How to Move a Small Church Online

I want to get really practical and share what I’ve learned serving Bartonville United Methodist Church (Average Weekly Worship Attendance Before Pandemic: 30) and Kingston Mines United Methodist Church (AWWABP: 18) in central Illinois. I think this conversation is still worthwhile, months into this pandemic, because one of the strange gifts of this time is that ministry is revealed as iterative. We all can keep improving, even after our new normal is up and running.

Automated Phone Calls/Texting
Things are changing from day-to-day, and people need and want to stay connected across our present distance, so if you have never invested in something like this, now is the time. For my purposes, I only use it rarely for whole church calls, so buying a package of a certain number of calls/texts at a time makes the most sense, rather than a recurring monthly plan. For that, the best price is Robotalker.

A friend who pastors two other small churches near me has a different use for an automated system. She has been able to develop up her text congregation over time to include a ton of otherwise disconnected people from the community that are happy to receive regular, brief devotional texts. She’s had to upgrade her subscription at least once to keep up with demand! If that’s what you want, check out One Call Now.

Facebook Live
Just do this. It’s free. It’s easy. You’ve got a smartphone or a tablet already, and its built-in camera(s) and microphone are already far better than that VHS that recorded your great grandparents’ 60th wedding anniversary. Lots of people (including many in their 70, 80s, and up) are already on Facebook, and even people who have basically moved on to other social media services will come to church there. You also will get people watching who have never attended your church. This is effortless evangelism

If you can, go live rather than pre-recorded. Just like the concert, the football game, and the comedian are best live, worship is best live, warts and all. If you like the opportunity to polish by doing multiple takes and complicated editing, that’s mostly likely a time-sucking ego issue, not an excellence issue. Yes, work hard, and even rehearse, but you were never perfectly polished before, and people love and need their human pastor (the kind who forgets the words to the Lord’s Prayer and then laughs rather than shuts down in embarrassment).

Many people start their streams early, but we do not want to broadcast our casual conversations or prayer requests, and editing afterward has consistently messed up audio-visual syncing on Facebook’s end, so we just start on time.

Another great thing about Facebook Live is that it makes it simple to have someone sub in. Pastor, take a Sunday off. I have a retired pastor in his mid-70s in my congregation who reactivated his Facebook account so I could add him to our Facebook page. We did a brief tech rehearsal, and then he went live from his home. It was great: I got a week off, and our people got to see the other person they consider their pastor.

A note: if you pastor two (or more) churches with two (or more) Facebook pages, learn how to crosspost. Unfortunately a mobile device cannot go Live on multiple Pages at once in Facebook’s apps. However, it’s worth the time for me to create an original post of the same video for each church. It’s an easy way to share the love across both churches. (I make this note, because while my churches love to fellowship, worship, and do ministry together, multi-church pastors know that this is not always the case, and they must look for ways to make all the churches feel seen, appreciated, and included.) I always go Live from Bartonville’s page, then I crosspost to Kingston Mines’ page, then I share the Kingston Mines post on my page.

Finally, if you’re worried about Internet connectivity issues, those are far better now than they were back in March. But if you are able, reschedule your service(s) to get of the peak times of hours and half hours. Bartonville and Kingston Mines used to worship at 9:00 and 10:45. Now both worship at 9:15 on Sundays and I do a live devotional at 9:15 on Wednesdays too. We do not have two services, because they would just be identical and thus redundant.

Video/Phone Conferencing
Internet access is not great in every geography or even across a single congregation. It is vital that you make options for everyone to be connected, and that means a phone number that people can call in from any phone and be connected to worship. This is also the way the small church’s leadership meetings can continue safely through this time. (Even though virtually everywhere in the US could hold a small enough in-person meeting as of this writing, you serve with people who still need to be able to choose to distance without choosing to stop being part of the life of the church.)

Zoom is simply the best option, because you can have computer/device-savvy people connect with video and participate; you can have casual Internet users watch because Zoom can feed Live to Facebook; and you can have people call in to participate. Be aware and inform your people that calling in from a landline will be a standard long-distance call. Zoom will allow you to add-on a toll-free number (which will charge your church for those long-distance calls) or buy a local phone number, if available. It just starts to get beyond the limited budgets of the churches this blog post is aimed at. I should also mention that those horror stories of Zoom security issues (imagine someone breaking into your church and screaming profanities or streaming pornography) have been extremely well addressed, and most were due to users failing to enact recommended precautions.

FreeConferenceCall continues to only be a good option in very limited cases. I am frugal (perhaps to a fault) with asking my churches to spend their limited funds, but some things really are “you get what you pay for.” If people call in once and do not connected, many will not try again the the following week. Add up the energy costs of your mostly closed building and the budgeted mileage reimbursements you haven’t been able to use to visit people, and you have already more than covered your Zoom subscription. Plus if you’re United Methodist, Zoom even has a discount for you.

Getting Stable WiFi in the Church Building
First, depending on where you live, good Internet is not guaranteed. Second, if you do have Internet, the speed necessary for streaming video may be pricier than what you currently have (although a mere 5MB upload speed should be plenty, according to Facebook). Third, even if you have reliable and speedy Internet access, it is likely available near the church office where the modem sits and nowhere else in your maze-like building, while your church needs to be available to stream from the sanctuary (if not at this moment, then soon, when some people come back and others remain distanced).

For Internet speed, first talk to your local Internet provider. (You might know a church down the street who seems to do it better than you, and you can ask them about their service.) It is also possible that there is not a great wired Internet option in your area, but that your cellphone service provides faster speeds via phone or mobile hotspot, so explore those options too.

For WiFi that makes it to your sanctuary, the absolute cheapest way is to do a WiFi range extender, and you can Google some reviews on those. The better way is to set up a mesh network. After a good bit of research, I settled on the TP-Link Deco M5, which is priced well and reviewed well. (Note: In some spaces, you might be able to get away with the two-node set of the same product, but unless you add cables to what is included in the box, one of the nodes is going to have to be a few inches from the modem you currently have, leaving only one to do the extending.) Then I got a set of these no-installation-needed brackets for each of them.

Best of all, you personally are capable of setting it up. You open the box, which instructs you to download the TP-Link app to your smartphone. The app then walks you through how to install, update the firmware, turn on network protections, and run speed tests in various areas. At work there is nothing I hate more than wrestling with technology that should be designed better. From unsealing the box to the end of the process, it took 40 minutes.

Upping Your Visuals
If you’re not using Canva for graphic design, you should be. I use the free version.

My Sundays and Wednesdays
I have weekly recurring alarms set on my phone, because it is pretty easy to show up late for online church. At 9am, I start my teleconferencing meeting on my laptop and talk to whomever calls in. At 9:14, I wrap up and mute all the other callers. At 9:15, I go Live on Facebook on my phone (this tripod mount on this tripod), while continuing the meeting on my computer. I could still do with some better lighting, but maybe that’s my next iteration.

Engle Institute for Preaching: First Unpacking

Last week I didn’t write here because I was attending the Engle Institute for Preaching at Princeton Theological Seminary. Through this year, the continuing ed event was always aimed at preachers in their first 2-10 years of preaching ministry. That ten year mark has always been squishy (with preachers still made welcome at 11 or 13 years too), but next year they are having a second track for people in their 11th through 25th years of ministry. I don’t know what that will look like, and I don’t think they do yet either.

In any case, if you preach and want to be a better preacher, they’ve got that Princeton money, so it was only $175 for a week, including room and board. You should definitely apply. The best way to get in is to apply early, and the best way to know registration is open is to subscribe to PTS’ Continuing Education E-Newsletter.

