Monday, August 29, 2011

Questions of Methodology.

"Any kind of Christian theology today, even in rich and dominant countries, which does not have as its starting point the historic situation of dependence and domination of two thirds of humankind, with its 30 million dead of hunger and malnutrition, will not be able to position and concretize historically its fundamental themes. Its questions will not be the real questions. It will not touch the real person. As observed by a participant in the Buenos Aires gathering, 'theology must be rescued from its cynicism.' Certainly, in the face of the problems of today's world, many theological writings are reduced to cynicism."

- Hugo Assmann, Teología desde la praxis de la liberación, 40.

The words of this small and popular excerpt are piercing, especially for a lover of classic dogmatics like myself. I'm trying to get a head start on my reading for the Liberation Theology of Gustavo Gutiérrez class this semester and I am repeatedly reminded of the deficiencies within western academic theology. This cry is heard again and again to the point where it seems that either some ignore it or others assume that theology can only be considered as such if it begins with an attempt to bear witness to the cause of the oppressed in society.

Usually the starting point of God's transcendence is attacked and dismissed since this only perpetuates the complacency concerning injustice that has plagued Christianity. Without intending to sound callous to these worthy concerns, I remain convinced that abusus non tollit usum. And I wonder what is ultimately sacrificed precisely for the cause of the oppressed if methodological concerns including the starting point of God's ontology is abandoned and replaced with immanence. In short, I can not stop questioning if the method of immanence often employed by liberation theologians ultimately fails to achieve the end of liberation and hope that is rightfully and necessarily sought for the oppressed.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

The New Political Wave in Evangelicalism.

If anyone has known me since I started college, they know I've made my rounds in the Church. My undergraduate days were marked with desperation to find some sort of ecclesial identity and to embrace a particular Christian confession. This desire took me to many parts of the church from the hippie house-Church movement all the way to the wonders of Eastern Orthodoxy. Along the way, I ended up getting involved with the International House of Prayer (IHOP). I use the word "involved" rather loosely since I only attended their "One Thing" conference every New Years for three years. Despite the fact that the movement and its corruption almost led me to abandon the Christian religion (that is for another time), I am thankful for my experiences. That is why when I heard this interview about Rick Perry and the new political movement in evangelicalism on NPR's Fresh Air, I understood the seriousness of what was being discussed more than I would like to admit. You can go here to listen to the fascinating interview:

The IHOP movement is distinct from other charismatic movements in various ways. First, this movement is distinctly young-adult oriented. Sure, there are older folks who show up, but the stadiums are packed with thousands upon thousands of well-meaning and sincere youth. Second, there is an emphatic emphasis upon the supernatural. Everything goes - hearing the audible voice of God (Mike Bickle heard God's audible voice telling him to start the IHOP back in 1999), exorcisms, speaking in tongues, shaking uncontrollably on the floor, prophesying endlessly, words of knowledge, visions, dreams, etc. There is also a continual obsession with Satan, demons, and their influence upon the earth. Even more, these aspects of the "supernatural" realm should not be considered "supernatural" but rather "natural"; anything less would demean the presence of God at work in the life of Christians. Every Christian should expect this type of supernatural activity in their lives on a daily basis. One of the reasons I always felt like an outsider to this movement is that I never spoke in tongues (I tried once but it didn't work), I never attempted to cast out demons (nor did I want to), I never had radical dreams or visions, and I never fell down when a "prayer warrior" came and touched my forehead. I always wondered how one could have confidence that these things were actually "from God" and not simply a product of self-deception. Third, the movement is radically political. I think this is probably the most important thing to emphasize. Everything is about "reclaiming" and "taking back" in America what has been stolen by Satan and the demonic realm. While this assumes that America was ever in alignment with the Christian God from the beginning (and you don't even need to read Noam Chomsky or Howard Zinn to admit that), the leaders of this movement are very persuasive and powerful in their rhetoric. You might laugh and think you could never be brainwashed into thinking this stuff. But when you attend these conferences with thousands upon thousands of young adults who passionately and desperately embrace the words of leaders who claim they have "heard the audible voice of God" and had "dreams and visions" of America's future, it all becomes more confusing than you'd ever like to imagine. One of the reasons this movement must be political is that the people inside and associated with IHOP believe that Christians are genuinely responsible for "ushering in" the Kingdom of God and the second return of Christ. Until so many people convert to Christianity or repent from their blatant sin, Jesus Christ will not return to reclaim "the Bride of Christ" (the Church). Therefore, Christians must repent of their complacency and unabashedly become involved in changing the political system. This type of change comes through voting for Republican candidates because only Republicans genuinely understand the two issues that are closest to the "heart of God" and those issues are homosexuality and abortion. This feeds on the greatest vulnerabilities of evangelical youth since almost everyone in evangelicalism from a young age has been taught that these two issues are very serious and show "just how far" America has strayed from the truth of God's word (Let's be honest: no matter how "liberal" ex-evangelical youth become, most will never abandon their pro-life stance). But contrary to the ways of the past, this movement claims to be marked by love and peace. These aren't the folks who terrorize abortion clinics. Rather, they peacefully stand outside the Supreme Court with red tape over their mouth with the word "LIFE" written on it as they pray and fast for the lives of the unborn sometimes for forty days at a time. The commitment and sacrifice is genuinely impressive no matter how far off you think these Christians are. Finally, the movement is marked by a sense of martyrdom. These are Christians who are willing to be killed, persecuted, beaten, and ostracized for their beliefs. In fact, this would mean that they are doing something right since any opposition to the political system ("the demonic forces") would naturally result in this type of backlash. In a way, this opposition means progress. They don't believe in the rapture of our parent's generation. Christians will remain on earth and must endure the persecution necessary to bring about Christ's return.

