Repent of Christianity and Follow Jesus: The Unkingdom of God [A Review]

Empire is a strong word. For many it brings up mental images of darkness, tyranny, and oppression. Simultaneously, however, it is a word absent from the imaginations of many. And this absence is the impetus leading to empires’ gains in momentum and perpetuation because empire works best unquestioned, unnoticed, or veiled in uncertainty.

For Mark Van Steenwyk, the time has come for exposing the Empire known as Christianity.

Not just exposing, but, to use his own language, naming and then repenting from this empire. Rather than focusing on the “logistical workings of empire”, Van Steenwyck proposes a light be shone upon “the ethos of empire.” Through the questions, “How does an empire understand and justify itself?” along with “[H]ow does the logic of empire (which is about security, domination and control) become intertwined with Christianity?” he directs our attention towards that which has gone on unquestioned, unnoticed, and veiled in uncertainty. He states,

Our proximity to power and affluence gives us a strange perspective from which to read the gospel. The logic of empire is the expeditious, organized pursuit of security, prosperity and control; and the best way to ensure these things is through domination. Our entire way of life depends upon this pursuit. Yet it is contrary to the life and teachings of Jesus, who foreswore security as he walked among the marginalized and challenged the civil and religious authorities; who offered people freedom and confronted those who sought to control others; who upheld and loved the weak rather than dominating them. We find ourselves trying to justify our way of life while worshiping One who challenges our way of life. (p. 28)

If Jesus’ life and work stands in stark contrast to the ethos of empire, how have we seemingly strayed so far? Many lay the blame at the feet of Constantine, but Van Steenwyk points us further back in history. Prior to the Constantinian nuptials of religion and Empire, there were decades of corruption found in the wealth and influence of bishops. The coalescence of imperial praxis with imperial theology allowed for the domination of the marginalized to flourish.

And this domination is not purely aimed and enforced upon humans. No, it is a totalitarian act engulfing people and resources because of the inherent relationship between the two. He who controls the one controls the other. The land does not escape the eye of the Empire.

Beyond this early and historical account of Christian imperialism, Van Steenwyk offers us a look at how the gospel was imperialized as Jesus was plasticized. Rather than being a gospel challenging Empire, it became “gospel of empire.” (p. 39). The taming of Jesus has opened up room for the pursuit of the American dream. This domestication has given us permission to shut Jesus up as we turn our ears to consumerism and individualism, among others. It is something we see everyday.

The solution Van Steenwyk purports is a repentance of this Christianity.

Repentance is not an event or an emotion, it is an ongoing invitation to engage the world differently – to see the world the way God does and act accordingly. Repenting of Christianity means adopting a posture of honest confession as we seek a better way. (p. 76)

We repent of this Christianity in order to follow Jesus further into his way of love that stands in stark contrast to Empire. This Jesus is not a mere historical person, but is a participant within the Triune God. We cannot address “the Compassionate Christ” (chp. 8) without “Encountering the feral God” (chp. 7) or “the Subversive Spirit” (chp. 9).

Moreover, the repentance offered here is not an intellectual account alone. It is a combination of both the mystical and the practical. Van Steenwyk offers us a spirituality tethered to an actual life carried out in concrete practices. Each chapter gifts us with exemplary practices aimed at attuning us to view the world the way God does and to act accordingly.

I highly recommend this book as it is a weaving together of justice and hospitality, theology and praxis, deconstruction and reconstruction. It doesn’t hold back in its naming the powers nor does it let us off the hook for our complicity. Thankfully, I have been graced with running in some of the same circles as the author and have heard many attest to the embodiment of the words found on these pages. If you are looking for a radical – truly radical: getting back to the root – approach which cuts to the quick, get this book. Read it, embrace it, allow it to challenge you, and then practice the nuggets of gold mined from within.

Purchase it here.

Full Disclosure: I received this book for free from InterVarsity Press with the condition I would read it and write a review. I was under no obligation to write an endorsement for the book; nor did I receive any monetary incentives. All words, unless cited with a page number, are my own and are not reflective of the authors or IVP.

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Living the Subversive Life of Jesus: Question Asking and Community Cultivation

The other day a few of my friends and I were discussing the realities of life. Rootedness, patience, and attending to the ordinary rhythms of life were at the core of our dialogue. For us, life doesn’t make a whole lot sense unless we’re pursuing the actualization of these words. The call to move into our neighborhoods is one we’ve taken seriously and are becoming more and more aware of the postures and practices needed to follow through with this. In a world where the extraordinary and flashy are sought after and valued, we believe faithfully pursuing the mundane of the everyday is where we will see actual growth.

