Sunday, April 25, 2010

Robert Farrar Capon Is a Genius

I'm reading Kingdom, Grace, Judgment, a study of the parables of Jesus by Robert Farrar Capon, and I am thoroughly enjoying myself. I've only read one other book by Capon, and I thoroughly enjoyed it too. He writes the way I want to write--he's one of a handful of writers, in fact, who I've most consciously emulated in my own writing. These are serious-minded folks who nevertheless are not afraid to have fun with their subject matter, to tease and turn over concepts and ideas in ways many people think are either beneath themselves or scandalous to the subject. That's mainly because each of them, these writers of record, focus on the Bible and the Christian faith. I'd include in this crew Capon, G. K. Chesterton, Peter Rollins and Brian Mahan; I'm sure there are others (including, I hope, some women), but these are the guys I take particular delight in reading and rereading.

The main reason I enjoy them so much is their steadfast commitment to play, which they hold as devoutly as some hold dourness and sobriety. If you've read The Poisonwood Bible, you might recall the priest who stumbled upon the missionary family, whose delightfulness and big-heartedness immediately indicted the colonializing sufferability of the missionary father and the pathetic seriousness of his family of girls. Such playfulness is thoroughly defensible; it's only rejected by others because they don't trust joy--which is unfortunate, since joy is one of the fruits of the Spirit. Here's Capon defending the practice of playing with Scripture, of all things:

My commitment to Scripture as the inspired Word of God--as a sacred deck of cards, not one of which may be discarded and not one of whose spots may be altered or ignored--in now way inhibits me from playing with Scripture. . . .

We may be the oikodespotai of the treasure of God, but we were meant first of all to spend huge amounts of time in the attic just poring over it and trying all of it on for size. And were were meant, above all, to invite the world up into the attic to play dress-up with us. We are supposed to be kids, you see: "I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that you have hidden these things from the wise and prudent, and revealed them to babes." You can't get more encouragement than that for holy horsing around.

For the record, there's about thirty pages between that deck of cards and that attic of treasures. So don't blame Capon for the mixed metaphor; blame me. In the meantime, consider the possibility that the news from God broadcast by Christianity is meant to be good; consider that the life of faith is meant to be full of joy. Then go and do likewise.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

The Great Hall and the Great Bazaar

I keep hearing people talk about the "Great Hall" perspective on Christianity. Apparently (I confess I haven't gotten around to reading it yet) Jim Belcher's book Deep Church borrows the concept from C. S. Lewis to explain the difference between "essentials" of the Christian faith, which call for unity, and "nonessentials" of the faith, which call for liberty, or pleasantry, or something like that. If you picture a giant cathedral--or, more helpful for me, the dining hall of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry (I've never been to Great Britain)--with rooms off to the side, Lewis and Belcher would say that the side rooms are occupied with the "side issues" or "nonessentials" of Christianity, while the center houses the core doctrine. So, for example, the divinity and humanity of Jesus Christ are issues which all in the Great Hall can affirm; niggling questions like the responsibilities and privileges of women in ministry are appropriately shuttled off to a side room.

I confess that this mental picture isn't doing it for me--which is a problem, because it's doing it for virtually everyone else in my life. I certainly understand the appeal of the image: if nothing else, it's helpful to be able to suggest to people who are raucously arguing that ladies belong in the nursery or somesuch that perhaps they'd be more comfortable having their conversation in one of the side rooms, which have lovely windows that allow for fresh air, and cushioned seats in a circle far superior to the row after row of pew benches of the Great Hall itself. The picture of the Great Hall gives us someplace to dismiss annoying people--someplace other than the outer darkness, where there is wailing and gnashing of teeth.

I think the problem for me is that the image works doctrinally but not historically, and I tend to think more historically than doctrinally. The Great Hall image is static, not vivid; it's an oil painting as opposed to a CGI-animated film. Each side room doesn't represent a group of people or a conversation so much as a point of dogma; the center hall represents not a magisterium or even a worshiping body of believers but rather the content of the creeds. I think the image is intended to help us think of ourselves as a church that is made up of smaller, idiosyncratic churches, and for a Brit like C. S. Lewis (or an anglophile like many American evangelicals) a castle with a great hall is a good mental picture for that; but in reality I think the better picture for this organization of doctrine and dogma is a filing room, with "fire file" cabinets for the essentials and "to be filed" cabinets for everything else. We're not organizing people; we're organizing ideas.

