Archive for category: Theology

“When the world is sick, can’t no one be well. But I dreamt we was all beautiful and strong.” A conversation with Richard Kentopp of the Gentle Wolves

12 Mar Chris Breslin
March 12, 2014

Thousands of music fans, media connoisseurs, and cultural experts flock to Austin, TX this week to participate in South By Southwest (SXSW) a music and film festival featuring more than 2000 bands, hundreds of film premiers, and interactive sessions including a “virtual conversation with Edward Snowden.”  Perhaps most notable, a several years ago Twitter was introduced here.

Cultural centers like these always interest me in terms of the church’s engagement –missiologically, artistically, culturally, and doxologically. As a part of a series of conversations I’ve had with musicians making music in and for the church, I spoke to Richard Kentopp of Austin. He plays and leads music at both Servant Church and Mosaic and has been rolling out new Gentle Wolves songs each week since February. Richard is a UT Longhorn and went to Fuller Theological Seminary, before being ordained by Mosaic and serving at Servant Church in East Austin.

Our church has been influenced by Richard’s recording ministry with Gentle Wolves (the house band for Servant Church).  His particular skill for excavating and refreshing old (in some cases very old) hymn texts, writing new songs from and for the church, and also appropriating songs from outside that speak the language of and make sense, perhaps most sense for, the church. And he does all of this with a deft ear and keen sensibility for the people in his community. By trade he is a musician, but he is also a pastor with a heart for those on the margins of faith. His creativity and bravery in a place deemed the “live music capital of the world” is truly inspiring.

On the new set of songs (dubbed Vol. IV), perhaps the quintessential display of these sensibilities is “When the World is Sick.” This tune is originally a lamenting tag at the end of an obscure (and certainly non-Christian) song by Montreal indie collective Thee Silver Zion Memorial Orchestra. After a litany of the world’s ills including “our dead marines,” the singer repeats the hopeful realistic mantra, “When the world is sick/can’t no one be well/but I dreamt we was all beautiful and  strong.” Kentopp and co take the haunting line and repurpose it as a Taize-styled Confession. Some parables of the Kingdom are just too powerful not to be used liturgically for the Kingdom.

I was able to talk to Richard a bit about some of his thoughts on worship music, what it means to play music that makes sense to an increasingly post-Christian culture in a cultural center like Austin, and his outlook on pastoring and including musicians.

Hopeful Realism: I was checking out the blog you keep and was curious to have you elaborate on your four reasons why you don’t sing praise and worship songs?  It seems like your four reasons really boil down to two reasons: “they’re not good” & “they’re unintelligible to someone outside of that culture.”

Richard Kentopp: That post is getting commented on in a lot of ways. That was what I was thinking that day. Not every day am I thinking all of those things in those ways. I think that post came out a bit negative; I’m generally trying to be more constructive. I will say that I do think those songs work well for some people. I know people who deeply connect with God through Matt Redman’s music and through his ministry and through their church singing those songs. But what I think has been lost, and one reason why the church in general is hemorrhaging young people, is our ability to make music that makes sense both musically and lyrically to young people.

I think you’re right, that music makes sense to people who grew up listening to “Lord, I Lift Your Name on High” & “Heart of Worship.” But from a very young age, a lot of Christians, myself included, don’t connect with “youth group music.” There are plenty of people that need to be given the vocabulary with which to worship God, and have a hard time singing those songs. The church has done a pretty poor job –giving outsiders a chance to connect. I always try to plan for our worship gatherings from the perspective of someone having their very first worship gathering experience. What I’ve found is that success lies in getting the people who have been coming forever to come around that.

I often say to them, “You’re a giving member, you’re a leader at this church, I don’t really care what you think of our music. But I want you to tell me if you think its not going to connect with your friends or your coworkers, then you can give me critique and I’ll listen to it.” We’re on a mission. I’m not there to provide an emotional experience on Sundays, I’m there to help connect them to God and connect them to each other.  Emotions will inevitably happen.

HR: I’m reminded of a line in Marva Dawn’s Reaching Out Without Dumbing Down, “If we want to care for the ‘lost souls’ of our society, the best way we can reach out to them is to offer them the richest resources of the Church.” I think that includes the really vibrant language of the church. With regards to language, what makes you look at a text and say, ‘we could really do that well, and it might connect in a new and surprising way’?

