LEVE 3

Faith Without Illusions, Dutch-Style

I discovered a few months ago that my book on cynicism, Faith Without Illusions: Following Jesus as a Cynic-Saint, was in the process of being translated… into Dutch.

FWI has not had much of a readership since its release in the Spring of 2011.  This has been hard on the ego, but really good for the soul.

Somehow, a Christian journalist from the Netherlands caught wind of the book, liked it, and pulled of some impressive work behind Dutch and American scenes to bring the book to life in his own country.

This journalist is now a friend of mine, and I am excited about visiting with him over the weekend.  I think the behind-the-scenes story goes something like this: this new friend found my article “We Need More Boring Christians” at RelevantMagazine.com and traced the links to my blog and the book.  He eventually found an English copy of FWI, read it, found it helpful, and set up a Skype interview with me last Spring.  His magazine (CV Koers) has featured some of the material from the book and from that interview in a new re-launch of sorts.  At some point, the Dutch publishing house Jongbloed (Youngblood) got into the picture.  I contacted InterVarsity Press to see if they were on board with all this.  Turns out the wheels were already rolling on that end as well.

And so the book is released this week in The Netherlands.  I have lived in two different countries since the book’s release in English, and no where has interest in FWI been stronger than in this country I have never lived in.  All I can say, is that the whole thing is just bemusing, interesting, ironic, exciting… and fun.

Now, I have had no real involvement in this entire process.  And I am an amateur author, with no idea how these author-ish things work.

I found out the title last night:

Leve de Saaie Christenen! Hoopvul Realistisch

Guess what it means?

(Long) Live the Boring Christians! Hopeful Realism

Authors do not get to choose their titles… at least not amateur authors with low readership.  And when it comes to a translation, I have to trust the folks on the ground, so to speak.  They know what they are doing more than I do.  What is interesting about this new title is that it capitalizes heavily on the second chapter of my book and on that Relevant piece I wrote.  What is also interesting is that Busby and I have toyed around with another book idea for which “Long Live the Boring Christians” would be a rather apt title.

This appearance of my book in a new language and a new culture provides me a personal vantage point for understanding “reception history,” something I am studying as a PhD candidate in New Testament.  Written works have a history of how they are received.  Those energetic proponents of the material in FWI are keen on bringing it to their own cultural niche, and they received that material in ways Americans or Indians or Bolivians or Italians would not.  Certain elements are more accentuated and feel more urgent.  Others may seem less significant.

When you write something and it gets published, it is eerily and joyfully out of your hands and into the hands of others.  Ultimately, it is in the hands of God, so may it be done to that book according to His will.

 

And long live boring Christians… in The Netherlands and elsewhere.

 

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“Online Theology” vs. “Offline Theology”

I led a workshop over the weekend at the Christian New Media and Awards Conference in London.  My topic was “Online Theology”:  can we “do theology” online?  What are the advantages of doing theology via blogging and microblogging?  What are the limitations?  I also asked this: what sort of disciplines and skills should we embrace for doing online theology well?

The issue strikes me as massively important because theology is massively important and because digital media is becoming more and more integrated into our daily (hourly!) lives.

Normally I do my writing on media-theology at www.BigBible.org.uk, but since some of those readers attended the conference, I thought I would open the conversation up here at Hopeful Realism.

First, I have learned from Jason Byassee that we just need to be careful about making broad, sweeping conclusions about the Church and the Digital Age.  The reason is because it is simply too early to assess—see Byassee’s essay for The New Media Project.  His subtitle includes the word  “underdetermined” to express a humble approach at making assessments.  Historians will one day look back on the church’s embrace/rejection/conflicted use of new media from the luxurious vantage point of retrospection.  More definitive conclusions could be made at that point.  For those of us in the midst of these technological and cultural shifts, however, we have to be cautious and observant.  Byassee cites this from a Methodist minister writing in 1850 about the telegraph:

This noble invention is to be the means of extending civilization, republicanism, and Christianity over the earth. It must and will be extended to nations half-civilized, and thence to those now savage and barbarous. Our government will be the grand center of this mighty influence…. The beneficial and harmonious operation of our institutions will be seen, and similar ones adopted. Christianity must speedily follow them, and we shall behold the grand spectacle of a whole world, civilized, republican, and Christian…. Wars will cease from the earth. Men “shall beat their swords into plough shares, and their spears into pruning-hooks’ … then shall come to pass the millennium.

