Category Archives: Joel Harrison

Reimagining the Seminary

This essay originally appeared in Fuller’s campus magazine, The SEMI. What follows here is a revised version of the original essay, which can be read on The SEMI’s website.

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I have to begin by overstating the humility with which I’ve tried to write about the future of seminary. Like writing about the future of anything, we have to first say, “We don’t really know what is going to happen.” What I write about here is also deeply rooted in my personal experience of seminary. Of course, those who know me well know that I don’t believe in the possibility of an objective point of view, but I find it necessary to acknowledge that my observations come from what I and others I know have seen.

The future of seminary is vastly complicated because it is the only institution I know of that is affixed and must answer to a particular culture [Christianity] but also the larger culture in which the particular is embedded [both Academia and American/Western culture.] We have a double consideration, two standards, sometimes competing, held in tension together. That tension is worth exploring because it is within it that I believe seminary must forge ahead into the future.

When I think about the first consideration, our particular Christian culture, here’s what scares me, and many others I’m sure, about viewing the future of seminary pessimistically:

The perception of many today seems to be that Christianity, Western and American in particular, has regularly failed over the last century to address the serious questions and most pressing problems held by our larger culture in any relevant way mostly because of the rise of fundamentalism. Think about the focus of the media on very particular aspects of the Christian public persona. The Daily Show, The Colbert Report, the false dichotomy painted by mainstream cable news networks [CNN, Fox News] all point to a severe mis-education [there is certainly no lack of bad education out there] of both Christians and non-Christians alike.

Seminary seems vital because, given this climate, we need educated pastors to speak the healing power of the Gospel into those situations because I believe that the Gospel narrative provides us with the tools to overcome empire, violence, and empty religion. I know Fuller offers that sort of education. I’ve seen it completely overwhelm fellow students to the point of breaking down as in some sort of conversion experience or manifest itself in a standing ovation for a professor who has masterfully and compassionately demolished pervasive and damaging readings of Scripture or understandings of doctrine. Fuller grads [and current students] are out in the world working for the sort of difference that I’m taking about, fighting against the public perception that Christianity is a religion of fundamentalism, whether directly or indirectly.

Yet, is seminary necessarily the location of that sort of learning? I don’t know that it is. I think it is a mistake to assume that people can’t learn how to properly read Scripture and be transformed by it and thus lead other people to the same transformation without a seminary education. Not just a mistake—it’s wrong on every level. It ignores history, and like many others have with the same hubris, such a belief claims the end of history. This is as good as it will ever get. It’s hegemonic. It assumes that millions of pastors around the world who are legitimately doing God’s work are under-qualified and what—perhaps not really doing God’s work? Is Fuller or any seminary in the world prepared to say that? Maybe some are, but I know Fuller isn’t. The question isn’t whether or not education itself is important. It is vital. I just see seminary as one option, born out of a particular culture and not as the pinnacle of all theological learning. Thus, any reflection on the future of seminary must first recognize that we are not the height of understanding when it comes to theology. There is no Babel here.

We also have to recognize that believing a seminary education is necessary for the practice of ministry, as most mainline and evangelical denominations do, also assumes that seminary adequately prepares students for pastoral ministry in the first place. It’s no secret that Fuller has struggled to make Ministry Division courses relevant to MDiv students. Those course requirements are one of the primary reasons many people switch from the MDiv to the MAT every year. Who wants to pay $10,000 or more in tuition and add another 18 months of time for courses that are teaching you something you are learning already in practice at your church? Maybe those courses simply can’t teach certain things that practice or even other programs can give students, especially for students who are planning to enter a specialized ministry area.

A friend of mine dropped out of Fuller this quarter. The news was surprising to me at first. He had already put over a year into his MDiv, so I wondered, Why now? When I asked him what he was going to do instead, he told me he was applying to MSW [Master of Social Work] programs. “So you want to be a case manager, work for the government?” I asked him.

“Oh, no way,” he replied. He had recently been brought on as the Pastor for Recovery Ministry at his church. “I just realized that an MDiv wasn’t going to give me the training that an MSW would for what I’m doing. I really wanted to believe that I could get that at Fuller. But I won’t.”

His decision is a really important picture of the future of ministry not only because he is proving one does not need an MDiv to do ministry, that other graduate programs may actually prove to be more useful, but also because it alludes to the reality that the days of the theology or Bible major who goes to seminary and becomes a pastor are dwindling. Look at the wide, wide, range of educational backgrounds students at Fuller come with. I know more fellow English majors than I do Theology, Bible, or Christian Studies majors. Part of that is Fuller seems to attract many students who are looking to expand their horizons beyond their particular perspective. Many of us are looking for an intellectual challenge, a forging of our faith rather than a confirmation of things we already think we know.

Still, it may only be a matter of time before most people who feel called explicitly to ministry simply go directly into church leadership, or non-profit work, or missions, bypassing seminary all together, allowing the church itself [organization or mission field] to be the training ground. More and more church plants seem to value real world experience rather than seminary experience in their pastors. [Note that I’m not talking about those churches that take an anti-intellectual stance towards theological and biblical study.] More and more church goers want to know that the person who is helping them through their struggles with the real world also lives in the real world, is affected by the real world, exists outside of the circles of Christianity—which can be vast and impenetrable to some people. I don’t think we lose anything if one day we end up going to a model that resembles this—as long as honest, critical education as opposed to indoctrination exists.