On a personal note, it was certainly the most fully “mainline” Protestant space I’ve been in since seminary, and it was the first time I had been around so much Reformed theology in my life. (A new Episcopalian friend and some Lutherans there agreed.)

In the course of the week, all 65 of us Engle Fellows attended a five-day plenary session (audio available here; video available here). This year the Engle Institute brought in Roger Nam, Professor of Biblical Studies and Dean of Portland Seminary, who challenged us to preach Ezra/Nehemiah in our churches. His own lens (which I will now not be able to read Ezra/Nehemiah without) as a second-generation Korean-American who learned Korean as an adult in order to live and minister in South Korea, is that of repatriation. How do those returning to Jerusalem relate to this place that is a home to which they’ve never been? How do those who stayed in the land relate to the returned people? And what in the world are we supposed to do with the “holy” (or is it most unholy?) breakup of marriages and families we find in Nehemiah 13? (Less practical but incredibly interesting: Did you know there was a Jewish settlement, complete with its own Temple, on an island in the Nile in the 5th c. BCE?)

After the plenary session, on Monday through Thursday I attended Preaching and the Theopoetics of Public Discourse, taught by Dawn Ottoni-Wilhelm. (Yes, I’ve been trying to tell you I’m a preaching nerd.) This was the description for the course:

From ‘A City upon a Hill’ to ‘The Drum Major Instinct,’ American preachers have given voice to poetry and prose that have stirred our imaginations and empowered the church’s ministries of compassion and justice. This workshop will immerse participants in the theopoetics of preaching: the creative process of engaging metaphors, sounds, and the rhythms of Scripture and poetry to inspire our souls and empower sermon listeners.

(Click here to see all the other course offerings.)

We read favorite poems to one another, we watched some fabulous sermons and questioned some less fabulous ones, and we came away not totally knowing what “theopoetics” means, but still informed by it. One practical nugget (a Yale thang?): writing a sermon in sense lines as verse, rather than as blocks of prose, in order to free up creativity and communication of meaning.

Some links: Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “The Drum Major Instinct,” Robert F. Kennedy on the night MLK was assassinated; Mitch Landrieu (warning of the possibility of violence months before Charlottesville) on the removal of Confederate monuments; Otis Moss III and Otis Moss, Jr. share a Father’s Day sermon on “Prophetic Grief” right after the Mother Emanuel shooting.

If you’re wondering if politics came up in our conversations: yes. I came away so thankful that my congregations are far from politically homogeneous.

Monday and Tuesday afternoon, I went to Carolyn B. Helsel‘s Stories of Recognition:

Preachers include stories in nearly every sermon, knowing the power of stories to expand listeners’ understanding of faith and ability to empathize with others. In today’s society, when many people remain in their own echo chambers of news media that affirm their own views of the world, how can preachers employ stories to help us see the humanity in our brothers and sisters across the aisle? This two-day afternoon workshop will engage practices of storytelling that help listeners recognize the commonalities between themselves and persons they view as very different from themselves, as well as to see how our experiences may be more different from one another than we might imagine due to identity markers such as race, gender, age, and physical ability. Resources for such stories will be available, and preachers will practice storytelling.

We literally told stories to one another, talked about how the stories we tell about ourselves shape us, and then talked about how the stories we tell about ourselves are not the only stories we could be telling of the same lives. That is, telling different stories about ourselves can be transformational. (For the Big Instance, if the Gospel is true, then we are part of God’s story. What difference might that make?) Practically, we also shared our favorite TV shows, movies, and book recommendations for stories we enjoy.

My final workshop pick was for Wednesday and Thursday afternoons, How to Turn the Ear into an Eye: Preaching as an Oral-Aural Event with Jared Alcántara:

This workshop empowers participants to “preach for the ear” instead of “preach for the eye” through helping them to conceive of the sermon as an oral-aural event rather than a written artifact. It teaches the rules of orality in preaching, discusses practices to avoid when preparing sermons, and invites participants to learn from one another through the practice of preaching for the ear.

Unfortunately, while we did get to watch some great preaching, and we actually learned and used some tools, I wanted something deeper about how communication works, how people hear and learn and respond and are transformed by hearing spoken words. (I only realize now while I seem to negatively review the class: those techniques and tools are ones that I will be using for a looong time after I might have forgotten some theory shared across four hours of class time.)

Princeton was great (although the beds were uncomfortable to sleep in and the wealth of the downtown area was uncomfortable to walk through), the workshops were great, the worship was great, but the people I got to meet were definitely the best part. If I had to boil down what I received from the week as a whole, it was the encouragement to just be absolutely who I am, whoever that might be. There is plenty of learning to do, plenty of technique to sharpen, but the core of who I am as preacher is actually something God made.

Yes, believe it or not, God made me to preach ridiculously long lectio continua sermon series in imitation of how the Church Fathers (and the Reformers in imitation of the Fathers) did it, to read poetry and theology devotionally, to listen to novels alongside leadership books on the way to pastoral care visits, and…to blog while I’m on the clock.

Love in the Ruins

This week the Illinois Great Rivers Conference of the United Methodist Church has its Annual Conference. I’m not alone in already having disrupted sleep, messed up digestion, and anxiety gathering across my shoulders as we near the gathering.

Our first and thorniest business is to elect delegates to the General Conference of the United Methodist Church, our denomination’s global gathering, which will be in Minneapolis from May 5-May 15, 2020. General Conference 2020 is so important because it will likely host the first concrete steps to dismantle the United Methodist Church as an institution. While there are an increasing number of people trying to frame yet another schism of Christ’s one Body as “mitosis,” there are several reasons why we cannot call it that. Reason one: this schism will end some local churches’ ministries due to splits within those local bodies. Reason two: this schism will kill some individual believers’ faith. Reason three: this schism will make the church less able to do works of mercy in the world. Reason four: by this schism we continue to witness to the world that the Church is no different than the world. (We do not love others as ourselves. We do not love across difference. We do not love our enemies. Christ has made no difference for us, so why would anyone want to join us in Christ’s way?)

Finally, mitosis is a term that denies our agency and responsibility. We are not automatically following genetic instructions inside a cell. We are human beings looking at one another and saying we have no need of one another, then deciding to walk apart from one another. The United Methodist Church is pursuing a divorce, and as we elect delegates this week we are deciding who will represent us in our divorce proceedings. Of course it’s causing us anxiety and grief (which may include, yes, anger).

In recent American Christian history, when churches have divorced, some have spent a lot of time and money in court. The Episcopal Church’s Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori was decisively responsible for her denomination’s spending tens of millions of dollars in holding onto property. There are reasons to hope that the United Methodist Church will not follow the same path. But again, this makes it clear that this is not mitosis for the whole body’s growth. This is a divorce, and it contains the disputes that accompany a divorce. It contains massive conflict.

Even in 2016 (the most recent regular General Conference, which set the stage for the 2019 special General Conference), although it was clear that competing visions of Christian sexual ethics were going to be central, there was also a sense that the United Methodist Church was bigger than that division, that because of the context of our larger relationship to one another, our love for one another, there might be some hope for reconciliation within the body. In the 2015 Annual Conference, when we (well not me, since I wasn’t eligible to vote that time around) voted, we could and did send a group of delegates which we knew disagreed on human sexual ethics, and we did so with a clear conscience. Yes, there were progressives unhappily represented by conservatives and vice versa, but as a whole, we generally felt accurately represented in our United Methodist democracy.

This time around, however, battle lines seem to be drawn more clearly. The Traditional Plan is official United Methodist teaching. UMC Next officially rejects that teaching. In my Annual Conference, there is at least one major conservative group and one major progressive group trying to make sure they control who goes to General Conference 2020. That’s not what chromosomes do. That’s what people trying to gain the most favorable terms of a divorce for themselves do. That’s what people trying to win do.

