Some hope of truth

Christian Century has published a number of responses to the 25th anniversary of the publication of Resident Aliens by Stanley Hauerwas and Will Willimon. I skimmed a couple of the responses, but what I found most interesting was Hauerwas and Willimon’s response to the responses. (Warning: You can only read a handful of Christian Century articles without having to sign up, so I’d start with the Hauerwas and Willimon piece. But that is me.)

These two paragraphs were particularly nice:

Again we say: when Christians are asked to say something political, we say church. The reason we say church is that the church for all its limits is where we have some hope of being a people who do not lie to one another.

If Resident Aliens has a bottom line, it is that the hidden violence intrinsic to our manipulative relations with one another that are so often identified as “love” can only be named and transformed by a people capable of telling one another the truth. Of all people, Christians should be capable of truth-telling, trained as we are Sunday after Sunday to confess we were there when they crucified the One who is truth itself.

Three marks of evangelicalism

I came across a wonderful little book at the university library earlier this summer. Timothy L. Smith’s Whitefield & Wesley on the New Birth contains sermons and writings from the two great Methodist preachers. It also includes a lucid and edifying essay by Smith tracing the essentials that bound the two men and the differences that divided them on matters of theology. The book is out of print, but worth picking up if you find a copy.

In Smith’s essay, he summarizes his view of the three points on which Wesley and Whitefield always agreed. Smith writes that the pair shared these convictions with Quakers, Baptists, German Pietists, Mennonites, Moravians, and Presbyterian, Anglican, and Congregationalist heirs to the Puritans.

All such “evangelicals” affirmed the moral authority of the Bible, declaring that it called human beings to righteousness that is not only imputed to them in Christ’s name but actually imparted to them by His grace. All stressed the work of the Holy Spirit in bringing sinners to repentance and faith in Christ, assuring them of forgiveness, and, by His presence thereafter in their hearts, nurturing in them the love and holiness that please God. Evangelicals also declared it the duty of all who had discovered these truths and experienced this grace to proclaim the good news of salvation everywhere, at home and abroad. From that day until this, these three convictions have marked the boundaries of evangelical Protestantism.The Bible is its authority, the new birth its hallmark, and evangelism its mission.

There are others schemes that people try to use to define what it means to be an evangelical, but I find Smith’s summary quite appealing.

Methodism as option 3

I’ve been reading William J. Abraham’s Dialogues: Amongst the People Called United Methodists.

People who read this book looking for a fair and balanced airing of various view points — expecting it to be a piece of journalism — will be shocked and disappointed. Those looking to see our current crisis through Abraham’s eyes, will find it an interesting read. (I suspect Steve Harper and Adam Hamilton may use words other than “interesting,” as will anyone who labels themselves a progressive.)

In the book Abraham touches on one proposal I find intriguing. The following proposal is offered by the character “Traditionalist,” but I have heard a version of it in the past from Abraham’s mouth, and I take Traditionalist to be the character in the book who most reflects Abraham’s views. This may be off base, but I don’t think it is far off base.

Traditionalist describes a taxonomy of three ways of being the church.

The first he call the “big C” Catholic and Orthodox option that puts an emphasis on “the historical episcopate, on baptismal regeneration, on an exclusionary account of the Eucharist, and on a clerical hierarchy with our without Rome.”

Traditionalist claims that Wesley started as an Anglican committed to this option up until it failed him spiritually.

The second option is Magisterial Protestantism, which Traditionalist says has as its core a commitment to “learn the original languages and finally figure out what to believe and do, not least what do do by way of church ministry and polity.”

Traditionalist argues this is a poor fit for Methodism because “we do not believe there is a normative church polity in scripture. We begin with the work of the Holy Spirit and effectively buy the slogan that where the Spirit is there is the church and the fullness of grace.”

Building on this thought, the third option offered by Traditionalist is Methodism as a Holy Spirit filled revival of the “Primitive Christianity that stretched beyond the New Testament era into the first centuries of the church’s life.”

Traditionalist argues that this option for Christianity coming forward from Wesley includes the Holiness movement, Pentecostalism, and much of the most vibrant expressions of Christianity now witnessed around the world.

I’m not sure how Traditionalist/Abraham fleshes out this notion of Methodism as a third way (based on the book, I’m pretty sure Abraham would not embrace calling it the third way) of Christianity. But the notion is interesting, and it speaks to some of the ways that Methodist evangelicalism often does not feel like the Reformed kind. It isn’t just about predestination, but about the robust embrace of the Holy Spirit. One of my professors calls it Metho-costalism.

Losing track of God

[T]oo often Christians do not realize how subtly we are dissuaded from the theocentric perspective that should characterize faith. We live in an age of super-subjectivism, in which how we are experiencing things determines their reality. Subjectivism is evident in such slogans as “If it feels good do it.” Not so evident is the way subjectivism distorts our society’s approach to religious phenomena.