This is where seminary can maintain its relevance. All of what I’ve said so far may seem like I’ve been pointing to the growing obscurity of seminary. However, there are developments occurring outside the seminary in that second sphere, secular academia, which say otherwise and may help us reimagine the purpose of seminary—not as a location of practice but as a space to explore the significance of religion and theology in both academic and public life. Stanley Fish, in his New York Times blog, writes from time to time about the growing pessimism surrounding the humanities and the arts at colleges and universities around the country. The study of religion possesses the good fortune of being situated sort of on the border of the humanities and the social sciences. Religion is a social, human phenomenon and thus is an object of study of anthropologists, sociologists, archaeologists, and so on—people who can secure major federal funding for their research projects. However, in recent years, it has also gained renewed interest among humanities disciplines, particularly literature, philosophy, and film studies.

Fish usually alludes to this intersection, and in this case from his December 26th post in which he is surveying the changing landscape of the latest MLA [Modern Language Association] Conference presentation catalog, Fish is referring to literary studies:

Religion is the location of, and for many the source of, renewal, aspiration, redemption and hope. The very fact that so many papers explore the intersection of literature and religion may be evidence that literary studies are attached to a value that will sustain them even in these hard times.

The hard times he is referring to are the questions of relevance that have been circling the humanities for the last decade like vultures. People make a number of arguments in support of the humanities: They produce more well-rounded citizens and workers, they enhance our culture. They give life a certain value that cold, fact-laden Science, simply cannot produce. But no one really believes those any more. English professors can’t pull in federal research dollars like physics professors can, and that really is the bottom line for university administrators, as Fish wrote in an October 2010 post regarding SUNY Albany President George Philip cutting the French, Italian, Russian, classics, and theatre departments from the university. What humanities discipline is safe? Maybe none. But perhaps the question of “relevance” occurs because we are too close, too caught up in Enlightenment thinking that has refused to die in culture—that scientific and science-related disciplines [finance, for example] are the only “practical” degrees offered. Perhaps it is also blindly tied to the inescapability of capitalism. You’re getting a science degree so you can get a job that pays well, or because it’s easy to find a job. You’re getting a degree in art or music because you can teach or you hope to be paid for your performance. We tend to measure seminary the same way: With the rising cost of tuition, is an MDiv really worth the money? How can a new pastor expect to be paid enough to begin paying off the debt he or she racked up in seminary? And if we’re talking about making a seminary education strictly academic, then doesn’t that make the problem worse?

Fish makes the case that these sorts of “outside” considerations—opinions about certain disciplines held mostly by the man-in-the-street—are not asking the right questions when it comes to their relevance. Instead of asking whether or not an academic discipline like theology or religion can compete practically in the free market with a degree in chemistry, we should be asking whether or not theology and religion are disciplines that the chemist would find useful, that would inform his work in a way beyond the sphere of personal spirituality. The seminary could be a place that more fully explores the intersection of religion and other disciplines. We already do that at Fuller. We’ve had courses on biomedical ethics, literature and theology, film and theology, theological anthropology. We have professors (Nancey Murphy, Robert Johnston, and Bill Dyrness all come immediately to mind) who are already able to explore the intersections of disciplines from the arts to the sciences with religion. Fuller offers two, sometimes three courses a term that could be deemed interdisciplinary. Imagine five or six more training students to flesh out the ways in which religion informs and is informed by other disciplines.

Of course, this is tricky, because theology can never be a purely second order discipline, which is what I’m describing above. Fish doesn’t take his idea of disciplines informing one another as far as theology proper. He uses examples like French or classics in conjunction with architecture or engineering. And he’s taking about universities with multiple colleges and departments. Theology is a special discipline and seminary a special case. We cannot forget about that first sphere. Here’s that tension coming back again.

Before coming to Fuller in 2009, I was living in Fort Collins, earning an MA in English at the University of Northern Colorado, working on a career as a composition instructor, and becoming increasingly fascinated with how post-structural thought related to the future of the Church. My closest friend while living out there, the associate pastor of the church I was attending, said this to me: “The study of theology has to come back to Earth somehow. Because the Bible isn’t something we just read and dissect; it’s something we live. The last thing the world needs is more scholars in ivory towers—especially scholars of Christianity.”

The most dangerous thing about suggesting that the seminary evolve into a space for the exploration of theology and religion’s intersection with and reciprocal impact upon other disciplines is that seminary could also very easily become a place that furthers a separation between academically elite Christians and those who are self-taught, devout followers of Christ. No location of theological education can become a purely academic institution. If taken to the extreme, what I’ve suggested would be terribly damaging because Christianity is first and foremost a lived faith, theology a lived discipline. This is where our education differs the greatest from other graduate programs. To illustrate this difference with an analogy, note how Fish describes the line between literary studies and literature appreciation:

The “Hamlet” you enjoy as a reader or a playgoer is one thing; the “Hamlet” laid out and etherized upon an academic’s table is another. The first needs no defense. [. . .] There is no reason that non-academics should understand or appreciate the academic analysis of the aesthetic productions they love with no academic help at all. The mistake is to think that the line of justification should go from the pleasure many derive from plays, poems, novels, films, etc., to a persuasive account of how academic work enhances or even produces that pleasure. It may or may not, but if it does, that’s an accidental benefit.

Replace “Hamlet” with “Jesus” or “Paul.” Replace “aesthetic productions” and “plays, poems, novels, films, etc.” with “biblical texts.” Replace “pleasure” with “understanding” [though pleasure can certainly be an effect of the Bible.] Suddenly, I’m not that comfortable with a defense like this for the study of Christianity. Should the Jesus or Paul I understand as a graduate student and aspiring scholar be different than the Jesus or Paul that the people in the congregation of my church, the students of my youth group, or even my own family understand? If so, then what’s the point of studying and making arguments about scripture? Fish can argue that such a study of literature or French philosophy or whatever can inform other disciplines. I’ve made the case that the study of religion can as well—but not without working toward a shared understanding among all believers. Christianity has absolutely no meaning apart from the believers who live it everyday. There is no such thing as theological analysis apart living it, no academic table apart from the pleasure of the text.