We firmly believe in things like rootedness, patience, and attending to the ordinary rhythms of life because these are some of the things Jesus firmly believed in. And by “believe in” I don’t mean mental assent alone. Belief is something that is manifested through action. Therefore, if you say you believe something, I should be able to see actual actions and habits to support this. Give me a month of observing you and I’ll tell you what you actually believe. We in the Church have done a grave disservice by assigning mere intellectual affirmation to what it looks like to have faith.

Discussing these things in generalities is step one; coming to grips with specifics is step two. So, when my friends asked me what it looks like for Scott Emery to practice contextualized rootedness and patience within the humdrum of everyday life, I had to pause and think for a moment.

Within my life, I have been learning what it looks like to follow after Jesus from the margins. I am thoroughly convinced we are living in a post-Christendom society here in the greater Syracuse area, which changes everything, including our postures and practices in and among the rhythms of our everyday.

Where once the Church was at the center of culture, we have been pushed to the margins. Where once we had a voice and a seat at the table, we have now been booted out the door. Where the story of Christianity held a prominent place in peoples’ collective memory, a vacancy sign now hangs.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: This is a good thing.

Why is this a good thing?

Because I believe it is the impetus to push us into being more like Jesus and less like Caesar.

As I continue to read the gospels, I consistently see a Jesus who is marked by profound question asking. He didn’t possess the assumed cultural power and influence of his time. He didn’t wield a violent rhetoric or forceful legislation thundered from on high. Nor did he browbeat anyone into agreement. (Yes, he did give many answers, but it seems to me that we’ve swung the pendulum too far in the answer-giving direction much to the relegation of questions. In many ways, we’ve adopted our Enlightenment heritage of power through proclamation over the humble way of Jesus.)

Instead, he spent his days subverting the kingdom of Caesar with the kingdom of God.  His primary means of doing this was through constantly asking questions. Think about how many times you hear Jesus ask the person or crowd in front of him a question.

Why do you call me good?

Who is my mother and brothers?

Who touched my clothes?

Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to his life?

Do you love me?

What do you want me to do for you?

You of little faith, why are you so afraid?

The list could go on.

When we look behind the veil of Jesus’ questions, we find his main concern: community. God is always at work bringing disparate things together. The very nature of Godself is community and thus God’s work is always community creating. The same can be said of Jesus since he is always about doing his Father’s work. So, with his questions he is unmasking the struggles people are dealing with. He is destroying the façade people have constructed. In short, questions allow for self-reflection, which produces participation with Jesus, others, and the created order. One cannot stand by idly when faced with the questions of Jesus. And once we are participating, we can be held accountable to our commitments. We are prompted to act in a way that tethers us together. This is the nature of the kingdom of God: tying back together the relational strands between God, humanity, and creation.

Peter Block says it well

Conversations that evoke accountability and commitment can best be produced through deciding to value questions more than answers, by choosing to put as much thought into questions as we have traditionally put into answers…Questions create the space for something new to emerge. Answers, especially those that respond to our quick results, while satisfying, shut down the discussion, and the future shuts down with them. (Block, Community, p. 103)

The trick to this lies within the nature of the questions. When we ask questions that do not produce participation, accountability, and commitment we

collude with people who might attend a gathering and choose not to join in cocreating the value of the event. The point is that the nature of the questions we ask either keeps the existing system in place or brings an alternative future into the room. (Block, Community, p. 104)

This is precisely what Jesus was and is still doing.

There needs to be a delineation between questions with little power and ones with great power (Block’s wording). Questions with little power are constantly asked and are usually the first ones rolling off our tongues. They have almost become part of our vernacular. Block lists some of them as:

How do we get people to show up and be committed?

How do we get others to be more responsible?

How do we get people to come on board and do the right thing?

How do we get those people to change?

Who has solved this elsewhere and how do we import this knowledge? (Block, Community, p. 104)

These questions do not produce participation, accountability, or commitment. Rather, they look for predictable answers and predictable futures, usually coming from ones who have already assumed they have the answers.

Questions with great power are ones that transform us into cocreators of our world. Through them we become actors in the drama of our lives. Passivity is removed and we are given agency. As soon as an answer comes from our mouths and hearts, we have moved from mere spectator to participant.

Block says all great power questions have three essential qualities: being ambiguous, personal, and anxiety evoking. Ambiguity allows each person to “bring their own meaning into the room”; things are not precisely defined. Personal: “all passion, commitment, and connection” grows out of what is personal. Everyone experiences this. Anxiety evoking: you will not move towards that which doesn’t bring some edge along with it. Power lies within evoking healthy anxiety.

