Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Hail the Good News

The story goes that a student once asked legendary Beat poet Allen Ginsberg, out of the blue, what he thought of a new book by fellow poet Robert Creeley. Ginsberg responded in a way that disregarded the student´s obvious disdain for the book: "Whatever Bob´s doing, I´m for him."

I like the vibe of that statement; Ginsberg didn´t endorse a book of poems he hadn´t
read, but neither did he give credence to some random critic´s random negativity. In a move that was at once deftly political and defiantly apolitical, Ginsberg declared himself as for a person, regardless of their product. It´s probably as Jesus-y a statement as a legendary Beat poet can get.

I think it´s a fair critique of our statements about this or that particular thinker
whether, regardless of our opinion of their positions, we leave room to still be for them as people. It´s the rough terrain that Democratic senators have had to traverse this year, as they´ve critiqued longtime friend and frequent ally John McCain as the opponent of their guy, Barack Obama.

McCain himself has had to walk similarly precariously, making the case that the United States shouldn't take a risk on a candidate who isn´t ready to be president, without implying that Obama is effectively incompetent-just in case he wins. That´s not a matter of his own political equivocation but rather a question of the national interest: if half the country thinks that our new president is dangerously unqualified, no one benefits and everyone suffers.

Other arenas, I think, could take a lesson from such political parsing of language-particularly in ongoing conversations about Christian theology. I've run across a number of people lately who are worn down from all the flak they take for asking the questions they're asking, for entertaining the notions they're entertaining. It's one thing to challenge a person's thinking; it's quite another to pass judgment on them, to declare them to their face or to a roomful of people--not sure which is worse--anathema.

Theological controversy as much as anything requires careful management, so that in our attempts to throw out bad bathwater we don´t lose our babies, or that in our attempts to prune back a flawed system we don´t hack off a limb we´re going to need later. At the end of each day we should not have pummeled one another so ferociously that we can´t kiss and make up and even look forward to our next round of partisan bickering.

It's hard to have people against you. Or so I'm told; I've never really suffered significantly for my opinions. If ever I do, however, I'll experience people's opposition against a backdrop of confidence--not in myself, but in grace that's rightly described at least in part as unmerited favor.

In writing Deliver Us from Me-Ville I took great encouragement from Dietrich Bonhoeffer´s description of Christ as pro-me. It´s a nice foundation on which to build a critique of self-absorption: Jesus is for us enough to become us and join with us, then separate our sin from us and die for us, then resurrect to us and go on ahead of us to prepare a place for us.

Today the Emergent Village announced its new direction as a network of networks. Emergent has had to walk this ginger path since its inception, and it's also had to carry the burden of people who have opposed the ideas that come out of its generative friendships enough to oppose the people that populate the Village. I've been impressed with the Emergent Village, as much as anything, for their capacity--by and large and with occasional exceptions--to keep turning their other cheek when someone throws stones at them. So at the end of Emergent Village as we know it and the beginning of Emergent Village as we don't yet know it, and most particularly on the last day of Tony Jones's tenure as national coordinator, let me paraphrase Allen Ginsberg, unknowingly echoing Jesus: "Whatever EV´s doing-right or wrong, to be judged and discarded or to be embraced and celebrated-I´m for them."

A Hater Is a Heart That's All Mixed Up

Some of the authors I interact with are, as a consequence of the work they do, regularly confronted by angry critics. Often these critics haven't even met my author friends; they've just heard second- or third-hand about something my friends have supposedly said or done, and they just go off. One of my friends calls these folks haters. And last week he bought a shirt that reads "I [Heart] Haters."

Another friend of mine, this one a computer programmer, has a slogan that keeps him sane: "No matter what you do, there will be critics." I think there's a distinction between critics and haters that's some mix of a degree distinction and an ethical gulf: critics critique, based on an opinion that is at least assumed to be informed; haters hate, based on almost nothing.

Critique is a healthy exercise, I think, a corrective against the self's intuitive logic and self-satisfaction. That doesn't mean that critique isn't occasionally annoying, of course; critique causes us to reconsider what we're doing regardless of how much prior consideration we've already given it, and so it can introduce a high level of inefficiency into our best-laid plans. But a world without critique would probably not be a very enjoyable world. The book of Judges prefaced some truly awful stories with the line "Everyone did what was right in their own eyes."