That is the crux, the greatest point of tension when considering the future of seminary: With the increasing irrelevance of practical training for ministry, how do we make the academic study of theology, Christianity, and religion in general practical and relevant for all believers? How do we return theology to Earth?

I don’t think anyone could ever answer that question definitively, but we should allow it to shape our imaginations as we consider the future of the seminary.

by Joel Harrison


What Did Jesus Come to Abolish?

It may be that this post is a little late given that sharing on Facebook of and responses in the blogosphere to this viral video have died down. A lot has been said, and now, all that’s left seem to be memes like this little gem:

I fall somewhere in the middle of the responses to this. I can appreciate what Jeff Bethke is trying to do. I don’t like phony, legalistic Christians either. So in that sense I can resonate with my friends who shared this on Facebook and elsewhere–they want to focus on what is important to our faith (whatever that is–I’ll get there in a minute.) At the same time, I agree with Tony Jones and Jonathan Fitzgerald that there is something amiss here. Does legalism equal religion? Certainly not.

I agree with Fitzgerald on this point:

“See the problem is, Bethke doesn’t mean religion either, but he’s rehearsing a popular evangelical trope, that the freedom that Christians find through Jesus is freedom from structure, organization, and authority.”

He makes the salient point that if Bethke had called the video something else, had used “Sunday Christians” or even “False Religion” instead of just “Religion,” he would have avoided many of the problems that have been raised about his diatribe that is meant to help believers get beyond behavior modification and following a laundry list of rules in order to reach the “center” of their faith–following Jesus [in whatever way that looks like as long as it doesn’t involve rules.]

There are two important observations we can make about rules. First, Fitzgerald and Jones are right that structure [rule-making] is inevitable, simply a fact of human nature. Even in the rule-hater’s quest to abolish the rules, he or she is most likely still abiding by codes of conduct and social mores because let’s face it–no one is going to listen to you unless you play by the rules or are willing to resort to significant violence. And even when you choose the latter, it could be that nothing changes. Wittgenstein makes this same point when he talks about “language games.” Changes are possible in language, but only if the game is played [people understand and accept the change–which takes a very long time and cannot really be predicted or directed.]

Second, why should rules be inherently bad? Thinking of games again, I would hate to play Monopoly or Settlers of Catan with no rules. It’s just not possible. Imagine a chess board laid out before you. You and another person decide to play, but you have no idea how–so you make it up. Right from the beginning, a decision governing the type of play has to be made: Are you playing against each other, or are you on a team playing against the board somehow [as in Solitaire.]  It probably makes the most sense to play against each other. From that point you have to set objectives, a mode of play–and rules that govern those things. You cannot proceed toward an end, a goal, without establishing the way in which that is to be achieved. It is simply unavoidable if the game is to have any coherence at all. The very notion of play to begin with suggests some kind of structure.

In this more abstract, philosophical sense, it makes no sense to talk about abolishing the “rules of Religion” in order to just follow Jesus and love people when we would have no idea how to do those things without first receiving instruction. Like play, when we start with an idea of “practicing a faith” we are already bound by a certain structure. We may not think of that in terms of “rules,” and that’s okay, maybe even beneficial, but the idea is the same. That kind of instruction may be more like flexible guidelines than rigid rules, and there were commands from Jesus (pick up your cross and follow me) that probably fall in this category. However, Jesus really was not the anti-religion, institution destroyer that Bethke and his fans want him to be.

Most people think of the Pharisees when they think of the sort of person bound by the chains of Religion that Bethke is talking to: someone going through the motions of dead ritual without any power behind what they’re doing. Jesus did have a problem with that–but he didn’t call it religion.

He called it “not bearing fruit.”

In Matthew 21:18-22, we have one of the more misunderstood and strange actions of Jesus recorded in the Gospels.

In the morning, when he returned to the city, he was hungry. And seeing a fig tree by the side of the road, he went to it and found nothing at all on it but leaves. Then he said to it, “May no fruit ever come from you again!” And the fig tree withered at once. When the disciples saw it, they were amazed, saying, “How did the fig tree wither at once?” Jesus answered them, “Truly I tell you, if you have faith and do not doubt, not only will you do what has been done to the fig tree, but even if you say to this mountain, ‘Be lifted up and thrown into the sea,’ it will be done. Whatever you ask for in prayer with faith, you will receive.”

People normally talk about the power of prayer or faith in relation to this passage [or how Jesus maybe wasn’t a fan of ecology] but it makes more sense to read this short episode in the context of what has just happened. Jesus made his entrance into Jerusalem the day before and spent the whole day ridding the temple of practices that were not bearing any fruit. He returned the following day and presented the chief priests and Pharisees with a couple parables that conclude with this:

Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom.

Later, in Matthew 23, Jesus gets explicit about his issue with what the Pharisees are doing. In short, he’s pissed that they are screwing up religion. Not that they’re practicing it. Religion isn’t what is getting in the way–the Pharisees are getting in the way of themselves. Jesus even begins this passage by instructing the crowd to do what the Pharisees teach them–just not what they actually do (23:3.) Jesus asks the Pharisees if the gold or the sanctuary that gives the gold significance, the gift or the alter that makes the gift sacred, is more important. Jesus is all about church buildings (he just didn’t say what those had to look like.)