So what questions are powerful?

What is the commitment you hold that brought you into this room?

What is the price you or others pay for being here today?

How valuable do you plan for this effort to be?

What is the crossroads you face at this stage of the game?

What is the story you keep telling about the problems of this community?

What are the gifts you hold that have not been brought fully into the world?

What is your contribution to the very thing you complain about?

What is it about you or your team, group, or neighborhood that no one knows? (Block, Community, p. 106)

From here, we can move forward with powerful answers to powerful questions. Questions that produce commitment, self-reflection, accountability, and perhaps most importantly, vulnerability. Spectators step aside as actors take their place.

The beauty with these questions – and the typology they engender – is their universality. What I mean by that is that they aren’t questions just for pastors, missionaries, or other church “professionals.” They are questions you can walk into your context, be it a neighborhood, workplace, third place, or marriage, in an effort to cultivate community. Jesus never intended for things like this to take place solely within the confines of a church. In fact, his main work – and by being his disciples, ours as well – is happening out in the neighborhoods, workplaces, and third places of the world.

What is your default position: question-asker or answer-giver?

Do you resonate more with asking and being asked questions of little or great power?

Who in your life is a subversive question-asker?

Soil & Sacrament: Fred Bahnson

Fred Bahnson is quickly becoming one of my favorite theologians.

Not because he is bringing an abundance of theology and exegesis new to my ears and heart. Not because he is well known and widely read. Rather, it is the practices of his life combined with his nuanced understanding of God at work in, through, and among God’s creation. In short, he gets his hands dirty.

This is not to say he is solely a theologian. Indeed, he is much more. He constantly weaves history, global agricultural methods, and sociology – to name a few – with theological astuteness. Together, he is able to speak to myriad of connected realms.

And this is precisely what he does by tying back together in the name of the kingdom of God what our society has compartmentalized. In my humble opinion, he – along with others such as his coauthor Norman Wirzba and legend Wendell Berry – speaks to the most often overlooked and relegated aspect of the kingdom of God: creation. Throughout his work – both written and physical – Bahnson brings to our attention the need for understanding interdependently living with and among creation as we are a part of it.

Today I ordered his newest book (through Speakeasy) by the same name as the above video clip: Soil and Sacrament: A Spiritual Memoir of Food and Faith. I am really looking forward to it as he is one of the few theologians/practitioners pushing for an ecological theology. Once I’ve read it I will post a review, so stay attentive.

In the meantime check out these other Fred Bahnson resources:

Making Peace with the Land: God’s Call to Reconcile with Creation (coauthored with Norman Wirzba)

FredBahnson.com

Wildgoose Festival: Speaking on Soil and Sacrament

“What grows in a garden?” – Washington Post article

“…all creatures live by participating in the life of God” – An Excerpt from Wendell Berry’s The Burden of the Gospels

I think Jesus recommended the Samaritan’s loving-kindness, what certain older writers called ‘holy living,’ simply as a matter of propriety, for the Samaritan was living in what Jesus understood to be a holy world. The foreground of the Gospels is occupied by human beings and the issues of their connection to one another and to God. But there is a background, and the background more often than not is the world in the best sense of the word, the world as made, approved, sustained, and finally to be redeemed by God. Much of the action and the talk of the Gospels takes place outdoors: on mountainsides, lake shores, river banks, in field and pastures, places populated not only by humans but by animals and plants, both domestic and wild. And these non-human creatures, sheep and lilies and birds, are always represented as worthy of, or as flourishing within, the love and care of God.

To know what to make of this, we need to look back to the Old Testament, to Genesis, to the Psalms, to the preoccupation with the relation of the Israelites to their land that runs through the whole lineage of the prophets. Through all this, much us implied or taken for granted. In only two places that I remember is the always implicit relation – the practical or working relation – of God to the creation plainly stated. Psalm 104:30, addressing God and speaking of the creatures, says, ‘Thou sendest forth thy spirit, they are created…’ And, as if in response, Elihu says to Job (34:14-15) that if God ‘ gather unto himself his spirit and his breath; All flesh shall perish together…’ I have cut Elihu’s sentence a little short so as to leave the emphasis on ‘all flesh.’

Those also are verses that don’t require interpretation, but I want to stretch them out in paraphrase just to make as plan as possible my reason for quoting them. They are saying that not just humans but allcreatures live by participating in the life of God, by partaking of His spirit and breathing His breath. And so the Samaritan reaches out in love to help his enemy, breaking all the customary boundaries, because he has clearly seen in his enemy not only a neighbor, not only a fellow human or a fellow creature, but a fellow sharer in the life of God.

