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!

Meeting 4: The 3 Strands

The community who reads this blog today is in fact the community of original disciples (‘this is that’) confronted by the mysterious first Easter Sunday AND the community of final disciples (‘then is now’) who will be present on that Day of Christ’s last coming. With our heads and hearts on a swivel, we have a focus behind us in Great Story told in the New Testament and before us in the ‘end pictures’ that portray the End of the Great Story someday in the future! The past and future compel us today.

In the 21st century, with so many complex issues and moral questions confronting us, how can we organize an ethical life that faithfully follows Jesus today? What does God will for us to be obedient to? McClendon describes the quest for the Christian ethical life as a binding of three ethical strands that together form a rope that is quite difficult to break. Each strand is interdependent on the others for the task of living faithfully in this complex world. These strands are first identified, not by looking to ourselves, but instead viewing the last days of the Jesus in the gospels.

It is important to remember that these ethical strands are tied to the Great Story in which our community participates. Because it is the point where our individual and communal stories intersect with God’s Great Story, this is known as ‘narrative ethics,’ which is different than focusing on ‘principles’ or ‘values’ to follow. The Great Story always resists reduction to smaller units that, in the end, tend to forget the Story we are participating in. In a later meeting, we will explore more why concepts like narrative, tradition, community and virtue are so vital to Christian living in the 21st century.

In our last meeting, we saw that the event of Jesus’ life was the inbreaking of God’s rule. Through his teaching, his miracles, his healings and his entire obedient life, God brought his rule to bear on the lives of Jesus’ diverse band of disciples. At the end of his life, he was arrested, ‘tried’ and convicted to die on a Roman cross. At this point in the story, McClendon asks three key questions:

<blockquote>1. Surely the inbreaking of the new age will succor one who loved even his enemies?
2. Surely the solidarity of community (the disciples) will sustain its leader and Lord?
3. Surely, if all else fail, a mighty sign from God will intervene to turn back the power that crush him?

As each gospel writer shows us, NONE of these ‘surelys’ come to be! Instead, Jesus dies at the hands of his enemies, his disciples scatter and, as Mark’s gospel laments, God forsakes him. However, as the reader of the story gives up, God intervenes:

1. The body is renewed, raised
2. The disciples are re-gathered
3. The new age is begun

On the first Easter Sunday, God weaves three ethical strands for those who dare to live the ‘new in Christ’: (1) an embodied strand that takes seriously the body with all of its needs and drives; (2) a social strand which takes seriously life in community; and (3) a resurrection strand which characterizes the adventurous transformation that God brings in Jesus.

In the first strand of our ethical lives, God is the ‘Powerfully Present One’ who provides and cares for our human needs, desires, drives and ambitions. He is the creator of the world and everything in it [Acts 17] and knows what we need before we even ask. Love is a powerful example of a strand one reality. Our ideas of what love is and how to get it are heavily influenced by many of the stories that our culture tells us about love. Ultimately, love according to the Great Story is a gift from God and a legitimate feeling [however shaky and deceitful our feelings can be. But love, in the Great Story, is also a ‘virtue,’ a skill for living as a character in the Great Story. We learn this virtue from Jesus who, like a slave, washed his disciples feet and then died for his friends on the cross (John 13:34-35):

I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.

Our second ethical strand takes seriously our need for and virtually constant existence in community. God’s intent for humanity is for each embodied self to need others. God’s rule has broken into this world of ‘powerful practices.’ These are what God has created to organize society: government and all of its agencies, schools, workplaces, families and all of its traditions and many, many other examples. These ‘powers that be’ are essential to ordering our lives—otherwise, we would have chaos, anarchy. Powerful practices—from Christmas gift-giving to ‘rules’ for what to do when you sit on a public bus to the lack of grocery stories in the inner-city neighborhoods to how health-care is provided in the United States—are not either ‘all-bad’ or ‘all-good.’ Instead, most of them serve an important God-given function, but have the capacity to carry out evil in many forms. They have been created by God to serve us, but instead have become our masters and enslave us. But God’s rule inaugurated in Jesus has unmasked the illusion of these ‘powers’ (Colossians 1:15; 2:10,15):

…for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together.

...and you have come to fullness in him, who is the head of every ruler and authority…
He disarmed the rulers and authorities and made a public example of them, triumphing over them in it.

As God’s ‘eschatological people,’ our vocation is to confront these ‘powerful practices with ‘almost infinite adjustments, distinctions and gradations’ (Ethics, 176). Communities of Jesus followers enact ‘powerful practices’ that engage these powers of society by creatively redeeming them. As agents of God’s rule, God is our Companion along the way!

Lastly, the resurrection strand is the transforming adventure that God calls us to (II Corinthians 5:17).

So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!

The resurrection of Jesus from the dead is significant for us in three ways:
1. It confirms that God is just and gives us a reason for ‘why’ we should be moral: ‘Because God has continued his powerful action by raising Jesus from the dead!’
2. It gives us a whole new way of viewing the world—-we now live in a tension of two ages, concretely embodying the ‘age to come’ as a foretaste of what life will be like when the ‘old age’ is finally replaced.
3. It reveals the true nature and intent of God’s rule—-it is not just about beliefs or religious experiences or a new philosophy—it is about the active transformation humanity into the very image of the full faithfulness of Jesus.

