Thursday, April 30, 2009

I Am Not the City of God

One thrust of emerging conversations in Western Christianity has been a lament of a particular kind of neglect. We, it's confessed, have made the gospel of Jesus Christ a solitary affair. We've emphasized that Jesus would have died on the cross even if we were the only person for him to die for; that's how much he loves each of us, to the near-annihilation of everyone else.

Now, ask pretty much any parent and they will say that there's enough love in their heart for each of their children to consume them entirely, but somehow, mystically, that consuming love effectively spreads evenly over all the kids. I don't discount that--love is a many-splendored thing, after all. But the problem that's been identified enough that it's not worth going into great detail here is that the object of that love--each of us--doesn't necessarily have adequate vision to grasp that it doesn't make them the center of the universe.

In light of such a strong emphasis of God's intense love for the individual, God's intense love for the world is often shoved to the background. I come to appreciate this problem again and again as my own self-absorption comes into view. Most recently, I was led in this rediscovery by Walter Bruegemann, writing on Psalm 46.

"All great cities brag. . . . No great city ever did a better job of bragging than that ancient city of Jerusalem."

So far so good, except that as he makes the case for Jerusalem, the beloved braggart of God, he quotes Psalm 46:

"God is in the midst of the city; it shall not be moved."

Psalm 46, it turns out, is about Jerusalem. It's not, it turns out, about me. Neither, it turns out, is Psalm 87:

"Glorious things of thee are spoken, O city of God."

It turns out that every so often, quite unconsciously, I think of myself as the city of God. When I do, all other people are left outside my gates.

Brueggemann confronts this hubris, this city-sized self-absorption, with three cautions from Jeremiah:

Do not let the wise boast of their wisdom.
Do not let the mighty boast of their might.
Do not let the wealthy boast of their wealth.


Let those who boast boast in this, that they understand and know me, that I am the Lord; I act with steadfast love, justice, and righteousness in the earth, for in these things I delight, says the Lord. (Jer 9:24)

It's worth noting that Jeremiah was writing about the city too; and that I'm still appropriating God's word to the city as God's word to myself. In reality I am not the city of God; God's city is his own business, and if I'm lucky I'll get to live in it--forever and ever, Amen.

Meanwhile, God--Psalm 46 reminds us--isn't a city either; he's a fortress. Go figure.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

How I Shall Seize Control of My Company

I wrote this for my other blog, Strangely Dim, in 2004. Five years later, still not in charge. Bummer. But this week my boss is out of town, and today his boss is out of town, so who knows?


Call me Absalom--that's the name of the role model for my upward mobility.

Wait--I'll save you some needless Googling. Absalom is a prince of ancient Israel, a son of King David who temporarily usurped his father's throne. You can read about him in 2 Samuel.

Anyway, Absalom successfully unseated the most popular king of Israel's then two-king history, which makes him a highly practical model for my own naked ambition.

Now, banking on the likelihood that nobody who might challenge my meteoric rise to the top actually reads my blog, I'll share my strategy with you so you can pray for me and even apply it to your own relentless pursuit of power. Absalom made his play in three simple acts.

Act 1. Absalom acted nicer than everyone above him; therefore I shall act nicer than everyone above me. Absalom and his father each won the hearts of the people at different times. David did it by being just a little bit crazy; Absalom did it by being a "man of the people."

This will be a bit difficult for me, since I actually am a little bit crazy, and the people above me are actually very nice. (Wink, wink--just in case they do read this.) Nevertheless, one of the cool things about being out of power is that the people in power have to make all the difficult decisions and (this is important) announce those decisions. I can simply commiserate with those affected by the decisions and "let them know I'm there for them." This was Jerry Seinfeld's strategy as he courted a woman in a troubled relationship; eventually he moved from "being there for her" to "being there." Brilliant.

Act 2. Absalom acted smarter than everyone above him; therefore I shall act smarter than everyone above me. Absalom had opinions about everything, and his opinions usually made his audience feel better about themselves. Since I don't have to make the decisions for my company, I'm free to critique the decision-makers from the sidelines. This, by the way, is also my principal strategy for taking over my church.

Act 3. Absalom recruited his father's staff and even slept with his father's harem. I'm reasonably confident that the powers that be in my company don't have harems, but there are plenty of other ways I can contribute toward a polarized work environment. Ask anyone. Once I take over, people will quickly shift their loyalties to me--if, that is, they know what's good for them.

