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May 2018

Church as Polis

In the second chapter of Awaiting the King, James K. A. Smith discusses the political nature of Christian worship, which he describes as "a public ritual centered on--yea, led by--an ascended King."  As a corollary to this, "Implicit in the practices of Christian worship is an economics, a sociology, a politics."

One of the most puzzling things for many of us clergy is how we are deeply trained to understand church and worship this way--these are not new or radical ideas in theology or liturgics--but how so many congregants seem completely unformed to understand church and worship in this way.  How did this disconnect arise?

Smith is also making the point that politics (and many other aspects of our culture) are also religious--they are rituals trying to form us in certain ways.  So if the church cedes the political terrain, it is actually allowing forces outside the church to shape people according to narratives that are not the churches.

I like this quote from Richard Bauckham, "Worship . . . is the source of resistance to the idolatries of the public world."

What was frustrating about this (and some subsequent chapters) is that he spent much of the time simply reviewing the analysis and arguments of someone else, here Oliver O'Donovan.  

A key theme of the chapter is that "The politics of worship is tied to the renewal of moral agency of the people of God, who are formed to be sent."  Unlike some thinkers who focus on the church as polis, Smith reminds us that we aren't separate from the world, we are in fact sent into it to make our mark and try to influence politics and culture for God.

Smith is mainly writing to other NeoCalvinists (Reformed Evangelicals).  Some of his arguments were broadly embraced by Liberal Protestants in the 19th century.  For instance, there is this sentence, also a quote from O'Donovan, which sounded a lot to me like the Congregationalists of the 19th century who were abolitionists, temperance campaigners, suffragists, etc.--"Rule out the political questions and you cut short the proclamation of God's saving power; you leave people enslaved where they ought to be set free from sin--their own sin and others."

The chapter includes a surprising analysis of Cormac McCarthy's magnificent apocalyptic novel The Road.  Smith asks, "Where did these characters [the father and son who are main characters] come from who shine like lights in this brutal darkness?"  He doesn't read McCarthy as claiming they have a natural goodness--rather, they were formed in some way.  What liturgy then shaped them?  Smith cites numerous examples of sacramentality referenced in the novel.

In a side bar on the liturgical calendar he points out "The Christian year is a political rite that invites us to reinhabit the life of our King and learn what it might look like to imitate the strange politics of his kingdom here in the meantime."

He rightly points out near the end of the chapter that worship is not directed against any specific regime but against the entire notion that politics is ultimate for us as human beings.

Theological features of the self

I really liked this analysis in Serene Jones's Theology and Grace:

I propose five theological features of the self [that] are crucial to our creativity:  1) agency: our God-given capacity to act and hence to be creative; 2) time: our God-created capacity to imagine the future and to remember the past and--within the space of these--to compose our lives; 3) voice: our created ability to articulate and embrace our particularity, our call to be individuals with unique gifts to offer in the context of community; 4) permission: God's divine gift of forgiveness that allows us not to be perfect but to live nonetheless in grace as we creatively act and express our particularity; and 5) call: the gift of Christian vocation, the reality that we are each called to live in faithful relation to God and others in this graceful dance of creation and creativity.

Trauma & Grace: Theology in a Ruptured World

Trauma and Grace: Theology in a Ruptured WorldTrauma and Grace: Theology in a Ruptured World by Serene Jones
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

An excellent book, introducing theological thinker to trauma theory and how it intersects with our disciplines.

The most surprising chapter is that on John Calvin's Commentary on the Psalms and how Jones has used the reading of that classic text with women's support groups to respond to trauma. I feel as if I am in the midst of a big revision of my thoughts on Calvin, based on this and other reading I've done recently.

The chapter on women and reproductive loss was quite good, providing me a richer understanding of this common trauma.

The closing chapter on "Mourning and Wonder" raised some questions for a fundamental aspect of my preaching the last few years. Building on St. Irenaeus ("The glory of God is a humanity fully alive") and the works of Catherine Keller and Wendy Farley, I've emphasized how God dreams for us to be our best selves and how that is possible for us. But reading Jones I realized that the best self may not be possible for the deeply traumatized. They've lost that future, which is part of their grief and on-going trauma.