The resurrection strand reminds us time and time again that God is active in this world and will end our present world on his terms. God is the Adventurer, the One who goes before us. This reminds us that our nuclear capacities and the war on terror, our big banks accounts and 401k plans, our resumes and all the important people we know—none of these are ultimate:

[Jesus’] resurrection stakes out indelibly in history the claim of the One the Bible calls the God of peace [Heb 13:20]; it announces that while the worst man can do is bad indeed, it is immeasurably fainter, weaker than the best that God can do. [326, Ethics]

These three strands make up the life we call ‘Christian.’ They call us to a lifestyle [both individually and communally] that reflects God’s rule, his design and intent for humanity and everything else there is.

For Discussion:
1. Review the three strands together. Take some time and think about how each of the strands is a factor in your own life.
a. Share something that represents your embodied strand—what is something that you can transparently share with the community that you need prayer for?
b. Share something that represents your social life. Can you think of a ‘powerful practice’ that you would like to see redeemed in a certain way?
c. Name one thing in the world that you look forward to God transforming!

For Further Reading:
Ethics, McClendon
The Politics of Jesus by John Howard Yoder

Working Overtime:
In Southern California, there are many unique ethical issues. Younger communities of the ‘baptist vision’ are confronted with complex questions about
illegal immigration,
celebrity intoxication,
image and fashion consciousness,
energy use,
sexual touching and talking,
economic inequalities and
gross materialism [to name a few].

This is a daunting list and communities are called to dialogue and discern their way-of-life together. How can churches engage in powerful practices that critique and redeem the brokenness, victimization and enslavement that multitudes experience in these areas? And how can churches empower and equip individuals to think through these and experience healing, renewal and liberation? God is deeply concerned with the individual drives, needs and desires of each individual, but also cares just as much for structures, organizations and institutions [‘powerful practices’] that make up our society at large. In the process of this very life, He yearns to transform the world any way we divide it—individually, socially, communally, nationally and structurally.

Meeting 5: Church As Powerful Practice

The call to evangelize and the demand for public Christian witness point to the overflow of the Christian Way into action toward and with and for the neighbor, as well. The church is in the world, not as an added requirement of Christian duty, but by the very nature of what church and world mean in gospel perspective.
James Mcclendon (Ethics, 239)

Church is a loaded word, full of baggage. We’ve been using the term ‘community’ to refer to the local gathering of Jesus-followers. It is when people intentionally meet together, and in so doing, they meet the risen Lord Jesus. The organization, key characteristics and activity of the community of the ‘baptist vision’ are essential.

Organization or Structure of the Community
Most Christians have become very comfortable with a pastor, priest, rector or minister conducting the affairs for the group. This ‘professional religionist’ tends to be a ‘jack-of-all-trades’ who can do all the ‘spiritual’ work for a church community. The congregation, also known as the laity, tends to be the group of people who ‘attend’ the church weekly and seek teaching, guidance, a place to worship and for their spiritual gifts to be used in some sort of way. The laity have turned into spectators as the ‘professional Christians’ have become performers. The ‘baptist vision’ seeks to critique this situation.

Shortly after the death and resurrection of Jesus, probably toward the end of the first century [according to Yoder, Fullness of Christ], this split between clergy [the religious expert] and laity [the rest of us] became deeper and deeper. It has led to an underlying notion that there are different classes of Christians, the more radical group being called to actually use their gifts as ‘full-time ministers’ and to live more holy lives. A community who follows Jesus together should not have a split between the clergy and laity. Instead, in word and deed, the community is made up of a group of ‘full-time ministers.’ At baptism, each and every Christian is ‘called’ into the ministry. The diverse gifts of each Christian can all be used to build up the Body of Christ and challenge everyone in the community to live more holy lives of obedience at their workplaces, in their marriages and families, in their times of leisure and study.

In this kind of community, worship should be set-up where everyone can participate in the meeting. All Christians, from the seminary trained to the single mother, should be empowered to their own unique role in the community. This setting is supported by the biblical witness from Exodus, where Israel was adopted by God to be a ‘kingdom of priests’ to serve the world, to Revelation, where Jesus, the Lamb who was slain, adopts a ‘kingdom of priests’ to continue this vocation of service and suffering in and for the world. We are all ‘priests’ with Spirit-initiated gifts and talents to enhance the community, and therefore work toward the healing of the world. Sure, some are teachers and some are pastors [caring, guiding, comforting the community], but these aren’t ‘full-time’ anymore than anyone else in the community.

Key Characteristics of the Community:
It is local, Spirit-filled, mission-oriented, its discipleship always shaped by a practice of discernment. [Witness, 343]

Local-—this is where the action happens! In the ‘baptist vision,’ church is a small, gathered community on a common mission in the wider community in which they live and/or work. Their identity is founded and sustained by how the Spirit of God works in and through the community, not by a regional, national or world-wide denominational name. The name itself is not the problem. Only when that name trumps the unique local interests of that community.

Spirit-filled—-the presence of the risen Christ is active and guiding this community [more in Meeting 6].

