies to ethics, as in 1 Corinthians 6, it certainly also applies to the various vocations to which Gods' people are called.  What you do  in the present  -- by painting, preaching, singing, sewing, praying, teaching, building hospitals, digging wells, campaigning for justice, writing poems, caring for the needy, loving your neighbor as yourself -- will last into God's future.  These activities are not simply ways of making the present life a little less beastly, a little more bearable, until the day when we leave it behind altogether (as the hymn so mistakenly puts it, "Until that day when all the blest to endless rest are called away").  They are part of what we may call building for God's kingdom.  (Surprised by Hope, p. 193). 
If we think of God's judgment as a sorting out, a refining fire, then what will be the lasting legacy of our lives here in this world?  Is that not the question that resurrection raises?   Resurrection isn't about escaping this life for a better life, it's about engaging in the work of God here in anticipation of an embodied life after life after death.  Can progressive Christians, who willingly bring science into the conversation, embrace the idea of an embodied resurrection?  Again, I invite your thoughts. 

Divine Power -- Unilateral or Relational? (Bruce Epperly)

Bruce Epperly follows up on his discussion of the Resurrection with a discussion of divine power.  Is it unilateral (direct and irresistible) or relational (engaged but resistable)?  Bruce prefers a relational understanding of power, one that fits with his progressive theology.  I invite you to read and respond.


Divine Power – Unilateral or Relational?

Bruce Epperly

Over thirty years ago, my graduate school theology professor Bernard Loomer asserted that there were two primary kinds of power – unilateral power and relational power. Unilateral power is by nature coercive. It gives, but does not receive; acts but does not listen; demands but does not compromise. It sees the other in terms of its wishes, rather than the other’s deepest desires. Creativity and freedom are frowned upon, if not outright abolished. Anything that deviates from the ruler’s edit is, by definition, wrong and subject to severe punishment. In business or parenting, unilateral power proclaims, “my way or the highway” as it paternalistically seeks to act “for our own good.”

In contrast, relational power takes into consideration the value and perspective of others. It gives, but also receives; acts but also responds; has a vision but is open to change and transformation. Relational power is at the heart of good parenting as well as democratic decision-making. Relational power encourages freedom, creativity, and coloring outside the lines, within the context of overall environmental safety and order. Relational power recognizes that well-being in personal and institutional life is best achieved by welcoming diverse perspectives and balancing order and novelty for the common good.

Christian theology has struggled with these two approaches to power in its understanding of the relationship of God and the world. While Jesus is proclaimed as the primary revelation of the divine nature, Christian theologians have often, in the words of the philosopher Whitehead, preferred Caesar to Christ in their understanding of divine power. Sovereignty, defined as unilateral and all-determining (omnipotent) power, has been judged superior to love in describing God’s character and relationship to creation. Defined in terms of unilateral power, God can do whatever God wants – destroy cities, send plagues, kill innocent people, pulverize the planet –simply because God wills to. There is no court of appeal, because unilateral power is supreme and unquestioned regardless of its cost to creation. The elect can feel comfortable knowing that God will protect them while unilaterally condemning the unfaithful, or persons who ask questions or have different perspectives, to an eternity of suffering.

As I noted, Christianity has struggled with the nature of divine power even though Jesus’ embodiment of power was far different from that of Caesar. Borg, Crossan, and Wright have correctly noted that the gospels proclaim an alternative social order and an alternative understanding of the divine to that of unilateral, power-oriented, and domineering rulers and gods. Jesus’ ministry, described in the gospels and in Paul’s Christological hymn, from Philippians 2:1-11, was defined by relationship, empowerment, acceptance, mutuality, and love. If Jesus is the window into God’s nature, then divine power, while variable in expression and intensity, is, by definition, loving and relational.

Divine relational power – and remember, Jesus opened the door to seeing God in relational terms by calling God “abba” (or father) - shapes the world though loving and respectful relationship. On the one hand, this means that God has a vision, appropriate to each moment of experience and, in the broadest sense, for the vast expanses of planetary and cosmic history. God presents the world with possibilities and the energy to achieve them. God does coerce the world but inspires the world with dreams, visions, and possibilities. On the other hand, this means that God really experiences our lives. God touches us with vision and beauty, but we also touch God by our dreams and actions. The “One to whom all hearts are open and all desires known” truly experiences our joy and suffering, and allows these experiences to shape God’s response to the world. The world lives by the dynamic divine-creaturely “call and response” in which God presents visions and the world responds, thus enabling present new visions appropriate to our personal or global situation.

As in the case of all healthy and dialogical relationships, God “listens” often before God “speaks.” God seeks what is best for the real world and not some ideal person or universe. In some ways, this could be said to place limits on God, that is, God works within the world as it is, presenting possibilities that enable us to move forward. We can refuse these possibilities and often do; but our refusals cannot defeat God, who responds with new possibilities in light of what we’ve just chosen. For example, in a violent situation, God cannot personally restrain the threatening fist; but, God can move within the perpetrator, opening him or her to new possibilities, which at that moment might be restraining the fist, while still boiling with rage.