Some might be wondering how anyone could genuinely be wrapped up in this movement. An outside observer might assume that these individuals are crazy and are simply not intelligent. While there might be unstable and unintelligent individuals in this movement like any other, that isn't the root of the problem. If only! The issue is far more complicated and I won't pretend to pinpoint all of the many essential problems of this movement here (there are so many issues with their political assumptions that I wouldn't even know where to begin). But I do wish to offer one specific point,which I believe highlights the reason that this type of movement is so popular and persuasive, especially among young adults. It is no surprise that evangelicalism as a whole has lost an identity and is doctrinally anemic. Apart from a lack of catechesis, there is simply a lack of distinct Christian identity. There is no sense of what Christians might actually believe or have confessed since Pentecost because a lot of evangelical Churches are led by clergy who are also uneducated. This type of theological illiteracy goes so far that most evangelicals lack very basic understandings of the Trinity, Christology, and Scripture. As such, there is this desperate longing present among evangelical youth which asks what qualifies me as a Christian? In our parent's age, it was personal piety. But the evangelical youth of today have seen through such shallow false righteousness and desire a more genuine Christian orientation. Absent theological education and responsible Christian leadership, evangelical youth attend these conferences hoping to hear an answer to these questions from leaders like Mike Bickle, Lou Engle, Jason Upton, and all the rest. These youth witness leaders who are seemingly far more sincere in their faith than most anyone else they've ever known (fasting for 40 days?! They heard God's voice?!) and so they gain credibility. And the youth really listen to these men and women. What is more, these youth crave a type of Christian identity that is radical and all-encompassing. Young evangelicals are attracted to whatever Christian expression they can find which bleeds into every area of one's life. That is exactly what you will find at IHOP. These Christians are not fooling around! There is no dichotomy between the private and public. This Christian confession pervades every part of life.

In short, it is my assertion that the reason these misguided and dangerous movements occur is due to the fact that evangelicalism has lost its Christian identity. The aspects of the Christian religion that classify its particularity have been lost. Young American evangelicals want something to fill that void. And they've found it. Unfortunately, they've traded their whitewashed tombs for an unconstitutional, superstitious, and idolatrous political orientation that has little in common with orthodox Christian belief. Most people will hear about this movement and laugh or think it not serious. But when you have political candidates like Rick Perry and Sarah Palin directly or indirectly endorsing these movements, you can't deny their dangerous influence any longer. I simply hope that evangelicalism will realize that movements like these are a direct product of its own theological illiteracy.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Which Jesus?

When one graduates from seminary and then enters into a long summer vacation with entirely too much free time, a lot of questioning begins to emerge. Since my concerns are always bent toward methodology, I have been giving a lot of thought to how Christians have, should, and do approach the task of theology.

Recently I've been asking myself what is the Gospel about primarily? Reconciliation? Forgiveness? Liberation? In dogmatic terms, I keep asking what office of Jesus Christ takes formal precedence - Jesus as prophet, priest, or king? It would be difficult to exaggerate the influence that the answer to this question has upon one's theology. But within western theological circles, especially reformed theology, Jesus' priestly office has been championed as the primary starting point. At the risk of offering arguments or questions that seem to lack in argumentation and offer nothing more than logical fallacies, I would like to say that I find this ordering suspicious. There is this enduring narrative that in order to hold an objective orientation within theology, the focus must primarily start with Jesus Christ's role as the agent of reconciliation of humanity to God the Father. I have heard it said repeatedly that minorities and other oppressed members of the world who are concerned with the understanding of the Gospel primarily as liberation are "subjective" in their orientation. It is almost as if these folks are treated like they use the Christian religion as a utilitarian means to further their own socio-political cause while the "real Christians" are those who are concerned about what happens in the more vertical dimension between Jesus Christ and God the Father.

But I keep asking myself if an objective orientation that is usually championed as orthodox can only be made possible or (more modestly) compelling if privilege is present. Is it any accident that those who led the way for orthodox theology were those who possessed power and control and held a privileged status in society? Is it an accident that the early Church, despite the substitutionary elements in Athanasius' theology, focused primarily (not exclusively) on Christ as Victor instead of Redeemer in their atonement theology?