Mission--oriented—the community exists to be a ‘conscience’ and ‘servant’ to wider community who desperately seeks healing and restoration. The community does not exist for itself. However, the ability for the community to be formed around mutual forgiveness and reconciliation is a powerful form of witness to the outside world.

Our capacity to be reconciled one to another as the people of God may be the best foretaste we can offer a divided and struggling world of the overcoming of its own deadly divisions. [Ethics, 234]

Discernment-—much focus should be placed on Scripture and prayer as the community calls on the Spirit to guide and convict them in many, many ways. Each Christian is empowered to ‘soar’ when others in the community encourage and challenge them in specific ways.

These 4 key characteristics enhance the contours of the ‘this is that’ and ‘then is now’ community of the ‘baptist vision.’ This community, first and foremost, is both an extension of the biblical narrative and a fulfillment of the biblical expectation of the ‘end times.’

The Activity of the Community: What in the world are we doing?
As we discussed last meeting, in a world of ‘powerful practices,’ the community who meets together in the presence of the risen Jesus engages in ‘powerful practices’ that encounter the wider world. Jesus’ own encounter with these ‘powerful practices’ [the authority structures of Roman government and Jewish religion] ultimately led to his suffering and death. A Christian community of ‘powerful practices’ should continue Jesus’ risky and adventurous mission. But, what exactly are these unique ‘powerful practices’ that the community participates in ‘before the watching world?’

John Howard Yoder [in Body Politics and For the Nations] has offered 5 practices for Christian communities that form the essence of what it means to follow Jesus and are a powerful witness to wider society.

Yoder asks sincerely, ‘How does the gospel impinge on the rest of our world?’ In other words, how can the community who follows Jesus do so outside of the church building and into the ‘real world’? These five practices, in the words of McClendon’s ‘baptist vision’ are the ‘powerful practices’ that churches spend time creatively engaging in: ‘almost infinite adjustments, distinctions and gradations.’ These ‘powerful practices’ are not a formula or recipe for exactly how each community in North America should look. Each and every community of the ‘baptist vision’ should discern how these practices might function in the life of their own community AND each community should be open to other practices that embody the continued identity and mission of the risen Christ today. So…what are these 5 practices?

1. Multiplicity of Gifts—-this is a model for empowerment of the humble and the end of hierarchy in social process. Everyone has gifts and corresponding roles in the community. This is also called ‘the fullness of Christ’ and it can be, in larger society, an alternative model for vertical business models of management. This practice empowers the underdog. Based on Ephesians 4, Romans 12 and I Corinthians 12.

2. Dialogue under the Holy Spirit-—every member of the community as a voice and should be relied upon to help guide, encourage and challenge the community in diverse ways. This is also called ‘the Rule of Paul’ or the open meeting and in wider society it is ‘the ground floor of the notion of democracy’—This is consensus-decision-making—not to be confused with ‘majority rule’ where the most votes trumps the minority voice. Based on I Corinthians 14 and Acts 15.

3. Admonition to bind or loose at the point of offense-—this is the foundation for conflict resolution and consciousness-raising. Perhaps the most difficult and underrated of the practices because it involves loving, one-on-one confrontation. This can produce alternatives to litigation and/or corrections in wider society. Based on Matthew 18:15-20.

4. Baptism—-The earliest Christians viewed baptism as an initiation into a community defined by the radical messianic way-of-life, not by ethnicity, gender or vocation. All are ‘in Christ’ and these other distinctions take backseat. It enacts interethnic social acceptance in the community and wider society. Based on Galatians 3:28 and II Corinthians 5:17.

5. Breaking Bread-—Jesus celebrated the first ‘communion’ as an actual meal with his disciples. This is how the first Christians remembered Jesus—at the table together, eating and drinking. A radical command for the community to share possessions with fellow brothers and sisters in Christ. This celebrates economic solidarity. This is about soup kitchens and homeless shelters, but also Social Security and negative income tax in wider society. Based on Acts 2:46 and 4:32-34, Luke 3:10-11, I Corinthians 11.

These practices give the community some substance. They are extremely tangible ways to live out the gospel together. This is discipleship, evangelism and worship all wrapped into one. They form a bridge from the church to the wider world—they naturally invite our non-Christian neighbors to join us on mission.

The believing body is the image that the new world—which in the light of the ascension and Pentecost is on the way—casts ahead of itself. The believing body of Christ is the world on the way to its renewal; the church is the part of the world that confesses the renewal to which all the world is called. The believing body is the instrument of that renewal of the world, to the [very modest] extent to which its message is faithful. [Yoder, Body Politics, 78]

For Discussion:
1. What aspects of the ‘baptist vision’ for church are the hardest to swallow or most confusing? Explain.
2. What aspects of the ‘baptist vision’ for church are most appealing? Explain.
3. Review Yoder’s five practices together. Point out times when you [individually or communally] have participated in one or more of the practices.
4. Read the passages for each of the five practices and pray for discernment to implement these in the life of the community.

