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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.