We should consider, then, what our Christian faith says about divorce and then what our Christian faith says about winning.

Jesus’ teaching in Mark is that divorce is always a sin, and not only a sin but a sin which births other sins. But the United Methodist Church joins a long tradition (the other Gospels, the epistles, the teaching of the Orthodox Church) of setting Jesus’ teaching in Mark inside the context of Jesus’ whole ministry and teaching. When I recently preached on that teaching in Mark, for instance, I urged my folks to look at how Jesus actually treats the divorced people he meets (most obviously, the woman in John who has been divorced four or five times). With compassion and love, Jesus turns us broken people into those who proclaim our Healer.

Thus The Book of Resolutions of the United Methodist Church 2016 can offer this nuanced approach to marriage and divorce:

God’s plan is for lifelong, faithful marriage. The church must be on the forefront of premarital, marital, and post marital counseling in order to create and preserve healthy relationships. However, when a married couple is estranged beyond reconciliation, even after thoughtful consideration and counsel, divorce is a regrettable alternative in the midst of brokenness. We grieve over the devastating emotional, spiritual, and economic consequences of divorce for all involved, understanding that women and especially children are disproportionately impacted by such burdens…It is recommended that methods of mediation be used to minimize the adversarial nature and fault-finding that are often part of our current judicial processes, encouraging reconciliation wherever possible.

Although divorce publicly declares that a marriage no longer exists, other covenantal relationships resulting from the marriage remain, such as the nurture and support of children and extended family ties. We urge respectful negotiations in deciding the custody of minor children and support the consideration of either or both parents for this responsibility in that custody not be reduced to financial support, control, or manipulation and retaliation. The welfare of each child is the most important consideration…

Divorce does not preclude a new marriage. We encourage an intentional commitment of the Church and society to minister compassionately to those in the process of divorce, as well as members of divorced and remarried families, in a community of faith where God’s grace is shared by all.

¶161.II.D.


Back in 1968, we United Methodists lacked some premarital counseling, even as we entered into covenant in good faith. In the decades since, we could have used some marital counseling for the ways we chose to relate to one another throughout the regular frustrations that come in every marriage. (Of John Gottman’s “four horsemen” which he claims from his research are the most accurate predictors of divorce, at least Contempt, Criticism, and Stonewalling were recently acted out on General Conference microphones, and Defensiveness has since joined the other three for regular rides across United Methodist blogs and social media.) But I am most struck by the Book of Resolutions‘ claim that there is also such a thing as “post marital counseling.” There is no such thing as post-mitosis counseling, because everything is just fine and both new cells are just fine and natural and even good. But if this is a divorce and we recognize it as a divorce, then we can choose to enter the divorce process grieving together that we could not figure out a way to reconcile. In this way we can end one way of relating with a blessing rather than a curse. We can choose the spirit (or Spirit) with which we approach the divorce process. Because of the Spirit this is possible even if you are mad, sad, and hurt as Hell by all that has come before.

Continuing with the Book of Resolutions‘ understanding, if we recognize what we are choosing to do as divorce, then we can be intentional in moderating its effects on the vulnerable people and groups and even institutions and agencies who will be affected by our decisions. As others have already pointed out, there are ways in which we can choose to support some of our important works of mercy, education, and more, even after the divorce is final. But we have to be intentional about that work. More damage is all that will be done if we do this swiftly, haphazardly, or if we assume things will just work themselves out.

This finally brings us to that theme of “winning.” What does our Christian faith have to say about our will to win? Jesus says the last will be first and the first will be last. Paul says that certain kinds of conflict we enter into with one another as Christians are losses for all involved. Luther helped clarify the vast gulf between the Way of the Cross and the Way of Glory. Trying to “win” at Annual Conference in order to “win” at General Conference is a game everyone loses.

So how do we seek the one and the ways of the one who took a cross as his throne?
1) We tell the truth. (This is a divorce. It isn’t mitosis.)
2) We grieve together with God. (We are breaking up because we are broken.)
3) We invest as much love in our divorce proceedings as possible.

This week, when we choose delegates, we are not choosing champions to battle and win for us (because we only have one champion, and He won by losing everything). We are choosing people we sense have been gifted and called by God for a particular kind of peacemaking, dreaming, and yes, loving our enemies.

Please pray, and as you turn to the Scriptures as part of your discernment, I’d encourage you to look not just for single Bible verses or laws or principles or precepts, but ask God to bring to mind particular saints of the Scriptures, people who show us how to grieve and to hope and to dream and to plan rebuilding even while the house is still on fire. Here are a few places to start: Abraham, Moses, Rahab, David, Esther, Ruth and Naomi, Ezra and Nehemiah, Mary.

Books on Parade, May Edition

James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time
This 1963 collection is two long essays packaged together, and it is the perfect introduction to Baldwin. It is also entirely deserving of the word “fire” in its title. I didn’t realize how much Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me (also a must-read) was indebted to Baldwin’s first essay, “My Dungeon Shook — Letter to my Nephew on the One Hundredth Anniversary of Emancipation.” The second essay, “Down At The Cross — Letter from a Region of My Mind,” is a must-read for anyone interested in American religion.

James Baldwin, Notes of a Native Son
This 1955 collection was Baldwin’s first non-fiction book, and it contains ten essays. Even excellent essay collections like this one are a little uneven, although I think I would have been absolutely blown away if I hadn’t just read The Fire Next Time, which is indeed better.

Matthew Desmond, Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City
If you read Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, you need to read this one. Desmond is a trained sociologist who lived first in a trailer park and then in rooming houses in Milwaukee (far from coincidentally also the setting of Jason DeParle’s American Dream: Three Women, Ten Kids, and a Nation’s Drive to End Welfare) in order to give this first-hand ethnography of the struggle of renters and property owners in contemporary urban America. Evicted won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award. The book’s constructive work continues at The Eviction Lab.

Adam Hamilton, Making Sense of the Bible: Rediscovering the Power of Scripture
I reviewed this book mostly negatively here. I forgot to mention in that review that Hamilton presents an incredibly problematic doctrine of inspiration as well.

Christopher Hitchens, And Yet…: Essays
I love the way Hitchens writes, even when I don’t agree with him, and I always learn something from him, even if what he teaches me is sometimes wrong. This is a posthumous collection of his work, and as a Hitchens fan, I’m glad I read it. This month I also learned that my mental image of Hitchens is actually Roger Allam (not to be confused with Timothy Spall). Finally, if you wonder why I like Hitchens, read Hitch-22 instead of this one.

T. Geronimo Johnson, Welcome to Braggsville
If you’ve ever watched Spike Lee’s Bamboozled or read Paul Beatty’s The Sellout (1.99 if you buy it today!) while being a white male in the US, you might know the experience of finishing a work and finding that what’s left of your eyebrows is mostly ash. Highly, highly recommended satire, and it would make a great movie too.

Sarah Perry, Melmoth
I adored Perry’s Essex Serpent, a novel about a serpent that either does or does not exist in 19th century Essex, and the vicar and the female amateur naturalist who chase it. Melmoth has the similar recreation of the feeling of 19th century Gothic literature, but it lacks the substance of that earlier book. Still, if you’ve read and reread all the other classics set on English heaths and moors and now want something fresh, this is for you.

Mary Doria Russell, The Sparrow
The Society of Jesus outfits an asteroid and makes first contact with two societies on an alien world before any sovereign nation can manage the trip, with horrific personal consequences for the whole crew, and especially Father Emilio Sandoz. This is an incredible work of science fiction, philosophy, theology, and literature. Although I did think the ending could have been stronger, I look forward to reading its sequel.