Books that compel me to rethink some central to my thought excite me. Now I face the challenge of incorporating this into my worldview, teaching, and preaching.

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Love Your Enemies

Love Your Enemies

Matthew 5:43-48

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational Church

13 May 2018


    One of the most fascinating books ever written on the topic of forgiveness was The Sunflower by Simon Wiesenthal, the famous bringer-to-justice of Nazi war criminals. In the book Wiesenthal recounted a story that had happened to him as a young man. He was imprisoned in a concentration camp and part of a work crew. One day he was taken from his work crew to the hospital room of a dying SS soldier. The SS man wanted to speak to a Jew so that he might confess his sins and ask for forgiveness before he died. In the moment Wiesenthal said nothing. But he always wondered if he had done the right thing or not.

    So, he wrote the story down and then invited other theologians, political and moral leaders to write responses to the story. A second edition came out in the late 1990's, the story and its themes given new life by the horrific civil war in Bosnia and genocide in Rwanda. The responses vary. Robert McAfee Brown, a theologian who taught at the Pacific School of Religion, wrote that "to forgive the Nazis . . . is to become one with the Nazis, endorsing evil deeds . . . and thereby becoming complicit in their actions."

    Catholic theologian Harry James Cargas, who spent a life devoted to Holocaust studies and education, wrote "I am afraid not to forgive because I fear not to be forgiven."

    Rabbi Harold Kushner wrote that "forgiving is not something we do for another person." He defined it as "letting go of the role of victim."

    Archbishop Desmond Tutu wrote that forgiveness is "practical politics." We can't depend on retributive justice for "Without forgiveness, there is no future."

    Alan Berger, a professor of Holocaust studies, gave an answer that many others gave—that Wiesenthal's silence was the only response that could be given.

    This book fascinates and disturbs and convicts me every single time I look at it. Here is an assemblage of wise elders grappling with questions of justice, compassion, and responsibility at the extreme edges of our moral life. Fortunately, few of us ever face the extremities. Though I suspect that with the high rates of abuse, sexual assault, and violence in our culture, more of us have experienced the extremes than we generally openly admit.

    The last two months as we've examined the topic of forgiveness, we have focused primarily on the mundane, everyday moments—our anger at traffic, coworkers, spouses. Today, we look at these difficult words of Jesus spoken in the Sermon on the Mount—that we are to love our enemies. How can we do that?


    Ultimately, victims are faced with two choices—to desire harm be done to the oppressor or to seek a new world of reconciliation.

    Our culture tends toward the former. We get great satisfaction in books and movies watching the villain get theirs and the more painful the better. Miroslav Volf calls this our "kickass culture."

    But, this isn't the Christian model. The Christian idea is reconciliation and solidarity, where the villain repents and is forgiven. Volf writes, "We forgive because 'saving' our enemies and making friends out of them matters more to us than punishing them."

    Miroslav Volf is one of our best contemporary guides in exploring this topic. He is a Croatian who grew up in the communist state, his own parents victims of the communist regime as his father spent many years in prison being tortured. And as an adult he witnessed the horrible atrocities of war as Yugoslavia was torn asunder. When Volf writes about the Christian idea of forgiveness, he rides from the underside of history, from the perspective of the victim of horrible atrocities and political oppression. He writes about his own parents, deeply religious people who practiced forgiveness toward their jailers and the solider responsible for the death of one of their children. He writes that his parents forgave because they had been part of a community that practiced Christ and so had learned how to do it. It wasn't easy for them, in fact his mother spoke of how forgiveness was its own form of suffering. His books are rich and complex and wide-ranging, so there is no way in a few moments to cover all of his ideas.

    He writes in his book Free of Charge: Giving and Forgiving in a Culture Stripped of Grace that "the Christian tradition has always maintained three propositions simultaneously." They are:


No matter how good our inclinations, thoughts, deeds, or practices are, before the eyes of the all-knowing and holy God, we are always sinners, all of us, victims included.


No matter how evil our inclinations, thoughts, deeds, or practices are, we always remain God's good creatures, all of us, offenders included.