RK: The follow-up post to the one you mentioned, listed what sort of songs we do. As far as hymns go, I don’t have any problem changing hymns. I’m not a purist. I think that it makes sense to update theologically or otherwise.

For instance, one of the ones that we’re working on, “We Are Waiting Blessed Savior.” The music is really simple but the lyrics are great. So I took these several hundred year old lyrics and plopped them into new music. One of the lines was, “We are waiting blessed Savior/for a reunion heart to heart/with our dear ones over the river.” Every time we sing things like that or “Sweet By and By,” theologically, I have a hard time finding backup that we’ll see our loved ones in such a state in our resurrection bodies. It became problematic when we were doing a funeral for one of our folks. As a pastoral move, if possible I try to chance some of the lines into more Christ-focused eschatological references.

Linguistically, I try to change thous to yous and thee to you. Basic stuff to make us not feel so alienated over time and space from some of these songs.

HR: Tell me about the difference, for you, between making congregational music and other kinds of recording projects.

RK: I see a real distinction between the music I make “for art’s sake” and what I do with the Gentle Wolves. Honestly, I’m not a big country-rock fan, but because we are where we are, and because that makes sense artistically and linguistically to people in Austin, we choose to do that. When I made my record, my goal was to make something in the language I enjoy, something that expresses me…but that’s not necessarily the goal for the Gentle Wolves and what we do Sunday mornings. My goals are simply different. I want people to easily catch on to melodies and to be able to sing to God. I pray that somehow God’s Spirit will connect them to himself and to everyone around them singing.

HR: I love to ask worship leaders about how they navigate the role of non-Christians in worship. You find folks on every part of the spectrum, in terms of who is able to participate in making music on Sundays.

RK: I’ve actually come about 180 degrees on this.  When I was in college at University of Texas, I was a part of a church in Austin that required you to be a part of a small group for over a year in order to be on stage in any capacity for music. They had a very high buy-in, and I thought that that was good, since you’re leading the people, even if you’re just playing bass or drums or guitar. I’ve found since I’ve been doing this as a worship leader that incorporating people who don’t call themselves Christians into your community can happen really effectively through having them play music.  Musicians love to play.  Honestly, I’ve seen enough fruit; enough people who weren’t Christians become so involved with a Christian community that they start following Jesus before they even realize what they’re doing. And they start to realize that maybe faith is something they’ve been doing, something they’ve been given.

How I counter the previous mindset that I had, is by realizing that I’m up there –not some paragon of moral fiber- I’m a pastor. The musicians that are beside me and with me are a microcosm of the church at large. So I want there to be people investigating faith, but still sharing their gifts with the community.

Download the Gentle Wolves catalog at their bandcamp page and stay tuned as the final few tracks of Vol. IV release in the next couple weeks.

How I Opened My Class on Paul and his Letters…

17 Nov Andrew Byers
November 17, 2013

[I am currently teaching the Paul section in a module called "New Testament Texts: The Johannine and Pauline Literature" at Cranmer Hall Theological College in Durham. At the beginning of each class, I have tried to offer a scenario of some kind to engage our imaginations and prime our minds to think more contextually about Paul and his ministry. Here is how we began the course....]

Think “Mediterranean.” Some of you have seen it with your own eyes. A warmer, sunnier climate than the one we are used to here in the UK; an exotic place that perhaps soldiers building a wall for Emperor Hadrian in a cold no-man’s-land might wistfully long to return to once Autumn came. This is a world culturally and linguistically dominated by the Greeks of old; and politically and economically dominated by Rome, the heart—the nucleus—of this vast cosmopolitan realm.

All of life is structured within a universally understood hierarchy. Everyone has a place, the gods holding chief position, the Emperor the earthly manifestation of their supremacy; then the Roman aristocracy; and then there is the aristocratic power bases within the localized municipalities throughout this massive realm. Following these elite ranks is a merchant-class, some of whom are quite wealthy; and there are the renown soldiers—retired generals and heroes whose swords so courageously splintered barbarian bones that they now enjoy lands, fame, riches. These members of the upper castes of society are a tiny fraction of the populace.