Part of the reason I bring this up is because in evangelical theology, everything is about the reconciliation of the individual sinner to a holy God. To speak robustly about justice and liberation in relation to the Gospel usually creates instant suspicion and such an understanding is almost immediately dismissed (I have been woefully guilty of this same impulse in the past). Everything is about the vertical dimension since why fight for justice and liberation if the person's very soul is on the line? We'd rather the individual continue in oppression instead of risking their soul continuing in hell for all eternity. I don't say this in a disrespectful tone. Honestly, I have heard this reasoning constantly as someone who graduated from an evangelical private high school, an evangelical liberal arts college, and an evangelical seminary. I simply ask myself if this narrative is born only because evangelicals in North America primarily stand in a place of privilege. They have no real need for Jesus as Victor and Liberator. They only generally have a need for Jesus to be Priest and they then think that is what the rest of the world - oppressed or enslaved or not - needs this Jesus foremost. How can one say such things without serious self-critique when encountering the black community in North America, the oppressed women throughout the world, the patriarchy and poverty within Hispanic culture? I even ask this about Karl Barth's theology. Would his posture and orientation toward the task of theology be the same if he were not seeped in a life of privilege?

I think such an understanding is convenient and fails to identify with the least of those in society which the Son of God came to serve, liberate, and set free. Can we continue to champion this objective narrative without realizing that it is only made possible by our status as the masters of society? And should we not ask how our own privileged status has made our own objective theology that much more subjective in orientation?

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Gender and Oppression.

I came across a review of Carolyn Custis James' book Half the Church at the Gospel Coalition website this afternoon through a friend's post on facebook. I have met with Mrs. James about her book (she is the wife of the provost at Gordon-Conwell where I recently graduated) and I am grateful that she highlights the ways in which women are ignored and ultimately oppressed within the global Church (though I do wish she would go a lot further in her critiques and solutions). Even though it is no secret that I am not a fan of the Gospel Coalition and their understanding of the Gospel, I was very troubled and disturbed by what the reviewer, Courtney Reissig, had to say. The review can be read here:

Ms. Reissig starts the review by critiquing James' (supposed) views of marriage, submission, and ultimately the message of the Gospel. It is obvious that Reissig would identify herself as a "complimentarian" which maintains that even though women are ontologically equal with men, they have different roles and responsibilities within this world. To me, that is like saying minorities are equal but segregation is still justified. To offer a complimentarian position without believing that it is truly offensive and ultimately violent to the cause of women is simply dishonest to me. But that is for another day. Reissig then goes on to imply that she disagrees with James' interpretation of the Hebrew word "helper" in Genesis 2 when applied to Eve. I simply do not understand how it can be argued that the Hebrew word used in Genesis in relation to Eve can mean anything other than sharing complete authority and leadership since the same adjective is used to describe Godself in various points throughout the Hebrew Bible. When the word "helper" is used to describe the quintessential domestic housewife who stays home and takes care of her kids (please read: there is nothing wrong with doing such), it is a completely shallow misrepresentation of the Hebrew word and imports a tremendous amount of conservative evangelical American cultural baggage.

Moreover, I truly do not understand how the word submission, especially when it is used in a one-way fashion within marriage can be understood as anything less than inequality. We can say all day long that female submission to male headship does not mean oppression and inequality, but one need look no further than the lack of expectations for women within the average North American evangelical Church to see how women truly do not have a voice and a role within the Kingdom of God outside of domestic duties. The way that women are treated and talked about within these complimentarian circles gives one the impression that they are children and men are their parental figures rather than truly equal creatures before God.

But beyond all of these troubling understandings of gender, the line that most bothered me was when Ms. Reissing somehow believes it is acceptable to say that "oppressed women do not need autonomy and freedom from authority so much as a Savior who provides for them, protects them, and leads them to himself." First, I do not know what sort of atonement theory or understanding of the Gospel would lead someone to make such a strict dichotomy between freedom from oppression (and ultimately violence) and redemption. How does the Christian believe they understand the words and deeds of Jesus Christ if they believe that the only thing that matters for oppressed women in the world is to have a "personal relationship with Jesus Christ" (which is what Reissing seems to be hinting at here with her language of a vertical imperative for women in relation to Jesus Christ). Besides the fact that language of a personal relationship with Jesus Christ rarely is fleshed out and usually does not make a lot of sense, I am troubled that anyone could think the plight of women who are oppressed by violence is not of essential importance for the Church. Has our conception of Jesus Christ and His ministry become so docetic that the only thing that matters any longer is personal piety and private devotional times? Does the message of Jesus Christ in the cross not demand us to fight and passionately pursue the way of justice and mercy for the oppressed and outcast in society?

For all of these reasons, I have become increasingly concerned at the direction that the evangelical Church in North America has taken in its own conception of the Gospel. The contents of this review are simply irresponsible and not acceptable for the Church that seeks to be faithful to the ministry of Jesus Christ in its words and deeds. If the Gospel ever means placing the cause against oppression and violence as second best, how can we say that we truly have any identification with the God who dwelled among His people in Jesus Christ in order to offer us new life and hope?