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Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Peace, peace, when there is no peace

The mural depicted here is from the Kansas State House in Topeka, and shows a raging, almost maniacal John Brown, the fiery abolitionist, with a Bible one hand, and a rifle in the other. The fuel for Brown’s violent rage was the institutionalized violence and injustice of slavery. Even for those who believe violence is a useful tool in the service of justice making, Brown engaged in violence in ways that were not rational, sometimes raiding (jayhawking) the farms of Missouri residents (the nearest slave state) who had no slaves.

Brown is a complex person, and while I don’t condone his violent choices, I admire his intense opposition to institutionalized violence. And while his raid on Harper’s Ferry was a tragic fiasco, his death by hanging was a catalyst in the coalescence of northern opposition to slavery. What is a Mennonite pastor to think about such a fellow?

My abolitionist and Underground Railroad activist ancestor, Quaker minister Thomas Frazier, likely would not have condoned Brown’s violence, but some of his fellow Iowa Quakers provided Brown with critical support. Frazier and other Quakers were quite willing to violate the Fugitive Slave Act, which got them in trouble with the law, but going into slave states and bringing freed slaves back across the border was another matter. Brown and other raiders would do so, and once slaves were across the border, Quaker Underground Railroaders were willing to help out. The relationship between the likes of John Brown and the likes of my great, great, great, great grandfather, were complex. While they disagreed on methods of confronting slavery, they shared abhorrence of that form of institutionalized violence. Those Quakers seemed aware that peace in the abstract was not peace at all.

Some of the most surprising conversations in my life were with those advocating an armed struggle against oppression in the Philippines. I say surprising because it seems like another life time. As a pacifist these discussions quickly focused on my position that armed struggle against oppression is wrong. Always. The return from my interlocutors was my pacifism is rooted in privilege and is a luxury, enjoyed  on my part by failing to confront the institutionalized social, economic and political violence against the poor of the Philippines, which is to say the majority of the people. Furthermore my place of privilege is sustained by violence. My pacifism is both disingenuous and hypocritical.

Those conversations do not change my conviction that a “refusal to bear the sword” is the faithful Christian ethic. But they do make me highly suspicious of peace in the abstract, of cheap peace, as if we are morally pure just by throwing the word around. Without a context, the word peace becomes not only weak, but dangerous, in that it can be used as a mask hiding greater and deeper violence than that which it claims to oppose, or build barriers to conversations which might increase understanding.

As long as peace remains nothing more than an abstract concept, it isn’t peace at all. As Jeremiah and Ezekiel would say, it amounts to shouting peace when there is no peace.
Wednesday, July 10, 2013

And Wednesday after Jeopardy!

The New York Times reported today that televised prime time presidential addresses are mostly a thing of the past. Fifty years ago, if a president wanted to communicate an important message to as much of the nation as possible, an Oval Office speech interrupting regular network programming was the way to go. Now? Not so much. We have so many other ways to occupy our time than watch the president, from hundreds (thousands?) of cable channels, to the infinite world of the internet.

Compared to the good old days when network television dominated American screen time, a fraction of us watch live prime time presidential speeches today. Does this mean people don't care about the presidency? What the president says? Thinks? Perhaps. Has the president given up trying to communicate with the American people? Certainly not.

We learn what's on the president's mind through a variety of media, some of which did not exist five years ago, and often on our own time and at our own convenience.

At the grocery store once, a woman stopped me and asked if I was Phil Waite. "You don't know me," she said, "and I attend Waterford Mennonite, but I watch the College Mennonite telecast at Greencroft every Wednesday after Jeopardy."

The worship equivalent of the prime time Oval Office speech is the sanctuary on Sunday morning. But like the presidential speeches on network television, the saints gathered on Sunday morning are an increasingly small percentage of the whole worshipping community. At College Mennonite, most of us engaged in worship are not in the sanctuary, and many of us or not participating on Sunday morning.

Some of us listen on the radio before coming to Sunday School. Others watch at Greencroft. Travelers sometimes listen to the WGCS broadcast on their smart phones. Snow birds gather in Florida to watch on-line. Some of us on Sunday morning have never been to College Mennonite, or even to Goshen.