But they control the populace. There are farmers, craftsmen, temple priests, prostitutes, freedmen, villagers, and slaves. 1 out of every 4 is a slave, in fact. But all these players in this vast society are bound together by recognizing their place in relation to each other. Knowing your place is critical for survival, and one must always cavil and cater to the society-members ranking above you. Everyone has their place.

Interwoven into this complex way of inferiors relating to superiors and vice versa is a dynamic religious life from which no element is untouched. The “many gods” of this realm are visually and culturally inescapable—images of the gods line every city square, temples command the visual landscape, the coinage is marked by religious imagery. This is a society governed by a rigid caste system, saturated at all points by idolatrous religion, and infused with the rock solid political conviction that Caesar is Lord.

But suddenly, there is a ruckus in the market, a disturbance on the crowded hilltop and in the city square, along the side street. A voice crying out, speaking alien words into this well-established web of life, voicing volatile ideas into the tightly woven fabric of this august culture… What this voice speaks is a counter-intuitive word, a destabilizing word, a message that makes no sense, a message that warrants this accusation about its heralds in the Book of Acts: they “have turned the world upside down… acting against the decrees of Caesar, saying that there is another king, Jesus” (Acts 17:6-7).

The most vocal emissary of this message, the world-inverting message of the Gospel, is the subject of this course: Paul the Apostle.

In his first appearance in the canon he is no apostle. That initial appearance scene is bloody and grim. A death-scene. He stands as a young man approving the splintering of Christian bones as Stephen dies the 1st death of the church. But soon, the world is being inverted, and over time the Greco-Roman world will not withstand the influence of his message. Every one of us in this room have ourselves been changed by this man’s destabilizing, world-inverting words.

Welcome to THMN2021: New Testament Texts.

Theology of the Cross vs. Theology of Glory

29 Mar Joel Busby
March 29, 2013

Since I was introduced to the concept in seminary (about 5 years ago), I can’t get Luther’s dichotomy out of my head.

Luther believed that there was as way of being a theologian and of understanding God that was really about us, our comfort, a stamp of approval on our notions of who God might be. He called this a “theology of glory.”

In contrast, there was as way of being a theologian and of understanding God that looks to the cross. God is not who we think he is, notions of “power,” “glory,” “might,” “triumph,” and everything else must be re-thought through a cross-shaped lens. This is the “theology of the cross.”

Think about it, we call today “Good Friday.” This tradition demonstrates that our understanding of “good” has been re-thought already in light of the cross. For Luther and for subsequent Lutheran thought, the theology of the cross is a way to understand God, a way of understanding how God deals with the world, a way to understand our lives under him.

So much more could be written here…

Our friend Wesley Hill wrote a piece today, called, “Anger Room.”

Hill’s post makes this dichotomy come alive.

Particularly appropriate to share on this Good Friday.

On-Site Theology

13 Mar Andrew Byers
March 13, 2013

I temporarily suspended blogging, tweeting, and Facebooking for several weeks. Why? So I could finish writing a book on social media. The irony is delightful.

I deal with online theology vs. offline theology in the a small chapter in the book; and I gave a brief treatment here on the blog. In this post, I am thinking about about how context affects and gives shape to our theology. Theological discourse on the Internet is influenced by the available media formats (blogging, microblogging, short articles, etc.) and by certain values latent in the technology (fast-paced writing, interactivity, etc.).

The context of online theology is not just the Internet. There is a spatial, physical context as well: the café or coffee shop offering free wifi, our home, a library—wherever we are as we think and write about God online.

Rather than looking at online or offline theology, I want to focus here on “on-site theology”—how does our physical, social, spatial, cultural location contribute to our understanding and communication of who God is?

For instance, as a doctoral student, I study theology every day… and I do it here:

(Wikimedia Commons)

 

This is Durham City. Where I study is between the castle and the 900-year old cathedral up on the hill. Now, my study space is in a rather unglamorous hole-in-the-wall, but still—what a place for learning theology, right? The Venerable Bede and St. Cuthbert are buried within 300 meters of my desk, and God has been worshiped and theology studied on this site for ten centuries.

But what if my context for doing theology was here:

 

(Wikimedia Commons)

 

The sort of context depicted in the photo above is the only normal for millions of people throughout the world. Would I do theology differently if this were my setting rather than a cathedral city in England? How would my theological agenda differ? What issues would receive priority? And what sort of resources would be available?

