Tuesday, May 14, 2013

The 'baptist' Vision

The truth, I believe, is this: The baptists in all their variety and disunity failed to see in their own heritage, their own way of using Scripture, their own communal practices and patterns, their own guiding vision, a resource for theology unlike the prevailing scholasticism around them.
James McClendon, Ethics (1994)

James McClendon’s baptist vision is his portrayal of authentic Christianity. It flows from the waters of the Radical Reformation, the 500-year old movement that is neither Catholic nor Protestant, and neither Lutheran nor Reformed. This vision of following Jesus emphasizes the link between small communities of disciples now with the original band of disciples in the New Testament then, as well as the ‘final’ group of disciples at the renewal of the world, the appearing of Jesus at the glorious last day.

The community today continues to live out a radical faith in Jesus the Lord and Messiah as characters in the ongoing narrative of God and his people in Scripture. The plot-line of God’s creation and salvation continues as followers of Jesus enter the rule of God, the common setting of the New Testament and of diverse contexts of Christian communities all over the world. McClendon summarizes this baptist vision with five points:

...the awareness of the biblical story as our story, but also of mission as responsibility for costly witness, of liberty as the freedom to obey God without state help or hindrance, of discipleship as life transformed into obedience to Jesus’ lordship, and of community as daily sharing in the vision. [Ethics, 35]

The baptist vision is one of many competing visions of what it means to follow Jesus. There are more than 500 denominations or sub-traditions of Christian faith in North America. According to McClendon, the baptist vision is an attempt to guide radical participation in the Christian adventure in communities from roughly 100 of those denominations—-anabaptists, Baptists, Mennonites, Brethren, Evangelical Free, believers church, amongst others.

McClendon writes of this ‘contest’:

What these varieties of understanding reveal is that the essence of Christianity (or real or authentic Christianity) is itself an essentially contested concept, one that by its very nature cannot be agreed on by all sides. [Doctrine, 43]

Thus, communities must remember that there are many ways of thinking about and participating in the Christian life, of displaying the essence of what it means to follow the crucified and risen Jesus today. But the key test for these competing visions is the love, humility and gentleness of each vision as they listen and learn as each vision reflects a subtly different shade of light from the face of Christ [Ethics, 20]. We worship a God that values variety—-these competing visions serve the King in different ways, all appreciated in his Kingdom.

The baptist vision has unique contributions to offer in regards to what it means to read the Bible and how to organize a community [church] that bears the name of Jesus. Both Scripture and church are intertwined factors that influence each other-—they dialogue with each other. The story of Scripture shapes the community and the community reads Scripture through the unique contextual lens of that community. The structure of the community gives voice to all members (no hierarchy, no clergy/laity split, everyone is a leader according to his/her gifts) and the reading strategy of the community values both the interpretation and the live performance of the ongoing biblical narrative.

This strategy (1) allows for a variety of Bible readings, (2) allows for a variety of applications and (3) depends on the individuality of readers in the community. The life context of each and every individual in the community is vitally important for interpretation and performance—-as long as it centers on the main character, Jesus the Lord and Messiah, and focuses on what it means to be the people of God living under his rule.

The key question is,

How does the story of Jesus come to bear on our world?

Our Social Location

In short, this is an introduction to the theological work of James McClendon for a specific audience: North American suburban church (or ‘small group’) communities. To be even more specific, it has been written in the context of middle-upper class Southern California evangelicalism. This social location has many challenges and obstacles to following Jesus.

With that said, I don’t claim to have much of anything to say to how McClendon’s ‘baptist vision’ translates to communities in other contexts in North America or other regions of the West, let alone anywhere in the Third World. To be frank, I have much to learn from these locales and I’d love to read a blog from someone engaged with McClendon’s work from Washington D.C., Warsaw, Detroit, New Delhi, Portland or Perth. Let this blog be an invitation to other voices of the ‘baptist vision’ all over the world.

My prayer is that it excites and ignites communities into deeper and deeper readings and conversations about McClendon’s baptist vision—-his attempt to portray ‘authentic Christianity.’ My anxiety is that I’ll somehow counterfeit or misrepresent McClendon. Instead my goal is to utilize and translate his thought into a slightly different context—-churches and ‘small groups’ in 21st century North American Suburbia. In this effort, I hope to honor McClendon’s work by beckoning others to perform it.

