Language

The Christian Outrage Machine: A Counter-Proposal

This is a mini-lecture/presentation that I shared today at Oklahoma Christian in a chapel service, and while certainly not everything that could be said is here, this is a good start I hope to a new way forward...


Maybe you've heard that there are some people in the world who say stupid things. This is complicated by the fact that those who agree with them and those who oppose them typically respond by saying their own kinds of stupid things. 

Two examples that have been cascading through the Christian outrage machine that is the Internet have been Donald Trump's call to ban Muslims from entering the country along with creating some kind of database requiring registration and increased surveillance. This could include Trump suggested the closing of some Mosques and the blocking of US citizens from returning home if they visit nations associated with radicalization. 

To pour water on the grease fire, Jerry Falwell Jr., president of Liberty University, a school at the center of conservative, though some would say fundamentalist, Christianity, suggested that students follow his example in carrying concealed weapons on campus. The university even provides a free course to acquire your licensure. He suggested that in doing so the school could defend themselves from terrorists. He ended his "sermon" (which never quoted Scripture by the way) by suggesting that these measures would help to "end those Muslims" if they ever came to Liberty. 

My first reaction to both of these stories was... NOT APPROPRIATE FOR CHAPEL AUDIENCES.

My second reaction was condemnation. And so I took to the place of reason and dialogue,of good faith and good will to express my rejection of these ideologies: Facebook. 

I signed a Change.org petition asking Church of Christ universities to collectively condemn this rhetoric, I posted a meme about the "liturgical bankruptcy" of Evangelicalism. (Yes, theologians post crap like this.) And believe it or not, I did NOT feel better. In fact, I felt worse. 

Because I found myself in conflict with two fundamental convictions of my Christian faith that I hold dearly and struggle mightily to embody. 

That every human being is made in the image of God...even Donald Trump. That I am called to love my neighbor as myself. 

What does it mean to be made in the image of God? 

Often times people appeal to the capacity to think and reason or to create and to understand the world in which we live. While this has some credence it doesn't make sense of our experience with everyone. Not all human beings contain this kind of capacity, and yet we would quickly affirm that they too are made in the Image of God.

What if the Imago Dei is instead the capacity not to understand God, but to reveal God? 

What if the vision of speaking of us as eikons is that we contain capacity to point beyond ourselves to who God is? 

I want to suggest that the Imago Dei is this:

That each and every human being has the capacity to reveal something about God in an unique and irreplaceable way. 

This is not to say that I cannot learn the same thing about God somewhere else, but that I cannot learn it in this unique and "God-breathed" way from anyone else. And that there is something about God that I can experience, and that particular experience can come through you and only you. 

This is why the Imago Dei imbues each and every human being with inestimable value and worth. This is why it is fundamental to the Christian faith that dignity, honor, and most importantly love be shown to all people. 

Even Donald Trump. Even Christian university presidents who call people to take up weapons in the name of Jesus.

But this brings me to the second conviction that I hold, and which for me, is currently the most difficult text in all of Scripture:

Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. The commandments, "You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet"; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, "Love your neighbor as yourself." Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfillment of the law. (Romans 13:8-10, NRSV) 

Another translation articulates that last line like this:

Love does no harm to its neighbor; therefore love is the fulfillment of the law. (NIV)

I had condemned what Trump had said... My belief that all people her the Image of God and my love of neighbor led me to do that. I rejected the suggestion of Falwell that Christians take up weapons to "end" anyone... My belief that all people her the Image of God and my love of neighbor led me to do that.

But I had also done all of this, in the name of my Christian faith, with an utter disdain for those two image-bearing neighbors of mine. 

In my attempt to fulfill the law, I had undermined it entirely. And this is not a tension easily resolved. 

Karl Barth in his commentary on Romans, which is incredible, comments on this passage:

Therefore—Love worketh no ill to his neighbor. Love is the good work by which evil is overcome (12:21). Love is that denial and demolition of the existing order which no revolt can bring about. In this lies the strange novelty of love. In the cycle of evil unto evil, of reaction to revolution, it plays no part. Love is the inversion of all concrete happening, because it is the recognition of the pre-supposition that lies in every concrete event. Love, because it sets up no idol, is the demolition of every idol. Love is the destruction of everything that is—like God: the end of all hierarchies and authorities and intermediaries, because, in every particular man and also in the ‘Many’, it addresses itself, without fear of contradiction—to the One. Love does not contradict; and therefore it cannot be refuted. Love does not enter into competition; and therefore it cannot be defeated. ... If, therefore as a protest against the course of this world, I cease to love, I thereby simply—do not love God, offer no sacrifice, and do not renew my mind (12:2). This is the relentless, impelling, earnestness of the command of love; and—Therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.
— Karl Barth, The Epistle to the Romans, 496-497

So what are we to do? How are we to learn how to live and to love in this way? 