I put on my chicken little voice from time to time and complain about the decline in worship attendance. In some ways decline is a more hopeful frame because it leaves open the possibility of going in reverse, restoring what used to be. But restoring what used to be is not a choice available to us. Not only has the world around us changed, we have changed. Maybe a more helpful response is to take a step back and observe change, not decline, and to consider what new opportunities these changes bring.

Thursday, July 4, 2013


I confess. When it comes to these massive national Mennonite gatherings, I am a cynic. Why? For whom? What do we accomplish? Given my cynicism, imagine! Phoenix 2013 is a pleasant surprise. I'm having a rich time.

Planners of gatherings like this are not known for being gutsy, making waves and courting controversy. But so it is here. By focusing heavily on immigration as a biblical, theological, ecclesiological and spiritual issue, our leaders give us something substantial to discuss in the delegate sessions, hallways, and on the steaming sidewalks.

Other highlights include a blessing of Mennonite pastors in worship yesterday, which was for me a rich and powerful experience, seeing our CMC youth entering into worship with sincerity and joy, serendipitous connections with brothers and sisters in the church, concerts, plays, workshops and activities that are engaging and thought provoking.

July in Phoenix? It's a great place to be this year.

These truths are not self evident

July 4 has me thinking about patriotism, the Declaration of Independence, and the meaning of the common good.

Defining Patriotism

The word patriotism evokes a variety of images for me: support the troops bumper stickers, flag waving, pictures of historic figures and moments, people singing patriotic songs, fighter jets over head, soldiers in uniform. These images reflect an understanding of patriotism as a political (or in our times economic) ideology and its defense. But what if we were to define patriotism as support and nurture of the common good.

The problem, of course, is that our society does not have a shared understanding of the common good. As Christians, though, we do define a common good. Using a biblical perspective of the common good, we could say teachers and those working for an educated populace are patriotic. We could say John D. Yoder is patriotic for his tireless work developing the Pumpkinvine Trail, which has contributed mightily to the peace (shalom) of our city. We could say that everyone working with and for La Casa is patriotic, along with those working for clean water, clean air, healthy food, and affordable medical care.

This July 4, I am claiming all of us working for the common good as patriots.

The Declaration of Independence

Thomas Jefferson failed to practice what he put to pen and paper in the Declaration of Independence, indeed by his own admission. Still, the Declaration is a remarkable document, and I have a great deal of affection for it. I do take issue with one of Jefferson's assumptions. "These truths" are not self evident.

The notion that all people are created equal, and are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights did not enter the historical trajectory of Western culture through philosophical reflection either modern or antique, nor through scientific observation, but through God's revelation in scripture. Male and female God created them. In the image of God he created them.

Outside of the biblical witness, at least in the Western cultural tradition, little or no evidence exists to support claims of equality or the universal endowment of rights.

Sunday, June 30, 2013

Book Review: The Unintended Reformation

Every so often a book scrambles the ways people look at history, culture, society, economics, politics and church. Brad S. Gregory’s The Unintended Reformation is such a book. Gregory, a professor of early modern history at Notre Dame, argues in six long chapters and a conclusion, that the secular society in which we increasingly live is the unintended by-product of the Reformation.

Gregory hits ideological capitalism particularly hard as a product of secularism, made possible by the exile of Christian faith from public life, and whose value of acquisitiveness rejects the historic Christian critique of avarice and greed.

Academia comes under scrutiny for its belief in knowledge for knowledge sake, rather than articulating a vision for social virtues, and educating students to that end. I noted that the Goshen College emphasis on “building the world peace by peace” is a delightful contrast.

Gregory claims the church has either been banished from the social and political realm, or has withdrawn willingly in order to survive, as has happened in our own tradition. The modern secular nation state is left, unaccountable to higher authority, with no resources to fashion an ethic of good (that is a standard for what a flourishing human community might be, such as shalom), but rather has emphasized an ethic of human rights. Ironically, the latter has roots in the biblical understanding of human beings in God’s image, even as secular states reject the bible as a source for shaping public life.