For Further Reading:
Ethics, McClendon [chapters 6 and 8]
Doctrine, McClendon [chapter 8]
Witness, McClendon [378-380, 402-406]
Body Politics by John Howard Yoder
The Fullness of Christ by John Howard Yoder
For the Nations by John Howard Yoder [Chapter 2]

Working Overtime:
Let’s face it, many young Christians [and many old ones and in-between ones] in Southern California are highly skeptical about church. Much of this stems from a desire for different styles of worship and sermons. However, the ‘baptist vision’ is calling for ‘church’ to look radically different than what most Southern California Christians are accustomed to without taking any style into consideration. The transformation of structure, characteristics and activity of these communities will go a long way. I myself am highly skeptical that existing churches can make [or even desire to make] this transition.

Too much would be demanded from both clergy and laity alike. For instance, most paid church professionals [pastors, priests, ministers] would have to give up much of the decision-making control of the community. In fairness, the laity would have to take a serious interest in all matters of the community and would have to get out of the ‘spectator’ mode that has anesthetized most congregations. In addition, Yoder’s five practices provide a whole new paradigm for how church is done—-no longer content to stay in the building on Sundays or any other day of the week and no longer content to have boundaries that neatly divide ‘sacred’ from ‘secular’ or ‘spiritual’ from ‘everything else there is.’

Meeting 6: The New In Christ

Whatever confusion there may be among Christians about redemption today, it must be small compared to that which accompanied the birth of the Christian movement in the first century…Yet we can be sure of the upshot: the disciples’ recognition that Jesus’ story that had engaged them was not ended by his death. For him and for them, there was a new beginning. Strangely but surely a new era had begun.
James McClendon (Doctrine, 106)

The first Christians were convinced that they were witnesses to the greatest event in the history of the world: after the shameful death of their leader, Jesus, God raised him from the dead. Something powerfully new began on that first Easter Sunday, and the disciples were participating in a ‘new era’ of Spirit-filled communities that eventually sprouted up all over the Mediterranean. These Christians had a gigantic challenge on their hands: how would they communicate, define and express this amazing experience? What did this ‘new in Christ’ really mean for the world, for all those who were being invited to partake in this experience?

It has been common for the many varieties of Christianity to use the word ‘salvation’ to describe the significance of Jesus’ death on the cross. Taking it a step further, it has also become common to describe an ‘order of salvation’: first, ‘called’ then ‘justified’ then ‘born anew’ then ‘sanctified’ then… [or for some, first evangelism then discipleship]. However, these words and many, many more that the New Testament writers used were, in fact, synonyms for ‘the new in Christ.’ These writers borrowed language from different aspects of their cultures [both Jewish and Hellenistic] to attempt to describe the indescribable! These are all different windows into the same reality, even ‘salvation’ being just one of the many images to represent the new era in Christ.

Our challenge to know the reality of Jesus’ death and resurrection in deeper ways is enhanced when we dialogue with other brands of Christianity, different from our own, as we continue to communicate, define and express what the ‘new in Christ’ means for us today. McClendon has arranged the many different terms that describe ‘the new in Christ’ under three headings: Protestant, Catholic and ‘baptist.’ These ‘clusters’ aren’t meant to stereotype or to divide, but instead to hear these emphases more clearly so that we can know Jesus more dearly.

Protestant: Establishing ‘Right Relations’ between God and Each Other
Faith [faithfulness or trust]
Justice [justification or justify or righteousness]
Children of God
Brothers and Sisters of Jesus
Friendship with God

Catholic: The Presence of Christ
In Christ [Christ in us all]
Sanctify [Sanctification or Holy Ones or Saints]

baptist: The Way of Obedient Discipleship and Suffering
The Way [or journey or walk]
Entering the ‘rule of God’
Liberation [or redemption or release]
Passage from death to life

This list is a brief, over-simplified survey of the New Testament language used to describe the ‘new in Christ.’ A huge project could be undertaken by taking the original Greek and studying the origin of each word, how the culture of 1st century Palestine would understand each word and how these would apply to ‘the new in Christ.’ However, it is enough here to start to comprehend the project that these first Christians undertook to try to make sense out of what happened in the event of Jesus the Messiah. The overexposure of simple sayings like ‘Jesus saves’ or ‘I’m saved by the blood’ or ‘Jesus died for my sins’ has made the ‘new in Christ’ appear self-evident and easy-to-understand. As the New Testament clearly shows, this event was [and continues to be] much deeper than we could ever fathom. The key is to resist monopolizing or over-stating different images of ‘the new in Christ,’ but instead to open our minds and hearts to ALL of the images in order to more fully grasp this reality.

With that said, the strength of the ‘baptist’ cluster is that it emphasizes following Jesus. The ‘new in Christ’ is, first and foremost, a call to respond to the risen and present Jesus into the faithful lifestyle of communities who follow his way. Important concepts like ‘eternal life’ and ‘forgiveness of sins’ are by-products of radical discipleship in communities that embrace the messianic lifestyle. In God’s relationship with Israel in the Old Testament Scriptures, ‘the way’ was a path to whole-heartedly following God [Jeremiah 32:39; Micah 4:2; Psalm 1], represented quite powerfully by Joshua’s ‘choose this day whom you will serve’ [Joshua 24:13-27] call for Israel to renew their vow to follow God.