[From Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848 (New York: Oxford, 2009), 3.]

Such idealistic, florid language is also used to describe the Church’s use of the Internet.  Beware.  But also, let’s beware of wholesale negative assessments as well!
The second point I made in the workshop is that online theology often includes a critique of offline academic theology.  The most epitomized quote I found is this one:
The “traditional academic form [of doing theology] does not breed conversation, but promotes monologue; it does not foster cross-fertilization of ideas, but reinforces one particular perspective on an issue; it is not open to other voices, but is designed precisely to close them off; and, finally any such discourse is not welcoming to all voices, but privileges a select group who have been properly vetted by the Western academy.”
[Milton Bradley Penner and Hunter Barnes, A New Kind of Conversation: Blogging toward a Postmodern Faith (Milton Keynes, UK; Paternoster, 2006), 1.]
So “theology blogged” is more just and equitable than “theology booked,” as the logic of the quote goes.
My questions for this blog post for our dear readers is this: should theology done through the media format of a blog be pitted against theology done in the traditional formats of books and academic journal articles?  Or can they be complementary? Does one trump the other?
What say you?


Preaching Fools: A Conversation with Chuck Campbell on Preaching, Folly, and the Arts (Part 2)

When I took a preaching class in seminary, I never expected it to be such a creative launching pad for me.  We listened and watched all kinds of preaching and preachers and focused on different, and sometimes novel, ways of communicating both clearly and compellingly.  I went on to take another course, with professor Chuck Campbell, on Preaching, the Powers, and Principalities.  It was here that my imagination was further sparked to see and speak to the captivities and spiritual powers at play in our daily lives and in our congregations.  One thing I particularly enjoyed was Chuck’s playfulness; in the midst of incredibly serious material he never seemed to take himself too seriously. 

Preaching FoolsWhen Baylor University Press sent me a copy of Chuck’s (along with co-author Johan Cilliers) newest preaching book, Preaching Fools: The Gospel as a Rhetoric of Folly, I took the opportunity to sit down with him to discuss. Throughout the book there is a notable chorus, “The gospel is foolishness.  Preaching is folly.  Preachers are fools.”  This is a fairly unusual, possibly threatening, but certainly scriptural, statement for the average pastor.  An odd line in our job descriptions.  The book certainly struck a chord in regards to preparing and delivering sermons, but also, because of its surprisingly multimedia nature, it struck a chord in regards to the arts and their ability to embody and communicate this “gospel foolishness.”

In Friday’s post, Chuck spoke about preaching’s ability to unsettle us, put us in a middle ground, and change our perception.  At one point he mentioned the book’s very title changing before his eyes: from a noun to a verb, being the fool to being fooled.

This second post explores some of the similarities and engagements the book has with the arts.  We wind up talking about everything from the music of Derek Webb to Stephen Colbert to the upcoming American presidential election.

 

Hopeful Realism:  So as preachers, it is an interesting position we’re in.  Most people don’t want to hear that settling is a bad thing.  In fact, most of the time becoming settled, is “arriving.”

I think there’s a good analogy with pop music.  Is there any chance for pop music?  To hatch a message that counters the dominant culture and ideology in a form that is so dictated by tastes and wants.  We know what we want to hear and we know when we hear it.  It’s a closed loop.  How do you break in to that loop to speak in a language that is acceptable and interesting but say things that are potentially inflammatory or unsettling.

Chuck Campbell:  Unsettling doesn’t necessarily mean inflammatory.

HR:  Well, not necessarily inflammatory, but unsafe.  Pop music is the safest of genres.  It doesn’t change fast or much.  It doesn’t cut very hard against what is dominant.  How do you feed people the Bread of Life when they love a steady diet of junk food?

