Resident Aliens redux

God has put North American Christians in this world under an allegedly democratic polity in a capitalist economy and with state-run education, a military budget, and gun violence in the streets — as well as rates of incarceration higher than any country in the world. How then should we live now in light of the shock that God has raised crucified Jesus from the dead? That’s the political question before us.

The words come from foreword of the “expanded” version of Will Willimon and Stanley Hauerwas’ Resident Aliens. They get to the heart of the central issue of the book: How should the church be the church in post-Christendom?

It was about ten years ago that I first picked up a copy of this book. I used the new edition coming out as an excuse to buy a copy without my comments and underlining in it to read the book afresh, which I hope to do soon.

The new forward is mostly interesting for Willimon’s reflections on his regrets about the book — not enough Christology or pneumatology, too much ecclesiastical romanticism, and some irrelevant arguments with dead theologians — and few glimpses at how being a bishop sharpened Willimon’s sense that the book is still needed.

Here is Willimon’s summary of UMC in the 25 years since Resident Aliens was published.

My church (Stanley’s ex-church) lost three million more members without noticing. United Methodist bishops, clueless about how to challenge the lies told by American ideologues of the left or the right, take the easy way out and vow to end malaria in Africa. The Protestant mainline becomes even more fissiparous in fights over, of all things, sex. When pietism substitutes love by God for obedience to God it degenerates into safely personal, instrumentalist, suffocating sentimentality.

If you have an old copy of the book, you don’t need to buy a new one. The only new material is Willimon’s foreword. But if you’ve never read the book, I commend it to your attention. I know I am looking forward to reading it again.

Pain, intimacy, movies and stories

I watched the movie The Station Agent last night. It is a movie that shows you a story. Characters do not make long speeches to explain what they are thinking. Even when they get into heated arguments, they spit out words without explaining everything that goes behind them. It is a lovely movie.

Watching it reminded me of reading American short stories written in the 1980s and 1990s. You get to see the surfaces of people’s lives. They were stories told with compassion but not sentimentality about people who were often broken or damaged in some way. There is a lot of pain tucked inside where it can’t been seen easily. It may be that short stories are still written that way. I do not keep up.

I share all this because it reminds me of the intimacy of prayer.

Reading the Bible is often like watching this movie or reading that fiction. We don’t actually get deep interior monologues in the Bible. When speaking to each other, people do not often go on and on about their motivations. Too often, we preachers impose those things on the stories in the Bible. But the narrative itself is often quite lean.

One of the things that makes the binding of Isaac such a powerful story is that we never get inside the skull of Abraham or Isaac. It drives us nuts with questions, but all we are given is what they say and what they do. And then we have to figure out what to make of it.

Just about the only time we get inside the characters in the stories of the Bible is when they are praying. When they pray in the Bible, it all comes out.

In The Station Agent there is not a single moment than Elijah’s wailing at God in the cave about the murderous Ahab and Jezebel. We get that scene in the movie — at least twice — but it from the outside is not so coherent. When the drunken dwarf stands up on his bar stool and yells “Look at me!” or when the bereaved artist swallows a bottle of pills, they are crying out of that same place that Elijah was. We just have to work harder to see it that way because these prayers are not for us. Indeed, when we cry out like this, often we are not even aware that they are prayers.

Experience and theology: Chickens and eggs?

The Christian is defined as a follower of Jesus, and reflection on the experience of following constitutes the central theme of any solid theology. The experience and the reflection alike have for their subject a community that under the movement of the Spirit focuses its life on the proclamation of the good news: The Lord is risen! Death and injustice are not the final word of history. Christianity is a message of life, a message based on the gratuitous love of the Father for us.

– Gustavo Gutiérriez, We Drink from Our Own Wells

I had a long post inspired by this quote, but it was muddled and rambled and contradicted itself.

So, I’ll just post the quote and one more from the book:

Every great spirituality begins with the attainment of a certain level of experience. Then follows reflection on this experience, thus making it possible to propose it to the Christian community as a way of following Christ.

Does this ring true to you?

What is the experience of following Jesus that has given rise to the spirituality known as United Methodism?

Reading Reinhold anew

I wonder if contemporary Christians would be better equipped to cope with American culture if we read Reinhold Niebuhr more than we do?

This summary of Niebuhr’s view of social change, for instance, strikes me as insightful.

Social change was brought about not by persuasion, diplomacy, pedagogy, intelligence or sweetness, but by – to use a term that he uses repeatedly in the book – “emotionally potent oversimplifications.” Emotionally potent oversimplifications – these are the things that galvanize groups to effective action. You see why I say this is a rather depressing outlook – (laughs) – and it doesn’t get any better.

A quotation: “Our contemporary culture fails to realize the power, extent and persistence of group egoism in human relations.” So the idea of solidarity – the campfire – is an illusion. Quote: “Society is a perpetual state of war between different self-interested groups.” Jesus Christ, meet Thomas Hobbes. Quote: “The only way a society can maintain itself is by the coercion of dominant groups who go on to invent romantic and moral interpretations of the facts, and the peace lasts only as long as the underdogs are kept down. Then when they are able to successfully challenge and coerce a new peace, they impose another set of romantic and moral interpretations of the facts.”

Niebuhr has not been in vogue for a quite a while, thanks in part to the withering critique of people such as Stanley Hauerwas. In the rivalry between the followers of Niebuhr and Karl Barth, the Barthians have certainly won the day. But I notice when I read Stanley Hauerwas that the question I find myself asking most often is whether his theology is predicated on a overly optimistic vision of actual human communities, which is exactly the issue Niebuhr spent so much of his energy trying to undermine.

In some ways, it seems that Hauerwas points out the flaws in Niebuhr’s theology, which starts with humanity and moves upward, just as Niebuhr points out flaws in theological systems that start with utopian visions and try to move down into actual human life.

I wonder if there isn’t some value for the church in re-engaging with Niebuhr. Reading the following quote from one of his books, I’m sure that reading him would be enjoyable:

Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime; therefore we must be saved by hope. Nothing which is true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore we must be saved by faith. Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore, we are saved by love. No virtuous act is quite as virtuous from the standpoint of our friend or foe as it is from our standpoint. Therefore we must be saved by the final form of love, which is forgiveness.