As Christianity thrives in the global South where images like the one above are not so uncommon, how will theology change over the next several decades? Universities and churches in the West have set theology’s agenda for centuries. But so many of the ecclesiastical centers of the West, with the glorious architecture and gleaming spires, are becoming monuments of a faith once practiced and now forgotten. Flannery O’Connor spoke of the “Christ-haunted South,” in reference to the southern U.S. I find it to be even an more fitting description for England.

The issues of “contextual theology” are being raised elsewhere and by people who have put a lot more thought into it than me. I just bring them up here because I want to be personally honest about myself and my theological thinking and writing. I love where I study. I could hardly be more thrilled about my degree program and its location.

But I do not want to be too contextually confined when it comes to my theology, you know?

I am learning so much here in Durham about theology. But it is quite likely that there is only so much I can learn about God from a café or a well-stocked library with a cathedral view.

“Online Theology” vs. “Offline Theology”

23 Oct Andrew Byers
October 23, 2012

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)

15 Oct Chris Breslin
October 15, 2012

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

12 Oct Chris Breslin
October 12, 2012

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.

On NOT being a Minister

02 Sep Andrew Byers
September 2, 2012

It is Sunday morning, and I have no sermon to preach and no Bible Study to prepare.  I will attend church, but I will not be expected to serve Communion or set up mid-week pastoral appointments.  I have no mailbox to check in the church office.  I have nothing to print out, no copies to make.

I am a layperson.

By virtue of moving to England for the PhD, I find myself no longer working in the capacity of a minister.  Setting out on this new academic vocation is in no way a departure from ministry, in my view.  I have not chosen doctoral work because I wish to be unshackled from churchly annoyances and pastoral messes.  I delayed my entry into a PhD program by taking a 3-year pastoral post right at the time I was about to begin the same program in 2008.

But the reality is that I am not pastoring right now, for the first time in 9 years.

I had hoped to find a part-time ministry post here in England, but Durham’s Department of Theology reasonably expects its full-time students to be full-time students.  And no such post emerged when we were searching all last summer (though one did for my wife).

I have done quite a bit of preaching in my first year here in Durham, but I no longer bear the enormous pastoral burdens that have characterized my vocational life for most of the previous decade.

I miss it.  And yet I am so grateful for the break.

I realized several months into life here in England that I was viewing myself as a minister without a ministry post.  For the most part, I still consider myself a pastor.  So I have wondered—am I clinging to some occupational identity for the sake of feeling personally significant?  Or is “minister” who I am by virtue of divine call?  Either way, I cannot answer that awkward question, “What do you do?” with “I pastor or I minister.”  In this stage of my life, I study… and I do it full-time.

The weight of pastoral ministry can be absolutely crushing.  Another good descriptor is “suffocating.”  There are the painful burdens of parishioners one must bear.  There are the disillusioning secrets one discovers every week.  And uglier than these weights are the pressures one feels to grow the church, to expand the ministry, to increase the numbers.  These “ugly pressures” are the sort that we minister-types like to think we are above or immune to.  In every ministry post I have held, these “ugly pressures” have haunted every meeting, every sermon, every Bible study preparation.  I have hated them and fought tooth and nail to resist them and entrust the growth/size/numbers to God.  But they have always been there, whether within or without.  These pressures are unfortunate realities.

But not for me.  Not right now.

Today, my heaviest burdens are 1) the financial costs of tuition and life in the UK, 2) German, 3) Hebrew, 4) the secondary literature on John’s Gospel, 5) the work of writing a guild-worthy doctoral thesis, 6) the work of writing a theology of media.

Bearing the burden of someone’s disintegrating marriage seems much more noble than bearing the weight of memorizing German vocab or Hebrew verb paradigms.  But the struggle of many a theology student and seminarian is the struggle of faithfulness in small, tedious labors that can discipline us for weightier assignments.  By entering a doctoral program, I have determined that German vocab and Hebrew paradigms are non-negotiable for my vocational work as a minister.  As impractical as they seem to be at first glance, they open up new worlds for the minister of the Gospel—Hebrew more than German, but there are times when it would be nice to get into Barth or Thielicke or Bonhoeffer on their own linguistic grounds.