CC:  Love?  Well they’re used to it.  We think we know what we want to hear.

That’s a huge question, let me try to throw a few things at it: We try to say fairly clearly in the book that this is not the only image of the preacher.  We don’t want to claim that.  There are clearly times in people’s lives where a different kind of word may be necessary.  Though, I’m even wondering if in a situation of grief or loss, where life is quite liminal, if being unsettled is not a totally negative thing there.  But I haven’t sorted that out pastorally.

The other side is, I think we have the tendency to automatically assume this kind of preaching is troubling; whereas I would like to think of it as inviting into a kind of adventure.  Something that is much more interesting than simply being secure.  I’d like to frame it in a positive, graceful way.  Sure, there is going to have to be interruption, but a lot of times that is  similar to the kind of interruption to our captivity to the powers; which is killing us!  And a lot of people know it’s killing them.  I think there are a lot of Christians out there ready for the Christian faith to be something a little more interesting than we make it sometimes.  Maybe people might be more open to a vision of the faith that is a little more unsettled, that is moving, that is on the way…

And this is also a way to counteract the sort of Christianity today that lives in a sort of reactionary fear.  We talk in the book about “circling the wagons” and “iron theologies.”  There’s a lot of that going on in places and not just Fundamentalist places.  Liberals can be just as rigid and draw those lines just as hard.  It’s where these kind of ideologies happen that it does call for a sort of disturbing interruption.  I don’t think those [ideologies] are what we’re about as Christians.

HR:  I began to wonder about art as a medium, not just “high art” like Picasso, in the book there are political cartoons…

CC:  …Banksy…

Image courtesy of Banksy.

HR:  How did he not show up at the Olympics? [CORRECTION: He did!]

CC:  Or in the book?!  How did that slip by us?

HR:  It’s really interesting that you mentioned reading Dostoyevsky as a fuel for this sort of imagination.  Rowan Williams, who talks wonderfully about Dostoyevsky, writes about the “gratuity of fiction,” which I think applies to art more generally, in ways like the unsettling effects of foolishness and parody. 

“The gratuity of fiction arises from the conviction that no kind of truth can be told if we speak or act if history is over.”[1] 

There’s so much in the book about the form of the fool.  I think there’s a great analogy for the arts’ ability to incarnate, in some sense, the form of something while injecting surprise and challenge, especially alongside the sermon.

CC:  When I was inaugurated into a chair at my former school, one of my very first lectures was on this material.  That was ten years ago that I began work on this stuff.  I did this thing on naked street preachers and for that occasion Brian Wren, who is a hymn writer, wrote a hymn on the fool for that.  It is quite playful and very interesting in that regard.

Some other times we’ve tried to do services with jazz musicians, the perfect art form for this kind of liminality and movement and improvisation.  I love to work with musicians that can come up with the kind of art that can unsettle things.  For instance, just playing very different music while you’re celebrating Communion can completely change the expectations that we sometimes have at that table.

HR:  There’s a Christian musician, Derek Webb, who seems like a particularly apt contemporary example of this.  He has this song titled “Freddie, Please.”  I’ve heard him describe his process as trying to write what he might say if he had an encounter with Westboro Baptist pastor Fred Phelps.  After he realized that that wouldn’t be a very good song, he changed courses and wrote it as an encounter between Jesus and Phelps.  What’s most interesting and surprising is that he sets it to a 50’s Doo-wop love song.

CC:  The thing I really like about that and the thing that I’m really wrestling with, one of the dangers that can happen with the powers themselves, is that you can become so reactionary to them.  Your life can become a kind of resistance that begins to be shaped by them, because you are always only reacting to them.  So they’re setting the agenda.  Even if you resist, you can inadvertently be caught up in them.

The thing that a song like this does, and what humor more generally does, is it breaks down the binary.  It does something so creative and surprising that it opens up a very different kind of space than just “me against you.”  And it’s interesting that Jesus is the one who’s singing.  Jesus is the one who does that.