I believe we must rediscover the meaning of one thing: Mercy. 

The words of the prophet Hosea, picked up again by Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew:

Go and learn what this means, "I desire mercy, not sacrifice." (Matthew 9:13, NRSV) 

Pope Francis has called for this year in the Christian calendar to be a Jubilee of Mercy. A year in which the church learns to embody the mercy of God in the world. 

I want to leave you with he prayer that Pope Francis has written to usher in this new year, which just began last week. It seems to me that if we ever needed a year of Mercy, it is now.

Lord Jesus Christ,
you have taught us to be merciful like the heavenly Father,
and have told us that whoever sees you sees Him.
Show us your face and we will be saved.
Your loving gaze freed Zacchaeus and Matthew from being enslaved by money;
the adulteress and Magdalene from seeking happiness only in created things;
made Peter weep after his betrayal,
and assured Paradise to the repentant thief.
Let us hear, as if addressed to each one of us, the words that you spoke to the Samaritan woman:
“If you knew the gift of God!”

You are the visible face of the invisible Father,
of the God who manifests his power above all by forgiveness and mercy:
let the Church be your visible face in the world, its Lord risen and glorified.

You willed that your ministers would also be clothed in weakness
in order that they may feel compassion for those in ignorance and error:
let everyone who approaches them feel sought after, loved, and forgiven by God.

Send your Spirit and consecrate every one of us with its anointing,
so that the Jubilee of Mercy may be a year of grace from the Lord,
and your Church, with renewed enthusiasm, may bring good news to the poor,
proclaim liberty to captives and the oppressed,
and restore sight to the blind.  

We ask this of you, Lord Jesus, through the intercession of Mary, Mother of
Mercy; you who live and reign with the Father and the Holy Spirit for ever and
ever.

Amen.

Language Matters: Interpretive Divergence and the Preaching Moment

In the initial post in this series I sought to lay out the general terrain of what I am calling Interpretive Divergence. This phenomenon has immense implications for the ways in which our language and practices have the potential to shape or misshape people into the likeness of Christ for the sake of the world. I explored a couple of places that we see this reality, of a diversity of interpretation that results from human communication (either between two human agents or even between God and humanity). 

Here I want to begin to articulate the importance of this reality for the preaching moment. First a little bit about the language I am choosing here...

I am consciously choosing to refer to this as the preaching moment for a couple of reasons: (1) The formative implications and the space in which interpretive divergence takes place are in no way restricted to the individual delivering the sermon/homily/devotional/forty-five minute diatribe/rant. (2) This moment is not necessarily the entirety of the message. In fact, oftentimes the most impactful teachings (for good or for bad) that we internalize and embody are rooted in brief clips and flashes of memory. (Just try to remember the general three-point outline of the last six sermons you have heard.) 

So with all this in mind I want to explore the ways in which the preaching moment functions as a space where significant interpretive divergence can be experienced.

Take for example this teaching clip produced within my theological tradition (Churches of Christ) entitled, The Truth About the Lord's Supper. (It is not necessary to watch this clip to make sense of this post, but I wanted it to be included to help provide context if you are interested.)

One of the most memorable moments (for me) in this twenty-one minute presentation is summarized in this screenshot:

How might interpretive divergence in this preaching moment occur?

  1. The recognition that this five minutes is 0.05% of our week may not trivialize the Lord's death on the cross, but certainly the practice as it functions has the capacity to trivialize its place in the community who practices it.
  2. The recognition that this practice is subservient to (and thus in some way inferior to) practices that take much more time in the communal gatherings such as singing, prayer, preaching, and maybe even nonreligious activities like announcements.
  3. This could be taken as a logical and convincing argument concerning the frequency and value of the congregational practice in its current form. 

All three of these interpretive possibilities (and more!) are possible in a gathering of individuals with a diversity of perspectives, experiences, and convictions. It is also possible that while one may presume that in the moment this particular presentation was convincing and satisfying, it may be the case that down the road, that this same formative moment leads to an entirely different interpretive decision. (This is an example of hearing the same thing in a different way or with a different perspective. This is common place enough in our lives that it shouldn’t really be contentious that we presume this can occur with spiritual formation as well.)