He’s all about ritual too. In verse 23, he points out that the Pharisees have tithed spices, but neglected “the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith,” but there is no indication that the spices or the act of tithing them are themselves bad. Rather, Jesus is pointing out that these “smaller” matters should be vitally connected to the weightier ones. Tithing should bring about justice, mercy, and faith. Religious practice must produce fruit.

If there is anything Jesus came to put an end to, it was practicing the law without that practice resulting in a spiritually full life, one that would abundantly bless others. I think if Bethke were to read this, he’d probably agree and say that was what he meant. Unfortunately, 16 million viewers have heard differently.

by Joel Harrison

Conversion: Thoughts on the Great Commission and Discipleship

I’m sitting in my regular coffee shop, reading, milling around on the Internet, and I’m listening to a man on the couch eight feet from me try to convert a man sitting in the adjacent armchair. The man in the armchair is elderly. He wears a UCLA cap and a fleece pullover. He’s been there for over an hour, listening to this other man talk about his devotion to Jesus. As he sits, his children and grandchildren have been coming in to check in on him to say hello. They’ve been shopping or engaging in some of the festivities that are happening downtown—doing things that this man is too tired to do.

The man on the couch is a regular. I haven’t seen him often, but I know he must be because another regular whom I see every time I’m in here no matter what time of day is sitting in a different chair, chiming in and asking questions with some familiarity. The man on the couch is in his 40s, clean cut. He prods the elderly man:

“Have you ever been to church?”

“Do you know what Jesus says about you? That he loves you?”

“Do you know what the book of Revelation says about the end of the world?”

This question has piqued the interest of the regular who sits opposite the elderly man. He asks a question about the worm who never dies and what that means. He asks about the mark of the beast. The two of them believe that it will be a chip implanted in our skin which will be the only means of making purchases anywhere.

“Would you get a chip implanted in you if you knew it were the mark of the beast?” the man on the couch asks.

“Oh I don’t know about that,” the elderly man replies kindly.

This goes on for quite some time; all the while, the elderly man in the armchair smiling and responding politely, excusing himself from the conversation for those moments when his grandchildren come running into the coffee shop to tell him about something they’ve seen or done outside.

The man on the couch keeps repeating this phrase: “Jesus called me to follow him 21 years ago. I figure the least I can do is give him my life by telling people about him.”

Up until a few years ago, I would have thought this man was noble. Yes, some of the directions he guided the conversation were bizarre. I’ve never thought scaring people into the arms of Jesus was the way to go. But he was kind. He had a genuine heart and desire to see others come to Jesus, and he wasn’t afraid to share that.

Here’s the problem: Is that what making disciples looks like? In Matthew 28, Jesus commands his disciples to make disciples themselves of all the nations. He doesn’t follow that with any sort of explanation for how to go about making disciples. But he doesn’t have to. The entire gospel preceding this point has been a handbook on how to make disciples.

Call someone into relationship with you. Walk with them. Challenge them. Help them acquire the language and knowledge necessary for discipleship. The timing will always be different for each person.

Brad Kallenberg in Live to Tell describes this much. He gets into philosophy of language, the ways in which we acquire knowledge, but the most important practical point is that those who are not Christians are typically not equipped with the knowledge necessary to make a solid commitment to follow Christ. First, they need to be disciples.

That sounds backwards. When I was a kid in Sunday School, discipleship class was for the really churchy kids. The ones who had memorized whole epistles and large sections of the gospels. That led me to the conclusion that discipleship was the meat of Christian faith, that new converts—let alone those who had yet to accept—were not ready for the challenges that discipleship had to offer.

But why should discipleship just be one thing, one level of difficulty? It’s clear from the gospels that Jesus’ disciples were novices. They did not understand what Jesus was doing—they only believed that it was something important, something worth devoting their lives to. Aren’t the best relationships born that way? When someone is willing to pour significant time into us, we respond in turn, wanting to seek that person out, to pick up some of their interests, hoping of course that they’ll pick up some of ours.

And Christianity is a highly relational faith. Much of Jesus’ teaching is about human relationships and how they affect our relationship to the kingdom of God. Above all, we are called to love people, to care for them, to be humble and put their interests before our own.

Sounds like a really great friendship to me.

For Kallenberg, this is the only way to effectively bring someone to Christ—to let them see your life completely, to be ushered in to and made familiar with the language of Christianity, before making a decision. Is that decision prompted by the Spirit? Sure–why not? Ultimately, that isn’t what is at stake here. Rather, the concern is how we have been defining discipleship, expecting that people first convert and then be discipled in order to make that decision stick.

What would American Christianity look like if our focus were discipleship rather than conversion? Wouldn’t that be a more faithful commitment to the command of the Great Commission?

I probably won’t see this elderly man again. I don’t think the man on the couch will either. Even if he had tried the discipleship route, to befriend this man, one could argue that the chances of them striking up an enduring friendship were probably slim—that in this case the most effective evangelistic method was simply to come at it straight and ask the guy if he was a follower of Jesus. I can’t argue with that first point—who knows what would have happened? Friendship is volatile, relationships fragile.

So is a commitment to Christ born out of fear, confusion, or coercion.

by Joel Harrison

Suspicion and Faith and Hating Mother Teresa

Christian reaction to the news of Christopher Hitchens’ death last night of complications due to cancer have certainly been mixed. Tweets jovially poking fun at the New Atheist read “ ‘Hitchens doesn’t exist anymore’—God.” Many more conservative Christians vindictively celebrate the death of someone whom they probably felt had backed them into a corner along with the other three (self-titled) Horsemen of New Atheism (Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Daniel Dennett.) Now one is gone. Just as they celebrated the death of Osama bin Laden, so they celebrate Hitchens’ untimely demise. Chalk one more up for us. It’s been a good year.