Modern secular states control the church, and define the scope of its power and authority in public life. Churches are accountable to it, not the other way around. The church does not get to decide whether or when the state may go to war or use lethal force, but the state may demand that the church and its members participate and respect its institutions of violence. The secular state has domesticized faith.

Gregory is an equal opportunity offender, and every thinking reader will take issue with some aspect of a book whose scope is so grand. The book has been reviewed widely, with diverse opinions. For all, though, it is a book to be reckoned with, and  will scramble ways of seeing for every reader.
Friday, June 21, 2013

Why I am a Mennonite, Part 2

Why I am a Mennonite, Part 2 (Part 1 appeared in the CMC Newsletter recently)

Why am I a Mennonite? One answer is, because of my family heritage. The name Waite looks afar at the Germanic names which fill the Mennonite world and form the building blocks of the Mennonite game. But I am claiming Mennonite heritage.

Joe Springer, as Jonathan's mentor, as well as archivist and genealogist, has unearthed our family ancestry, both Beth's and mine. Her book is thin, and she seems to be a cousin to half College Mennonite Church. My book is thick and I'm related to no one at College Mennonite.

I am watching Mennonite life from the outside at times. Yes, I am a leader in the Mennonite Church. Yes, I have been a Mennonite pastor for 14 years. Yes I have half a dozen Mennonite institutions in my past. Still, my experience is that of the in-law at a family reunion, struggling to comprehend the unwritten rules, navigating a peculiar culture with its own set of values, customs and practices. To be clear, the work of finding my place in this family is mine, but I appreciate help wherever I can get it.

In his excavation of Jonathan's ancestry, Joe gives me a great gift, and a new window on why I am a Mennonite. It's my heritage. Perhaps I am Mennonite by heritage as much as Beth, or any Bontrager, Friesen or Yoder. Joe's digging in the Waite family garden reveals an ideal genealogical ecology for a Mennonite minister to sprout and grow.

RogerWilliams, Anne Hutchinson and Mary Dyer (above, at the gallows), 17th century pioneers in religious freedom, are 11x great grandparents. Thomas Frazier, anchor of five generations of Quaker abolitionists is a 4x great grandfather. BD Austin, a circuit writing Cumberland Presbyterian preacher in Texas, is a great great grandfather. Methodist pastor Charlie Brown is a great grandfather, and his namesake, my father Chuck, is ordained in the Wesleyan Holiness tradition. This eclectic mix of Christians wrestled with issues of peace and justice, religious freedom, the relationship of church and state, how to build Christian community, and how to live faithfully in challenging circumstances.

My unique Mennonite genealogical ecology now joins the many Mennonite genealogical ecologies at College Mennonite Church, strengthening, broadening, changing it as each of us do when we join this body. In particular, the genealogical ecology of my ancestors is united in marriage, and in the flesh and blood of two boys, with a genealogical ecology, fertilized with the stories and lives of 16th century Swiss Anabaptists and their descendants. 
Sunday, March 3, 2013

Other People's Sins Sermon

This morning I skimmed the chapter Puritans and Prigs from Marilynne Robinson's book, The Death of Adam. I am finding it helpful in my own work letting go of other people's sins.
Thursday, February 28, 2013

Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary's New Curriculum

Check out the news at www.ambs.edu. The Association of Theological Schools has approved AMBS's two new MDiv curriculum options, including an online option.
Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Do Mennonites have a Peace Theology?

I have found myself wondering lately if Mennonites have a peace theology. The 16th century Anabaptists definitely had a peace theology centered on eschatology. A faith community doesn't send thousands to the gallows to be burned at the stake without a vibrant peace theology, in their case one heavily accented with eschatology, a belief that God, and God's peace, holds the future.

Twentieth and 21st century Mennonites, it seems to me (and maybe it goes back long before the last century), have worked hard developing a peace ecclesiology and a peace ethic, a sense of God's requirements and expectations of the church as a sign of the reign of God. But we have not had much to say about God that would be a peace theology, other than to talk about God's requirements of us. At its core theology explores the nature and character of God, and ecclesiologies and anthropologies are secondary points of inquiry.