Andy Stanley, The Principle of the Path: How to Get from Where You Are to Where You Are Going
This is a decent little advice book, and you might gift it to a graduate in your life this season. I found myself wishing it were more Christian–explicitly oriented to love of God and neighbor–rather than good advice that happens to follow the contours of some Scriptures.

Matthew Vines, God and the Gay Christian: The Biblical Case in Support of Same-Sex Relationships
After reading Dale Martin’s Sex and the Single Savior (my review/engagement here), I told a friend that it was going to be difficult to give a fair hearing to Vines’ Scripture-based approach to support same-sex Christian marriage, because Martin had so thoroughly torched so many interpretive and exegetical avenues. Vines, however, makes the strongest case that I’ve seen using a basically conservative hermeneutic, one which Christian conservatives should consider it their duty to reckon with, even if they ultimately come away unconvinced. (Ironically, Vines cites Martin while working at cross-purposes to him.) (Sidenote: Yes, it is odd to have read this at the beginning of the month which ended in turmoil for Vine’s organization, The Reformation Project.)

Final Note: The highest category of books for me are those I read and immediately know I’ll need to revisit. Absolutely top prize goes to The Fire Next Time, but I do think I need to at least re-skim God and the Gay Christian. I’ll also recommend Evicted widely.

From Single Issue to Seamless Garment

I thought I knew what terrible and low and shallow was until I was on social media in the week after The Alabama Human Life Protection Act was signed into law. To step directly in this cow pie, both sides have been putting up terrible and hateful and (again, yes) shallow bursts of characters and images, often with undocumented claims made by unverified sources, almost never intending to engage their opponents, let alone persuade them.

For those like me, who are pro-life but who eschew the professionalized mainstream pro-life movement, the main reason to avoid that movement is that it has deliberately narrowed what “pro-life” means to the human gestation period. In a sense, the decision to narrow has been strategic. For instance, advocates for research and development of treatments for pancreatic cancer would indeed get nowhere if they tried to get people to donate to the Cancer Is Bad Foundation. It’s too broad. You must narrow to be effective in your cause.  With pro-life causes, however, it’s different, because the ultimate goal is not to be against something, but to be for something. And for what? Life. Pro-life in the sense that it has been reduced by the mainstream anti-abortion movement–pro-life from conception to birth–in fact makes no sense as a concept to stand alone, because it fails to paint a large enough picture of the meaning of life. Being against abortion must be tied to a larger, cohesive vision of what human life is for, and what worth the individual human life has. For Christians at least this means an understanding of the value of a human life which can never be diminished by anything that human being does or anything that a human being has done to it, because we believe that humans are created in the image of God.

Thankfully for those of us who are persuaded at least that pro-life must mean something beyond birth, Catholic thinkers have been working on the question for a long time. Supposedly it was Eileen Egan (friend and biographer to Mother Teresa, marcher with MLK, correspondent with Thomas Merton, co-worker with Dorothy Day and Jim Douglass, and so much more) who first referred to the Christian understanding of the value of life as a “seamless garment.” This is a reference to the garments of Christ. When Jesus was stripped naked to be crucified, the Gospels say that his garments were gambled for as a whole cloth rather than ripped into pieces. Likewise, because God’s valuing of human life is irreducible, one pro-life issue cannot be separated from another without destroying the whole. Egan’s vision–known since then as either “the seamless garment” or the “consistent life ethic”–was deepened by Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, whose thought is now being extended by Cardinal Blase Cupich, and is easy to read within some of Pope Francis’ words.

But for many of my readers, that’s a lot of thinkers and leaders and activists who aren’t very familiar. What’s it all mean? It means that truly choosing life means choosing life in every sphere in which human life is trying to flourish. Yes, widespread abortion is, of course, a threat to human life. But so is the death penalty. So is poverty. So are many of our gun laws (and lack of them). So are our nuclear arsenals, endless wars, military budgets, military presence around the world, military equipment and tactics among local law enforcement, concealed carry in our church buildings, armed teachers in our schools, for-profit prisons, mandatory minimum sentencing, lack of access to healthcare (including women’s health care, and–sorry Catholics–contraception), euthanasia, human germline modification, our valuing economic growth as the sole measure of our corporate well-being, our trade policies, our immigration policies, our drug wars, our treatment of the environment, our relationships with other nations, our relationships across human difference (race, class, gender, sex, religion, and far more) within our own neighborhoods.

The seamless garment approach is flexible enough to still recognize that in terms of numbers and impact, some threats are harming or taking more lives than others. It also recognizes that because all these “issues” deal with human flourishing, they are interconnected too deeply to be separated.

That’s a lot, and to name so many things together might indeed muddle the issue. In this blog post I seemingly tried to lose pro-choice readers at the beginning and pro-life political conservatives by the end. But my hope is not that you agree with me or Dorothy Day or President Eisenhower. Rather, I hope that you are convinced that if any human life is worthy of defense, first you must define why life matters with a big enough picture to share with others, then you must train that lens to see where one life is being valued more than another life, and then you need to see that to encourage life, to be pro-life, you must encourage a life a whole lot better than getting it to birth. Finally, you must also realize that although formal politics–laws and the courts–can do some of this work, it is not their job to form one human conscience or a whole society to recognize and value life in all its forms. That’s our job, in relationship with one another.

Making Sense of the Bible: Rediscovering the Power of Scripture Today by Adam Hamilton

“Gifted” is an understatement when it comes to Adam Hamilton. In addition to writing this and 15-20 other books; in addition to planting Church of the Resurrection in Leawood, KS in 1990, then growing it to over 20,000 members; Hamilton is an incredibly influential preacher and Biblical teacher; and while I don’t know how much pastoral care ends up on his plate these days, his writing has always displayed a pastor’s heart.

Hamilton’s communication skills and pastoral skills are in full force in Making Sense of the Bible: Rediscovering the Power of Scripture Today. In the first three parts of Section One: The Nature of Scripture, he gives a helpful and well-done overview of his personal relationship to Scripture, overviews the contents of the Old and New Testament in fifteen minutes apiece, provides some history on how the early Church came to the Scriptures, and talks about the process of canonization.

It’s that last–canonization–when Hamilton begins to stumble. Hamilton opens Chapter 13, “Which Books Made It into the New Testament and Why” by talking about the emergence of the New Testament in the first four centuries of the Church, with reference to the Apostolic Fathers, Marcion, Tertullian, Clement of Alexandria, Origen, and Athanasius. I’m not sure where you would find a better introduction for the interested non-specialist than his summary here. As in his sermons, there is always enough depth for the intellectually wired hearers to go as far as they want. Then Hamilton moves to the criteria for canonicity.

“Criteria for canonicity” is the name we give to the reasoning used by the early church to determine if a given book was actually to be included in the canon. As Hamilton writes, “The process by which our New Testament books came to be seen as authoritative was not neat and tidy, but it does involve identifiable criteria. Typically scholars list these criteria as Apostolicity, Catholicity, Orthodoxy, and several others” (pp. 120-121). However, instead of Apostolicity, Catholicity, Orthodoxy, etc., Hamilton offers Usefulness, Consistency, Association, and Acceptance. The problem is not the admirable and pastoral desire to translate academic language for lay ears, but that his is sometimes a poor translation, which goes on to affect his teaching on the nature of Scripture and his exegesis of particular texts.

Hamilton’s first criterion is Usefulness. By this he means that the early Church found some writings to be “useful to large numbers of churches over a period of several hundred years” (p. 121). At one level this is accurate, because the writings achieved universality (or Catholicity, as most writers on the canon would put it) because the Church found that a letter initially written to one church with its particular issues was applicable to other churches and their own issues. That is to say, the Epistle to the Ephesians was always intended for wider consumption than the church at Ephesus. The Revelation of John was likely not addressed and sent only to the seven churches it names.