Then there are the more progressive Christians, mostly academics that I know, who are posting about how much Christopher Hitchens’ improved their faith. After all, we were all decrying belief in the same god—the god of fundamentalism, violence, and empire that is clearly not the God of the Israelites, of the Bible, of the universe. I have to agree with them. While I didn’t grow up in an ultra-conservative, fundamentalist home, I understand why my friends who did are grateful to Hitchens and the other New Atheists for exposing the flaws in a Christianity that has its grip on so many American Christians. The hermeneutics of suspicion can be quite powerful. And Hitchens, et al. are not the first to bring such glad tidings to Christians looking for a better way than the idols of their past. Freud, Nietzsche, Marx, Heidegger—many 19th and 20th century philosophers preceded the Horsemen pointing out many of the same flaws in believing in a god who would condone the violence perpetrated by fundamentalist religion. Of course, none of these philosophers nor the New Atheists believe that they’re freeing the religious from their own dogma so that they may experience a better, more robust faith. That’s beside the point here, however.

I hesitate in participating in either strand of response. The first for obvious reasons. It isn’t so much hesitation as refusal: Christians should never celebrate the death of another human being. And while I identify with friends who’d rather celebrate Hitchens’ life, in some ways seeming like a back-handed way of saying to atheists, “You have no idea what actual Christianity entails, let alone actual religion,” I have trouble celebrating the life of a man who made a career out of spitting venom at others. If he had been a Christian doing this to atheists or Muslims or anyone else, we would have been appalled. I recognize that Christianity abides in the sort of humiliation Hitchens and others seek to pile on to us—that above all, our call is to humility to the point of death (Matt. 16:24-25). But Hitchens’ vitriol went beyond just trying to prove how dumb religious people are.

The man hated Mother Teresa. He thought she was a complete fraud. On top of that, he ironically supported the Iraq Warbecause it was leading to the death of Islamic fundamentalists. What’s that saying about strange bedfellows? Fundamentalist Christianity could link arms with Hitchens and sing some songs together over that point. What we need to be careful of is not caving too quickly to the pressure of expectations. Atheists expect Christians to be celebrating, so those of us who do not identify with that group of Christians desire to distance ourselves quickly by talking about what a tragedy it is to lose someone so brilliant. It is certainly tragic to see someone die before his time, especially someone who did contribute fruitfully in some ways to the demolition of religious fundamentalism. I’m on his side in that. But I can’t ignore the rest. He was extremely misguided, not only in his account of history but in his responses to some important contemporary issues as well. I won’t celebrate that part of his life.

by Joel Harrison

Church Unboundless

What does it mean for the church to be unbound? Though I’ve been writing this blog for nearly two years now, I haven’t ever addressed this question. My guess is that among the people who read the blog, follow the Facebook page or Twitter feed, there are a number of varying definitions.

One gentleman wrote a response on our Facebook message board to a question regarding new church movements that I found fascinating:

Your “Church Unbound” is just another symptom of the same emerging church “Church In Laodicea”. Such churches think they’re so “deep” and transcendent and above and new and fresh and esoteric but the Bible says that they are, “…wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked.” (Revelation 3:17) Rick Warren, Brian McLaren, D. A. Carson, Doug Pagitt, etc… This road is wide and leads to destruction, (Matthew 7:13).

Keep your “Church Unbound”. I’m sticking with, “Paul, a BONDSERVANT of Jesus Christ…” (Romans 1:1)

Oh. Oh no he didn’t. Rick Warren? He’s tossing us in with Rick Warren? Ignoring the vitriol, what’s interesting is that this list and his inclusion of A Church Unbound in it reflect that he doesn’t really know what the Emerging Church is. Or rather that he has a very different definition than, say, Ryan Bolger and Eddie Gibbs. He hit two major players (McLaren, Pagitt)—but D.A. Carson wrote the book Becoming Conversant with the Emerging Church. And Rick Warren? From my standpoint, if this guy thinks Rick Warren is a part of the Emergent movement, then he is most likely very conservative. A more general and perhaps more important question is this: What brought this guy to A Church Unbound’s Facebook page? What does he think it means to be “unbound?”

Clearly, once he discovered that we were talking about new church movements, new theology, etc., he made his decision: That’s not the sort of “unboundness” he was looking for. Maybe he was thinking becoming unbound means freeing the church from outside influences: the media, secular philosophy, pop culture. Just the facts. Just the Word.

We saw similar things happening with responses to Tad’s post on the Rapture back in May. Now, the purpose of the blog and the Facebook page is to invite this sort of discussion—so this is not in any way a complaint about this activity. Still, it was again fascinating to see how vastly different the worldviews of some people were from my own. But not totally different. Toward the end of the comments section under Tad’s post, one of the most vocal participants left it at this:

Thanks brother… we shall know all things one day in heaven… or do you not believe in heaven either? jk jk!!! have a blessed night!! always proceed in love!

It’s that last sentence that intrigued me. I’ve been using that as a tag line of sorts for the blog, stolen from John Caputo’s understanding of what deconstruction brings to theology. What it means to me is that even though we disagree on this point of doctrine (and probably others too if I could ask) we seem to agree that love is vitally important. But what does love mean? How do we define it?

I seem to be raising more questions than providing answers.

A couple more examples.

A gentleman became quite disgusted with me over my position regarding the authority of Scripture (also on the Facebook page.) In this case, it wasn’t that he thought I was too liberal—it was that I wasn’t liberal enough. He seemed to be in line with Bart Ehrman, believing that our holy text is just a dubious mash up of incomplete semi-historical records that have been hacked to bits through translation (though even Ehrman’s position isn’t quite that polemical.) A few weeks after that though, he was in complete agreement with both our position on Osama bin Laden’s death and the posts on the Rapture.