It's an important question, and one I think about a great deal. Personally, I am inspired by three different approaches to peace theology, one is eschatological in nature, and perhaps most developed by the Anabaptists. History will find its culmination in the victory of Jesus, the Prince of Peace. Another area has to do with an ontology of peace. That is, God created all things in goodness and beauty, and God is infinite peace. What is ultimately true and real is God, and that God is a God of beauty and peace. Finally, I have been influenced by Walter Wink's thought (drawing on Ricoeur) that creation is in bondage to powers of domination (violence), and that Jesus frees us from these powers. All three of these have long and rich traditions in the scriptures and Christian thought, and are well worth our exploration as we seek to articulate peace theologies for Mennonites in our time.

Follow up from Sunday's sermon

This is just a quick follow up to Sunday's sermon.

In case you are wondering, the quotes used are from David Bentley Hart, The Beauty of the Infinite: The Aesthetics of Christian Truth. Here are the quotes. "In Christ, totality's economy of violence is overcome by the infinity of God's peace..." "Totality is, of necessity, an economy, a circulation of substance, credit, power, and debt, a closed cycle of violence..."

Also, I mentioned U2's song "Grace" from the album All that you can't leave behind. Another song which I happened to listen to on Saturday that was helpful in developing the sermon was Bruce Cockburn's "Gospel of Bondage" from the Big Circumstance album.

One more thing

Everett Thomas reminded me that I had promised to report on something Serene Jones had said which I found important at the time, but needs some unpacking. She was wondering about the financial implications of increasingly online congregational life, in the same way that MOOCs threaten the business model of higher education. Good question! I am wondering about that too.

Already at CMC we see the impact of this on congregational life. We recently added an invitation to participate in worship via offering for our webcast/TV broadcast, aware that more people share in CMC worship through electronic means than in person. We also have a mechanism for online giving. Increasingly, it seems to me, we are going to have to address this issue.

Now a final note, I have applied, and have been accepted, for a Writer's Workshop on digital media this coming June at St. John's in Collegeville, Minn. It is fully funded by the Lilly Foundation, so is free to CMC. Verity Jones is the teacher. So this conversation will continue!
Tuesday, February 12, 2013

In Conclusion

I made it back from New York after doing the airline runaround at JFK to secure a boarding pass. I've had a chance to reflect on the conference, and have some final reflections. Here are three things I took away from the conference. New media is here to stay and is already changing the way we think about and function as church. The best uses of new media will grow organically out of the mission of congregations. A major question still hanging is whether or not geographical proximity is an essential component of church or not. Can church exist entirely online? Most of us would say no because all we know is the church rooted in a location. Perhaps "post geographical" (thank you Jerry Lapp) communities of faith will become the norm. Who can say in a world where a year ago none of us had heard of MOOCs?

For those of you interested in more in depth reading out of the conference the New Media Project web site has the papers presented available at http://www.newmediaprojectatunion.org/pages/downloadable-resources/.

What we learn from the Pope's renunciation of his ministry

Like many of you, I suppose, I awakened to the news that Pope Benedict renounced his ministry. Renounce was his word, or at least the translator's word from a Latin equivalent (okay you Latin scholars out there...), and it is a strong word, up there with abdicate and forsake. My first thought was, can he do that? I guess he can, though it hasn't been done in 600 years.

Popes don't resign, retire, renounce, abdicate, forsake, or in any way leave their ministries. As the pope's own statement suggests (see below), the suffering, pain, dementia, and other limitations that come with age, are part of the job because they are part of the human experience. Thus it has always been for popes, until now.

"In today's world (you can see the extended quote below), subject to so many rapid changes and shaken by questions of deep relevance for the life of faith...both strength of mind and body are necessary." 

In other words, today is different. The rules of these many centuries no longer apply. More vigorous leadership is needed. The pope notes two reasons for this. One is rapid changes. The world is changing so fast, and in so many ways, the maintenance mode of the previous centuries won't cut it any more. The church can't afford to coast for a few years waiting for a pope to die. It needs a fully engaged leader.