Haters, however, append or even supplant legitimate critique with a layer of accusation and vitriol. People who offend a hater have sinned against them, in their eyes, and they deserve to be punished for it--sometimes through public humiliation, sometimes through loud, sputtering rebuke. Haters allow their rage to overwhelm their intellect, and so even reasonable concerns for truthfulness, integrity, precision, whatever the complaint may be, are replaced with venom. Haters make even the ridiculous look smart by comparison.

Better than hate is silence. Proverbs 17:28 tells us that "even a fool is thought wise if he keeps silent"; Ecclesiastes 3:17 calls for "a time to be silent and a time to speak." The best rebuke is a silent rebuke, because the air is filled with the uncomfortable recognition that whatever was said has at least not been received and has perhaps been rejected.

Better than silence, in many cases, is good humor. G. K. Chesterton acknowledges that "the insane explanation, if not conclusive, is at least unanswerable." So he encourages us to "be chiefly concerned not so much to give it arguments as to give it air." If someone is wrong, even painfully wrong, what is right will eventually reveal itself.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Patience Is an Asset

I work in a Christian workplace. You can impose your own definition of "Christian workplace," but at the very least it means that my company is eligible to participate in the annual "Best Christian Workplaces" survey. We place in the top three every time we take participate, which leads me to suspect that we may just be the best Christian workplace ever. I took that survey yesterday, because my boss's boss asked me too, and I'm one of the best Christian employees ever.

Anyhoo, the survey asked a battery of questions about compensation packages, employee empowerment, responsibility and responsiveness of management, and workplace spirituality. We rank the workplace on a scale of one to five, with five being best. Questions about spirituality are among the more difficult to address, but one question in that category gave me pause, something along the lines of "Employees at my company exhibit the fruit of the Spirit (love, joy, peace, kindness, etc.)."

What caught my attention is not that some of the fruit of the Holy Spirit's sanctifying work in our lives were relegated to an "etc." It's that before we even get to the "etc." we skip right over the fourth fruit listed in the sequence of Galatians 5:22-23: patience.

I know the fruit of the Spirit by heart because I learned a song about them during a Vacation Bible School about a decade ago, and it's one of those songs that never exits your head: "You've gotta have love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, . . . goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control, 'cause this is the fruit of the Spirit." Without "patience," the song falls apart; the rhythm is all off.

I think it's funny that the "Best Christian Workplaces" survey skips right over "patience" in its attempt to determine which Christian workplace is, in fact, the best. It seems to assume that patience, while certainly a spiritual fruit, isn't a marketplace asset.

However, I submit that without patience, the rhythm is all off. Without patience we don't relate to one another in constructive ways. We don't allow for professional development in the young and the new, and we don't allow for the slower but wiser methods of the long-tenured. Without patience we turn inward and elevate our private agenda against the interests of others and the overarching interests of the organization. Patience isn't just a fruit of the Spirit, it's a virtue, and as such it's a corporate asset--at least in a Christian workplace that aspires to be the best.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

How Would Jesus Surf? Or, Why Should the Devil Have All the Bad TV?

Once upon a time my siblings and I were regaling some long-lost cousins with stories of our wild youth. We were proud of our waywardness, which involved--for the most part--driving around Des Moines, Iowa, and occasionally drinking beverages we were too young to drink. When we finished our bragging session, our cousins took their cue and shared some of their exploits, which involved--among other things--conspiring with two strippers and a bouncer from my cousin-in-law's club to appear on the Jerry Springer Show, where they faked a fight and his eyeball temporarily popped out of its socket. Then we watched the tape, and I became more fully aware of my own mediocrity.

I have a similar visceral reaction when I read Nadia Bolz-Weber, author of one of my favorite blogs--The Sarcastic Lutheran (there's a link in my sidebar)--and now of the book Salvation on the Small Screen? 24 Hours of Christian Television. I like to fancy myself a fairly sarcastic person, but when I read Nadia I learn my limits, and I simply sit at the feet of a master.

Salvation on the Small Screen? belongs in a relatively recent category of what might be called first-person documentary, which includes films such as Super-Size Me and books such as The Omnivore's Dilemma and The Year of Living Biblically. In such works the investigator is the protagonist, and the work that ensues weaves back and forth between memoir and some other discipline--journalism, perhaps, or in this case, theology. It's like a literary form of extreme sport or reality TV. The challenge Bolz-Weber accepts in this case is to watch Christian television--the kind you're encouraged to lay your hands on--for twenty-four straight hours, journaling the experience as she goes. As a protagonist she earns our sympathy right off the bat by sharing the calamity of losing her notes and having to repeat the entire experiment, so while her observations chronicle twenty-four hours, they actually reflect forty-eight, bless her heart.