Finally, and most recently, are some debates regarding the Occupy movement in the U.S. In short, it’s been two proud Republican Facebookers (I hesitate to call them readers, since I’m not convinced they would’ve stuck around as fans of the page had they read anything we’ve posted) arguing against the evils of big government and the selfishness, envy, and jealousy of the protesters. That argument aside, I discovered that one of the participants and I share mutual friends—a marvel of Facebook’s friend finding advertisements. Six mutual friends—five of my extended family members and one close friend from my home church.

I wonder how his opinions would change if he knew that I thought.

Maybe he does, and it doesn’t change anything.

Here’s the matrix thus far: Anti-Emergent-Church-and-Rick-Warren-loving-dispensationalist-textual-critical-suspicious-of-authority-right-wing-anti-government-pro-freedom-capitalist-Christians.

That’s difficult to read. Depending on how you read it, it can say different things—things that aren’t even reflected in the examples above but are still probably descriptive of some of the 650+ people who follow our Facebook page. And it certainly doesn’t cover everyone either with the exception of one word: Christian. How we define “unbound” with relation to the Church must be proceeded by our definition of what it means to be a Christian. This entails that there always be more questions than answers. Christianity is far too fragmented to be able to ever come to an agreement on what it actually is. My concerns are strictly related to the West and American Christianity in particular. That’s a really small piece. Part of what is in my sights though is the ignorance of that fact, which leads to epistemic violence. Even the dismantling of that one, very particular world view is too large a task for one lifetime.

Which is an important part of what it means for me to be unbound.

I started this blog with a post entitled “The Post-___________ Church.” Admittedly, I was in a phase. I had spent quite a bit of time studying postmodernism and post-structuralism both as a literary and philosophical movements and cultural phenomena and had been grappling with the idea of post-secularism possibly as some sort of incorporation of religion into all of that. I wanted to know where the Church was headed.

The summer before I moved back to California, I was out visiting for a job interview, and met up with an old friend for coffee.

“I think we’re headed for a second Reformation,” he said. “The first Reformation followed a major communication shift. The printing press was invented and had a hundred years to completely change everything. We have the Internet. And it ain’t gonna take a hundred years for that to change stuff. It’s already happened and is happening.”

That’s a really heavy prediction to make. But I kept thinking about it.

“The more people say another major revolution in the Church isn’t happening, the more we can be assured that it is,” he concluded.

Second Reformation or not, it doesn’t matter. If that’s what we’re on the verge of or at the beginning of, we’ll probably never know. If not, that doesn’t remove the force from what we’re trying to do. Being unbound, to me, has to mean something radical. There’s nothing anti-Christian about radical movements. The Gospel itself is the documentation of a radical movement. Being unbound is another way of saying being transformed completely by the life of Jesus Christ. Not a feeling you have in your heart that Jesus is in there, kicking around.

A completely transformed life. The difficulty, I’m discovering, is that a transformed life will look different for different people. Given everything I’ve written for the blog so far, I could never sit here and tell you that there’s a line, a measurement for transformation, a way of determining whether or not a person has been transformed.

I’m reminded again of the impossible. That’s where the transformative power of the gospel truly is. If we can speak at all of a standard, that’s it. And in attempting to live that out, in trying our best to reach the impossible, in giving economies of giving a chance—the politics of forgiving, the risk of hospitality, the failure of love—we reach out to the impossible, and we are transformed.

Being unbound is answering Jesus’ command to lay down everything and pick up our cross. All that means, simply, is to put ourselves, our understandings, our desires, out of the way so that the power of the Gospel can work in our lives.

That’s it.

by Joel Harrison

This Will Help Them: A Theology of Disability

Study the image above for a minute. It’s called This Will Help Them by the Clayton Brothers: mixed media on two large wood panels, measuring together 67” x103”. It’s currently on display through November right across the street from Fuller at the Pasadena Museum of California Art. The piece tells the story of a boy who grew up on the same street as brothers Rob and Christian Clayton. He was mentally disabled, and they remember him being a difficult playmate to have. The painting depicts one particularly striking memory they had of him attempting to give his medication to the local wildlife in the neighboring wood.

The painting has an ominous quality to it, driven primarily by the drug-influenced, anthropomorphic animals and the look of terror on the face of little girl who is trying to prevent the boy from causing any more damage, the contrast between their two faces striking: shock and delight, knowledge and blissful ignorance.

And his face seems to be melting. Why is that? Certainly, there’s no concrete answer. It could be a result of his actions, he could be feverish with anxiety—but no practical explanation seems to do the power of his image any justice. What is important here is the grotesqueness of this representation of disability. The boy is somewhere between human and animal, not just spatially in the painting, but in terms of his features. He is oddly proportioned, and in some ways is closer to the female squirrel than he is the female child.

Disability is perhaps the most widely ignored, widely misunderstood aspect of Christian anthropology. It makes us uncomfortable. Uncomfortable is one of the feelings this painting is supposed to evoke the moment you lay your eyes on it. That is a visceral reaction. It’s a reaction that nearly all of us have had at one time or another in our lives to disability.

What do we do about it? If you attend even a moderately sized church (over 150 members) you probably have attendees with mental handicaps of some kind. Is it enough to just say hi to them awkwardly, to pat them on the back, to say, “I’m glad you’re here!”

Do we really mean that?

I genuinely believe that some people do—those people who honestly could love anyone with the love of Jesus. They have a gift. Their visceral reaction is to love. The rest of us need to think about things a little harder. It has to start with theology.