Meanwhile, the actual presenting problem isn't so much ideas but people--people who argue passionately that anyway other than their way is a highway to hell; people who are annexing the Great Hall while locking doors to all the other side rooms that unsettle their stomachs. A person, of course, can only occupy one side room at a time, so the image doesn't allow for the complexity of human opinion or the influence over time of one side room's conversations spilling out into the Great Hall. Not to mention that a "Great Hall" is not a normal, lived experience for virtually anyone. The closest we come today to observing a Great Hall is watching C-Span coverage of congressional hearings and voting--and that is by no means a picture of unity. The idyllic image of a Great Hall unsullied by the side conversations that threaten to erode the purity of the Christian faith can only take us so far, and for me at least, that's not very far.

So what image replaces it? I don't know for sure. I'm leaning toward (I don't like it, necessarily, but I'm leaning toward it) the market bazaar.

First off, I like the word bazaar, but more importantly, it infuses dogma and doctrine with some dynamism; these aren't ideas in isolation but transactions and negotiations being conducted in real time, in a crowded and busy place. People make foolish purchases of things they don't need; some merchants misrepresent their products; there's room for both friendship and rivalry among the merchants; and most of all, the noise makes sense--it's not necessarily legitimate, but it's understandable.

But in this image of the marketplace, what functions as the "essentials" of the Christian faith? I don't know that for sure either, but I'm wondering if maybe its the economy that undergirds the bazaar. The coin of the realm that facilitates each transaction, the shared assumptions about what has ultimate value, the regulations that set limits on how much manipulating of the market will be tolerated, even the taxes that are levied against merchants for the privilege of hawking their wares. Maybe it's the Great Bazaar that characterizes the state of contemporary Christianity--this lively, at times adversarial, often ridiculous but ultimately very natural assembly of people making their offers and filling their needs, with the master of the market keeping the chaos as ordered as is necessary--and disordered enough to keep it interesting.

In any event, another Anglophilic maxim comes to mind: In essentials, unity; in nonessentials, liberty; in all things, charity. And the greatest of these is . . .

Wednesday, April 07, 2010

Haiti Bound

Later this year, I’ll be turning forty.


I’m told that a milestone birthday like this one is best marked by taking stock of your life. I don’t really know how to do that, but certainly one way is to give some of my time to people whose circumstances are not as fortunate as mine.

I have such an opportunity this year, just one month before my birthday. My friend Kent Annan, cofounder and codirector of Haiti Partners, is leading a small group of people on a mission to Haiti in May. Originally planned to give further insight to the story he tells in his book Following Jesus Through the Eye of the Needle (I was Kent’s editor), the plan for the trip changed after the January earthquake. But the trip will go on.

Seven of us will join Kent May 20-24 for this tour of one of the poorest countries in the world. We’ll be witnessing the education work Haiti Partners has become known for and supporting the ongoing relief work there. In contrast to the ten thousand well-intentioned faith-based programs that are, according to sociologist Tony Campolo, “making matters worse” for Haitians by taking over the responsibility for the country’s rebuilding, HP’s “massive literacy program” is

reaching tens of thousands of the 80 percent of Haiti's illiterate adults annually, and has brought hundreds of Haitians into a leadership training program called Circles of Change (see Instead of decrying a government-sponsored school system that often has barely literate teachers in its classrooms, this particular missionary organization, which is basically run by Haitians, is running in-service training for those teachers and thus upgrading their literacy and teaching ability. (Tony Campolo, “Making Matters Worse in Haiti,” Huffington Post, March 2, 2010)

I’m posting this for a couple of reasons:
· I need help funding my trip. The cost is more than I can cover on my own. Donations on my behalf are tax deductible: you can send a check to

Haiti Partners
PO Box 2865
Vero Beach FL 32961

Make the check out to “Haiti Partners” and indicate “Zimmerman Mission” in the subject field. Or you can go to the HP website to give online; simply indicate “Zimmerman Mission” in the comments section of the form there. Any funds raised over and above the cost of my trip will be used to advance HP’s ongoing work in Haiti.

· More to the point, a trip like this shouldn’t be taken in isolation. So I’m hoping you’ll consider yourself a partner in this effort—praying for me, testing my motivations, helping me process my experience.

My wife and I are “between churches” right now, so I entered into this trip with some uncertainty: Who would help me make my way to Haiti and back? Who would I be representing during my time there? Who would help me learn from this experience? But what I’m slowly coming to learn, and what I expect this trip will show, is that there really is no “between churches”—there is one church, spread thin and strained though it may often be. We are part of one another. In Haiti I’ll meet our brothers and sisters; if all goes according to plan, I’ll worship with them under tents outside the rubble that used to be a church building. I will bring your love and concern with me to them, and theirs back to you.

Thanks for considering being a part of my trip. If you have any questions, please don’t hesitate to contact me. And yes, any donations will serve as my birthday gift this year. And yes, you may mock me mercilessly for becoming an old man.