Will I “return” to ministry after the doctoral program?  Will I chose a professorship over a pastorate, a classroom over a chapel?

I have decided at this point to refuse bifurcating church and seminary and ministry from the discipline of theology.  The vocational fork up ahead of me between pastoring and teaching has loomed almost ominously, because I cannot envision serving in a church post that removes me from serious theological study, nor can I envision working as a professor in a way that compromises my work as a minister.  Assuming someone offers me a job in a couple of years, I will have to choose.

But I am blurring the vocational lines on purpose.

For now, I have an excellent opportunity to learn to be a devoted layperson.  I have the unique privilege of serving the church as a minister without an official title.  Pastoring has helped me learn so much about lay ministry.  Ministers know well how church members can strengthen the church’s ministry  through their volunteer devotions.  Now, I am going to let lay ministry teach me how to better serve as a pastor.  Because sometimes, the folks in the pews are the most erudite professors for that lonely, disgruntled person in the pulpit.

 

 

Christian Theology and the Colorado Theater Shooting

21 Jul Joel Busby
July 21, 2012

Like you, I’ve been following the Colorado theater shooting news. I’m saddened and sickened and somewhat afraid.

I watched The Today Show on NBC as broadcasters and commentators struggled to make sense of it. It’s a serious struggle indeed, but Christian theology seems to be uniquely equipped to enter into the difficulty and address the reality. David Zahl, of Mockingbird, mentioned in a conference message, “There’s no distinction between ‘reality’ and ‘Christian reality.’ There’s just reality. And Christianity either addresses it, or who cares?”

Zahl is right. I can’t help but think that Christian theology was made for days like these.

First, Christian theology holds that evil is very real, personal, and serious. This may offend modern sensibilities, but Christian theology makes space for an Adversary, the demonic, etc. This is important. Christian theology has an accounting for this. Not a perfect tidy explanation, but an address of the issue. I’m reminded of Sheriff Ed Tom’s musings in Cormack’s McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men: “…explains a lot things that otherwise dont have no explanation.”

Second, Christian theology has a very low anthropology, and for good reason. We believe that, by nature, sin, rebellion, and brokenness are cemented and situated at the very core of who we are, individually and corporately. This infection has invaded our being on every conceivable level. In classic terms, the depravity is “total.” This doesn’t mean that every person is as bad as they can possibly be. It’s a term of reach and scope, rather than one of degree.

And this infection is actually more than a sickness. The picture painted in Scripture is that of death. We are dead in our sins. Straight up. No qualifications. Depraved, dead-in-sin-people-walking shoot up theaters because they think they are the Joker or simply because they want to unlock a safety and spill blood. This is the reality.

As a result, we believe that human persons (not to mention the breaking and groaning universe) have to be re-made, re-born, and re-created. Hearts of stone must be made into hearts of flesh. Swords need to be beaten into plowshares. Lambs need to get cozy with lions. Infant hands must be made to pry around in adders’ dens. Nothing short of a New Heavens and a New Earth must arrive.

Our anthropology also has a caveat, an important nuance. We cannot trumpet “total depravity” without remembering the first pages of Scripture’s narrative. We must not forget that human-persons are also made in the image of God, bearing unique, precious worth and value. As CS Lewis reminded us, you’ve “never talked to a mere mortal.”

That’s why Christian theology can pray, “Oh Lord would you slay the wicked?” and “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do” at the same time. Christian theology is capable of righteous anger and broken, crucified compassion simultaneously. Two very good resources on a day like today.

Third, Christian theology holds that this full-scale total work of redemption is exactly what we believe the God of the Bible to be doing in our world. Sin and evil are widespread and reach our world totally, but we believe that in the person and work of Jesus, sin’s curse is being turned on it’s head more totally, still.

One can feel the tension. There is a sinful, depraved reality and there is a new-creation, resurrection, redemptive hope. They exist simultaneously.

For now.

The resurrection hope happens to be more real than the depraved reality because it will endure.

I’ll never forget watching a video clip of a bull-fight on TV. The bull was bleeding, wounded, weak, scared and panicky. A mortal wound had been dealt. Its death was sure, but its death was not quite yet. Out of nowhere, it made a final surge, leaped the wall, jumped into the crowd of spectators and started thrashing about. It didn’t know what else to do. It was finished. It knew it. So it freaked.