Christian conduct did not follow as a consequence of salvation: it was itself salvation. [Doctrine, 118]

For Discussion:
1. What images of ‘the new in Christ’ have been emphasized in your faith journey with Jesus? What does Jesus death and resurrection mean for you?
2. Is there an image [or images] in one of the clusters that you would want to understand more deeply? Explain.
3. Do you feel comfortable about the possibility of explaining the ‘new in Christ’ in many different ways to people who do not know the way of Christ? Explain.

For Further Reading:
Doctrine, McClendon [chapter 3]
Recovering the Scandal of the Cross by Joel Green and Mark Baker
Paul: In Fresh Perspective by N.T. Wright

Working Overtime:
Most Christians need to rethink what it really means to cross over from the old to the ‘new in Christ.’ I’m reminded of the t-shirt I saw in Berkeley a few years back that read, ‘Jesus, save us from your followers.’ Maybe this is the first thing Christians need to consider. How is that we have counterfeited what ‘the new in Christ’ means (by our words and our lifestyles)? The way we communicate, define and express this reality is of utmost importance. As McClendon points out, Frederich Nietsche was presented with a very different form of the gospel story throughout his life and it resulted in a serious repulsion to anything Christian (and who could blame him?).

Throughout Southern Californian Evangelicalism, the penal-substitutionary atonement theory (or ‘forensic justification’ model) has dominated thinking (and talking) about the ‘new in Christ.’ This perspective makes Christians utterly obsessed with the mission to save friends, family and everyone else from eternal damnation because of their sin-stained souls. This emphasis has pushed many Christians toward bizarre ‘techniques’ and ‘strategies’ for evangelism and also pulled them away from a focus on the radical ‘way’ of life that Jesus handed down to his followers: enemy love, forgiveness and humble service.

Meeting 7: The Presence of Jesus

He is risen indeed…but what does Jesus’ bodily resurrection really mean?

McClendon’s thoughts on the resurrection [Doctrine, 247]:

...this was an act of God in time, reversing history’s judgment as represented by the authorities, by the opponents, even by the hapless friends of Jesus. All these read history’s judgment to be: death to this one. The resurrection opposed that judgment by entering God’s own judgment: life, Life to this same one. God reversed all human judgment by identifying the life of Jesus of Nazareth afresh with God’s own life, so that from that time, and in accordance with an eternal purpose of God, the history of this man, Jesus of Nazareth, was to be counted identical with God’s inner history, in such a way that in the knowing of Jesus Christ God could be truly known.

The Gospel of Matthew was written to a Christian community located somewhere in the Roman Empire, living about 50 years after the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. According to McClendon, Matthew is best read as an identity-document. The first readers (and hearers) of the Gospel of Matthew were identifying with the very first Christian community (12 disciples and various others), who followed Jesus in Israel and witnessed the tragic death and shocking resurrection of their leader. This very first Christian community received the Spirit of Jesus and were commissioned to live out their faith and invite everyone else to join them. The original audience of the Gospel of Mathew, as recipients of this same Spirit of Jesus (decades later), read this powerful story and identified with the disciples and worshipped Jesus as their risen leader.

A very important message from the author of Matthew to this Christian community was that God was both present and active in their community. The story of Jesus was written so that they would more deeply know this same Jesus who taught, healed, performed miracles, died, was raised and, poured out his Spirit, and, finally, ascended into heaven.
Matthew’s Gospel proclaims God’s continued presence in Christian communities all over the world in our worship, in our work, in our witness and in the reading of his word, the Bible. Jesus’ presence, in all of these ways, has powerful implications for the community’s radical way-of-life.

WORSHIP—Matthew 18:15-20
When a community comes together to worship God through prayer and song and conversation, Jesus is present and active. We know Jesus more and more as we meet together and center our time on the authority of Jesus. In the context of Matthew 18, Jesus is promising something very powerful for the community who worships him. Specifically, Jesus is calling his disciples to be honest with each other, both one-on-one and before the community, in the midst of their own weaknesses, sinfulness and imperfection. When a brother or sister in Christ is struggling, Jesus’ command is to restore that brother or sister to the community and empower them to live a righteous and free lifestyle. When this kind of radical restoration [reconciliation] happens, Jesus is in our midst!

Matthean Christianity, we might conclude, was not ‘perfectionist’ if that means lacking a sense of their own shortcomings, but they knew themselves summoned to a mature way of life, and to wholehearted sharing in it. [Ethics, 234]

WORK—Matthew 25:31-46
In Jesus, God’s reign [in Matthew, the ‘Kingdom of Heaven’] came to this world in a unique way and Jesus summoned anyone and everyone to participate in the powerful justice of God, caring for the poor, oppressed, sick, injured. Matthew 25 portrays a scene at the End of the world as we know it, where Jesus is appointed to judge the quality of our lives. In this powerful scene, the ‘righteous’ are the followers of Jesus who participate in God’s justice to the poor and needy. In these very acts of kindness and justice, Jesus is present as the one who is being cared for!