With this in mind, consider McClendon’s definition of theology:

The discovery, understanding, and transformation of the convictions of a convictional community, including the discovery and critical revision of their relation to one another and to whatever else there is.

As he points out in Ethics, this discovery and understanding is what the active theologian does ‘in homage to what is handed on to them’ and this transformation is where the theologian gets creative in the process.

As I have discovered and understood McClendon’s work I want to interpret it for a 'popular' audience of American Christians living in North America today [to be even more specific, the Southern California Evangelical Suburban sub-culture].

I have been working as a social science teacher at a large public high school in Southern Orange County for the past 17 years. In addition, I have had the pleasure of working in church and parachurch ministries with, mostly, an 18-35 year old age bracket. It is my deep conviction that the representative lifestyles and beliefs in and around these ‘evangelical’ and 'post-evangelical' communities (and many others) would be greatly enhanced by McClendon’s vision of what it means to be ‘Christian.’ Hopefully, these groups, by participating in this blog, will be compelled by McClendon’s ‘baptist vision’ and will own it both individually and communally. Again, I hope and pray that neither my lack of creativity nor lack of comprehension crowds out McClendon’s deep insight and that it may even inspire a ‘slow reading’ of McClendon’s works.

Since McClendon’s death in October 2000, our world has added much to its glossary: 9/11, War on Terror, jihad, hybrid, trans-fat, blue states, red states, soccer moms, text-message, blue-tooth, IPOD, MySpace, YouTube, DVR, Facebook, Twitter, Netflix queue, high-def, flat-screen, and plenty more.

This vocabulary lends itself to a complex situation with lower-attention-spans, constantly honing the ever-needed skill of multi-tasking. Inundated with images and slogans that coax us to consume more and more as the key to fulfillment, we are confronted with a multitude of mini-stories that compete to be our ‘master story.’ A community that creatively participates in the Great Story of God and His people, instead of defaulting into counterfeit stories, need not hibernate into an evangelical ghetto
nor feel the need to militantly battle the evil all around us
nor take the default option and live out the status quo.

Instead the thought and performance of the 'baptist vision' community engaged with culture creatively and imaginatively ‘requires almost infinite adjustments, distinctions and gradations’ [Ethics, 176].

This blog beckons Jesus-following communities to consider, for 10 meetings, what it means to be authentically Christian in their context, what it is that these communities must do and teach and be in and to this culture. These communities do not need to be ‘Baptist’ or to even consider themselves formally a ‘church.’ What these communities need to be committed to is passionate and honest dialogue.

What, indeed, is the vision that shapes the life of your community?

The Meeting

Each ‘meeting’ is designed to give brief thoughts about the baptist vision and to usher forth communal dialogue. The community can read the meeting blog together or can read it individually [or in couples] before they come together in the ‘meetingplace.’ Meals, prayer, laughter and tears may accompany the reading and questions. You may want to have different women and men ‘host’ the meeting each week on a rotating basis. This host[ess] simply serves and guides the community—-using the gift of hospitality in creative ways to make the meeting effective and comfortable. The goal is for the time to be conversational and to let the presence of Jesus guide the dialogue. The ‘meeting’ label is designed to subvert the baggage usually associated with that word: bland formality, work, routine and led by one person. This ‘meeting,’instead, is where Jesus meets his followers in an intentional time during the week. The meeting place, the meeting conditions, the meeting time and the meeting snacks do not matter:

For where two or three meet together in my name, I am there. [Matthew 18:20]

Prologue: We Did NOT Start Out baptist

My wife and I haven’t always been ‘baptist. We were raised in the conservative evangelical non-denominational tradition of the North American suburbs. When we entered Fuller Theological Seminary in '05, finding a ‘[b]aptist’ theology was the furthest thing from our minds. We just happened to run into James McClendon’s baptist vision along the way. Or better: the baptist vision ran into us—-and we are, indeed, captivated by his vision of authentic Christianity!