For such a project you need a distinct skill set--someone who can go the distance, for one, but also someone who can entertain and edify her audience as she goes. Salvation on the Small Screen? thus qualifies as another in my recently coined category of sanctitainment. (Trademark pending.) Bolz-Weber is a Lutheran pastor currently finishing her M.Div. and heading up a church plant in Colorado. She's also a former stand-up comedian, which only helps the book. Beyond these particular skills is the need for a particular proximal connection to the subject matter, and Bolz-Weber's is almost ideal: raised in the conservative evangelical tradition that birthed the kind of television she's filling her mind with, she now rests solidly in the Lutheran tradition, which is theologically about as far removed from the tradition of her childhood as she can get. All the stars seem aligned on this one.

Bolz-Weber is bolstered in her project by the participation of friends, both far (she receives occasional text messages of solidarity from various parts of the country) and near. Guests volunteer for shifts throughout the twenty-four hour period, with diverse backgrounds ranging from virtually no contact with conservative evangelicalism to, in the unique case of her parent, an ongoing participation in that tradition. I would have liked to see more conservatives participate in the project as much to allow for the possibility that we might find some reason to show some sympathy for the devils who create this programming, as to add some greater depth to some of the dialogue.

It's here, in fact, that I must confess my limits. I like sarcasm to a fault, if you ask some of my friends and loved ones, but the problem with sarcasm is that occasionally your delight gives way to your discomfort. Bolz-Weber is confronting not just the very troubling theology that comes across on these shows, not just the psychological manipulation that takes place with each host's interaction with the viewer; she's also confronting the jargon and cultural patterns of evangelicals, of which I am one. So while I feel virtually no identification with the likes of Benny Hinn, I cringe just a bit when she off-handedly describes a key element of my weekly worship experience as "vapid."

Such are the constraints of sarcasm, and everyone--including Bolz-Weber--affected by them. Her inner conflict is increasingly evident as the day progresses, hitting a high point when her evangelical parents join her for "Behind the Scenes," a presentation of the network's inner workings and corporate mission. Bolz-Weber feels

uncomfortable as hell. This song they are singing is more reminiscent of my Church of Christ upbringing than anything else I've seen on TBN, and I can't believe it's during the hour my parents are here. . . . Do I roll my eyes and make a biting comment about the TBN audience and set design, or do I give in and sing the last refrain with my mom? Answer: I get up and take a shower.

This is an uncomfortable book, but one that bears (and rewards) reading. Bolz-Weber is always surprisingly respectful and circumspect, looking for nice things to say when possible and confessing her own finitude and fallenness along the way. It's also painfully funny throughout. The theological reflection thins out toward the end--a combination of factors such as the broadcast lineup, the backgrounds of the guests and the sleep deprivation--but the book ends perfectly, with a semiconscious Bolz-Weber being swept along by a cartoon about Jonah, narrated by, of course, Charlton Heston.

You will love most of this book and hate parts of it, just as you would probably, like Bolz-Weber, hate most of TBN's programming and yet find yourself moved to tears by the occasional bit of it. This is the world we inhabit; this is the faith we embrace, one in which we remain simultaneously sinners and saints, and we have to deal with that in ourselves and in one another. God save us all.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Too Big to Fail Me Now

To say I've grown disenchanted with the stock market would be inaccurate, since I never found it particularly enchanting in the first case. But I have been struck by how disillusioning the financial crisis has been; of all the things we've learned to distrust, we should by now be able to trust a bank, shouldn't we?

But we do trust banks--or at least we put our trust in banks, by which I mean we put our money in banks. I've been running across the concept of idolatry quite a lot lately, and I'd been wondering why--have I gotten too obsessed with Facebook? Too distracted by the sales performance of Deliver Us from Me-Ville? Perhaps, but I think being attuned to the concept of idolatry has made me watch this market meltdown a little differently.

Today's sermon from my pastor had to do with the Lord's prayer, especially as pertains to the market. He focused on the phrase "Give us this day our daily bread," which was a good reminder that we trust God, not material institutions, to be our provider. But the notion is so abstract--trusting an unseen God for our everyday needs--that I thought it would make more sense contrasted with another abstract would-be provider. What I learned in the process is that I'd rather be the kind of person whose well-being depends on God than one whose well-being was staked to stocks.