No wrongdoing is an isolated act of the pure evil will of an individual; it is nourished by our sinful inclination and reinforced by a sinful culture.


    Volf declares that forgiveness is deeply connected to justice. That when we forgive someone, we also condemn them. We name the offense. We accuse them and declare their guilt. This is required for justice to emerge. This is what creates the opportunity for repentance on the part of the offender.

    But he also believes there is a type of repentance on the part of the victim. The victim must give up the dominant culture's ideas of revenge, of harming the other for satisfaction. And this can be quite difficult. And take a lot of time. But ultimately it "empowers victims and disempowers oppressors" because it humanizes the victim and declares that the oppressor's way is not the way forward.

    In one of his richest passages he writes about what a victim will require before they can even begin the journey of forgiveness:


Before anything else, she needs Christ to cradle her, to nurse her with the milk of divine love, to hold her in his arms like an inestimable gem, to sing her songs of gentle care and firm protection, and to restore her to herself as a beloved and treasured being.


He continues:


Eventually, the time to forgive may come. She may forgive with one part of her soul while desiring vengeance with another. She may forgive one moment and then take it back the next. She may forgive some lighter offenses but not the worst ones. Such ambivalent, tentative, and hesitant attempts are not yet full-fledged forgiveness, but they are a start.


He writes that even these tentative steps, nurtured with love, might blossom into forgiveness. He also tells us that our forgiveness is almost always incomplete, for we are humans and not God. (More on this in a moment)

    We might forgive, but the offender might not accept that forgiveness, for true acceptance of forgiveness leads to repentance and restitution. And so forgiveness, unaccepted by an unrepentant oppressor, will not lead to reconciliation.

    What of this notion of forgiving and forgetting? I haven't addressed that these last few weeks. Much has been written on the kind of forgetting involved. Here is Volf's take on the issue from his masterpiece Exclusion and Embrace:


It is a forgetting that assumes that the matters of "truth" and "justice" have been taken care of, that perpetrators have been named, judged, and (hopefully) transformed, that victims are safe and their wounds healed, a forgetting that can therefore ultimately take place only together with the creation of "all things new."


    So, here's the thing. We are not fully capable on our own of the type of forgiveness and love of enemies that Jesus calls us to. Only God is fully capable of that. Which is why Miroslav Volf is so insistent that forgiveness is really about making God's forgiveness our own. It is allowing God's unconditional love to so capture us that it overflows from us toward other people. We are consumed ultimately by love and not by rage.

    Today is Trinity Sunday, when we are reminded that God's very being is a relationship, an ecstatic fellowship, a unity of love. This is the model for all creation. We are also to be an ecstatic fellowship, a unity of love, whereby we comprehend that we are related to everyone and everything and everyone and everything is deeply connected to us. Thus for true joy and the fulfillment of creation, those relationships cannot be broken. They must be healed, and love must reign supreme.

    This is the vision proclaimed in today's contemporary lesson. The goal is a world without rules and rights and entitlements because it is a world of love. Perfect justice is radical, inclusive love where everyone is transformed into who God has always dreamed that they become.


    One more story. This is recounted by the Dalai Lama in his submission to the book The Sunflower. A Tibetan Buddhist monk was imprisoned by the Chinese for 18 years and escaped. When he came to visit the Dalai Lama, his holiness asked the monk "what he felt was the biggest threat or danger while he was in prison." The monk answered "that what he most feared was losing his compassion for the Chinese."

    We people of faith have a vision of radical, inclusive, compassionate love that is beautiful, but difficult and challenging. To live the life of love is to be countercultural. It requires deep and abiding faith and great courage. It is a lifelong adventure with risks and rewards. It is, finally, the only hope for humanity's salvation.

Awaiting the King

Awaiting the King: Reforming Public TheologyAwaiting the King: Reforming Public Theology by James K.A. Smith
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Mixed thoughts about this third entry in the Cultural Liturgies series. One the one hand the book makes good strong arguments for liturgical practice as political theology. On the other, many chapters are detailed reviews of other scholar's arguments that got a little tiresome.