The world is also shaken, the pope says by questions of deep relevance for the life of faith. I am not sure quite what he means by this, and we might read into it many things. Whatever he means in particular, in the end it is clear that much is up for grabs. Questions that were settled in communities for centuries are no longer settled. We debate issues of identity and purpose as Christians as never before.

These challenges aren't just for Roman Catholics, but for all Christian bodies. The Pope is right. These times are different than other times, and courageous action is needed in the face of unprecedented challenge. For the Pope the courageous action was to renounce his ministry.

"After having repeatedly examined my conscience before God, I have come to the certainty that my strengths, due to an advanced age, are no longer suited to an adequate exercise of the Petrine ministry. I am well aware that this ministry, due to its essential spiritual nature, must be carried out not only with words and deeds, but no less with prayer and suffering. However, in today's world, subject to so many rapid changes and shaken by questions of deep relevance for the life of faith, in order to govern the bark of Saint Peter and proclaim the Gospel, both strength of mind and body are necessary, strength which in the last few months, has deteriorated in me to the extent that I have had to recognize my incapacity to adequately fulfill the ministry entrusted to me."
Friday, February 8, 2013

Part 6

Kathryn Reklis, Fordham, church cannot exist fully online. Incarnational presence is too much a part of Christian tradition. Digital incarnation is not embodied incarnation. This is the insight from this conference. Reklis suggests we not settle these conclusions too quickly. She affirms the recovery of embodied Christian faith, but wants to push us to think about embodiment in digital interaction. She makes the case that the online world is no longer an "other" world. The continuum between digitally mediated life and face to face life is fluid. These are platforms we use to be ourselves across time and space. Presence is redefined. We can be present beyond geographical limitations. Reklis is bringing up the prospect of digitally integrated bodies in the years ahead.

She raises the prospect that we are dissipated in our use of technology, and our presence is over extended. I hope this is making sense. It is quite engaging in person.

Jason Byassee is on last. "We have been a virtual body from the first." That is, the body of Christ transcends geography. Pauline epistles also reflected a communion among people who were not physically connected.

Signing off. Thanks to those of you following this web log.

Part 5

I'm wondering about the ways media changes context. Who is our preaching audience and context? Who is our worshipping community? Even our radio broadcast begs the question.

Jim Rice from Sojourners is presenting. Jim is raising ecclesiological questions using models from Catholic theologian Avery Dulles. Four ecclesiological models from Dulles include institution, communion, herald and servant. Social media has aspects that support the institution of the church, and work to undercut it. Social media can serve community and herald modes of being church.

Monica Coleman of Claremont School of Theology is presenting now. She is talking about atonement theology. I'm not sure where she is going. Oh she is highlighting the role of new media as a mediator.

Now up, Lerone Martin, Eden Theological Seminary, St. Louis. Martin is looking at the history of the use of electronic media by religious communities as a tool for proclamation from the telegraph on. He is asking what I think are the critical theological questions. Can we proclaim the gospel and make disciples in 140 characters or less? Martin thinks that social media cannot fully replace geographically based Christian life, but it can enhance them significantly. What does it mean that people are already using non geographically based media to replace geographically based Church life? This is even happening at CMC, and even now. What does it mean that each church member in an information age has access to volumes theological and biblical information. Clergy are needed not for expertise but for their curating and guiding abilities. Martin's is a fine and thoughtful presentation, the best so far.

Serene Jones, president of UTS is now speaking. "There is something about mobility" in the use of mobility, as we use these new ways of communicating to organize ourselves. Many provocative things being said now, but I can't keep up on my iPad. I will do a post later summing up the conference. Maybe when I am waiting hours on end at the airport. Here's a question from Serene Jones. Is the kerygma of the church going to be crowd sourced?

Live blog part 4

Verity Jones: The best social media practices emerge organically from the mission of the congregation. This is a critical take away piece from this conference.

Eugene Cho made a comment that reminds me of the Mantei 'Teo situation. Some things you can only know about a person by being together with them in person. We can manipulate social media to put a particular face forward, which may not be a full picture. How do we, or can we, connect with people using new media with integrity. I suppose this has been true with broadcasters and personalities in old media, but now it is true of all of us.