Labels like ‘baptist’ [or ‘anabaptist’] and ‘postmodern’ can be harmful because they carry an awful lot of baggage for certain Christians. They are, what McClendon calls, contested concepts, meaning different things to different people. But these 'brands' of Christianity take a couple steps in the right direction toward describing the thought and lifestyle of our faith. We firmly believe that the old dualistic categories that modernity has given the church and society (either 'conservative' and 'liberal') are no longer helpful in understanding faith in this increasingly complex world. In addition, we believe that a more holistic understanding of faith, one that embraces mystery and listens to the diverse 'other', is more at home in the world of the New Testament.

I write this brief disclaimer because, at the outset of our academic theological journey, we weren't looking for a theology with a ‘[B]aptist’ agenda nor are we trying to convert anyone to bear that label. We have simply been compelled by McClendon’s baptist vision and this blog is an attempt to share it with those others who are looking for deeper and fresher ways of describing what it means to follow the crucified and risen Lord today. We believe that there are many sincere followers of Jesus who have a hunch that there must be a more authentic way to be 'Christian' than the popular brands on offer today.

For a more descriptive analysis of what words like 'anabaptist' and 'postmodern' mean, go to the GLOSSARY blog in the index.

Friday, May 10, 2013

Meeting 1: Get In The Game

So, what does it mean to be a ‘Christian?’ There are a multitude of explanations of what it means to follow the crucified and risen Messiah and Lord Jesus. And to be completely honest, the last sentence will be explained quite differently by participants in all the diverse brands of Christian faith:

What will it demand of a community to ‘follow’ Jesus?

What significance do Jesus’ ‘crucifixion’ and ‘resurrection’ have for his followers today?

And what do the titles ‘Messiah’ and ‘Lord’ even mean?

According to James McClendon, Christianity is an essentially contested concept, a contest of rivals who have different visions of the Christian life [Doctrine, 44]:

There is no universal agreement, but only competing claims to universality, one of which is our own.

We all have ‘convictions’—the gutsy beliefs that we live out—but we all must humbly admit that any of the ‘convictions’ we have about everything that matters in life may actually false! This principle of fallibility-—even one’s most cherished and tenaciously held convictions might be false and are in principle always subject to rejection, reformulation, improvement, or reformation [Ethics, 45]—-is of utmost value when we dialogue with our beloved Christian rivals. And with more than 500 different denominations of Christianity in North America alone, there are many rivals! Rivals aren’t our enemies—they are our conversation partners that we should listen to [and vice-versa] and participate with. As McClendon writes,

One of the tests of its authenticity is whether it can be proposed in a spirit of love that will win friends, not enemies, for the good news it seeks to represent. [Doctrine, 44]

For many Christians, ‘theology’ brings up fears and intimidation of people talking in academic language that only the elite can understand. It is important to point out, instead, that we should embrace a conviction that every Christian is a theologian and a scholar—always discovering, understanding and transforming their views on God, faith, church, the Bible…and whatever else there is [Ethics, 23]. And this ‘theology’ is best done in small communities of fellow Jesus followers who dialogue and practice their convictions together.

Theology is struggle. It is not a list of ‘right answers,’ nor is it a system or formula of right beliefs about God and whatever else there is.
Nor is it a ‘foundation’ of unquestionable or unchallengeable truths, principles and beliefs to build a life of faith on.

These other ideas about theology do not make sense in a world of 500 different brands of conversation partners without a final arbiter to judge who is right or wrong about any number of faith issues that we may disagree about. For if we build our lives of faith on a ‘foundation’ of ‘right answers,’ what happens when we discover through dialogue or experience that some of our ‘right answers’ have been wrong all this time? Our building of faith, like a game of Jenga, crumbles to the ground and we must begin our construction project all over again!

Instead, we will use different theological metaphors. Faith is something like being on a voyage to a distant land. With our sights on the destination, we learn and grow in the process of our journey, making changes as we test the elements along the way. We can never start over, no matter how bad or confusing things get.

We are committed to something like a marriage, learning and growing as we live together, knowing that no matter what surprises or shocks us about our partner, we can never start all over again. Instead, learning now what we didn’t know before, we make changes to strengthen the marriage for the coming decades.

A voyage and a marriage are commitments that begin without knowing all the answers, risking that anything can happen along the way! Both involve other people who we live with and learn with as we dialogue from different points of view.