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Philip Roth

My good friend Chuck Whittington was into Philip Roth, which is what introduced me to him as a young twenty-something (he was not one of those figures we learned about in high school American literature).  I think, like many, I began with Portnoy's Complaint and read it at a good age for doing so.  It was exciting and unlike anything I'd previously read (also true for many readers it seems).  This was an era when I decided I needed to brush up on contemporary American writers and so started reading Roth, Updike, Morrison, etc.

My favourite Roth are two short stories in Goodbye, Columbus--"The Conversion of the Jews" and "Eli, the Fanatic."  I reread the first of these the other day after the news of his death.

Over the last two decades I have read a Roth novel every few years.  I've never gone out and bought a new copy of one, just picked them up at used bookstores and church and library book sales as I've encountered them.  I thought The Human Stain was okay.  I loved American Pastoral, his best novel that I've read.  The Plot Against America was enjoyable.

But I hated Sabbath's Theater and couldn't finish it.  Turned me off from trying to read more broadly in his canon.  Also not long after trying to read it I started subscribing to The Atlantic where I enjoyed Christopher Hitchens' eviscerating reviews of each Roth novel as they appeared.  I've, thus, read none of his work published in this century.

A few years ago I read The Counterlife, which was very good.  It is set in Israel/Palestine in the 1980's and explores from a fractured identity the complexities of issues surrounding that region.  That novel has been influential in my own understanding of the conflict, and I recommend it to people.

One of these days I'll read more of his novels from the 1970's and 80's.  Since I'm a Library of America subscriber, I assume that eventually I'll get mailed one of their volumes.

Tom Wolfe

I hadn't yet taken the time to write anything about the prominent authors who have died recently, but I can't bring myself to write about them in the same post, as they didn't get along with one another.  So, Tom Wolfe first.

I read A Man in Full when it came out in 1998.  That's back when big releases were major news and got the cover of weekly news magazines.  There was much press for that book, so I bought it and read it.  I didn't spend much money on hardcover books back then in my poor grad school days.  I went to pull my copy off of  the shelf, but it doesn't appear to be there (I don't remember getting rid of it).  

What I remember most from that novel was a chapter in which one of the characters was just having one of those classically bad days and how this connected to an exploration of Stoicism.

I also read Bonfire of the Vanities after that and long after its period of great popularity.  Both are big, bold stories that reveal details of the times and locations in which they are set.  

Rites Talk: The Worship of Democracy

Continuing blogging about James K. A. Smith's Awaiting the King: Reforming Public TheologyHere's the last post.  

Smith contends that the political is "a way of life, a constellation of loves and longing and beliefs bundled up in communal rhythms, routines, and rituals."

Drawing upon Augustine, he contends that earthly politics is a penultimate concern, but it has a way of trying to be an ultimate concern.  I do find this refreshing in this particularly difficult political age, a good reminder that my faith and values are my ultimate concern.

Similar to the criticisms of Michael Sandel (who is not quoted) he believes we need a vision of the good life, which is lacking in much liberal democracy (or has been lost, as it was part of the tradition).  

This chapter furthers his analysis that politics is already religious, a liturgy that is shaping and often misshaping us.

He references the work of Jeffrey Stout that "pragmatism is democratic traditionalism."  I want to read this work.

Christians cannot be separated from contemporary political concerns.  He writes, "to seek the welfare of the city precisely because we are called to cultivate creation."

Loss of a Nebraska Legacy

The Nation details how the current governor of Nebraska, billionaire scion Pete Ricketts, is dismantling the unique legacy of Nebraska state politics--its bipartisanship as embodied in the unicameral Senate.  

It didn't take long after Michael and I moved here for me to begin expressing my regard and admiration for this system.  Particularly coming from the dysfunctions of Oklahoma politics, which have worsened since 2010.  In Nebraska crazy bills generally never made it into serious contention, must less passed.  All Senators of all parties could hold leadership positions and have say in legislation.  Pragmatic rather than ideological solutions to problems were the pursued.  Bills killed in committee weren't surprisingly brought back to life the final day of the session.  Citizens were actively engaged in the hearing process and were fully informed of a bill's progress through the legislature.  And there was a spirit of working together.

I've often spoken highly of this system, as a committed convert, to people living elsewhere.  So sad to see it endangered.