Live blog part 3

Our break is over. Good coffee, a great fruit salad, and still only a little slushy snow outside.

The conversation is turning to crowd sourcing. Kathryn Reklis from Fordham University brought it up. It is an interesting topic, especially from an Anabaptist perspective. What would it look like to crowd source a sermon using pastor's puddle?

Jason Byassee noted that the panelists started using social media, then stepped back and did theological reflection. This is a theological method.

Jim Rice of Sojourners magazine observed that there is still a broadcast aspect to new media. This blog, for example, has a broadcast element.

Eugene Cho observes that people do not just show up at his church, but learn about it, usually online.

Tony Lee emphasizes the importance of getting our message out. I wonder about the Mennonite Hour and other "old media" efforts (or CMC on WGCS) and their effectiveness in connecting with people outside our tradition. Marty Troyer in Houston is using a blog to reach beyond the usual suspects.

Eugene Cho reminds us that boundaries are important. This is a big one for all of us.


Live blog part 2

Eugene Cho from Quest Church, Seattle, is presenting now. Quest Church, like House for All sinners and Saints, a relatively recent church plant.

He suggests that the front door of churches today is digital. New media can be used as a way to connect people. Might we say build community? He is using the word social capital to describe what new media can bring.

Cho notes the astonishing changes in how people communicate in the last 15 years.

Eric Elnes from Darkwood Brew at Countryside Community Church in Omaha. It is interesting to note that most of these presenters are from urban and relatively new congregations. He shares that he kind of stumbled into using technology for practical reasons. He is not an early adopter, he's just trying to do what works.

He makes the case that we can't rely on mainstream media to get our story out, we have to be out in the digital public square ourselves, and new media makes it possible to do that with relatively few resources.

Elnes finds new media to be a democratizing force in the world an in the church.

One thing that keeps coming back to me here, is the role that social media is playing in pastoral care. Facebook and CaringBridge are tools we are using at College Mennonite to care for each other. What does this mean? How is this changing us?

Tony Lee of Community of Hope African Methodist Episcopal Church, Washington, DC, a 7 yr. old church plant. "How did you get hooked up with social media?" he asks. "it was free!" Again using social media as a tool, not as a conscious effort to be a social media church.

My impression listening to these congregational leaders whose churches are using new media are connecting with those who have lapsed or no church background.

Lee: high tech and high touch. New media allows us to connect with more people.

The structure of this day is that we will hear stories from congregations in the morning, then theological reflection from pastors in the afternoon. For those of you looking for theological reflection it's coming.

Weather update: nothing too impressive yet. Hoping things are up and running in time for my flight late tomorrow afternoon.

Live blogging the conference: Digital Church: Theology and New Media

Nadia Bolz-Weber, from the House for All Sinners and Saints in Denver, a Lutheran ministry is sharing now. For starters she suggests that the media used is simply a new opportunity to articulate the message. I disagree. The relationship between message and media is complex.

She said her church has a closed Facebook page for members, and says it has been good for introverts, creating space for them to interact socially.

She mentioned the phenomenon of people viewing services who have limited connection to her congregation's geographical community. She shared the story of a woman from NYC who connected online and came to be baptized in Denver after building a relationship with the church online. Interesting.
Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Theodicy and Eschatology

My friend Richard Kauffman recently made this post on facebook, "When it comes to evil, Christianity doesn't have an explanation. It has an eschatology, not a theodicy."

Richard makes a provocative claim, perhaps a little overstated to make a point. Christianity, of course, has a great deal to say about evil. But ultimately Christian faith is interested in the coming fulfillment of creation, and less in trying to explain the suffering that is. This certainly was the case with the 16th century Anabaptists, an eschatological people, focused on the in breaking and coming of God's reign, and its implications for how we are to live. A persecuted people who had suffering imposed on them through torture and martyrdom did not focus on their own suffering, but on God's salvation.

Evil and suffering have long been concerns of Christian thinkers, and non Christian thinkers who find Christian thought on these matters untenable. But in our time and place, evil and suffering have become the core spiritual scandals, the barriers of many people to faith.