The difficulty with Usefulness as a criterion, however, is that it injects a big dose of pragmatism into our doctrine of Scripture right at the foundations. Immediately, it makes us ask what happens when a Biblical book or a section of a Biblical book no longer seems to be as useful. Rather than the criterion being the authority, we can easily become the the authority by which the criterion is to be judged. This isn’t just a slippery slope argument. It is actually what Hamilton goes on to do.

On page 177, Hamilton writes, “Christians may legitimately set aside clear teachings of scripture as no longer binding, seeing them as written primarily for another time and not reflecting God’s timeless will.” Hamilton’s examples are how Jesus reinterprets and often seems to break the Mosaic Law, and how the Council of Jerusalem discerned that the commandment of circumcision was not binding on Gentile converts. The problem is that Hamilton then says that we have the authority to do the same thing, but he never names who can legitimately take up the authority to do so, and he never lays out the deeply needed argument for how we make that discernment.

It’s the problem of Protestantism in general mixed with the problems of Wesley and of the US churches. The problem of Protestantism is that taken to its complete end, there is no authority beyond the individual and a single Bible verse. The problem of Wesley (or at least his followers) is a focus on the pragmatic, sometimes without theological reflection. (This is the definition of the work given to and accomplished by the Commission on a Way Forward.) The problem of the US churches is that we still think (despite ample evidence to the contrary) that we are a City on a Hill, here to enlighten the world. Saute this unholy trinity (sorry, Cajun readers) for a while, and you’ve got a great start to one hell of a gumbo.

Yes, Jesus and the New Testament writers read Scripture in ways I would never have read Scripture if they hadn’t first. Yes, the Council at Jerusalem came to a conclusion that was only right if the Holy Spirit was actually present to them and in the treif-filled dreams of Peter. (The Holy Spirit actually was.) No, we aren’t Jesus or Paul. No, we cannot wait for the church to be able to hold a truly ecumenical council once again before we interpret Scriptures for our context. Neither can we ignore that even without an ecumenical council for the last 1000 years, there are indeed interpretations of Scripture on which the Church has spoken with near unison. But Hamilton does not tend to these important interpretive questions, and so Usefulness remains a deeply flawed criterion for canonicity.

Hamilton’s second and third criteria–Consistency and Association–correspond to Orthodoxy and Apostolicity. In the first, I would have rather he simply defined orthodoxy, rather than substituting “consistency,” a definition which doesn’t recognized the chorus of different–not unison–voices at work in the Scriptures. Apostolicity likewise has much greater depth than mere “Association,” but it also requires an understanding of the church and the importance of the apostles, bishops, and elders that is more at home in the Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches than is common among Protestants. Finally, Hamilton’s Acceptance corresponds to Catholicity. I guess that’s fine, but as a United Methodist who leads people each week to say we believe in the “catholic church,” it seems like a missed opportunity to define an important term in the life of Christians.

As Making Sense of the Bible proceeds into its second half, I’m grateful to see Hamilton arguing for a “high” view of Scripture apart from using the words “inerrant” and “infallible.” I don’t know how these terms function elsewhere and I know they were well-intended, but in the US, they have often led to teachings that can be summed up as, “either you believe the earth is a few thousand years old or you are no disciple of Jesus at all.” I find it easy to believe that this has kept more people from Jesus than it has ever drawn to Him. We would never have had a Saint Augustine if Saint Ambrose had insisted on that belief in his catechesis.

On pages 176-177 Hamilton writes,

As we seek to interpret scripture faithfully, we must not set aside what is inconvenient or challenging to us simply because it is difficult. We will, however, read scripture in the light of the life, ministry, teaching, death, and resurrection of Jesus. When we find something that is inconsistent with the way God reveals himself and his will through Jesus Christ, we may legitimately ask questions. In those situations, it is Jesus who serves as the final Word by which other words of Scripture are to be judged.

I feel like I probably have written or preached something similar. I find Jesus to be supremely challenging, difficult, and inconvenient. What about this “light of the life, ministry, teaching, death, and resurrection of Jesus?” How do we read Scripture in light of those things when it is only by Scripture that we have received a witness to these things? I think this means I need to be constantly having my Jesus lens polished, ground, shaped, cleaned. I’m convinced that this is one reason to read the Gospels and preach from them often. This summer, I should finish up the Gospel of Mark after preaching 67 non-contiguous Sundays covering every verse of the book. I think it does make me read every other verse of the Bible differently, and it’s not even the only Jesus lens the Bible offers.

To finish up this review, I’ll move on to Hamilton’s 100+ pages worth of responses to particular questions (Creation; Historical Adam and Eve; Divine Violence; Revelation; Homosexuality). These are uneven, with some begging to be lengthened a good deal. It almost feels like a different book, because they aren’t truly case studies of an approach offered by Hamilton, but specific arguments about specific issues and texts. The one on homosexuality, which Hamilton must have known would have been the most controversial, is surprisingly weak, likely mostly because it’s very short.

Many negative reviews of the book at its release focused on a framework which Hamilton offers in that chapter, Homosexuality and the Bible. It’s notable, given those reviews, that this is very late in the book, page 272 out of 309 pages in the paperback. (Italics are his.):

As we read and interpret scripture, I’d suggest that there are three broad categories – let’s call them buckets – that biblical passages fit into. There are passages of scripture – I would suggest the vast majority – that reflect the timeless will of God for human beings, for instance, ‘Love your neighbor as you love yourself.’ There are other passages that reflect God’s will in a particular time but not for all time, including much of the ritual law of the Old Testament. And there are passages that reflect the culture and historical circumstances in which they were written but never reflected God’s timeless will, like those related to slavery.

For my part, I think Hamilton describes this as prescriptive, but I wonder if it’s more useful if it’s descriptive. Yes, we’re always tossing things into the buckets. Sometimes we mis-categorize something in one season of life and re-categorize it later, given new information or new life experiences. But once we notice that this is what our default setting seems to be, do we just continue doing it? Do we ever question our labels or the bucket system? When do we get to the question of how we do this work as a community rather than individuals? (To his credit, Hamilton makes a few slight nods to reading in community.) Do we ever get to the question of the criteria that precede the buckets, where those criteria come from, and what authority we ourselves hold?

In the end, while I could likely choose some quotes or some sections (particularly in the first half of the book) to recommend to others, this is not a book I would recommend for people seeking to develop a doctrine of Scripture. I could not just hand it off to someone and feel like it expresses questions of the doctrine of Scripture and of our relationship to Scripture well. It’s disappointing, because I’ve been looking for a while now for such a book. For anybody who has recommendations, leave it in the comments. (But please don’t recommend Incarnation and Inspiration or How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth. I’ve already been disappointed by those too.)

Bonus: The best, brief guide to “How to Read the Bible” is still here. Yes, Dr. Celia Wolff has held the title now for over five years.

Dale Martin’s Sex and the Single Savior: Gender and Sexuality in Biblical Interpretation

I thought it worthwhile to begin with this extended quote, representative of the book as a whole, and the most powerfully distilled argument I’ve yet come across while reading. One of Howard Thurman’s seminary professors told him not to waste his time with any book he could read faster than twenty pages in an hour. This one falls into that category for me. My comments follow, so as not to disrupt the momentum Martin builds.