Greg Boyd, in Satan and the Problem of Evil, makes a really strong case for why evil exists in the world: True, Absolute, Perfect Love requires the free will of moral agents. God’s love means nothing and our love for him means nothing if we don’t have the free will to express it or not. You can probably see where it goes from there. It is a strong argument for why horrific, terrible, atrocious things happen to good people who have never harmed anyone, and it flies in the face of Augustine’s blueprint model (i.e. bad things happen because they are part of a divine plan we just can’t comprehend.)

However, when it comes to what is commonly termed “natural evil,” Boyd encounters a problem. His entire argument (both in this book and in the one that precedes it, God at War) is driven by a belief in spiritual warfare. I don’t want to get into a discussion of whether or not demons and angels exist—that really has nothing to do with my critique. Boyd’s explanation for natural evil is tied up completely in spiritual warfare. To put it bluntly, demonic forces are the cause. Ignoring the questions this begs about the existence of demons, we could say that this would be an acceptable argument for tornadoes, earthquakes, and other natural disasters: demons are moral agents who have free will. If they have the power to control natural forces (which Boyd clearly believes they do,) then they can choose to be destructive with that power.

When we start talking about illness and disease, we begin to cross into darker waters. Is cancer caused by demons? Chicken pox? The common cold? What about a scraped knee, a broken arm, a stubbed toe? Or are those things all a part of a divine plan? In other words, it’s easy for a proponent of spiritual warfare or the blueprint model to ascribe supernatural or divine causes to immense disasters, but there’s no distinct line between immense and inconsequential.

Here’s where things get really sticky though: Is a child born with Down Syndrome a victim of a moral agent exercising free will? Is his or her disability a part of God’s divine plan that we just can’t understand? I think the answer must be a resounding “No.” I know—the demoniacs in the book of Matthew were mute. Couldn’t we say that they were potentially mentally disabled in some way…?

Just going to let that trail off there for a second. There is absolutely no point in trying to make a case like this or to say that disability is simply an unexplainable part of God’s plan as a theology of disability because at the end of the day, it does not allow for us to care for our disabled brothers and sisters the way that we should. We can ask these sorts of questions all day long. I don’t think the point of Jesus’ exorcisms was so that we would know that the cause of disability is demon possession.

Let me set forth an example for consideration: From the time he began first grade, Tommy has had trouble keeping up with the rest of his classmates. His teachers have taken notice, filed reports. He’s having trouble reading, and he hasn’t been doing homework assignments. His third grade teacher is at a loss with him, and wants to meet with his parents. They come in, and the teacher tries to explain that if Tommy does not improve, he may be held back a grade or may even need to attend the Special Day class. His parents don’t understand.

But their lack of understanding isn’t because they are at a loss for words, unable to comprehend how they could have brought a boy like Tommy into the world. They don’t speak English. They’ve immigrated from Guatemala and have been living with Tommy’s aunt and uncle for the last three years. Tommy, as you have probably guessed, is having trouble because he barely speaks English. In fact, the reality of immigrant education is that even if he were moved into a Spanish-speaking classroom at this point, he still would not have the skills in his own language to succeed.

What do we say about this? Do we say that a demon caused Tommy’s circumstances to be less than desirable? Do we say that God desires this? Is that what we say about those who live in the third world? Those who live in government housing? Those who are homeless? Those who are simply less fortunate than we are?

A theology of disability, then, must recognize that disability is not a significant marker of difference. If we allow it to become that, then we make the disabled in our congregations into the grotesque figure of the painting. If we call fellow Christians around the world our brothers and sisters in Christ and claim that even though we live differently, we are all the same in Christ, recognizing that Christ calls us to serve those who are less fortunate than we are and simultaneously be able to be in relationship with them, then why should disability, no matter how severe, be any different?

The disabled are just as human as we are. I refuse to see disability as an evil that can be explained away as a mysterious transcendent good or the result of a supernatural moral agent’s will. People are born into difficult circumstances. We are called to serve those people not just by helping them but by being in relationship with them. That is certainly not an easy thing to do. For some of us, it’s always going to be challenging. But if we belong to the church, to Jesus, then that’s the life we’ve chosen.

It’s that simple.

by Joel Harrison

Border Breaking

I can’t take full credit for the basis of this post, since it came from an insight a friend offered up during a group discussion in our Matthew book study this summer at Fuller. We were discussing Matthew 16:21-23, where Peter, who had just been named the rock upon which Jesus would build his church, suddenly finds himself as the stumbling block, failing to understand Jesus’ declaration of his own death. The friend pointed out that the disciples, being ancient Jews, had no category for understanding resurrection. That was not part of the Jews’ understanding of death. When one died, one was simply dead.

It is sometimes difficult to put ourselves in the shoes of the disciples, to try to remember that they, being first century Jews, thought of things differently than we do today. It’s one thing to talk about the fact that the Messiah defied expectations. History tells us that the Jews were expecting their Messiah to come and liberate them from imperial rule, to overthrow their oppressors, once and for all, to put the power back into their hands—olam. This is demonstrated by the [disastrous] revolts led by Judas Maccabaeus (167-160 BCE) and Simon bar Giora (70 CE). This is why Jesus waits to reveal his death explicitly; he needs the disciples to come to their own conclusion that Jesus is “the Messiah, the Son of the living God” (Matt. 16:16). Had he told the disciples from the beginning that he must die and be raised again, there’s a good chance they simply would not have followed him. Who wants to follow a dead Messiah? What good can a dead Messiah be in a revolution to seize power back from the Gentile oppressors for the nation of Israel?