Our Market, which art on Wall Street--
Hallowed be thy name.
Thy dividends come,
Thy interests be done
Throughout the earth, as it is on Wall Street.
Give us this day our daily accrued interest.
Forgive us our debts,
Even as we exploit our debtors.
And lead us not into panic-selling
but deliver us the goods.

And now, for the extended ending:

For yours is our kingdom,
Yours is our power,
Yours is our glory now and forever.

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

A Blessing on Your Head

I'm in Atlanta for a conference. I love Atlanta for completely irrational reasons: I used to watch Atlanta-based television when I was a kid (including Atlanta-based professional wrestling); Georgia is home to R.E.M., the Indigo Girls, Jimmy Carter, Andrew Young and a rich civil rights history; Atlanta houses Emory University, former teaching home of one of my favorite writers ever, Brian Mahan of Forgetting Ourselves on Purpose; Atlanta is an icon of the lazy South--lazy in the best sense, the sense of being relaxed and fully present. I love Atlanta for all kinds of reasons.

That being said, virtually every direct experience of Atlanta that I've had has been filled with frustration--mostly due to the challenges of getting around. Last night I missed out on an entire evening's worth of activities with the InterVarsity chapter at Emory University because I couldn't find the entrance to the campus. In past trips here I've gotten lost at night in the dark, lost in the maze of streets named for peach trees, lost on my way to the airport. In Atlanta I am, more often than not, completely bewildered.

So this morning a high-school friend of mine sent me a message via Facebook: "Hope you don't get too lost today." It strikes me that this would be a good daily blessing regardless of where we are, because regardless of where we are, it's easy to get lost--lost in our own heads, lost in our vain pursuit of material success, lost in our complex web of relationships, lost in the competing claims on our time and attention. I've been an evangelical long enough to get a little weary of the word lost, but this year it's gained some fresh traction with me, because lostness is so often a real experience. This world loses people: you have only to look under overpasses and beyond your own continent to realize that. This world also loses people who almost never move--we get disoriented right in our own psychic space. We are too often, to paraphrase one wise man, "like sheep without a shepherd."

So I hope I don't get lost today, and I hope the same for you. A blessing on your head.

Sunday, October 05, 2008

"Truly Swell"

Deliver Us from Me-Ville got a nice review in Worship Leader Magazine this month. Here's an excerpt:

Zimmerman uses history, theology, philosophy and culture to make this book astonishingly refreshing and helpful. . . . You will find yourself identifying with characters that used to only be words on a page, and the sense of community that Zimmerman draws us to will suddenly extend past our home and into the First Century. His words truly swell up contemplation in our hearts. . . . He is a compelling storyteller as well as an intelligent theologian whose words will deliver us all from the small village of pride we have each built for ourselves.

I'm blushing. I also read of a pastor who's thinking about the personal exercises in the book ("escape routes") in the context of the mission of the church, and of a woman who's reading the book with her spiritual director. In the interest of fairness, I've also been told by at least one person that the book made her feel guilty. I'd love to hear from you about how you've interacted with the book--either positively or negatively. You can post a comment here, write on the wall of the Facebook group, or e-mail me. Take your best shot; I can take it.

Saturday, October 04, 2008

Shane Claiborne, Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove and Me-Ville

I guess I should have had Shane Claiborne and Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove write my cover copy. Here's echos of Deliver Us from Me-Ville tucked away in the early pages of their new book together, Becoming the Answer to Our Prayers:

The prayer Jesus taught us is a prayer of community and reconciliation, belonging to a new kind of people who have left the land of “me.” This new humanity is an exodus people who have entered a promised land of “we,” to whom “I” and “mine” and “my” are things of the past. Here our God teaches us the interconnectedness of grace and liberation in a new social order. Here we are judged inasmuch as we judge, and forgiven as we forgive.

To my knowledge neither of them has read my book, so consider this a shameless hitching of my wagon to their star. Shane and Jonathan, give me a shout and I'll send you a free book for your trouble.

Thursday, October 02, 2008

Dinner and a Movie

When it comes to anniversary dinners, would you say it's better to take your spouse here or here? I'm asking because I have a really bad track record with such decisions, and I made such a decision last night, having been a little worn down and out of it after a three-day work retreat and a three-hour drive, and both of these were finalist options for dinner, and I'm hoping that I made the right choice.

For the record, we went here, then we went to a movie, Fireproof, which is about marriage and Jesus and whatnot, and which I will not blog about. A week prior we went to see the musical Wicked, which was our big treat to ourselves for this anniversary, and which made for a nice date in and of itself. Suffice it to say, it's good to be married, and it's good to be home.