Dale B. Martin, Sex and the Single Savior: Gender and Sexuality in Biblical Interpretation (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox), pp. 49-50 of the paperback:

My goal is not to deny that Paul condemned homosexual acts but to highlight the ideological contexts in which such discussions have taken place. My goal is to dispute appeals to “what the Bible says” as a foundation for Christian ethical arguments. It really is time to cut the Gordian knot of fundamentalism. And do not be fooled: any argument that tries to defend its ethical position by an appeal to “what the Bible says” without explicitly acknowledging the agency and contingency of the interpreter is fundamentalism, whether it comes from a right-wing Southern Baptist or a moderate Presbyterian. We must simply stop giving this kind of argument any credibility. Furthermore, we will not find the answers merely by becoming better historians or exegetes. The test for whether an interpretation is Christian or not does not hang on whether it is historically accurate or exegetically nuanced. The touchstone is not the historically reconstructed meaning in the past, nor is it the fancifully imagined, modernly constructed intentions of the Biblical writers. Nor can any responsible Christian–after the revolutionary change in Christian thought in the past twenty years, much less in the past three hundred–maintain that Christian interpretations are those conforming to Christian tradition. The traditions, all of them, have changed too much and are far too open to cynical manipulation to be taken as foundations for gauging the ethical value of a reading of Scripture.
 
The only recourse in our radical contingency is to accept our contingency and look for guidance within the discourse that we occupy and that forms our very selves. The best place to find criteria for talking about ethics and interpretation will be in Christian discourse itself, which includes Scripture and tradition but not in a “foundational” sense. Nor do I mean that Christian discourse can itself furnish a stable base on which to secure ethical positions; it is merely the context in which those positions are formed and discussed. Conscious of this precarious contingency, and looking for guiding lights within the discourse, I take my stand with a quotation from an impeccably traditioned witness, Augustine, who wrote, “Whoever, therefore, thinks that he understands the divine Scriptures or any part of them so that it does not build the double love of God and our neighbor does not understand it at all” (Christian Doctrine 1.35.40).
 
By this light, any interpretation of Scripture that hurts people, oppresses people, or destroys people cannot be the right interpretation, no matter how traditional, historical, or exegetically respectable. There can be no debate about the fact that the church’s stand on homosexuality has caused oppression, loneliness, self-hatred, violence, sickness, and suicide for millions of people. If the church wishes to continue with its traditional interpretation it must demonstrate, not just claim, that it is more loving to condemn homosexuality than to affirm homosexuals. Can the church show that same-sex loving relationships damage those involved in them? Can the church give compelling reasons to believe that it really would be better for all lesbian and gay Christians to live alone, without the joy of intimate touch, without hearing a lover’s voice when they go to sleep or awake? Is it really better for lesbian and gay teenagers to despise themselves and endlessly pray that their very personalities be reconstructed so that they may experience romance like their straight friends? Is it really more loving for the church to continue its worship of “heterosexual fulfillment” (a “nonbiblical” concept, by the way) while consigning thousands of its members to a life of either celibacy or endless psychological manipulations that masquerade as “healing”?
 
The burden of proof in the last twenty years has shifted. There are too many of us who are not sick, or inverted, or perverted, or even “effeminate,” but who just have a knack for falling in love with people of our own sex. When we have been damaged, it has not been due to our homosexuality but to others’ and our own denial of it. The burden of proof now is not on us, to show that we are not sick, but rather on those who insist that we would be better off going back into the closet. What will “build the double love of God and neighbor”?
 
I have tried to illustrate how all appeals to “what the Bible says” are ideological and problematic. But in the end, all appeals, whether to the Bible or anything else, must submit to the test of love. To people who say this is simplistic, I say, far from it. There are no easy answers. “Love” will not work as a foundation for ethics in a prescriptive or predictable fashion either–as can be seen by all the injustices, imperialisms, and violence committed in the name of love. But rather than expecting the answer to come from a particular method of reading the Bible, we at least push the discussion to where it ought to be: into the realm of debates about Christian love, rather than into either fundamentalism or modern historicism.
 
We ask the question that must be asked: “What is the loving thing to do?

1) Martin’s aim is indeed “not to deny that Paul condemned homosexual acts.” Instead, Martin argues that the way the Church has turned to Scripture as foundational for its ethics is flawed, because (according to him) foundationalism is a flawed and naive way to read any text, including the Scriptures. He himself is a near-complete postmodern, and his guiding lights within postmodern critical theory are (at least at the halfway point of the book) Michel Foucault and reader-response theory. Very briefly, reader-response theory claims that the meaning of the text resides not in the text itself but in the reading community’s experience of the text. Foucauldian analysis names the power and politics at work in the formation of texts, communities, and the discourse within those communities, including the formation of churches, interpretive traditions, individual scholars, and Christian ethics.

2) “explicitly acknowledging the agency and contingency of the interpreter”: While I agree that this is necessary, I’m not as convinced that this is a strong definition of fundamentalism. First, it collapses fundamentalism and foundationalism into one. But while Martin wants to sweep away the (for him) illusion of all foundations, among which Christian fundamentalism is one, the technical term “fundamentalism” when applied to Christianity usually includes groups whose theologies profess the limits and bent-, curved-, or broken-ness of human interpreters and interpretive communities. That is, there already is an explicit (although Martin would likely still argue not explicit enough) acknowledgement of the interpreter’s contingency. The other half–agency–does stand. Martin does a tremendous job outlining how Christians tend to deny their own agency in speaking of texts, not only when we say things like “the Bible says,” but in the publications of highly regarded Biblical scholars and theologians (of which Martin provides many examples) and when seminaries continue to teach preaching as “letting the text speak for itself” or “getting out of the way of the text.”

3) “We must simply stop giving this kind of argument any credibility.” This is much more easily said than done. For instance, at the General Conference of the United Methodist Church that just took place in St. Louis, recognized speakers voiced claims (not just conservative claims) based on “what the Bible says” in the flat, non-nuanced way that Martin is talking about. This understanding of reading the Bible and forming theology and Christian ethics seems to be baked into the Christian cake at this point. What does it take to change a cultural understanding of Scripture which is (at least) as old as Protestantism? I’m hoping that Martin will eventually address this question.

4) The rest of Paragraph 1: Here you can see the full diagnosis of the problem of Biblical interpretation as Martin sees it. The text has no meaning apart from its readers, history is of very limited use in aiding our meaning making, and Christian traditions are compromised in their usefulness because they are corrupted by the lust for power, like every other human institution (and this is a Foucauldian analysis, even though others could make a similar argument based on the doctrine of sin). And so we are set for the opening sentence of Paragraph 2.

5) “our radical contingency”: Yes, we are finite people with finite resources for understanding and meaning making, and even what resources we have are suspect.

6) “guidance within the discourse that we occupy and that forms our very selves”: The problem is that this suddenly makes Christian ethics and Christianity itself very individualistic, and it makes me the individual who matters and judges. I have this little spot of sand on which I stand, there is only water on every side, and when I am gone, my little spot of beach will be washed away too. It’s very possible I misunderstand the claims of reader-response theory, but Martin’s particular reading seems to be a trajectory toward shattering every possibility of community or shared meaning, which places it at odds with every form of historical Christianity. (I don’t believe I’m misreading; rather, I wonder how communities can be larger than one if reader-response theory is applied to saturation.)

7) Paragraph three (“By this light”) is the one that cemented for me that this was the passage to share. The primary reason is that I think every person holding to a conservative position on human sexual and gender identity and expression should face some important realities. Second, I am interested in how a foundational claim has now emerged in the midst of an anti-foundational argument. There is a foundation, and it is something like “Do no harm,” eventually reframed in the next paragraph as “Love.”