We tend to rebuke Peter with Jesus at this point, saying, “Didn’t he hear what Jesus said? He’ll be raised again! C’mon, Peter. You’re smarter than that.” Peter’s response is borne out of two things we have difficulty understanding. First, is his expectation for who the Messiah is—and it is not at all what Jesus has just revealed to them. Jesus’ death and resurrection is the exact subversive act of humility that destroys the satanic vision of the Messiah (remember Matthew 4?) that Peter and so many other children of Israel have in mind without ever seeing it as such. Peter is expecting the sword. He’s expecting Jesus to ride into Jerusalem on a warhorse, to lead a horde against the oppressors, to obliterate them of the face of the earth. Peter is looking to win no matter what the cost. This is the way Satan offers Jesus—use your power to bring the world under your feet—which is what elicits Jesus’ response to Peter. In this moment, Jesus is requiring what we call today a Gestalt switch—a change in worldview—with regard to his belief in the Messiah.

But there is something else in Peter’s way, and this is where my friend’s point becomes so vital. Peter did hear, but he was incapable of understanding at that precise moment, not only because of his worldview and lifelong expectations regarding the Messiah but because Peter had no category with which to understand the resurrection Jesus is talking about. It’s not as though resurrection didn’t happen before Jesus—it did. There are three occurrences in the Old Testament: one involving Elijah (1 Kings 17:17-24), another Elisha (2 Kings 4:32-37), and the third Elisha’s bones (2 Kings 13:21.) The account of Matthew 16 also appears in Mark 8, both of which occur before Jesus begins brining the dead back to life. The common thread between all of these resurrections is the intervention of someone else—someone great. The moment Jesus predicts his own death and resurrection, the bit about coming back to life is most likely immediately dismissed by not just Peter but the rest of the disciples as well. Which one of them could perform such a task—raising the supposed Messiah from the dead? This is why we can say that Peter had no category, no way to comprehend what Jesus was talking about. All he knew in that moment was that the man he had been following, who he believed was the Messiah is now telling him that he must die. Jesus, however, is demanding through his rebuke that this border of Peter’s be broken.

This leads us to consider a vitally important, potentially terrifying point for us today: What categories do we lack? What borders is Christ calling us to break? Do we ever even recognize that we are lacking categories of understanding?

The answer is no. We don’t. Unfortunately, we tend to think that because we have the Bible and have had it for nearly two thousand years now, we are already given all of the categories we need. I wonder though about something like human sexuality. Is this a category we fully understand? I think that the typical Christian response to something like gay marriage demonstrates that it is not. Many tend to read Romans 1:26-32 as very explicitly talking about homosexuality as we know it today, in general. To be homosexual is to be an abomination, given up to lustful passion. However, one only needs to make a few gay friends to suddenly be confused about how this could be the case. Christians tend to find it surprising (sometimes terrifying) that members of the homosexual community are people, just like them, possibly sharing the same interests, hopes, dreams—even the same faith. Certainly immorality exists in that community. Immorality exists in all communities.

Exegeting Romans 1 is beside the point here though. What we need to understand is that there’s a good chance that particular categories, whether they be general (personhood, human sexuality) or more theologically specific (sacrament, revelation) are not fixed, which is how we tend to think of them in the everyday.

We see what happens to Peter in this process of unfixing. Once Jesus is arrested, he and the rest of the disciples scatter—right after Peter (according to John) draws his sword and cuts of the ear of the slave to the high priest. He’s not there yet. His Messiah is still the satanic messiah who would utterly destroy his enemies at any cost. In his defeat, Peter denies knowing Jesus three times. He thinks that his side has lost. He’s not prepared to deny Jesus when he still believes Jesus is the all-powerful Son of God who is preparing to lead Israel to war in which victory is assured. Once Jesus is arrested and sentenced to crucifixion, Peter is certain they’ve lost, and if he doesn’t forget Jesus and move on, he’ll be next.

He’s missed the most important part of Jesus teaching: to gain all, one must lose all—that the only way of the Messiah is through the cross. That is the way of Israel’s future. That the coming of the Son of Man is not a one-time event—it is eternal. Yet even though Peter was badly mistaken, once he realized his mistake (following the resurrection), he was empowered and became a champion for the church. Why, then, do we fear being wrong about something like human sexuality? It’s because we take that part of the story for granted. We’re already reading Peter as the father of the church from the very beginning. We don’t let the story come to us. Avid readers know that there’s something to be said for allowing a narrative to unfold for you again and again—that even if we are anticipating what happens next, we allow ourselves to get lost in the story. We forget to do that with the gospels.

I’m not calling for an oversimplification here. It would be really easy for me to say: “The answer is we just love each other, just like Jesus loved everyone” or “Hey, be humble!” or “Take up your cross daily.” But those kind of pastoral platitudes have little meaning to us anymore. We have to look beyond these commands to what their implications are and to what they mean in the context of a world that is all around us screaming things that sound very similar or are identical—we become messianic, in solidarity with Christ, when we die to ourselves. We usher in God’s kingdom to the here and now. That’s probably a good starting place. However, all of this points to something very important: love and humility, even the cross, are not categories we fully understand either. The problem then is bigger than an inability to understand something like human sexuality because once we understand those who are other than us, what do we do with that if we don’t understand how to love?

But this is jumping ahead too far. Jesus didn’t ask Peter what he was going to do in the face of the resurrection or how he was going to make his own disciples while Peter was still struggling with the reality that his Messiah had to die. What we need to do first is recognize that we have some horizons which need unfixing. We don’t know what love, humility, or the cross is in totality. And that’s okay. Paradoxically, it’s that recognition that allows us to pick up our cross and do those things better.

by Joel Harrison