How the ‘sheep’ and ‘goats’ behaved when they could not think it counted—that is what counts, for that is what has disclosed their true character. [Doctrine, 79]

WITNESS—Matthew 28:18-20
In Jesus’ ‘farewell address’ to his disciples, his final words before he leaves them physically, he commissions them to be on a mission to be witnesses of the powerful reign of God all over the world. This witness was an invitation to the rest of the world to be a part of what God continues to do in the world through Christian communities that are empowered by the Spirit. The witness of early Christian communities came with a promise: ‘I will be with you to the very end of the age.’ This promise continues today in communities from ancient Palestine to the United States in the 21st century to the end of the world.

...the Christians’ engagement in evangelism or witness, the overriding practice that shaped participation in all other social practices: discipling [forming lives in accordance with the gospel story]—going [withdrawal was impossible!]…baptizing [full communal commitment by each to the Way]…teaching [the formation of a church culture that would stand creatively over against the world’s culture by imparting its own].
[Ethics, 233]

WORD—Matthew 1:23
God’s word has spoken throughout history through the voice of poets, philosophers and prophets in Israel. In the event of Jesus, God spoke to the world through his unique prophet and son. The Gospels, the letters of Paul and other apostles and the apocalypse of John [Revelation] have become the unique word of God to communities who bear the name of Jesus. When the Bible is opened and read in communities all over the world, God continues to speak—inspiring and challenging disciples to follow Jesus through the power of his Spirit.

A Closing Prayer:

Knowing the King [inspired by Doctrine, 242ff]
Lord Jesus Christ, crucified and risen from the dead,
You pursue us and know us and never leave us.
You know us perfectly as we hurry and hobble, stumble and slobber to know you more.

In our work, you meet us as ‘the other’ who we feed, clothe, visit, serve.
In our witness, you are always with us until the End.
In our worship, we are not mere spectators, but fellow participants in your Reign.
In your word, you direct us with a script as we perform on this stage.

Knowing you is reciprocal—you are always the Initiator.
Knowing you is social—most often with others, always with You.
Knowing you is partial—through a glass dimly until that Day.

For Discussion:
1. What does it mean to ‘know’ Jesus?
2. How, specifically, can we get to ‘know’ Jesus in more intimate ways?
3. Out of the four—work, witness, worship, word—which one would you like to see the community participate more in?

For Further Reading:
Ethics, McClendon [Chapter 12]
Doctrine, McClendon [Chapter 6]
Living Jesus by Luke Timothy Johnson

Working Overtime:
The ‘baptist vision’ emphasizes the on-going nature of the Great Story where Jesus is actually present and active in the communities who have accepted the invitation to participate in this adventure. Because Jesus is present, our relationship with him is continuous and transforming. Luke Timothy Johnson [in both The Real Jesus and Living Jesus] emphasizes the importance of the presence of Jesus in the lives of the New Testament writers themselves over time. Johnson’s concern is with ongoing ‘projects’ in the United States that attempt to portray the ‘historical Jesus’—what Jesus really said and did while he lived his 30-some-years in Palestine [usually these studies emphasize how far off the historical mark the four gospels really are]. This has led to Jesus bracing the cover of Newsweek and Time [and many other publications] usually sometime during Easter week when another ‘Jesus scholar’ releases yet another book about who Jesus really is. Johnson puts the focus on the Resurrection: if Jesus is raised and continues to be present in the community, then the New Testament writers were writing about a Jesus whom they had been in continuous relationship with over the course of decades! This is the Jesus experienced in community that they wrote about in their gospels.

Writing 30 to 70 years after the death and resurrection of Jesus, they continued to grow in their relationship with him, just as we grow in relationship with friends, spouses co-workers, etc. We know now what we didn’t know a few years ago and that continues to transform the bond that we have with that ‘other’ person. As a community in Syria in 80AD would read Matthew’s gospel, they would identify the Jesus in the story as the very same Jesus that they knew in their community in Syria. As our faith journey consists of work, witness, word and worship, we will continue to recognize Jesus in the gospels and in our midst and we will grow and transform as a result of that ‘knowing.’

Meeting 8: Competing Stories: Hope, Warning, Demand

Which story, the cultural or the biblical one, really engages me?
Witness, 362

Our way-of-life (ethics, morality) is story-formed. It is rooted in a story that is told about the world and the god[s] or lack of god[s] that are involved with it. Far more than simply story-telling, this is about living as characters in an on-going story. The story cannot be reduced to principles or timeless truths that claim to make up the whole story. As Christians, we ‘follow’ the story by participating in it. We read the gospels and identify Jesus as the messiah and Lord of the world and we identify disciples as our ‘surrogates’ [from Wayne Meeks, Christ Is The Question] in the story.

In other words, we are part of the on-going action of the continued story. We are no longer a part of the band of 12 disciples in Palestine. Instead, we are living in places all over media-saturated North America, but we believe that the same Jesus from the story of the gospels and the same Jesus spoken by Paul in his letters is the same Jesus alive and active in our community today. We are obsessed with ‘the new in Christ,’ living in a new era, a new world, a whole new order (II Cor 5:17) in the midst of the old. This story that we live out, we are convinced, is a true story, not a fairy tale or fable or virtual reality. Instead, we believe that this story is true reality, that the new era in Christ is what is real—-as opposed to the counterfeit life of the old age.