One of the books that we refer to over and over in the book, Trickster Makes the World by Lewis Hyde, actually says that contemporary artists, musicians, and visual artists are the tricksters of our time that do this sort of interrupting.  It seems to me, that while our book is a book about preaching, it is definitely applicable to people doing liturgy, music, and art.

HR:  Speaking of contemporary jesters, I’d love your take on Stephen Colbert.

CC:  We mentioned him in a footnote in the book.

What he did with Congress, that’s what fools do…they wind up speaking the truth.  They have people off-balance and unsettled in a way that they can be heard.  One of the things I like about him on his show is that he’s an amazing example of “bivocal rhetoric.”  Everything he says has two meanings.  It’s all basically irony in a sense.  While he’s saying one thing, he wants you to hear something else.  In that way, he’s much more complex than John Stewart.  Stewart, in his humor comes at it directly, whereas Colbert has this double-voiced piece going on.  This is why the book has a long chapter on carnivals, saying that we need to learn from these characters and how they work.  These characters are here.  They are around.  We need to pay attention.

In terms of Christians, Will Campbell is one of the real interesting people doing this.  And actually, I just got this article on P_ssy Riot in the Chronicle for Higher Education as “holy fools.”  These women’s closing statements are brilliant and incredibly theological.  I was shocked at how theologically engaged they were and how they knew pretty much exactly what they were trying to do.  Even though the dance itself is silly, there really is a lot going on.  Characters like that are all around.

HR:  A last bit of encouragement and advice for us foolish preachers in the thick of a highly contentious American election season?

CC:  You talk about an environment where we have two walled-off sides, how do you disrupt that?

As I usually say, the Powers are never just individuals.  I think that the best preaching we do on these political things is not endorsing a particular candidate, but rather speaking to the powers that are holding us all captive.   That might be deeper than even an issue.  It’s going to be difficult, because there are economic powers, there are environmental powers, all related to these really huge issues.  Pastors are going to have to be the fools to help congregations perceive things in some wholly new ways, because right now nothing’s happening.


[1] Williams, Rowan. Dostoevsky: Language, Faith, and Fiction. Waco, TX: Baylor UP, 2008. 46.

Preaching Fools

Preaching Fools: A Conversation with Chuck Campbell on Preaching, Folly, and the Arts (Part 1)

When I took a preaching class in seminary, I never expected it to be such a creative launching pad for me.  We listened and watched all kinds of preaching and preachers and focused on different, and sometimes novel, ways of communicating both clearly and compellingly.  I went on to take another course, with professor Chuck Campbell, on Preaching, the Powers, and Principalities.  It was here that my imagination was further sparked to see and speak to the captivities and spiritual powers at play in our daily lives and in our congregations.  One thing I particularly enjoyed was Chuck’s playfulness; in the midst of incredibly serious material he never seemed to take himself too seriously. 

Preaching FoolsWhen Baylor University Press sent me a copy of Chuck’s (along with co-author Johan Cilliers) newest preaching book, Preaching Fools: The Gospel as a Rhetoric of Folly, I took the opportunity to sit down with him to discuss. Throughout the book there is a notable chorus, “The gospel is foolishness.  Preaching is folly.  Preachers are fools.”  This is a fairly unusual, possibly threatening, but certainly scriptural, statement for the average pastor.  An odd line in our job descriptions.  The book certainly struck a chord in regards to preparing and delivering sermons, but also, because of its surprisingly multimedia nature, it struck a chord in regards to the arts and their ability to embody and communicate this “gospel foolishness.”

In today’s post, Chuck speaks about preaching’s ability to unsettle us, put us in a middle ground, and change our perception.  At one point he mentioned the book’s very title changing before his eyes: from a noun to a verb, being the fool to being fooled.

The second post explores some of the similarities and engagements the book has with the arts.  We wind up talking about everything from the music of Derek Webb to Stephen Colbert to the upcoming American presidential election.

Hopeful Realism: Some of your interest and expertise lies in what Scripture calls the “principalities and powers.”  How have those interests developed in your work over the years?