That's it: three easy steps to a coup d'etat. Absalom pulled it off and enjoyed supreme power for a couple of weeks, until he was, of course, executed.

Like I said, pray for me.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

And Yet . . .

I went to a regional meeting for my denomination earlier this week. Such meetings are typically best described as bureaucratic agony occasionally interrupted by curious insight or bubbling controversy. There was no shortage of either this time; an ongoing scuffle about the fate of some of the denomination's property holdings, a passionately problematic statement of faith by a soon-to-be-unanimously-ordained new clergy, a hard push for a new church-innovation program in our area, a visit from the titular head of the denomination in Cuba, and conspiratorial machinations at every corner of the building. The only thing I could discern a shortage of, actually, was the coffee. Thanks for nothing, denomination.

I tease because I care. But prior to all the minor irritations and occasional arbitrated conflicts was a service for worship. The service was built around a reminder of our baptism, linking that baptism to the Jews' exodus from Egypt that passed through the Red Sea and secured their deliverance. The preacher acknowledged on behalf of all of us that it's wonderful to be chosen by God, but we are nonetheless challenged by the journey he has chosen us for--challenged by the circumstances that attend to any such journey, yes, but also challenged by the limitations we discover in ourselves. In an attempt to keep both those aspects of our experience in view, we recalled the profession of faith made at our baptism but also the very real ways we violate that profession in such mundane ways. I found it to be one of those moments of curious insight, so I thought I'd give it space here.

L. Trusting in the gracious mercy of God, do you turn from the ways of sin and renounce evil and its powers in the world?

P. We do and yet we choose to be servants to sin, making false idols of material objects and other relationships in our lives that distract us from God's gracious goodness and abundant mercy.

L. Who is your Lord and Savior?

P. Jesus Christ is my Lord and Savior and yet I turn away from those most in need of His love. I reject and fear those whom Jesus welcomed into salvation and find myself a servant to my own needs and desires, forsaking the true community in the body of Christ.

L. Will you be Christ's faithful disciple, obeying his word and showing his love?

P. I will, but only through the guiding power of the Holy Spirit, the everlasting love of Jesus Christ, and the transforming grace of God.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Book Review: Flickering Pixels

It's probably an important sign of the times that the people most invested in book-reading have manifold ways of reading for free. Libraries stock bestsellers and can handily find loaner copies of whatever they don't stock. Book-swapping websites are among the more practically-minded social networking innovations. Bloggers can solicit or are occasionally solicited, out of the blue, with review copies of whatever they're interested in reading. That's most recently the case of Flickering Pixels by Shane Hipps, a book for thoughtful laypeople interested in the shift from a print to an image-based media. It came to me gratis in both digital and print editions.

I eagerly downloaded the digital edition, but I have yet to crack it open, which tells me something about the parameters within which I'll consider an e-book. But then came the print edition, and once I opened it, I couldn't close it. No one asked me to review this book, but I'm doing it anyway, because I feel a bit guilty that Hipps has gotten none of my money, so I'd like to cajole some of you to send him some of yours.

Hipps is a Mennonite pastor who came into this vocation after a lucrative career in advertising. He's doing fascinating integrative work between the shift from print to image media and the implications for Christian theology and practice. He's in the line of tradition of Marshall McLuhan, that guy who once said, "The medium is the message"; that insight and everything that extended beyond it earned him cover photos on major magazines and a reputation as being "the most important thinker since Newton, Darwin, Einstein, Freud, and Pavlov." While that may be overstating things, I learned from Hipps that McLuhan isn't just the author of a cliche but rather an important student of cultural psychology. His observations merit theological consideration, something Hipps does ably.

In Flickering Pixels Hipps shows the impact of the printing press on religious thought, making a compelling case that Protestantism in general took the shape it took because of innovations in print media. "How disconcerting," he writes, "to have a faith yoked so closely to a medium that is now in the dusk of its life." Not that print is dying, but it is being eclipsed by image-based media, an innovation that brings its own benefits and blind spots. The book reads to me like a sea-change; the time is now appropriate to refashion the faith, to stop lamenting the weathering of old wineskins and to allow the new image-based media to tease out its own message. Hipps helpfully shows that the cliche that media change but the message remains the same is not true; what remains the same is not the media or the message but the message-giver.