SO WHAT CAN WE LEARN FROM THIS INESCAPABLE REALITY THAT THE THINGS THAT WE SEEK TO COMMUNICATE IN THE PREACHING MOMENT ARE BOTH SUSCEPTIBLE TO AND WILL INEVITABLY EXPERIENCE A DIVERGENCE OF INTERPRETATION, FORMATION, AND EMBODIMENT?

I think that there are three big takeaways here that every church leader must understand and bear in mind (even if, and maybe even especially if, they aren't the ones doing the talking/teaching/preaching) as they lead their communities of faith as ambassadors of the Gospel:

(1) WHILE THE PERSON SPEAKING IS NOT NECESSARILY CULPABLE FOR THE INTERPRETIVE DIVERGENCE THAT WILL INEVITABLY HAPPEN, IT IS IMPORTANT TO REMEMBER THAT THEY ARE RESPONSIBLE FOR THE IMPLICATIONS OF THAT DIVERGENCE. 

This means that preaching must be done with extreme care. A careless phrase, an unarticulated assumption, an old hang up, or just an unwillingness to attend to the complexities of language and the formative power of words can both stunt spiritual formation and have devastating consequences. It seems unlikely (if not philosophically impossible) that a multiplicity of interpretation can be prevented, but we must remember that our ability to mitigate (or at the very least minimize) the malformative implications of our language falls squarely on those who are leaders. 

(2) THIS SERVES TO HIGHLIGHT THE IMPORTANCE OF A PLURALITY OF VOICES AS WELL AS THE NEED TO CREATE OPPORTUNITIES FOR DIALOGUE AND DISCERNMENT IN THE TEACHING LIFE OF THE CHURCH.

 When the primary (or exclusive) preaching/teaching voice for a congregation is relegated to a single individual or a number of individuals with a relatively narrow range of perspectives the likelihood and intensity of interpretive divergence is heightened. This is why I said earlier that the formative implications, the space in which interpretive divergence takes place, are in no way restricted to the individual.” In this kind of arrangement, one source of immense interpretive divergence is the inevitable encounter with people outside of the community of faith (whether congregational, denominational, or even people of other faiths or no faith). This encounter is likely to produce more interpretive divergence and disorientation than those who are formed in communities that value a multiplicity of voices and practice discernment and dialogue. Studies showing that many people raised in Christian Fundamentalism walking away from all forms of faith (as opposed to moving into less fundamentalist or more "progressive" expressions of the same faith) should be instructive here. 

(3) THE INEVITABILITY OF INTERPRETIVE DIVERGENCE SHOULD CAUSE US TO RETHINK THE WAY IN WHICH WE SEEK TO COMMUNICATE FORMATIVE TEACHING AND LANGUAGE IN OUR CHURCHES.

I have in mind three interrelated suggestions here that I believe are worth some discussion: 

We would be wise to move away from sermons that are long on time and heavy on content.

This is an important decision for a couple of reasons: (1) The amount of actual, durative retention in a monologue (which is what a sermon is, even when delivered by a dynamic speaker) is relatively low. And in this case the answer is not merely to increase the length of the sermon in hopes that what little they do retain will be more than the people who hear short sermons! (2) Most often, sermons that seek to be heavy on content and long in duration are in fact often filled with “fluff” (not in the sense that it is irrelevant or immature, but that it is material that is not essential to the overall idea being presented). Presentations of any real length require significant time and language to be used in building rhetorical and transitional structures in order for the presentation (again, a monologue) to “work”. In our contemporary culture, these kinds of presentations are often ineffective in producing the kinds of “retention” and formation that we are looking for.

We would be wise to move away from singular (or few) voices employing one-way communication with the community towards a more diverse and dialogical model of teaching and formation.

Undoubtedly we are feeling with full force the implications of our long-time decision to professionalize ministry as well as to root the teaching and leadership of our churches in the hands of a few individuals. When the formative voices of a congregation are (functionally) always a small group of people this should be taken as a sign of two things: (1) That the leadership of the community is not developing or forming any new voices that are worthy of consideration. (2) The space for people of different perspectives and interpretations will inevitably grow smaller and increasingly hostile. 

This is particularly true of communities in which the size (and sometimes the diversity) of the congregation makes one perspective not only unfeasible but pastorally irresponsible. This is my primary critique of multi-site ecclesiologies, the assumption that a message that is deeply formative yet generic enough for diverse and geographically diverse locations can consistently be drafted by the "expert" (a.k.a. preacher/pastor/founder/etc.). These kinds of communities inevitably are unable to capitalize on this moment in ways that are still attainable for other communities of faith. 