Chuck Campbell:  The work with the powers began when I was doing a lot of ministry with homeless people in Atlanta.  I heard them use this language.  I was, a full day to a day-and-a-half, overnight sometimes, on the streets with homeless people.  I got to know some of the people and they would use this language.  This material began to make sense of what I was seeing…nobody wants there to be homelessness, but it just kept getting worse.

Secondly, it started making sense “of me,” in addition to “to me.”  It helped me understand my own sinfulness in a different way, in a kind of complicity and captivity rather than just getting up in the morning and saying, “I’m gonna go do something evil.”  People in our churches don’t say that.  They never leave and say, “Thanks for the sermon, now I’m gonna go do something evil.”

So it pushed me to explore that material as a way of thinking both theologically and ethically about my own understanding of sin, what I was seeing in my work with homeless people, and to a little lesser extent in ministry on Death Row.  It was never theoretical to start with.  As I kept reading and working it really became a focus in my preaching work.  The new book is still dealing with it, but in some different ways.

HR: Where did this new angle, foolishness and folly, come from?

CC:  Even in the Word Before the Powers there is a section on lampooning.  Someone mentioned that I should look at jesters because that’s really what I was talking about in many ways.  Then three things happened.  I had a sabbatical and I read Dostoyevsky, who does a whole lot with “holy fools” in his novels.  I started reading material on the history of jesters, tricksters, and holy fools.  And I came across some material on the famous First Corinthians text on the foolishness of preaching [1 Corinthians 1:18-31].  These things started to come together.  So this really did grow out of the powers material, one way of dealing with the powers being a sort of jester-like, lampooning fashion.  And also there was a sense that potentially that was what Paul was doing when he was interrupting the work of the powers in First Corinthians.

HR: I was surprised how multimedia and especially how visual this book felt considering it is a preaching book.  Right out of the gates, the beautiful cover, Picasso’s Crucifixion featuring Don Quixote, seems to set a sort of vision for the book.  Then we’re introduced to a phrase like “bifocal vision.”

CC:  I need to give credit to my co-author Johan, who is responsible for much of the visual arts in the book.  He is an extraordinary artist himself.  He always writes with some sort of visual art.  I contributed some of the political cartoons.  I’m excited it turned out this way.  We wanted it to be a very interdisciplinary book with visual art, literature, cartoons and everything else in it, because that’s what preaching is.  That’s what we have to do.  We are always drawing on all these different pieces, even when we’re not Shakespeare scholars or experts.

The “bifocal vision” is a term from New Testament scholar J. Louis Martyn.  It’s been a very helpful term for me and as you see in the book, it begins to shape the way that we look at the rhetoric of preaching as a kind of “bivocal” rhetoric that is trying to do orally what this bifocal vision does visually.  Martyn uses it as an apocalyptic understanding of the gospel, especially in Paul, where the New Age breaks in, interrupts, invades, the old age.  And yet of course the Old Age has not died and the New Age has not yet fully come.  So the challenge is to be able to see both things at once.

Sometimes people might use the bifocal vision to be like glasses where you see close up and then you look with a longer vision for the fulfillment.  As you may or may not have noticed in the book, we don’t take that route.  We’re looking at both at once, here and now.  In my mind, this is a more apocalyptic way, where the New Creation is already here; you can’t always see it but you can’t ignore it in the Old Age when you are seeing the pieces of it already here.

It is certainly a growing edge in the book: the rhetoric of preaching being “bivocal.”  Having to say two things at once, both the Old Age and the New, without letting go of either one in a real sense.  As I’ve thought about the sorts of stories and example that have been most powerful to me, they tend to be those kind.  Another aspect of the bivocal rhetoric is simply to keep things from being settled.  Where things are clear, rigid, and tied down.  Some of the forms like metaphor keep things open, which is characteristic of this life between the Ages.  This space between the Ages.

HR: Space seems to be another major motif of the book; this middle ground of “liminality.”