Forty!!! How did that happen?!?

Monday, April 05, 2010

To Do Today

Here's a funky little to-do list I stumbled upon, from Harry Blamires (The Christian Mind) via John Stott (Your Mind Matters):

A "Christian Mind" is described by Mr. Blamires as "a mind trained, informed, equipped to handle data of secular controversy within a framework of reference which is constructed of Christian presuppositions," presuppositions (for example) of the supernatural, of the pervasiveness of evil, of truth, authority and the value of the human person. The Christian thinker, he goes on, "challenges current prejudices . . . disturbs the complacent . . . obstructs the busy pragmatists . . . questions the very foundations of all about him and . . . is a nuisance."

There's at least one missing element here, which is the will to act; but generally organizing your day around these things would generally, I think, be a good act of faith:

__ Challenge current prejudices
__ Disturb the complacent
__ Obstruct the busy pragmatists
__ Question the very foundations of all about you
__ Be a nuisance

I'm reminded of the great G. K. Chesterton's introduction to Heretics, in which he describes an annoying parson's unappreciated contribution to the controversy of the day:

Suppose that a great commotion arises in the street about something, let us say a lamp-post, which many influential persons desire to pull down. A grey-clad monk, who is the spirit of the Middle Ages, is approached upon the matter, and begins to say, in the arid manner of the Schoolmen, “Let us first of all consider, my brethren, the value of Light. If Light be in itself good—” At this point he is somewhat excusably knocked down. All the people make a rush for the lamp-post, the lamp-post is down in ten minutes, and they go about congratulating each other on their unmediaeval practicality. But as things go on they do not work out so easily. Some people have pulled the lamp-post down because they wanted the electric light; some because they wanted old iron; some because they wanted darkness, because their deeds were evil. Some thought it not enough of a lamp-post, some too much; some acted because they wanted to smash municipal machinery; some because they wanted to smash something. And there is war in the night, no man knowing whom he strikes. So, gradually and inevitably, to-day, to-morrow, or the next day, there comes back the conviction that the monk was right after all, and that all depends on what is the philosophy of Light. Only what we might have discussed under the gas-lamp, we now must discuss in the dark.

I wrote a little about the responsibility for Christian discernment at my Burnside Writers Collective column "Becoming the Great Us," coining my own "Zimmerman Octolateral(tm)." Feel free to challenge whatever current prejudices you observe there. I only ask that you, and I, remember that we are not merely brains with bodies; we're also bodies with brains. So by all means, act thoughtfully, but be sure you also think actively.

Sunday, April 04, 2010

Saturday, April 03, 2010

Lenten Readings from Me-Ville: Day 40

God didn’t come all the way from his kingdom to Me-Ville to get me simply to part ways with me; God wants me—and with me, you and really all of us—to be in his kingdom, which is where he is, which as the Lord’s prayer suggests, is on earth even as it is in heaven. . . . Jesus, let this Covenant prayer [from John Wesley] affirm, is above all our Covenant friend, delivering us from Me-Ville and leading us along the rough and rocky path to a sure destination at the throne of God.

O mighty God, the Lord Omnipotent, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,
You have now become my Covenant Friend.
And I, through your infinite grace, have become your covenant servant.
So be it.


Copyright 2008 Cook Communications Ministries. Deliver Us From Me-Ville by Dave Zimmerman. Used with permission. May not be further reproduced. All rights reserved.

Friday, April 02, 2010

Lenten Readings from Me-Ville: Day 39

If we’re committed to the notion that God doesn’t save only each of us but all of us, and that God is pulling us into a community together, and if we’re further committed to the notion that God acts out of love for us and works through us to communicate that love to one another—then even the most difficult encounters, the most nerve-wracking news are framed in grace. When we enter into our relationships assured that God is pro-me and consequently pro-us, we can more confidently remember that not even we, ultimately, can be against us.


Copyright 2008 Cook Communications Ministries. Deliver Us From Me-Ville by Dave Zimmerman. Used with permission. May not be further reproduced. All rights reserved.

Thursday, April 01, 2010

Lenten Readings from Me-Ville: Day 38

Me-Ville is a place we will visit again and again and again over the course of our lives. It’s such an interesting place for such curious people as us, such a safe place for such insecure people as us. In Me-Ville we can safely and comfortably look out for number one, which every once in a while will sound like the most sensible thing in the world to do.

But the farther Jesus leads us from Me-Ville to the place he has prepared for us, the less sensible it is to go back, and the less fulfilling each visit will be.


Copyright 2008 Cook Communications Ministries. Deliver Us From Me-Ville by Dave Zimmerman. Used with permission. May not be further reproduced. All rights reserved.