We would be wise to ask how our message would be heard by the "Other". 

This is the place where we can ask some really important questions like these:

  • How would this message be heard by someone coming from an entirely different perspective or life experience than the audience to which I perceive I am speaking?
  • Would this hold true for someone who professes faith in Jesus in a different part of the world? 
  • How would the poor, the suffering, the persecuted, the LGBTQ community, the divorced, the single, the orphan, the abused and neglected, and the jaded hear this message?

I think that perhaps this is the place where the most insightful realizations about the power to (mis)shape with our language can occur. And if leaders find themselves unable to imagine or understand the perspective and potential interpretive divergence for these "others" then perhaps a deeper more fundamental problem has surfaced. 

In  many (particularly Evangelical-like) churches the preaching moment is intended to serve as the primary location of general spiritual formation for the community. Greater care must be given to the actual implications of the messages and beliefs that are communicated in this space. Leaders especially are responsible for the things that they communicate and the implications of things communicated poorly. 

 

Language Matters: Speech and Christian Formation

How we speak about God and the Christian life matters. 

I would hope that this isn't a real jarring assertion, but it is my intent to explore in the coming days the ways in which, too often, the church does not actually speak and act as if this is true. 

What I want to explore is a way to think about the implications and consequences of the language and practices of the church as we use them. I imagine that most churches have some expectation of the language and practices that are either not allowed or not recommended, at least in large doses. My goal to illustrate the ways in which things taken for granted, the things that "we" (whoever that is) understand as underlying convictions and assumptions, and the way in which we speak or practice without evaluating their implications or consequences is something that has the potential to be both unwise and destructive. 

First an extreme example. Imagine hearing this at church this coming Sunday...

The God that holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider, or some loathsome insect over the fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked: his wrath towards you burns like fire; he looks upon you as worthy of nothing else, but to be cast into the fire; he is of purer eyes than to bear to have you in his sight; you are ten thousand times more abominable in his eyes, than the most hateful venomous serpent is in ours. You have offended him infinitely more than ever a stubborn rebel did his prince; and yet it is nothing but his hand that holds you from falling into the fire every moment. It is to be ascribed to nothing else, that you did not go to hell the last night; that you were suffered to awake again in this world, after you closed your eyes to sleep. And there is no other reason to be given, why you have not dropped into hell since you arose this morning, but that God's hand has held you up. There is no other reason to be given why you have not gone to hell, since you have sat here in the house of God, provoking his pure eyes by your sinful wicked manner of attending his solemn worship. Yea, there is nothing else that is to be given as a reason why you do not this very moment drop into hell. 

Jonathan Edwards, Sinners In the Hands of an Angry God (1741)

If this was the regular content of the language and practices of the church you attended how might you expect to be formed? This sermon, at almost 200 years old, still in many ways captures the ways in which many understand God's feelings about themselves. These kinds of images, the ones that misshape, that embed and give birth to fear, anxiety, and instill a lack of value are pervasive and difficult to uproot. 

But not all Christian language and practice is so explicitly frightening and intentional in portraying Sinners (who we are) In the Hands of An Angry God (our relationship to Godself). I have no doubt that we are not without numerous examples of churches and individuals who spread messages and practices in the name of God and the Church that are harmful to someone's spiritual formation. 

The problem is that sometimes the most harmful and misshaping language in the church is the language that we assume is harmless, neutral, or even useful in talking about God and the Christian life. 

The Reality of Interpretive Divergence

Interpretive Divergence is language that is sometimes used to describe the multiplicity with which laws and legal opinions can be interpreted within a range of meaning. Its import for a conversation about theological reflection and spiritual formation is incredibly important.

We find the reality of interpretive divergence to appear across all kinds of communication. Any time you find misunderstanding, ambiguity, or a diversity of opinions about something someone has said or done you are faced with interpretive divergence. Interpretive divergence is the reality that all forms of communication (written, spoken, nonverbal, art, poetry, etc.) have the potential to be interpreted and understood in a whole range of ways. It is the reality that language has the tendency to "walk around on us." Understanding the complexities and importance of this reality are absolutely essential to any community of faith who wishes to positively form people into the image of Christ for the sake of the world. There are a number of places where interpretive divergence is on display within the very core of the Christian faith. 