I underlined while reading, “there is no separating the folly from the wisdom or the scandal from the gospel.  Jesus too keeps us unsettled; he invites us on the Way, he calls us to discipleship at the threshold between the ages and bids us to follow -and preach – one whom we can never master or control, but who ever remains elusive and disruptive.”[1]

CC: This is a huge growing edge for me.  And I’m still trying to live into it and figure out what it means for preaching.  I preached on Tuesday in chapel and these sermons are still sweating blood trying to figure out how to do it.  One of the things that has happened as a result of this book and might be an important word for a lot of us in the church today, is beginning to think of the gospel not as something that gives us a solid security or clarity or ties things down, but really as the gospel itself keeping us unsettled and “on the way.”

We live in a culture and a time where things are quite unsettled.  So many cultures, and the church itself, is going through a kind of liminal phase.  We’re not sure where things are headed.  The danger there is to really want to assert and reassert a kind of reactionary clarity that grows out of fear.  So I think one of the subtexts that surfaces is that Christians don’t have to be afraid of these times.  We can live into them.  It’s really our space, this sort of unsettled space.  And we’re following the One who we can trust and we can see even in this tumult, the New Age breaking in.

This may not be new to anyone else.  It strikes me that it’s often assumed that Christianity provides the security, clarity, finality, solidity…but I’m beginning to think it may be something different.  Which might be some of the best, good news to free us from our fears that we can have as a Church.

HR: Along these lines, fragmentation is another dominant theme in the book.  There’s a sense that our view of fragmentation should not just lie in something being broken, but as some sort of artifact of the future.  That “faith means not to be in tact.”[2]  This is really challenging to me, but also sort of threatening.

CC:  It’s unsettling.  Another facet to fragmentation is being part of the Church where we’re not ever whole apart from these other fragments.  That’s where some of my colleague’s writing in the book on ubuntu keeps that kind of dynamic between the individual and community going in some interesting ways.


[1] Campbell, Charles L., and Johan Cilliers. Preaching Fools: The Gospel as a Rhetoric of Folly. Waco, TX: Baylor UP, 2012.  104.

[2] Ibid 46.

DUR222

New Testament Studies at Durham… New Strengths

In spite of the horrific costs of postgraduate study in the UK, I am so pleased that Durham is where I have ended up.  I am biased, of course.  But bias might actually be a criterion for truthfulness—sometimes the only accurate portrayals are not the “objective” views from outsiders, but the subjective view from insiders.

(On that statement one could wax on and on with an exciting theology of hermeneutics, by the way— biased insiders are, for the most part, the “implied readers” of Scripture).

The strengths of Durham’s Dept. of Theology are widely recognized.  From an insider’s perspective, there are some less known elements at play that increase my thankfulness for being here.

For one, there is a sincere and energetic agenda of strengthening the academic skills of us postgrads.  Some serious thinking and evaluation is at work as faculty members wonder how they can make us better scholars and address our potential weaknesses.  This agenda is not enacted in a heavy-handed way.  Instead, the faculty are sacrificially making themselves more available in an array of opportunities which are simply there should we choose to take advantage of the offerings.

Here are examples.  Our NT Seminar meets not fortnightly (every other week) like most in the UK, but weekly.  And Prof. Francis Watson (the seminar convener and my supervisor) has added a skills development dimension.  Every other week we have paper presentations (the standard fare of postgraduate seminars in the UK), but on the alternative weeks there are training sessions in reading primary texts, open only to postgrads and faculty.  This means that every other week we NT doctoral and masters students are reading ancient texts with expert ancient-text-readers.  For this term (Michaelmas), our training sessions are dedicated to textual criticism.  In effect, we will have experienced something akin to a doctoral level seminar on text-critical reading of the Greek New Testament.

In addition to the NT seminar, an impressive host of language reading groups are on offer.  Our faculty have quite a breadth in linguistic competencies, and they are making themselves available so that we can choose to meet them in small groups to read Hebrew, Aramaic, Coptic, Greek, French, etc.

Also worth mentioning is the new Integrated PhD program, just initiated.  The standard US PhD program is 4-5 years with heavy emphases on doctoral level coursework and language study built into them.  The 3-year UK program, on the other hand, expects the competencies gained from language study and coursework to be developed before entering doctoral level research.