When Jesus speaks of having life more abundantly, this, I think, is the life He means: a life that is not reducible by division, category, or degree, but is one thing: heavenly and earthly, spiritual and material, divided only insofar as it is embodied in distinct creatures. He is talking about a finite world that is infinitely holy, a world of time that is filled with life that is eternal. His offer of more abundant life, then, is not an invitation to declare ourselves as certified ‘Christians,’ but rather to become conscious, consenting, and responsible participants in the one great life, a fulfillment hardly institutional at all.

To be convinced of the sanctity of the world, and to be mindful of a human vocation to responsible membership in such a world, must always have been a burden. But it is a burden that falls with greatest weight on us humans of the industrial age who have been and are, by any measure, the humans most guilty with desecrating the world and of destroying creation. And we ought to be a little terrified to realize that, for the most part and at least for the time being, we are helplessly guilty. It seems as though industrial humanity has brought about phase two of original sin. We all are now complicit in the murder of creation. We certainly do know how to apply better measures to our conduct and our work. We know how to do far better than we are doing. But we don’t know how to extricate ourselves from our complicity very surely or very soon. How could we live without degrading our soils, slaughtering our forests, polluting our streams, poisoning the air and the rain? How could live without the ozone hole and the hypoxic zones? How could we live without endangering species, including our own? How could we live without the war economy and the holocaust of the fossil fuels? To the offer of more abundant life, we have chosen to respond with the economics of extinction.

If we take the Gospels seriously, we are left, in our dire predicament, facing an utterly humbling question: How must we live and work so as not to be estranged from God’s presence in His work and in all His creatures? The answer, we may say, is given in Jesus’s teaching about love. But that answer raises another question that plunges us into the abyss of our ignorance, which is both human and peculiarly modern: How are we to make of that love an economic practice?

That question calls for many answers, and we don’t know most of them. It is a question that those humans who want to answer will be living and working with for a long time – if they are allowed a long time. Meanwhile, may Heaven guard us from those who think they already have the answers.

– Wendell Berry, “The Burden of the Gospels,” in The Way of Ignorance p. 135-137

Genesis, Vocation, and Master Penmenship

Video

Every human being has a call to be a maker. This vocation is one of cultivation, of using the resources before us, alongside the talents within us, for betterment of those around us through partnering with the God among us. This is (partly) what it means to be made in God’s image.

This is part of the creation mandate found in Genesis. Many readings of “the beginning” focus on particular polemical readings, either glossing over or completely ignoring the narrative trajectories these primal texts put us on. From the onset of our story, we find a God getting down in the dirt – the image of a gardener on his knees comes to mind – hands covered in earth. Breath is infused into the earthenware known as human and he is told to get on with being this cultivator, this maker. In short: be a culture maker. This is not a solo venture, but one completed and carried out in community, as the Genesis story tells.

And so we find that our spiritual life is comprised of our physical life. Our vocation is a holistic one: the spiritual manifesting itself in the physical. The two are intimately incorporated into one. Proper usage of earthly materials along with the proper wielding of our personal beings is at the center of the spiritual life. We do damage to the Genesis story and in turn to what it means to image God when we set up false dichotomies between the spiritual and the physical. God is one who gets down in the muck, not who stands above it all.

True spirituality, therefore, is not a denial of or seeking an escape from earthy stuff, but is a participatory relationship with and resting in one’s interconnected place within all this earthiness.

This vocation is not dependent upon one’s occupation. The call – vocation literally means “calling”; same word as vocal – is to use and put forth objects of love. Love in the sense of making them with love for others whom you love because you know a God who does the same. Be it a plumber, teacher, or mayor; those employed, unemployed, or under-employed; the call is the same: creatively use what you are given and who you are to be a cultivator of love.

To be human is to cultivate love.

An example of these thoughts is found in the video of Master Penmen below. I hope you find it both challenging and inspiring as I did.

Ecclesia and Ethics: An Eco-friendly and Economically-feasible Online Biblical Studies and Theology Conference

Well, this looks very, very interesting.

N.T. Wright, Stanley Hauerwas, Michael Gorman, and Northeastern Seminary‘s very own newly appointed Professor of Biblical Studies, Nijay Gupta are among the presenters of this “eco-friendly and economically-feasible online biblical studies and theological conference.”