Many persons affirm the theological necessity of divine unilateral power. After all, such power insures God’s victory and asserts that God can always get what God wants. While I concede this point, I believe divine unilateral power raises some serious theological issues. First, it makes God equally responsible for salvation and damnation, cancer and recovery, catastrophe and escape, and evil and good. Second, the image of divine unilateral power goes against the dialogical vision of the Hebraic scriptures in which God often has to adjust God’s vision and action in relationship to the behavior of God’s people. Third, Jesus’ healing miracles, while revealing extraordinary manifestations of divine power, reflect the interplay of personal faith and divine action, or divine call and human response. Forth, divine unilateral power makes God beyond good and evil, thus, exalting amoral power over love as essential to God’s character.

A relational God, in contrast, seeks abundant life for all things, but must work through the freedom and creativity of the world, slowly, patiently, and constantly luring the world toward greater and greater love and beauty. A relational God is not without power, but it is the power of love and relatedness, not coercion or violence. It is the power of shared vision rather than unilateral demand.

God’s power is present shaping each moment of experience, and some moments reflect God’s power in unique and transformative ways. God’s vision, like our own, can be embodied in more vital, lively, and transformative ways, as a result of the divine decision to be more present in some places than others and in some persons rather than others and in the corresponding creaturely or community response to God’s initiative and vision. Such revelatory moments truly embody the divine aim toward beauty and wholeness, whether in a Celtic “thin place,” a liturgical healing service, a Damascus road experience, or in the radical openness of Mary and the moment by moment transparency and revelation of Jesus of Nazareth, whom we call the Christ.

The power of love, divine power incarnate, trusts us enough to inspire and encourage our own use of power and creativity. In inviting to “greater things” (John 14:12), God expands God’s own creativity and power in the dynamic, transformative, and evolving divine call and human response. Like a good parent, God says “surprise me,” to creation, knowing that in the dance of call and response God has the visionary resources to respond creatively and lovingly to every creaturely act.

Bruce Epperly is a seminary professor and administrator at Lancaster Theological Seminary; pastor at Disciples United Community Church, Lancaster, PA; theologian and spiritual companion. He is the author of seventeen books, including Holy Adventure: 41 Days of Audacious Living, a response to Rick Warren’s Purpose Driven Life. His Tending to the Holy: The Practice of the Presence of God in Ministry, written with Katherine Gould Epperly, was selected Book of the Year by the Academy of Parish Clergy. (

Monday, May 24, 2010

The New Physicality of Resurrection

Last week Bruce Epperly offered an alternate progressive understanding of Resurrection, one that allowed for it to be more than a parable or metaphor, but allows for a sense of physicality.  This post got considerable discussion going, for we struggle with what all of this means.  Part of our issue is that we must, whether we like it or not, recognize that science plays a role in the conversation.  Progressive/liberal Christians tend to have a problem with discussions of reality that rely on supernaturalism.  The assumption is that God does not contravene the laws of nature.  There are a lot of reasons for that position, which I'll not go into here.  But, it does raise questions about the physicality of Jesus' resurrection and that of any post-death experience.

Last night, if you watched it, the conclusion to the Lost series reflected upon life after death and while envisioning a rather inclusive/interfaith understanding, offered a sense of physicality -- even resurrection.  On that end, I'll leave it to expert Lost watchers like James McGrath to break down the meaning of the finale.  But, what it does suggest is that many people hope for an embodied future post death. 

With that introduction, I wanted to add in a paragraph from N.T. Wright's Surprised by Hope, that deals with Paul's understanding of post-death physicality.  As a prelude to this quote, Wright makes it clear that he has in mind a sense of this new physicality of resurrection being part of "life after life after death."  That is, what is spoken of in John 14 as the "many mansions" or Jesus in Luke speaking of paradise, infers an intermediate state prior to the new physicality that Jesus will embody in his own resurrection, and which we will share in at the time of the General Resurrection.

What Paul is asking us to imagine  is that there will be a new mode of physicality, which stands in relation to our present body does to a ghost.  It will be as much more real, more firmed up, more bodily, than our present body as our present body is more substantial, more touchable, than a disembodied spirit.  We sometimes speak of someone who's been very ill as being a shadow of their former self.  If Paul is right, a Christian in the present life is a mere shadow of his or her future self, the self that person will be when the body that God has waiting in his heavenly storeroom is brought out, already made to measure, and put on over the present one -- or over the self that will still exist after bodily death.  (p. 154). 
In this statement, which is a reflection upon Paul's discussion of the new creation in 2 Corinthians 5, he speaks of our current bodies being mere shadows of the future body, the spiritual body.  The spiritual body is not ghostlike, but even more tangible than the current one.  I would invite your response to this statement as we wrestle with what it means to embrace the idea of resurrection in the contemporary world.  What is it, after all, that the hope of the resurrection, which Paul makes so central, have to say to our lives in the hear and now?