I am intrigued by this. Why is this concern so central for us in the most affluent society the world has ever known? I suspect among those for whom suffering is the norm and not the exception, this theological concern is not so central, at least that reflects my own experience in contexts of great suffering and misery. These are only reflections, and are not the result of scholarly research or study, but I suspect several reasons for the concern for suffering in the face of a good God. One is the fact that most of us live in unprecedented comfort. We forget that, not so long ago, even in our own wealthy nation, children died of childhood diseases with relative frequencies, life expectancy was in the forties of years, food could be scarce, and working conditions for millions were abysmal. We forget sometimes that we live in a time of remarkable abundance, security and health.

Another reason on my suspect list is the consumerist nature of faith in our times. We look at God as a provider of goods and services and ourselves as consumers. In this frame, God becomes a cantankerous shop owner, or an incompetent bureaucrat.

Also on the list is the dissolution of a theology that explains evil. In the Chronicles of Narnia, the question comes up of why Aslan doesn't just make everything right. The wise response is, there is such a thing as evil, you know. I'm not sure popular American culture believes in evil anymore, or in human sinfulness. We have misunderstanding and incompetence, but not evil and sin.

Perhaps the most controversial reason on the list is the self obsession so much apart of our culture. We are quite interested in ourselves. Indeed we find ourselves quite interesting, and God perhaps less so. This self focus during a time of suffering naturally will move us to questions of theodicy.

Finally on my list is the intrusion into the church of a culture of therapy. This is not at all to say that therapy is bad. It's root comes from the Greek word for healing, and it was something central to Jesus' ministry. But when healing becomes the primary task and focus of the church, and its pastors, we train ourselves to focus excessively on human wounds, and neglect to understand these wounds in terms of God's salvation, and eschatological destiny. In this last one I double back to Richard's point. Unless the church recovers an eschatological sense and vocation, theodicy will continue to be its primary scandal.

Critical to Richard's insight, and, I think, to the uniqueness of the Hebrew Bible, is that theological reflection begins, not with creation or questions of origin, but with salvation and redemption, God's breaking into redeem people from suffering. The foundational event of the biblical people is liberation from bondage, suffering and misery in Egypt. Theological reflection on creation, and indeed all other matters, is done through the prism of God's breaking into the world to save. Looking for God to break in becomes the focus for the biblical people. Certainly questions of God's goodness and the triumph of evil are important (why do the wicked prosper?) but the people see them through an eschatological lens.

A marvelous illustration of this thought process is found in John 9, when the disciples ask, who sinned, this man or his parents that he was born blind? The disciples question is one of suffering and its causes. Suffering comes into the world through sin in a general sense, but the disciples were quick to specify, particular suffering resulting from particular sin. But Jesus turns their question on its head. No one sinned. Indeed its the wrong question. The man was born blind so that God's glory might be revealed. On the one hand, Jesus might be saying that the purpose of the man's blindness is so God can heal him, but I think this is a short sighted view. Jesus finds the question of causation irrelevant. The only meaning Jesus sees in human suffering is the possibility of God breaking in to that suffering with power to heal and save, liberate and redeem. In short, eschatology. Richard is right. Jesus is not interested in theodicy but in eschatology.

Of course this is a tender topic. As Christians the suffering of others should move us to compassion first and foremost, as it did with Jesus, then theological reflection can come. I do not wish to minimize or belittle  anyone's grief or suffering. But we are wise to remember that there is a bigger hope, and we are inclined to miss it if we are focused on theodicy.
Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Cable Television, MOOCs, Social Media and the Future of the Church

When we lived in Kansas I was part of an investment club. Each of us in the club was assigned at least one stock to monitor, and report to the group. I followed Comcast, the cable provider. During the time I followed Comcast they acquired NBC Universal. I had to explain to the group just why Comcast would want to make such an acquisition, and what it might mean for the cable industry in general.

Here is what I learned. Young people don't watch television, at least not on television. They watch programs, movies, and the like on tablets (like iPads), game consoles, smart phones, and old fashioned computers (remember desk tops and lap tops?). And they watch them when they want to watch them, not when the television schedule says they should watch. Cable is expensive, and why would they pay for something they don't use. Cable is expensive because programming is expensive, and the business model of bundling channels into a package, most of which have no interest for a given consumer. Hence, Comcast fears it has an unsustainable business model. Cable is doomed. In acquiring NBC Universal, they are betting on the future of content.