From the site:

Ecclesia and Ethics: An Eco-friendly and Economically-feasible Online Biblical Studies and Theology Conference is an academic and ecclesial conference taking place on Saturday May 18th and Saturday May 25th 2013 in real-time via the high-tech Webinar site http://www.gotomeeting.com. No software will need to be purchased by presenters or attendees, and Webinar access is provided entirely for free due to a generous Capod Innovation Grant through the University of St Andrews in Scotland. Participants and attendees will be able to sign on, present, and listen to or watch presentations from anywhere in the world with reliable internet and a computer. Registration for the conference consists of a $10/£7 (minimum) donation to one of our Recommended Charities. We invite participants to give according to their means above the $10/£7 to one or more of our charities if they feel led and are able.

Main papers will be presented by our Main Speakers: N.T. Wright, Michael Gorman, Dennis Hollinger, Shane Claiborne, Stanley Hauerwas, Brian Rosner, Mariam Kamell, Nijay Gupta, Michael Barber, and Sungmin Min Chun. Additionally, we will have five Multiple Paper sessions throughout the conference, via five Virtual Rooms which will feature papers from a total of 20-25 selected papers. Interested parties are invited to submit an abstract to ecclesiaethics@gmail.com for consideration from January 2013-March 2013.

To whet your appetite, here is a video interview with N.T. Wright regarding his take on “Moral Formation, the relationship between the Church and the Academy, and the relationship between Theology and Exegesis.”

And here is an interview with Nijay Gupta, our newly installed Professor:

Looks promising, to say the least.

Go here for more.

Jesus’ Wilderness Temptations and Place: Day 25 of Lent

With the onset of Lent, Jesus’ time in the wilderness (Luke 4) becomes the plumb-line for the rest of our Lenten journey. Not only does it begin Lent, but it sets the overall tone for its duration. Jesus’ fasting and subsequent temptations by the satan are paradigmatic in their example and nature. Much has been said concerning this time and Jesus’ responses to the satan. Much has been said regarding the recapitulation of Adam’s temptation and Israel’s wilderness stories.

However, there isn’t much said about how place comes into play.

So, today when I read this quote in Craig Bartholomew’s Where Mortals Dwell: A Christian View of Place for Today (one of the books I’m reading during Lent), it struck a chord. It is from Frederick Bruner’s The Christbook: Matthew 1-12:

Notice that the devil leads Jesus higher and higher: first from the wilderness and its rocks to the top of the temple and now, explicitly, to ‘a very high mountain.’ The Holy Spirit led Jesus down – into the easily misunderstood baptism of John, and then down still further into the wilderness of temptation. The Holy Spirit’s way is not so much up into the fascinatingly great as it is down into the ordinarily mundane and into the way of the cross and of suffering.

I find this eye-opening due its exposure of the constant downward mobility found within God’s story. From the opening statements of Genesis through to the Gospel accounts of Jesus and then culminating in Revelation 21-22, we find that the movement of God within the plot of Scripture is predominantly downward in direction. God descends into the garden and asks Adam and Eve, “Where are you?”. Jesus takes on flesh and blood and moves into the neighborhood. The city of God comes through the clouds and settles on the earth. All of these moves demonstrate the connection between God’s realm (heaven) and humanity’s (earth) and how the Divine stoops down to invade our time and place.

Again and again we find this downward movement in pivotal plot moments giving us an overarching picture of the manner in which God presents his love towards us.

We find this true here in Jesus’ temptation account as we see place pulling back the curtain a bit. As a result, both posture and practice are informed and molded in incarnational, self-emptying ways. The road to intertwining heaven and earth will not be through a spectacular power play from above. No, it will be long route of embodying love from the bottom upwards within the commonplace of the everyday.

What do you think?

Have you noticed the subtleties of place within the context of God’s story? If so, how?

 

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Other posts in this Lent series:

Moving Beyond Immediate (and) Affirmation or Why I Will Be Blogging Through Lent

“Divine Sorrow” and Remembering: Ash Wednesday

Longings, Presence, and Vulnerability: Day 2 of Lent

Being Led by the Gentle Voice of God: A Notebook and 3 Questions: Day 3 of Lent

Lent Around the Blogosphere: 10 Links: Day 4 of Lent

First Sunday of Lent: A Prayer

Psalm 91 and Cliche: Day 5 of Lent

Community and Prayer: Henri Nouwen on Pushing Through Individualism Via Communal Prayer: Day 6 of Lent

Humility, Place, and The Everyday: Lessons in Mission From John the Baptizer: Day 7 of Lent

Lenten Reflection and Fasting According to Joan Chittister: Day 8 of Lent

Jean Vanier’s “Seven Aspects of Love”: Day 11 of Lent

Second Sunday of Lent: A Prayer

Suffering and Lent: Words from Joan Chittister: Day 14 of Lent

Third Sunday of Lent: A Prayer

Loneliness: Day 20 of Lent