8) “demonstrate, not just claim”: This is a tremendous challenge. Sin isn’t a violation against God’s arbitrary rules, but something which does actual harm to actual others. An important caveat: just because I cannot see the harm does not make it not sin. More important caveat: I can see that the church has harmed LGBTQIA people. There are some parts of the church that simply hate their queer siblings, and some of those Christians (and this doesn’t make anyone less culpable) have no sense of the motivations for their doctrine and ethics of human sexuality. And there are many other voices and have been voices since the early church who have lived into community, and who have lived complete and fulfilled lives without ever having a sexual partner. (One could attempt to argue that far fewer lesbian and gay teenagers despise themselves and pray for changed sexual identities, but the truth is that there are still more than plenty of Christian teenagers in that situation, and the reason that there are fewer has had much to do with changing views among Christian churches.)

9) “worship of ‘heterosexual fulfillment'” is very real, and, at least in US Protestantism, celibacy (whether or not it’s chosen or out of a sense of vocation or just because life unfolds in unplanned ways) is viewed as somehow weird. That is, heterosexual marriage is viewed as normal, and any other adult life is viewed as abnormal. (The New Testament and most of the global church throughout history have viewed things differently. There are places, communities, and voices which are currently helping us to change, albeit slowly.)

10) The concluding paragraphs and sentence demonstrate why this book continues to be helpful to my thinking, even as I have shown I disagree fundamentally (sic) with the author on some issues. Martin, a Biblical scholar, is convinced that Biblical debates are the mischosen battleground for forming Christian ethics, so that he comes at it slant rather than repeating unhelpful, entrenched positions. Put simply, he seems less stuck than most of us, and he helps me even when I read some of those more entrenched positions.

Did Jesus Kiss Judas?

I guess I had always pictured Judas slinking up to Jesus with exaggerated warmth–“Rabbi!”–and giving him a quick peck on the cheek. The Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture has me wondering if I’m just being too Western again. Or too US American:

How magnificent is the endurance of evil by the Lord who even kissed his own traitor, and then spoke words even softer than a kiss! For he did not say, O you abominable one or traitor, is this what you do in return for great kindnesses? He simply says, “Judas,” using his first name. This is in the voice of one commiserating with another or who wished another to come back to him, not the voice of anger.

Dionysius of Alexandria, Quoted in The anCient Christian Commentary on Scripture: Mark, p. 215

I likely would have dismissed this reading of Judas’ kiss as a two-way kiss out of hand, because some of the readings in these volumes are quite…imaginative. But on the next page of the same volume, Ephrem of Syria assumes the same kiss, writing, “Jesus kissed the mouth of him who, by means of it, gave the signal for death to those who apprehended him.”

The Anchor Bible Dictionary has a three page entry for “Kiss” (pp. 89-92 in Volume IV). It disappointingly does not say anything about whether any recent scholars think Jesus kissed Judas back, but it does say that “the holy kiss” (mentioned several times in the New Testament) was a unique practice of early Christians, without precedent in the Greco-Roman or Jewish world. Some scholars even claim that Jesus initiated the practice with his disciples, and the disciples kept up the practice in the early Christian communities. If this is true, as the ABD puts it, Judas’ kiss was “a sign which would convey one message to outsiders but would be the usual form of greeting and hence arouse no suspicions to the inside group” (91). Of course, the whole mob with torches, clubs, and short swords probably would raise suspicion.

But back to Dionysius of Alexandria. As with many of the writers quoted in the ACCoS (many of them relatively minor figures) I had to look him up. During Dionysius’ life, the Church suffered seasons of persecution, in which some Christians denied their faith verbally or in writing and some offered sacrifices to prove they were not Christians, so that they and their families would not be hurt or killed. Seasons of persecution were followed by seasons of tolerance, and as churches reconstituted themselves, Christian leaders were divided about what to do about those who had apostatized and now wanted to return.

Some, led by Novatian, argued that those who had denied Christ and offered sacrifices to idols could not return to receive the sacraments. Such idolatry and faithlessness, he argued, were unforgivable. Others–in what became the Orthodox position set against what eventually became known as the Novatian heresy–said that Christians could repent and be forgiven and restored. Dionysius of Alexandria was one of the great leaders of that Orthodox position, and I see it in his read of Jesus and Judas in the Garden.

Dionysius knew Judas-like folks. Dionysius likely knew people who had been killed due to treachery by other Christians. Even with that life experience he looked to Jesus in the Garden, and he could not imagine a Jesus who would refuse to kiss his disciple when his disciple came to kiss him. The Jesus Dionysius heard in the Gospels would not speak with the condemning voice of Novatian, but always “in the voice of one commiserating with another or who wished another to come back to him, not the voice of anger.”

I want to see, hear, and believe in a Jesus who would kiss Judas back.

(Related public service announcement: Scorsese’s stunning Silence, which deals with faith, apostasy, reconciliation, and grace upon grace upon grace, is streaming on Amazon Prime.)

Living Under What Authority

Particularly in the wake of the United Methodist Church’s 2019 General Conference, I’m working to progress through that stack of books I’ve carried around in various lists and in the back of my head for at least a decade, those books on theologies of human sexuality, theological anthropology, and Biblical hermeneutics that would give me clarity for myself and language to speak to others. I started with Dale Martin’s Sex and the Single Savior: Gender and Sexuality in Biblical Interpretation, and because I am unable to read one book at a time, I also began N.T. Wright’s Scripture and the Authority of God: How to Read the Bible Today. Martin is an anti-foundationalist, while Wright is committed to historical criticism, albeit from a broadly evangelical perspective.

Starting with Martin gave me a particular lens for reading Wright. Martin is basically correct when he charges that Wright defends historical-critical questions so strongly that it’s difficult to know what the Church was doing with its Scriptures between the 2nd or 3rd century and the 18th or 19th century. That is, if the historical methods are the right methods, how was the church faithful in its reading of Scripture between the first couple generations–those who could draw on memory and personal testimony–and the post-Enlightenment creation of the historical-critical method?

It’s particularly disappointing that Wright neglects a real engagement with premodern readings, because Wright’s decision erases so much of historical theology, which is itself largely Biblical commentary, and which might give him some stronger foundations for his own method. (Luckily Christopher A. Hall’s Reading the Scriptures with the Church Fathers exists.) Wright likewise dismisses other more recent theological readings of Scripture, offering major figures–John Webster, Karl Barth, all of Radical Orthodoxy, almost all of postmodernism–only a sentence or three. There are plenty of important thinkers he never mentions at all. The only framework he works with is his own, which is framing the story of Scripture as a five act play: Creation, Fall, Israel, Jesus, the Church. While I think Wright made this decision because he wanted to sharpen his focus on his own way forward, I still believe he should have engaged more deeply with others’ thoughts.

What still brings this up to a 4-5 star book after those critiques is that 1) Wright is writing as a pastor to the Church, and this pastoral emphasis shapes every page, and 2) Wright’s conversation about sources of authority in the church is offered through the lens of Richard Hooker and John Wesley.

As a United Methodist pastor turning to Wright while United Methodism appears to be flying toward schism, his writing about how these sources of authority interact is just terrific. He is especially helpful in speaking about how for Hooker and Wesley (and most of the Christian Tradition) reason is a particular kind of reason—not just the ability to think rationally, but reasoning within the Church, with its Scripture. Reason is thus a traditioned form of theological reasoning with the Scriptures. Experience, meanwhile, insists Wright, is no source of authority at all but rather the end of authority, if we take “experience” to mean that my individual experience determines my theology, rather than that experience is an important shaper and affirmer of our theology from other sources of primary authority.