We live during a time of cultural shift. For the past 200 years+, Christians in North America have attempted to build theological systems, formulas and foundations to give authority and certainty to their belief in God. Many today are questioning this 'modern' project. Those skeptical of this project are still convinced that God exists and that Jesus lived, died and rose from the grave, but they are also convinced that there are many, many ways offered to describe this reality and to read the Bible, God’s Word to the world. And whatever 'truth' is, it cannot be proven. These 'postmoderns' are convinced that the quest for the perfect recipe of Christianity is impossible…it is over.

As we get started to understand the baptist vision, it should be noted that this vision has a distinct emphasis on practice. A theological voyage means participation in the Christian life together. It is a performance that involves a lot of hard work and creativity in diverse life situations. Many visions of the Christian life emphasize ‘beliefs,’ often times to the neglect of practice. Truly, this is not intended, but ‘living’ gets squeezed out in the quest for knowing the ‘right foundation.’ Many Christians would say that there is a sequence to faith: first believe [know the truth!], then belong [join a church!], and then behave [application!]. However, the baptist vision gives room to flip the script: first, to participate in the life of radical Christian community and, then, to continue to discover deeper and deeper beliefs over time. The whole process of the Christian life is a lot more 'holistic' than the formulas and steps that have attempted to describe it in modernity. There is, first and foremost, an acknowledgment that the Christian life is ‘lived.’

Taking an analogy from the world of sports, there are spectators and players. A spectator is surely ‘involved’ in the game: she knows the names and statistics and history of the teams and players on the field [or court or pool or track]. Spectators even have emotional attachments to the outcome of each contest.

However, the investment that spectators have is in a different category than that of the player. The player knows the scouting report and risks everything [sometimes in front of thousands of spectators] to make errors, miss shots, get injured, etc. Even the last kid on the bench is involved in the game in a way different from even the most rabid of fans—always ready to ‘get in the game.’

The baptist vision is for Christians who play the game, who have committed to pouring over the scouting report, who put time into the details and risk making errors in front of many. It is also for Christians who are a part of a team and commit to using their God-given gifts and talents to making that community better. Lastly, the baptist vision is for Christians who grow in their knowledge and trust in God over time.

Turning back the calendar for a moment, consider a man named Origen [185-254] one of the greatest Bible scholars of all time. He taught at Alexandria, in Egypt, one of the first theological schools ever. At Alexandria, Origen placed a strong emphasis on getting to know the young men who were enrolled in the school. He made friends with them and then got to know them in a deeper way, long before teaching them the finer details of the Bible. One of his best students, Gregory, wrote about his great teacher: ‘penetrating into us more deeply, and probing what is most inward in us, he put us to the question, and made propositions to us, and listened to us in our replies.’ [Pan. vi, Ethics, 43] Origen put the priority on living faith in front of his students!

Consider another point in Christian history, this time a negative. In the 4th century, Constantine the Great became the first ‘Christian’ Roman Emperor. He made the faith, not only legal, but virtually mandatory. He also invited Christian leaders all over the Empire to meet in a town called Nicaea to discuss, debate and decide on issues of the exact nature and substance of Jesus: human or divine or both and how? McClendon asks a pinpointed question:

Is it not worth considering, finally, how different might have been the history of Christianity if after the accession of the Emperor Constantine the church’s leaders had met at Nicaea, not to anathematize others’ inadequate Christological metaphysics, but to devise a strategy by which the church might remain the church in light of the fateful political shift—to secure Christian social ethics before refining Christian dogma? [Ethics, 42]
Unlike the Council of Nicaea, which outlined the ‘right beliefs’ for Christians, we want to set our sights on an attempt to devise a strategy to be Christ-like communities, to actually practice the faith in these challenging and changing times. The priority is on performance.

For Discussion:
1. What are some ‘convictions’ that you have? Is it possible that these could ever change? What would it take for them to change?
2. The images of a voyage at sea, a committed marriage and a building’s foundation: which of these metaphors best describe your view of the Christian life? How so?
3. Are there areas of your Christian journey where you want to become more of a player and less of a spectator? Explain.
4. Do you agree with the assessment that all Christians are ‘theologians’ and ‘scholars?’ How so?