Interpretive Divergence in Scripture

This paradigm is a helpful way to think about the kind of diversity and ambiguity that we find in the Bible itself. Why four Gospels? Why does Paul say things in one way to one church and seem to say something very different to another? How do we deal with the texts in the Old Testament that simply cannot be reconciled with one another? The answer is found in recognizing and embracing the reality of interpretive divergence in all human communication. Some might retort that Scripture is not "human communication," but this in no way removes the inescapable reality of interpretive divergence because even if the Bible is "inerrant" (a deeply problematic claim I believe) it is still read, interpreted, and understood by human beings. 

Interpretive Divergence in Christian Language

This is perhaps the place where our language and practice most clearly "walk around on us." The church has a remarkable depth and beauty from which it can draw for language and practices that are formative for people seeking to follow Christ for the sake of the world. But the church has also repeatedly demonstrated a remarkable ability to participate and even sponsor and support systems that are antithetical to the gospel message. There are the obvious examples in things like the Crusades, Apartheid in South Africa, slavery in the West, and the Church's deafening silence about Nazi Germany and the Holocaust. But there are more seemingly benign examples with equally destructive consequences which have the capacity to misshape individuals or lead them to a rejection of their experience of the Christian faith. (One might object that what an individual experienced was perhaps not representative of Christianity, but this not only minimizes the persons experience, it also fails to address the truly (mal)formative nature of that persons encounter.) Specific examples of this kind of interpretive divergence will be the subject of future posts in this series.

Interpretive Divergence in Christian Perception

There is no doubt that often times the portrayals of Christianity in mainstream culture are extreme, sensational, and contrary to the best of the Christian tradition both in its past and in its contemporary expressions. Undoubtedly, one will find many more stories of the church's failures and flaws than of moments of beauty, redemption, and grace. And while we are quick to say, "I'm not Westboro Baptist Church." or "I never said I was okay with Apartheid, Slavery, or the Holocaust." this does not change the reality that the cultural perception of the Christian faith is a reality with which we must contend. It is a formative reality that plays in to both our own formation and in our mission in the world. The suspicion, skepticism, and sometimes even the victimization that is pointed at the church is not something to be ignored or overcome, it is something that must be confessed, heard, and taken seriously by the church. You are not Westboro Baptist Church... Good. But to people around the world whose lives have been shaped by interpretations, language, and practices of those claiming association with the Christian tradition (whether we would identify them that way or not)... that (whatever it is) is what Christianity means. 

Interpretive Divergence in Christian Life

This to me is the most intriguing location of interpretive divergence. This is the place where Christian language and practices is confronted by the realities and complexities of life that stretch Christian language and practice sometimes beyond the breaking point. Think about it like this...

Pick any of the following "Christian" anecdotes that are commonplace and sometimes even (loosely) based on biblical texts...

"God won't give you more than you can handle."
"All divorce is adultery."
"God works everything out for the good..."
"I'm so blessed to have an iPad/SUV/Enormous House..."

On the death of someone close: "God just needed them to be with him now..."
"The Bible is simple enough that anyone who reads it with an open-mind and a pure heart can come to the right interpretations on things that really matter."

Here's the thing, not only are these things theologically problematic, but for countless people who's experience of life runs counter to these anecdotes, they are actually harmful. 

God won't give you more than you can handle? So what happens when I have reached the breaking point and I cannot handle it anymore? Also, why would this God "give me" these kinds of things anyway? 

God works everything out for the good? How does this square with the reality that the vast majority of suffering for the vast majority of people throughout human history has not received some form of redemptive turn in this life? This assertion is both contrary to their experience and damaging to any kind of possibility that they could look to Jesus as one who enters into their suffering in his life, death, and resurrection. 

All divorce is adultery? How does this shape people who were divorced outside of their own choosing, or because of behaviors and patterns that were deeply harmful and destructive? What does this do to people's perception about redemption when an action that is functionally irreversible is portrayed as an ongoing, egregious sin? 

These are the kinds of places that Christian language and practice can be harmful for both Christians and non-Christians. The language that so often goes unexamined, or the assumptions and beliefs that are implicit but never named have immense capacity to distort or destroy our perception of God and his work in the world. 

We don't need to imagine that this is an isolated issue, one that doesn't effect each and every community of faith who has ever existed throughout time. The truth is that there is not a gathering of human beings, nor a congregation, denomination, small group, sermon, or family that is unaffected by the reality of interpretive divergence. And this is particularly true when we are talking about the language and practices that are intended to articulate and embody the Christian faith. Our inability or unwillingness to take this reality with utmost seriousness will inevitably result in the (mal)formation of people with whom we engage. It is possible that the unexamined, unarticulated, and sometimes even the explicit messages and practices in our religious communities have devastating formational consequences. 

How we speak about God and the Christian life matters.