Christian communities living faithfully in the United States are in the midst of a ‘contest of stories.’ As we seek to live under the authority and power of the Great Story (‘the gospel story’) about a God who created the world and is determined to redeem the world, we also are inundated with other stories that vie for our allegiance. The American master story [the American Dream] is quite different than the gospel story of a ‘eschatological people’ who seek to live out the ‘master picture’ of the Lamb who was slain’—-to live out God’s will to be a servant and suffering and humble people. The American master story, instead, sells a ‘be all you can be’ achievement gospel. Through various medias, including movies, music, advertising, TV shows and MySpace pages, the American master story pitches a dreamy, romantic form of love, sexually charged and loaded with material possessions (diamond rings, large house with white picket fence, flat-screen TV in living room full of ‘stuff’). Lastly, the American master story is wrought with ‘the myth of redemptive violence,’ the idea that violence and punishment is the way to get back at terrorists, murderers, or thieves—anyone and anything threatening our way of life.

There is a choice between the two master stories, but, in reality, most Christians in the United States are infused with both stories. This is a confusing situation called ‘fragmentation.’ Theologian Jonathan Wilson, drawing on the work of Alisdair MacIntyre, explains: ‘our lives are lived piecemeal, not whole… We do not live in a world filled with competing outlooks; we live in a world that has fallen apart’ [Living Faithfully in a Fragmented World, 27]. Christians live out these competing narratives, switching back and forth without even knowing it. We spend so much time living out the American master story that we’re not sure where it intersects with the gospel story.

As Reformed Bible scholar N.T. Wright explains, "Christians, like everybody else, are often muddled, mistaken, foolish and wayward, and are probably trying to ride at least one other horse at the same time" [New Testament and the People of God, 134]. Riding two horses at the same time can obviously be extremely counterproductive and time-consuming. The goal is for communities living out the ‘baptist vision’ to discover, understand and transform their convictions in light of the Great Story. And in the process, they can intentionally be a witness to a society of competing stories. Only by living more faithfully in the gospel story can we be on mission.

The community of ‘the baptist vision’ is a witness of the ‘new in Christ’ to the world. Every community is a community of mission as they engage with the ‘powerful practices’ of culture, in religion, art, philosophy, science, as well as many forms of popular culture (TV, movies, music, internet, etc). Communities that live as characters in the on-going Great Story form an alterative culture to that which surrounds them with other ‘master stories.’

McClendon offers a ‘theology of culture’ (or missiology) that has three distinct ‘trajectories’ coming from three legendary theologians of the 20th century: Paul Tillich, who searched through wider culture looking for meaning [HOPE]; Julian Hartt, who sought to expose the lies and illusions of wider culture that counterfeit our lives [WARNING]; and John Howard Yoder, who called upon communities to pledge allegiance to the lordship of Christ in often times counterculture ways [DEMAND]. All three of these emphases are needed for an effective witness.

This engagment with the world allows followers of Jesus [individuals and communities] to look for ways that different aspects of culture reflect the gospel. This rejects a simplistic either-or dualism that has everything as either black or white. It allows McClendon to point to Navajo religion as a representative of ‘the new in Christ’ in some areas—-where the gospel story intersects with their own story, where the gospel story unveils truth. As McClendon puts it [Witness, 72-73],

Its business is to affirm them where they are true, to correct them where they are harmfully wrong, and to complete them by showing the relation between these stories and an inclusive story of all the earth…to repeat, the gospel is not a simple no or yes to Navajo ‘religion’ but declares a simultaneous yes and no.

And, after a ‘yes’ and ‘no’ to Navajo religion it can point out where the gospel story can and should speak to them more clearly—to bring healing and liberation to a hurting and enslaved people. When the gospel story is hope, warning and demand, it can place Navajo religion under gospel light and ‘exclaim with an amen to the Navajo sense of wholeness of life and the beauty it evinces.’ It can also give great news to the Navajo people who tell the story of witches and ghosts that haunt them throughout life. And most humbly, the gospel story itself can critique some of the efforts of the earliest Christian missionaries to the Navajos, as well as current gospel-sharing. The first missionaries from Europe had a strong attachment to the cult of saints and a far-too-narrow practice of communion and the current strategy of witness needs to have more of a social and economic focus [instead of the obsession with the individual] dealing with unique Navajo challenges like coal mining, power plants, hand crafts and agriculture.

And humbly, when the baptist vision dialogues with the worldview of the Navajo, we can also benefit greatly from their practices, attitudes and ways of life that critique aspects of our lifestyle that compromise or counterfeit what God desires for our us.

The witness of the gospel story to the Navajo people is instructive only when we take this trajectory [HOPE…WARNING…DEMAND] to a whole range of ‘powerful practices’ in our society. As we critiquely engage movies, government institutions [and political leaders], sports, novels, medicine, foreign affairs, different aspects of our jobs, our marriages and families and a myriad of other life settings, the gospel story can say both ‘yes’ and ‘no’ [hope and warning] in a variety of ways as we engage these with prayer and discernment. We will continue to see more clearly how this gospel story can speak to these different ‘powers’ in more strategic ways—the community must always live out the gospel story as we engage these cultural conditions [demand].