For Further Reading:
Ethics [chapter 1 and 2] by James McClendon
Witness [chapter 1]
Beyond Liberalism and Fundamentalism by Nancey Murphy
Beyond Foundationalism by Stanley Grenz and John Franke
Anything by Rob Bell and Brian McLaren

Working Overtime:
British Old Testament Bible Scholar John Goldingay, teaching in the US at Fuller Theological Seminary, says that one of the biggest challenges for Christians living throughout North America [and a big difference from Christians in the UK] is to emerge out of ‘fundamentalism.’ This sounds like a harsh word that is usually used to describe radical groups that kill and maim in the name of God in other parts of the world. However, it is actually a form of faith that has been particularly harmful to many Christians right here in the States. Fundamentalism has been an outgrowth of the modern culture on the conservative evangelical side of the spectrum usually by being defined as such by an ‘inerrant’ approach to the Bible that guarantees the Absolute Truth through the dictated Word of God. This ‘foundationalist’ approach to knowledge and truth has been a path that has attempted to assure certainty, but instead it has turned out to be a cul-de-sac. The Bible pleads for followers of Jesus to read it with more integrity and honesty. A far more nuanced and sophisticated approach is needed--one that will take time and patience in community. The New Testament isn’t a guide to ‘look up answers,’ but instead a collection of diverse documents that each ‘do’ something in unique ways. They all feed off the Great Story of what God has done in and through Jesus Christ. We will take a step toward a ‘post-foundationalist’ Bible reading strategy in our next meeting.

Meeting 2: This Is That

It is a story in which, though we supposed ourselves to be seekers, we found we were in reality the sought; not the hounds, but the hares.
James McClendon, (Doctrine, 462; Ethics 352)

The Bible tells the Great Story of God’s activity in the world. It also tells of the diversity of human responses to God’s pursuit of His creation. There are many ways to tell this Great Story from the Bible, but there aren’t any ‘infallible’ or once-and-for-all versions of it because everyone tells the Story from our unique ‘social locations’ with our different ‘spins’ on it.

Here is McClendon’s version of the Great Story [Ethics, 147]:

The Christian story in its primal form tells of a God who [unlike gods of human fabrication] is the very Ground of Adventure, the Weaver of society’s Web, the Holy Source of nature in its concreteness-—the one and only God, who, when time began, began to be God for a world that in its orderly constitution finally came by his will and choice to include also—-ourselves. We human beings, having our natural frame and basis, with our own [it seemed our own] penchant for community, and [it seemed] our own hankerings after adventure, found ourselves, before long, in trouble. Our very adventurousness led us astray; our drive to cohesion fostered monstrous imperial alternatives to the adventure and the sociality of the Way God had intended, while our continuity with nature became an excuse to despise ourselves and whatever was the cause of us. We sin. In his loving concern, God set among us, by every means infinite wisdom could propose, the foundations of a new human society; in his patience he sent messengers to recall the people of his Way to their way; in the first bright glimmers of opportunity he sent—himself, incognito, without splendor and fanfare, the Maker amid the things made, the fundamental Web as if a single fiber, the Ground of Adventure risking everything in this adventure. His purpose—sheer love; his means—pure faith; his promise—unquenchable hope. In that love he lived a life of love; by that faith he died a faithful death; from that death he rose to fructify hope for the people of his Way, newly gathered, newly equipped.

Here is Duke University Bible professor Richard B. Hays’ version:

The God of Israel, the creator of the world, has acted [astoundingly] to rescue a lost and broken world through the death and resurrection of Jesus; the full scope of that rescue is not yet apparent, but God has created a community of witnesses to this good news, the church. While awaiting the grand conclusion of the story, the church, empowered by the HS, is called to reenact the loving obedience of Jesus Christ and thus to serve as a sign of God’s redemptive purposes for the world. [The Moral Vision of the New Testament, 193]

As we discussed in the first meeting together, some are hearers [spectators] of the Story and some are participants [players] in the Story. We can know a lot about the Story, but still not be involved with it. As characters, we are invited into the Story so that we can follow the Master in the on-going narrative in our different contexts. As we continue to live this Story together in community, our task is the discovery, understanding and transformation of everything about God and His world.