Hipps reads better as a culture critic than as a writing pastor; his applicabilities are a bit strained and underdeveloped, and he's infinitely more tweetable in his discussions about media. But the books that follow Flickering Pixels will benefit from the wake he's creating: we're given seeds of a renaissance here, and we're given permission to go plant those seeds somewhere and see what grows out of them. I'm eager to read his first book, The Hidden Power of Electronic Culture, which is directed toward leaders of churches and ministries, and I'm especially interested in seeing what he publishes next.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Book Review: Finding the Groove

While I was in San Diego for the National Pastors Convention, I had the chance to meet Colorado pastor and new author Robert Gelinas, whose book Finding the Groove: Composing a Jazz-Shaped Theology had just been released. He was in the early stages of euphoria, understandably, which is always a great time to meet a new author.

Robert is one of the pastors I met in San Diego whose "epiphany of recruitment" proved so compelling to me. He blogs at Reflections of a Jazz Theologian. I was drawn to Robert's book as a former jazz musician (I don't play anymore, but my whole identity used to be caught up in it) and an armchair theologian. Two great tastes that go great together, know what I mean?

Robert's book builds consciously and unapologetically on Carl Ellis's great book Free at Last? (the first leisure reading of an IVP book I did after coming on staff there) and is founded on Ralph Ellison's classic pronouncement that all of America is jazz-shaped. Apparently I batted my eyes at Robert's agent enough that he had the publisher send me a complimentary copy, on the assumption that I would review it here--which I was happy to do.

The connection between jazz and American history and even between jazz and theology is undeniably intriguing. Jazz was quickly recognized in Europe as a significant musical expression and a distinctly American contribution, such that early African American innovators found an eager audience abroad even as they continued to endure Jim Crow laws and discrimination at home. Duke Ellington wrote historically significant sacred music, and John Coltrane publicly sought transcendence; his cult following included a church in California named after him whose liturgy was built around free-jazz saxophone. Jazz history is a story of black innovation, white appropriation, interracial cooperation, paradigm shifting and genre blurring, all in the context of a volatile society experiencing its own regular upheavals. Jazz has moved regularly from background to foreground to background; it may be due for its spotlight again, which may explain why a publisher was willing to take a chance on such a niche book.

Robert lays out the major categories for a jazz understanding of a Christian worldview (improvisation), spiritual disciplines (the "woodshed") and community (listening, riffing). His take on hermeneutics is really intriguing, and his argument that the Harlem Renaissance could be for the American church what the Italian Renaissance was for the European church is wildly appealing. He rightly points out that the great Dietrich Bonhoeffer spent some of his own woodshed years in Harlem during the Renaissance before returning to wartime Germany and writing some of the most important theology of the twentieth century. I note that the great Thomas Merton also spent a seminal summer in Harlem during roughly the same period before entering the monastery. I've elsewhere called Merton and Bonhoeffer the patron saints of Generation Thee; but I didn't make the connection between them and Harlem. Would the white American church ever allow itself to be taught by the black American church in the way that Merton and Bonhoeffer did?

As usual, I read the book as an editor and couldn't help thinking about how I would change it: deeper into the ethics of improvisation, more on the evolution of jazz over time and the occasional purist backlash, more observations of what a church community might gain from a "combo" or "ensemble" perspective on fellowship and mission. But maybe that's a better task for the community of jazz theologians that I hope Robert will build. Jazz is in exile these days, in a similar way that the Christian faith is in exile. Neither is at the center of American life; each is on the periphery, trying to draw an audience, offering its call and awaiting its response.

Robert has a second book slated for next year: Strange Fruit, on the cross of Christ. I can't help but think that the second book will be the 201 course to this entry-level option. In the meantime, I hope the book generates lots of discussion; I hope Robert gets invited to teach regularly at Denver Seminary and to write lots and lots of articles and to speak broadly at conferences that draw young pastors and church planters. Because I think he's right: America is jazz-shaped, and as such it demands a jazz-shaped theology. That means solo projects like this one, but it also demands an ensemble, and as many of us as are called need to step up to the mike, crack open our real book and take our twelve bars.

Both Inspiration and Cautionary Tale: Excerpts from Middling

What follows is an excerpt from the Winter 2021 edition of Middling, my quarterly newsletter on music, books, work, and getting older. I'...