For Further Discussion:
1. Why is ‘story’ [narrative] so important?
2. How are the Christian story [Great Story] and the American master story different? Share how you can see both of them in your own life.
3. Share a movie that you’ve seen recently and brainstorm how you can critique the story or certain characters in the story by revealing its HOPE of gospel truth, a WARNING of how it harmfully embraces lies/illusions and the how a community of the gospel story can be a living witness to it [DEMAND].
**You may want to spend part of your time watching a movie [or parts] together and then prayerfully discerning and analyzing it together.

For Further Reading:
Ethics, McClendon [chapter 12]
Witness, McClendon [chapters 1 and 2]
Living Faithfully in a Fragmented World by Jonathan Wilson
The New Testament and the People of God by N.T. Wright [chapter 5]

Working Overtime:
Borrowing from McClendon, I present to you a critique of Quentin Tarantino's Django Unchained (2012), a film that garnered widespread acclaim, including more than $130 million at the box office and an Oscar Best Picture nomination.

Hope: Tarantino is a genius at unveiling just how gruesome humanity can be. In Django, he reminds us just how twisted race relations have been, particularly in the years anticipating the American Civil War. African Americans were so "thingified" (MLK) that they could be bought and sold, breaking up the family unit at will. Indeed, it was a shock to Southern whites when Django had the audacity to ride a horse, as Leonardo DiCaprio's Calvin Candie passionately pushes his slaves into vicious Mandingo fighting-to-the-death against slaves of rival slave owners. We know that Hollywood has fictionalized the Mandingo enterprise, but slave owners would send slaves to box it out for pure entertainment.

Tarantino's presentation of life in the 19th century American South beckons us to consider the continued racial injustice that plagues our nation and our world. Our overcrowded prisons and dilapidated schools are overwhelmed with African-Americans who have grown up in impoverished innercities, while our corporate farms are harvested by immigrant labor, undocumented and poorly compensated. On top of this, our corporations are getting more and more sophisticated outsource slavery to Third World locales that make everything from iPhones to the Dallas Cowboys.

In short, we must be reminded of the hideousness and insanity of our history, both personal and national. Indeed, we are all greatly shaped by the mentality and actions of previous generations. We do not start afresh. Only when we dare to enter the darkness of the past can we embrace a true journey of healing, joining our oppressed and marginalized brothers and sisters in their demand for personal dignity and systemic justice.

Warning:Django is porn for all those who harbor revenge fantasies. Tarantino soaked German Jews in redemptive violence in Inglorious Basterds and, who knows, perhaps will come alongside the 18th century frontier Native American or late 20th century gay high school student next. Tarantino, in fact, set out to make this film the photo negative of the legendary African-American Roots:

One thing both men agreed on was a scene in Roots that served as an example of what not to do in Django Unchained. The last act of the final episode features the character Chicken George being given the opportunity to beat his slave master and owner in much the same way he’d been punished and tormented. In the end the character chooses not to so he can be “the bigger man.”

“Bulls--t,” exclaim both Tarantino and Hudlin in unison as they discuss the absurdity of the scene. “No way he becomes the bigger man at that moment,” says Tarantino. “The powers that be during the ’70s didn’t want to send the message of revenge to African-Americans. They didn’t want to give black people any ideas. But anyone knows that would never happen in that situation. And in Django ­Unchained we make that clear.”

But this is a vital problem despite the longing we all have for the world to be put to rights, that the evil-doers will be done right. Redemptive violence is a myth on two major counts: (1) because over and over, throughout history, it has proven to both repeat and intensify what the Brazilian priest Dom Helder Camara called "the spiral of violence;" and (2) after the revenge fantasy (in all its glory!) has concluded there remains a deeply disappointing pit of unfulfillment in our souls--sure enough, evil is blown away by evil, but as Gandhi enunciated so beautifully, "an eye for an eye makes the whole world go blind." Only forgiveness and a creative strategy towards restorative justice can heal the epidemic of abuse and atrocity lurking in the corners of our world.

Demand: If not revenge, then what? The narrative weaknesses of Django call all people of faith and conscience to a more bold and courageous vision of nonviolent resistence and enemy love. This is pacifism, not passivism. It will take power to assert ourselves, confronting injustice in its manifold forms. We will need to embrace a more strategic creativity that employs a variety of weapons of peace and love, like boycotts, protests, marches, artistic appeals, education, satire and a commitment to a holistic lifestyle of nonviolence that considers what we eat, how we communicate and where we work in our grand conspiracy to extinguish hate and abuse from the world.

According to Cornel West, it has been the African-American experience itself that has been a "leaven in the loaf" of American history. Isn't it a wonder, West asks, that there has never been an emergence of a black al Qaeda in the United States, after centuries of violence and terrorism against them? Indeed, Django flips the script on the legacy of Martin Luther King who, influenced by Jesus and Gandhi, consistently and coherently devoted his movement of confronting the vicious presence of racism, poverty and militarism on the American landscape to the practices of love and forgiveness. This, West consistently points out, is portrayed in the words of the grieving mother of Emmett Till: "I don't have a minute to hate. I am going to pursue justice the rest of my life."

Our world desperately needs practitioners who are militantly committed to peaceful confrontation with power and creative solutions to the many problems, both individual and systemic. A robust critique of Django, during a week celebrating King's prophetic witness, implores us that this task is fiercely urgent.