All this talk about Story, however, can evoke tales of fantasy, virtual-reality and make-believe. It is important to emphasize the truthfulness of this Great Story about God and his people. If it is not based on a true story, then there is no reason to be intimately and passionately involved with it [I Cor 15:13-15]!

The best setting to read the Bible is in a small community that interprets and performs the story together in its own specific context of kingdom work, witness and worship. These diverse communities each believe that the risen Jesus is present with them [see Matthew 1:23; 18:20; 28:18-20]. This is the vital ‘link,’ what McClendon calls ‘this is that’—the Christ we know in worship is the very same Christ that lived, died and rose in the Story that we read in Scripture. Our community today is linked with this same Jesus and the original band of disciples back then! We find ourselves in a continuing narrative of an active living Lord who guides, convicts and comforts our community as we read together and make practical decisions for our unique life [this is called ‘discernment’…more on this key component of community later].

The other key ‘link’ in our practice of Bible-reading is between what McClendon calls the ‘plain sense’ of a passage and its ‘spiritual sense.’ The plain sense is found when the community interprets Scripture using all the tools available in order to understand what the passage is doing. The spiritual sense is ‘the point’ of the passage—-this is where so many different brands of Christianity travel different specific paths with all the different ways they answer the key question:

How does the story of Jesus come to bear upon our world?

‘This is that’ is the pattern of how the very first Christians read the Bible together [see how Peter reads from the prophet Joel in Acts 2]. Scripture had an original message to an original audience, but later communities read and re-read these same passages together and God spoke to them, in different ways, as a new audience in a new context. It is a Bible reading strategy that takes time, effort, and an imagination to ‘link’ the Great Story with our very different circumstances today—2000 years later!

The worry of many Christians coming from the standpoint of the last 250 years of Bible readings is that this kind of ‘imaginative’ reading in diverse communities will lead to ‘relativism,’ where everyone kind of shrugs their shoulders, admitting that truth is impossible to locate and, then, goes their own merry way. However, ‘relativism’ is the last thing that the ‘baptist vision’ reading strategy is caving into. Instead, this strategy humbly admits that all our ‘readings’ are ‘interpretations’ and that every community has radically different needs, life experiences, agendas and preconceived notions that cannot be suppressed or wiped clean. In short, there is no such thing as a ‘blank slate’ or ‘pure objectivity.’ We pray and interpret the Scriptures with all the resources that we have and then seek to ‘discern’ what the Spirit of Jesus is telling our community about ‘the point’ of the passage. We interpret the passage and then take responsibility for living it. We own it.

To help us with our interpretations, the late Harvard Bible scholar Hans Frei proposed two simple ‘rules’ to guide communities—the interpretations should:

1. Be ‘Christocentric’—-how Jesus is described in one passage of Scripture should not be denied by an interpretation of another passage of Scripture.
2. Respect the universality of the gospel:

the promises to Abraham, to Israel, and to David are extended through Jesus Christ to the Gentiles, and so to all people who receive the good news. [Doctrine, 39]

Richard B. Hays, in The Moral Vision of the New Testament, more recently proposed three focal images that help shape and critique the diversity of communal interpretations [MVNT, Chapter 10]. They also provide a sort of ‘rule’ to protect us from suspect interpretations. These three images are ‘lenses’ that help us to understand, in a deeper way, how God is calling our community into the Great Story:

1. Community—a countercultural community of discipleship, and this community is the primary addressee of God’s imperatives
2. Cross—the paradigm for faithfulness to God in this world
3. New Creation—the church embodies the power of the resurrection in the midst of a not-yet-redeemed world

**However, it should be noted that Princeton Theologian Brian Blount has written a New Testament ethics called Then the Whisper Put on Flesh [2001] that takes account of African-American communities viewing Scripture through a the lens of ‘liberation’—-God working through the Great Story, from the exodus through exile to Jesus Christ to the church, to liberate his people. These diverse lenses offer great examples of the variety of interpretations cherished by McClendon’s ‘baptist vision.’