Times are changing, so that expectation has proven to be a bit too optimistic.  Many of us begin with an array of linguistic and research weaknesses, a situation that has at times drawn criticism from Americans who have managed to get one of the rare PhD slots in the elite US schools.  Durham is addressing these perceived weaknesses with vigor.  And this new integrated PhD program (4 years) allows an extra year of work on the front end of doctoral research so that these potential areas of scholarly weakness can be mitigated.

Below is the schedule for this term’s NT Seminar.  I’m glad I have a seat at the conference table.

 

8 October | Prof Walter Moberly, “Biblical Hermeneutics and Ecclesial Responsibility”

*15 October | Prof Francis Watson, “Textual Criticism and NT Exegesis (1): Matthew [selected passages]”

22 October | Dr Rainer Hirsch-Luipold (University of Berne), “John and the Religious Philosophy of his Time”

23 October | Dr Rainer Hirsch-Luipold, “Plutarch’s Religious Philosophy and the New Testament” (DCC Seminar Room, 1.30-3.00)

*29 October | Prof John Barclay, “Textual Criticism and NT Exegesis (2) Luke”

5 November | Dr Helen Bond (University of Edinburgh), “Dating the Death of Jesus: Memory and the Religious Imagination”

*12 November Dr Lutz Doering, “Textual Criticism and NT Exegesis (3): John”

19 November | NO SEMINAR

26 November | tba

*3 December | Dr Jane Heath, “Textual Criticism and NT Exegesis (4): Acts”

10 December | Prof Larry Hurtado (University of Edinburgh), “Interactive Diversity: A Proposed Model of Christian Origins”

Grune 2

Celebrity Culture, Speaker Circuit & Church: Meet John (The Baptist)

This post draws on last week’s “Celebrity Culture, the ‘Speaker Circuit,’ and John the Baptist.

In that post I struggle over being an author who believes deeply in his message to the church, but feels uncomfortable with the apparatus for getting messages out to churches: booking speaking engagements, beefing up a network, using social media to expand a platform, etc.

Please note—I have friends in the speaker circuit who conduct themselves nobly and with integrity.  They do the practical networking stuff in a way that seems grounded in Christ-centered devotion.  I’m just expressing my own personal discomfort with the whole thing.

(Paul refers to “weak” believers who could not eat the meat sold in the Greco-Roman markets.  Some people held convictions that were unnecessary, but not necessarily wrong.  Maybe I am one of those sort when it comes to this.)

 

Celebrity (& Consumer) Culture and Mass-Marketing Divine Oracles

Beyond my own personal wranglings, the way the church and her “influencers” receive and relay messages is extremely important for us to think about.  Should we be examining the apparatus of message-marketing that serves as a primary means of shaping and influencing the church’s thinking?  Here is the question from the previous post:

How can we avoid the kitsch and the dangers of celebrity culture when God has assigned a public platform for so many members of the church?

To get a public message out to a wider audience beyond one’s own local parish requires public relations.  And that can get tricky for a Christian in a culture that loves (and loves to hate) local or regional or global celebrities.

What’s more, mass public messages to the church today are often in the form of purchasable material, like books (or speaker bookings, when can creep up into multi-thousand dollar figures per 30 minutes).

This means that the messages must be buy-able.

Which also means that public messages get intertwined not only with celebrity culture, but with the values and operations of our consumer culture.  I know I get squeamish quite easily.  But some of this is worthy of squeamishness.

 

A Voice in the Wild

Enter: John the Baptist.

I acknowledged in the last post that the prophets and the apostles (we could add Jesus Himself) offered public messages within a certain range of expected parameters for, well, ancient PR.  They were different from their contemporary public figures, and tried to draw distinctions: Paul could be easily looped in with the sophists, the (usually) itinerant crowd-wowers and cultural “influencers” of antiquity’s public square (1 Cor 1 offers a whiff of this).  Though different, they were using certain means of public communication already established in the culture.  Even in Jewish quarters like Palestine there was some understanding that a rabbi might take up followers and share his teaching in public with others.