Postmodern interpretation of scriptural accounts center on the perceptions of the disciples rather than on what Jesus was teaching about His kingdom, or on the experience of the children of Israel rather than on what YHWH was showing them about covenant purposes and faithfulness. Last Sunday,  I heard a sermon that focused primarily on dimensions of life that bend women over, but hardly mentioned anything about the Jesus who healed a deformed woman (Luke 13:10-17)

Because the twenty-first century mind is characteristically inward-turned, this subjectivism has invaded our theology, as can be seen in much contemporary Christian ethics, as well as Christian music. Several years ago a large dramatic Easter pageant shocked me when the words from Handel’s Messiah, “and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed,” were changed to “when we shall see his glory.” That shift might not seem so drastic, but think of the dichotomous difference of perspective it indicates. Now the emphasis is on how we, subjectively, are (or are not) seeing God’s glory, rather than on the objective fact of YHWH’s revelation.

– Marva J. Dawn, Joy in Our Weakness

Holy Spirit & Bible then and now

I was going on about not having had an opportunity yet to pick up a copy of Adam Hamilton’s new book on the Bible, when someone very graciously sent me a copy. It arrived today. Is there anything better than free books in the mail?

Rather than skip to the chapters on hot-button issues, I skimmed through many chapters of the book and then went to the back where Hamilton turns from questions and critical reflection to what he calls an “honest and reverent view of Scripture.”

Here is one paragraph in which he summarizes things:

To reiterate the basic premise of this book: You are not dishonoring God by asking questions of scripture that seems inconsistent with modern scientific knowledge or geography or history. And you are not being unfaithful to God if you ask questions of a verse that seems inconsistent with the picture of God seen in the life, teachings, death, and resurrection of Jesus. This is possible because you recognize that the Spirit’s inspiration of the human authors of scripture was similar to the Spirit’s work in your own life. The Holy Spirit prompts you but does not dictate. The Spirit whispers to you, but you don’t always hear correctly. The Spirit’s work in your life does not make you inerrant or infallible.

Hamilton’s emphasis on the Spirit reminds me of his charismatic background. I take his argument to be that the Holy Spirit today inspires people the same way it inspired the biblical authors, so our experience of the Spirit can and should inform our encounter with the Bible.

This might lead to ask why we treat the Bible as special. Aren’t worship songs and religious writings of our day — or other religions — just as inspired as the Bible, then? Hamilton responds to these questions in his chapter about whether the gospels can be trusted when they tell us about Jesus. He argues that the historical proximity of the authors — at least the New Testament ones — to the events they describe and the value the church has found in the writings warrant our giving them special attention and authority. I take this as saying the Bible’s authority comes from the circumstances of its writing and its usage in the church, not the unique nature of its inspiration.

In the end, if I am close to reading Hamilton correctly, most of the arguments that he makes on specific questions, including his controversial “three buckets” framework for classifying parts of the Bible, come down to this matter of what it means to say the Bible is inspired.

I’d be interested in the thoughts of others who have read his book or who have thoughts arise by reading my all-too-brief description of this point.

The meaning of salvation in Resident Aliens

Since the 25th anniversary re-release of Resident Aliens, I’ve been reading the book again in bits an pieces.

Ever since my first reading of the book, I’ve struggled with the ways that the narrative-based theology and ethics the books advocates undermines or sets aside historical Christian ideas.

For instance, here is how the book describes the nature of salvation:

Here, with our emphasis on the narrative nature of Christian life, we are saying that salvation is baptism into a community that has so truthful a story that we forget ourselves and our anxieties long enough to become part of that story, a story God has told in Scripture and continues to tell in Israel and the church.

There is something appealing in this, but it also troubles me when I stop to think about it.

My primary source of discomfort is that it makes salvation about freedom from anxiety and self-centeredness. Or not freedom so much as forgetfulness. For all the ways that the authors write about Christian ethics being incomprehensible without Jesus Christ, their definition of salvation comes down to the commonplace notion that it is good to be caught up in something bigger than ourselves.

In the end, salvation is about learning to see the world differently and learning to tell our own story in reference to a different story than we did before anyone taught us the story of Jesus. In the end, salvation is about getting our mind right.

In other words, salvation does not appear to have much of anything to do with the Holy Spirit grabbing hold of sinners and breaking up stony hearts.  Nicodemus need not be troubled by the implications of this. He just needs to learn how to inhabit a new story.

The salvation offered in the book feels much too safe. It feels well suited for a Duke University classroom or an encounter group. It feels like it leaves much too much room for the distant and ironic stance that allows us to talk about salvation without being shaken up by it too much.