The ‘baptist vision’ calls communities to partake in the on-going Great Story. This story tells of the riveting main CHARACTER—-Jesus of Nazareth who, at the climax, is given the death penalty and abandoned by everyone, but is raised by God after three days and his presence remains to this day through the Spirit. It also tells of other characters who are the people of the living God, from Israel to the 12 original Jesus followers to the early church. We continue to identify with these imperfect, stumbling, bumbling, sincere disciples. The PLOT [and subplots] of this Great Story focuses on the creation and redemption of these ‘other’ characters. We continue to live out this PLOT-LINE, inviting others to be a part of what God is doing in the world. And lastly, the SETTING of the Great Story is none other than the rule of God, inaugurated by the life, death and resurrection of Jesus and will be fully consummated we he appears once again in the indefinite future. This continued kingdom setting gives great power [through the presence of the Spirit of Jesus] and hope that the pain, sorrow, sin and shame will all vanish soon!

So, how then does Scripture have authority if ‘objective’ or ‘absolute’ Truth was just a modern mirage? Here is one way McClendon puts it:

Whenever [the Bible] speaks, its story not only supports and conserves, but challenges, corrects, and sometimes flatly defeats the tales we tell ourselves about ourselves. God’s Spirit who breathed upon the writers of Scripture breathes also on us, sometimes harshly. The consequence is that our stubborn wills are turned, our blind eyes opened, our arrhythmic hearts set beating in tempo. This is not always immediate and is never without ugly exceptions; but it happens often enough to confirm our faith in the Author of the Book. [Doctrine, 41]

For Discussion:
1. How is this Bible ‘reading strategy’ different than other strategies that you’ve become familiar with? What do you think? What are your questions about how it works out?
2. Re-read McClendon’s version of the Great Story. What are your ‘impressions?’ Are there aspects of the Great Story from your experiences of interpreting and living the Bible that you would want to include and emphasize?
3. Explain how the Great Story from the Bible is an on-going narrative. Why is this so important to emphasize for Christian lifestyle?
4. Why do you think McClendon shies away from words like ‘inerrant’ and ‘infallible’ when describing the Bible?

For Further Reading:
Ethics [Chapter 1 and 12] and Doctrine [Chapters 1 and 11] by James McClendon
The Eclipse of Biblical Narrative by Hans Frei
The Moral Vision of the New Testament by Richard B. Hays
The Art of Reading Scripture edited by Richard B. Hays & Ellen Davis
Texts Under Negotiation by Walter Brueggemann
Theology on the Road to Emmaus by Nicholas Lash
The Story We Find Ourselves In by Brian McLaren

Working Overtime:
A reading strategy for communities in suburban Southern California should seriously take into consideration the early decision by the church at-large to include the four Gospels in the New Testament [Mark, Matthew, Luke, John]. In the 3rd century, there were numerous Gospels available that did not make the cut. Two important factors that separate these four Gospels from the others are (1) they are all narratives, full stories about Jesus and his Way instead of a collection of sayings or ethical commands and (2) they all include the road to suffering through the cross. The narrative form of our Gospels supports the story-formed ethic of McClendon. The story of Jesus continues the story of what God has done in Israel for the world. Like the original hearers of these Gospels, we too are invited to identify with Jesus the Master and the disciples who followed him ever imperfectly.

The focus on the cross beckons suburbanite Christians into a gospel story that entails non-conformity, humility, service and pain. Communities that live quite comfortably in the midst of wealth, technology, opportunity and sunshine must take this counter-cultural story seriously. As characters in the on-going story of the cross-bearing people of God, we must ask difficult questions about a far-more radical lifestyle than our churches are currently pitching.

Meeting 3: Then Is Now

‘This is that’ declares the present relevance of what God has previously done, while ‘then is now’ does not abolish the future but declares the present relevance of what God will assuredly do.
James McClendon (Doctrine, 69)

Eschatology. A word that looks intimidating and ‘scholarly.’ It means what comes last…in the end. In the New Testament, eschatology is made up of ‘end pictures’ that portray what will happen at the end of time—to the created world and to God’s people:

The Final Judgment
Jesus Christ Returning
Death, Hell and Heaven

And more…
A new heavens and a new earth
The stormy clouds of heaven
The thief who comes by night
A recurrent, naked human figure
A great dragon
An earthquake
A certain thousands years
The keys of the kingdom
A trumpet sounding

These scenes tend to evoke a mixture of excitement, intrigue and fear in even the most faithful of Jesus’ followers and they are pictures that have had a long history, with one picture being emphasized over against the others during different periods of history and different contexts on the globe.