By 1st century standards, John the Baptist was something of an off-the-charts sensation.

His fame, of course, cannot be understood thru our own pop-cultural lenses (in spite of the language I just used in the previous sentence).  But we can note that his was a household name.  Hordes gathered to him.  Were John ministering in a 21st century setting, his Twitter followership would have been enormous and his blog stats through the roof… assuming he would have used social media.

And actually, that is a big assumption, mind you, no matter how confident today’s media enthusiasts might assert axiomatically that he certainly would have been known as @JBap.

But maybe he would have—the man had a message.  He is described in terms of “a voice” (from Isa 40:3).  And he did not shy away from lifting that voice.  But before we jump to conclusions about how he might use modern-day PR methods, let’s consider this: his preferred attire was not that of fine robes (or designer jeans!) and his preferred venue was the barren wild, not the market or the palace lawn (on his dress and base of operations, see Mt 11:7-8).

So how did he manage his public persona?

Perhaps just as importantly, how did the Gospel writers present his public persona?

In all four Gospels, John the Baptist appears like a bolt out of the blue… and then he recedes almost immediately into the background, drifting backstage as soon as Jesus appears.

John’s Gospel, as I mentioned in the prequel to this post, seems most deliberate in presenting the Baptist as a loud, robust, vocal persona whose “platform” exists for one purpose only: to exalt another.  In Luke and Matthew, Jesus calls John the greatest man born of woman (Lk 7.28/Mt 11.11).

What we find in the Fourth Gospel is that the vocation of the greatest of all mortal men is to point to someone greater… and then fade away. 

Behold the Lamb! (Jn 1.29, 36)

He must increase, but I must decrease. (Jn 3.30)

John the Baptist is a good role model for anyone involved in public ministry.  To the extent that our books, “speaking events,” Tweets and blog posts are in direct service of the message we believe God has given us—these should point to Jesus while the author (the “voice”) intentionally recedes into the backstage shadows.

 

The Church of One Celeb

But there is something else to learn from John’s Gospel about today’s apparatus for conveying and receiving mass-marketed messages. Not only should we be concerned with the public persona, but with how the people of God receive and regard that “celebrity” figure.  One does not become “famous” without fans or “popular” without a populace.  How should the church behave itself in regard to our prominent leaders, “influencers” and messengers?

Like Andrew and the unnamed disciple in John 1:35-37—

The next day, John was standing with two of his disciples, and he looked at Jesus as he walked by and said, “Behold the Lamb of God!”  The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus.

When our prominent “influencers” point beyond themselves to the Best and the Highest, then we should follow the trajectory of their gaze.  As in the well-known work of art above, let’s follow the trajectory Grünewald depicts of John the Baptist’s long, re-directing finger.

 

 

 

 

The Bible is Hard to Read. Very Hard to Read.

I will take up where I left from the last blog post on Celebrity Culture and the Christian “speaking circuit” soon, but I found a worth quote to post.

I just preached at Kings Church Durham on the significance of reading and hearing Scripture.  I am also right in the midst of a 3-chapter section in my media book on God’s “textual and verbal media.”  So these issues are urgently on my heart on my mind… even more so than usual.

If you are interested, Kings Church’s website has a post I wrote on Practical Steps for Personal Bible Study.  In one of the first points, I am honest about the fact that the Bible is hard to read.  I think the more we are honest about that, the better prepared we will be to engage the Bible in all its richness and wonder.

On this idea of the Bible being wondrous, yet hard, I found this from M.E. Boismard in his preface to St. John’s Prologue [1]

It seems to us that there is nothing like wrestling with the difficulties of a text, to enable one to grasp its import and the slightest shades of meaning; and it may well be a good thing to have it brought home to us in a concrete fashion, that to understand the Bible it is not enough to open it and read it.  The Bible is not an easy book to read….

 

 

M.E. Boismard, St. John’s Prologue (tr. Carisbrooke Dominicans; London: Blackfriars, 1957), p. vii.