In Wright’s own words (ellipses at the ends of paragraphs are mine, to shorten this lengthy excerpt, but italics are his, as is the bracketed Scripture reference):

For Wesley himself, scripture remained the primary authority; the “experience” upon which he insisted was the living experience of God’s love and the power of the Holy Spirit, through which what the Bible said was proved true in the life of the believer. It is quite an illegitimate use of all this to see “experience” as a separate source of authority to be played off against scripture itself, though this move is now frequent, almost routine, in many theological circles (“Scripture says…tradition says…reason says…but experience says …and so that’s what we go with”)…

Actually, for a start, “scripture, tradition, and reason” were never the same kind of thing. The image of the stool with three [or four] matching legs is itself misleading. They are not so much like apples, pears, and oranges as like apples, elephants, and screwdrivers. As we have seen, a long line of theologians from Aquinas through Hooker to many writers today would insist that “tradition” is the legacy of what the church has said when reflecting on scripture, and “reason” is the rule of discourse by which such reflection is saved from random nonsense and integrated into a holistic view of God and the world. This too, however, can only be part of the story, and might imply a more solid and fixed form for “tradition” and “reason” than the story of the church warrants…

But there is a more profound problem to be addressed, indeed a logical problem. The “experience” of Christians, and of churches, is itself that over which and in the context of which the reading of scripture exercises its authority. It is precisely because “experience” is fluid and puzzling, and because all human beings including devout Christians are prey to serious and multilayered self deception, including in their traditions and their reasoning (as Jeremiah lamented, the heart is deceitful above all things [17: 9]), that “authority” is needed in the first place. That, too, is one of the main things we discover by “experience”! To speak of “experience” as an authority, then, is to admit that the word “authority” itself is being dismantled, unable now to function either as “court of appeal” in the old wooden sense or, in the more biblical sense, as “that through which God exercises Kingdom-establishing power.” That dismantling— the muzzling of the challenge of God to the idolatrous world— was one of the main (anti-Christian) aims of the Enlightenment, continued in a different mode within postmodernity. If “experience” is itself a source of authority, we can no longer be addressed by a word which comes from beyond ourselves. At this point, theology and Christian living cease to be rooted in God himself, and are rooted instead in our own selves; in other words, they become a form of idolatry in which we exchange the truth about God for a human-made lie. This, or something like it, is what we find with the popular modern varieties of Gnosticism, in which the highest religious good is self-discovery and then being “true” to the self thus discovered. But to elevate that imperative (now radically challenged by postmodernity, though this is not usually noticed in the relevant discussions) to the supreme status now claimed for it is to take a large step away from all known forms of orthodox Christianity…

The positive force of the appeal to “experience” is much better expressed in terms of the context within which we hear scripture. Experience, as the necessary subjective pole of all knowing, is the place where we stand as we hear God’s word, know his love, and understand his wisdom. It is vital that Christians should “experience” the power and love of God in their own lives. This is never simply a mechanical application of “God’s authority,” as though human beings were mere ciphers rather than image-bearers. And, precisely because of the problem of evil within us as well as within the world (the problem which the Enlightenment sought to belittle), we need to be addressed and challenged within that place, that subjectivity, not simply informed that we are all right as we are.

pp. 101-104, Kindle edition.

By the end of this book, it was not that I agreed with every particular of Wright’s argument, but that I knew Wright has provided a set of arguments that are worthy of our engagement. And I greatly appreciated being reminded that the voice of someone, even a bishop, of a different tradition could shed light on the issues affecting the United Methodist Church. Even with some level of breakup on the horizon for the United Methodist Church as we know it, it was an encouraging witness to the mysterious unity that forever marks Christ’s “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic” Body.

Our Hope Was Never in General Conference, Part II

In his post-General Conference briefings, my own Bishop Frank Beard urged us to trust in the process–not merely the United Methodist process, but God’s process with us on this discipleship journey, however long and winding and painful it may be. For him that means that we prayed for years for the work of General Conference 2019, so the fact that we might not like its outcome is not a good enough reason to summarily dismiss its conclusions and legislation. To put words in his mouth, “Did we pray or not? Does God answer prayer or not?”

I don’t dismiss General Conference 2019’s work. This was our 2019 step on our journey with God as a global United Methodist Church. It was neither our first nor our last step on our journey with God, even if some of us decide to part ways with this particular institutional form of God’s one Church.

The reason I write this is because you might get the wrong idea from my last post on the relative importance of General Conferences, that I am flippant about the conclusions of church councils. I’m not. Rather, the Christian Tradition itself is what teaches me to receive the Tradition itself critically. That’s how all living traditions work, as wide rivers with many currents rather than tiny capillaries with single currents.

I have known people who claim to aim to be “first five hundred year Christians” (meaning, the stuff the Church agreed about for the first 500 years is what they will name as essential doctrine, and everything that cannot be connected to that is adiaphora). I was once ordained in a denomination which claimed the first seven ecumenical councils were its theological core, but I’ve only ever met one person who I believe actually knows those councils intimately. (She died several years ago and was Roman Catholic, not this other denomination, anyway.) Either of those frameworks seem nice, but what they really are are “fragments [we] have shored against [our] ruin,” our sense that things are falling apart, and we are the ones who must save the Church. Those two examples in particular are entirely modernist attempts to create something stable and lasting in an uncertain world, which is in the end the attempt to create a foundation other than Christ (1 Cor. 3:10-11). (Alternate Old Testament reference: Genesis 11.)

I myself am temperamentally conservative. That is, I want to live a traditioned life. I am convinced that human beings over time have learned to live life well, to ask and to answer important questions well. I am convinced that to ignore those human voices of the past is the definition of foolishness. When I read a book about any topic at all, I want to go back and read the primary sources. When I listen to music, I want to plot where parts of a band’s or a composition’s sound comes from. And when I do theology I want to dig all the way to the tips of the roots. In fact, when doing theology, I am convinced that ignoring human beings and their thoughts and actions and lives over time is not just foolishness. This is truly for one part of the living, eternal body of Christ to say to another, “I have no need of you” (1 Cor. 12:21).

Conservative in the sense in which I describe myself does not have to do with a particular political party, especially not a US political party. Traditioned in this sense also doesn’t mean I pretend that there is some single Tradition to be formed by. That’s utopia (sentimental nonsense literally meaning “nowhere”). For my greatest interest–the Church–I don’t believe there is some single faithful Methodist, or Protestant, or Western Christian, or universal Christian tradition. Instead I mean that I am always going to be suspicious when a “new” theology seems to have no roots, or makes no claim to roots, or claims to need no roots in the Christian past. The Tradition may be a massive river with many currents, but rivers still have banks.

All that is a long-winded way to say, yes, I believe church councils have proclaimed the Gospel, but I still believe they have erred. Yes, I believe General Conferences have both proclaimed the Gospel and have erred. Finally, no, I don’t dismiss their workings easily. The Tradition I value is what teaches me to question the Tradition and to know it is certainly not infallible.

That’s the real point: the life of faith–whether for global denominations or for the individual Christian–must be lived in uncertainty (“the conviction of things not seen,” says Hebrews 11:1), because faith lives in the world, and the world is uncertain. Faith which is certainty is not faith at all. God keeps speaking through people (councils, conferences), people sometimes faithfully proclaim and sometimes mangle the message we’ve been given, and the Church’s life and our individual lives are lived in that uncertainty and on that journey. We live in our uncertainty, because God is the only one who is certain. We live without the foundations we lust after, because Christ is our one foundation. Thank God that God’s grip on us is infinitely stronger than our ability to grasp God.

Or if you prefer less Kierkegaard and more Wesley in your tea, the church has not yet been perfected in grace, but it is on the way. Even if you find yourself among those United Methodists who believe that in St. Louis you witnessed the death of your beloved denomination, still you must know: best of all, God is with us.