McClendon refers to them as…

the pictures, the true, glinting, dancing, awesome, God-given visions that, collected, constitute promise and warning to God’s people. [Doctrine, 91]

The New Testament is most adamant, however, about the ‘rule of God’ as a present reality in the world today. Like the next President of the United States beginning his ‘rule’ on ‘Inauguration Day,’ January 20, 2009, we live in a time of ‘inaugurated eschatology,’ beginning on the first Easter Sunday. God has inaugurated his rule through the life, death and shocking resurrection of Jesus and communities who follow Jesus today have a unique mission.

What comes last is at hand now.
Mark 1:14-15

The ‘end-pictures’ are compressed so that we experience this reality now, impartially. God’s rule has broken into this world and the people of God offer a foretaste of the end to the world. It is an ‘overlap’ of the ages: the ‘new age’ of God’s rule has broken into the ‘old age’ of sin and death. We are an ‘eschatological people’ who are not fulfilled by the drama of our own lives, but instead the adventure of what God is doing in the world—transforming it and restoring it with love, compassion, humility, obedience and service.

God’s rule, according to McClendon, is represented by the ‘master picture’ of Revelation 4-5 that hovers over all the other ‘end pictures’: the Lamb who was slain-—Jesus the crucified and risen One! With this master picture before us, each community lives out the ‘politics of the Lamb’ until the End.

Christian communities have had quite an obsession with The End Times and many Christians are quite confident that they know exactly what is going to happen in those final days. However, if so many of God’s people, Israel, were quite shocked and scandalized in 1st century Palestine [to the point of unbelief] by what Christian communities believe to have been God’s very action in Jesus’ life, death and resurrection, then is it not reasonable to think that many, many Christians will be utterly shocked and scandalized by what He, in fact, will do ‘in the end of the Great Story’?

Our goal, then, living in a time between the times—with God’s actively present rule in the midst of other ideas of power, domination, and manipulation—is to live accordingly to the ‘politics of the Lamb’: forgiveness, enemy love and service to the broken world. An authentic Christianity rejects any form of arrogant or dominating claims to truth [about the End or anything else] but instead lives out this ‘master picture’ of the Lamb who was humbly, obediently slain for the world. God’s election of a people for himself [Israel, Jesus Christ, the church] does not focus on favoritism, but instead ‘as opportunity for suffering service’ [Doctrine, 97].

For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.
I Cor 13:12

In the first coming of Christ, a new age was inaugurated, but the old age and its evil have lingered on, defeated but menacing, so that our present is still a time between the times, in which there is a necessary struggle between the two realms until the consummation in Christ’s last coming [Doctrine, 96].

For Discussion:
1. How have the ‘end times’ been taught to you in the past? What significance has it had in your life of faith?
2. Have the ‘end pictures’ been portrayed differently in this meeting than you have understood them in the past? How so?
3. Why should the scene of the ‘Lamb who was slain’ in Revelation 4-5 be the ‘master picture over all other ‘end pictures?’ Has one of the other ‘end pictures’ been a ‘master picture’ for you in the past? Explain.

For Further Reading:
Doctrine, McClendon [Chapter 2]

Working Overtime:
The popularity and success in North America of the Left-Behind series of novels [including the video game recently released] is utterly shocking. Many Christians who have never laid hands on the books or movies, let alone the video game, have truly been influenced by the powerful message of the Rapture. This message is what McClendon calls ‘eschatology without peace.’ The consequence of this questionable reading of Revelation and other End Times passages has been an increasingly diminishing concern for the future of the earth and a complete disregard for any quest for peace. ‘The Rapture’ versus ‘the Lamb who was Slain’: how dramatically different are these ‘master pictures’ of the End Times? This competition of end pictures clearly forces us to choose which will master our lives. We simply cannot underestimate the effect that these images have on the lifestyle of Christians in our culture!