The telecommunications industry is highly volatile. Ten years ago I read that CD sales were doomed, that music and publishing companies had unsustainable business models, and that print media were likely to go out of business on a grand scale. This all seemed far fetched to me at the time, but now it is coming to pass.

Another development with staggering implications that has just taken place only in the last year, is the emergence of the Massive Open Online Course, or MOOC, in the field of higher education. One year ago Jim Brenneman had likely not even heard the term MOOC, my guess is now giving it attention is one of his top priorities. If it isn't it probably should be. Some people imagine that the MOOC will mean the end of many educational institutions, as millions and millions of people enroll in free online courses taught by professors from the most prestigious educational institutions, and at the top their fields. Some people are excited about the potential of MOOCs to make the finest education available to anyone in the world with access to the internet, a democratization of education. Even as this transformation is underway, many questions linger, but the implications are off the charts.

We are in the middle of a stunning, whiplash inducing, change in the way people organize, share and consume information, communicate with each other, and engage the world. By reading a blog post, you are participating in this change right now. When Pastor's Puddle began, I would watch the hits when a new post was up, and within seconds the number climbed into the dozens, and it all felt strange to be communicating with so many people in this new way. I keep in touch with many of you via facebook, and also have a sense of connection with people I rarely see. I find I am beginning to send and receive text messages more frequently. I hear sermon responses from people who haven't set foot in CMC for years, if ever. Many people who are rarely (again, if ever) here on Sunday morning think we are their church. People who do not think of CMC as their church watch or listen to our services, often at their convenience.

I believe we are in the middle of a communications revolution that rivals the revolution that gave rise to the Anabaptist movement, and led to a profound reordering of church and the way Christians think about what it means to be a Christian. The invention of the printing press transformed a society of illiterate folk who gained information orally, visually, and in community, to a society of readers, where ideas could be spread in print, and where people read on their own. This transformation led to new and exciting ways of thinking about faith and studying scripture. It empowered believers to study scripture and other ancient authorities for themselves, without relying on the church or other authority figures to tell them the biblical story or explain and interpret what it meant. This empowerment became central to the growth of Anabaptism. But some things about the transformation brought by the printing press we might bemoan. Widely available printed material made it possible to have a personal faith rather than a corporate faith, where each individual was free to discern truth for him or herself. The long journey to epistemological individualism was begun. It also led to the elevation of the printed word over against some other kinds of authority or spiritual experience. The destination of this aspect of the transformation has been bibliolotry, or veneration of the words of scripture as a kind of deity.

In this transformation, the church adapted, but much changed and much had to die. The same will likely happen now. The church will adapt, incorporating new media. And as it does so, some practices will die (are dying, really), and others will emerge. As before, the introduction of new media into the life of the church will mean not just a change in method, but the message will change as well, although it is difficult to know how.

The cultural and social forces being brought to bear on educational, telecommunications, publishing, recording and other institutions are being brought to bear on the church as a whole and on congregations in particular. The most important public square in our society today is the internet, and it will be increasingly so. The most important birthday for many young people is no longer 16, when they can drive, but 13, when facebook and other forms of engaging the online public square become available to them. The most vibrant churches of the not so distant future in our society will be those that effectively engage this public square. Churches are already working at community building, faith formation, pastoral care, and worship, through social media and other internet vehicles, transcending geographical barriers. The question is not will it be done, nor whether people will see the internet as a place where they engage a faith community, but who will do it and how it will be done. Will Mennonite congregations engage this public square?

I believe College Mennonite is uniquely equipped to engage this public square, but we will need resources to fully engage it. For some of us, these changes represent unspeakable loss, others can't imagine that authentic church done online, others of us are excited about the opportunities these changes represent, and perhaps some of us are simply bewildered by the changes and not sure what we should do. I am cautiously optimistic that these changes represent a rare and exciting opportunity for the church in mission.