There are lots of bull-thrashing-about moments in our lives and in our world. I propose the Colorado theater shooting to be one of those.

Sin. Satan. Evil. Death. Violence. Murder. Shooting-Sprees. Blood-thirst. Cancer. Pain. Bitterness, Hate, etc…fill in the blank. They’ve had their time and they might have some more time still. But, the clock is ticking, winding down. That is very certain and very sure.

Evil (personified in Anton Chigurh) in No Country for Old Men may be at large and roaming free in our world, ready to surface anytime and at any place, locked and loaded.

But, the Man, Jesus Christ, walked right out of the tomb. He is on the loose too, redemptively moving about, ready to show up. As Andy has reminded us, when a formerly dead, recently Crucified Man walks out of a tomb, nothing can be the same. The world is not quite what it appears to be. Something has been up-ended. Evil has been served notice. To death, a formal announcement has been declared.

This Crucified King will return and set everything right; the process is already underway.

None of this, makes dealing with tragic events easier. Let’s not pretend that it does. But it does pave the way for genuine and authentic hope. A hope that’s on the far side of struggle and pain, rather than a simplistic, not-wanting-to-deal-with-hard-things counterfeit hope.

So be encouraged and don’t lose heart.

Hope.

Fact vs. Fiction

08 Jul Andrew Byers
July 8, 2012

“Fact vs Fiction” had apparently been a teaching topic for my two oldest little kids at school. They were telling me about it…

“Fact is, like, real.  But fiction is not real.  Fiction is stuff that’s not true.”

I took offense.

“You mean,” I asked, “fiction is not true at all?”

“No, Dad, of course not.  That’s what ‘fiction’ means—not true.”  This intellectual pair of a 7- and 9-yr old were apparently having to interact with an ill-educated buffoon.  “And fact is much better than fiction,” they continued, “since fiction is just made-up… like make-believe.”  They sounded so sophisticated.

“But just because fiction doesn’t describe what actually happened, does that really make it bad or untrue?” I was prodding at their air-tight assurance of fiction’s inferiority to fact.  My question was parried with this from my daughter,

“Dad, if someone wrote a history about me, your own daughter, or a book about fairies and silly things that are just fiction, then which book would be more important?”

Ooooh… she’s good.

I attempted a response: “Look, I would of course prefer to read a book about you than one about fairies.  I admit it.  But even though fiction may not record exactly what happened once, fiction can be powerfully true.”

They did not understand.  So I gave them a factual report.

“Okay, what about this….”  I took my 7-yr old son in my arms.  “There was a young boy once, with red hair and a wonderful personality.  He moved to England for a few years and lived there with his family while his father did doctoral work.  He made many friends, played lots of football, and hiked lovely footpaths.”

Fact.  True.  But then a story….

“What about this…,” I began.  “Once upon a time there was a boy who lived in a faraway kingdom, and his father was the great and mighty king.  Both his mother and father loved him very much.  But every day on his walk home from his lessons, a group of mean bullies grabbed him, beat him up, and threw him in the muck down the same hill.  They did not know that he was the crown-prince.  And those mean guys did this to him every day.  When he got home, his mother always scolded him for having soiled his fine clothes.  But he never told his mother about the bullies.  He always apologized for being clumsy on the hill and never said a word.  You see, he wanted to protect those cruel boys.  He wanted to save them….”

Fiction.  But untrue…?

Now, I just made up that story on the spot for the kids.  What I was hoping to do was to show them what they already knew to be true just before they were so enlightened by the Western educational system.  As kids, the lines are actually quite blurred between certain categories we adults turn into dichotomies.

Fact and fiction are both conduits for truth. But sometimes, truth is too capacious for the bare facts.  Sometimes, a mystifying story can do better justice to truth than a hunk of data. 

So, I know there is no Middle Earth.  I know the wardrobe in my room will take me nowhere.  I know that no actual boardings take place at King Cross’ Platform 9 3/4. But in many ways, the respective stories just referred to are true.

I just finished reading Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov.  I know it is fiction.

I also know it is true….

 

 

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