Tuesday, September 29, 2009

On Contextualizing and Authority

This is another post that was originally written for my Christian Theology class at WFUSD. As I have done previously, I will include bibliographical information at the bottom of the post. Word of warning: this is the least favorite of the posts that I have written for the class to date. There was something about it that just didn't quite come together for me.


This past week readings from both Migliore and Ford touched on the place and authority of scripture in Christian theology. These readings grabbed me became the focus of my thought this week. I mentioned last week that I grew up in churches that, while they belonged to a mainline denomination, could very easily be considered “conservative evangelical” in their outlook. Like many similar churches a great deal of emphasis was placed on “scripture.” I place this in quotes due to the loaded way that this term was used in the churches of my youth. Often this emphasis was rooted almost entirely in certain passages that served to reenforce the conservative/fundamentalist doctrine that we were getting from other places. The truth be told, while I am sure that this is not true, I don't remember a sermon other than Christmas and Easter being preached from the gospels. There was a lot of Paul and a lot of “Old Testament,” but not a whole lot of Jesus.

The other side of my religious upbringing was what I got at home. Both of my parents were “progressives” before we ever heard that word. They certainly served as a counter-weight to the indoctrination that I was receiving at church. However, even at home the scriptures played a large role. Until I went to High School and there simply ceased to be time, every morning was started sitting around the table, reading the Upper Room devotion for the day with the scripture being read out of the red family RSV. When we would visit my great-grandmother in West Texas every meal was started by handing around little slips with different Bible verses on them. I knew that I had “grown up” when I was able to have my own to read to the table. Beyond these family rituals I saw both of my parents spend time every week preparing for Sunday School reading, studying, and pouring over whatever the passage was for that week. Thus, even from the two disparate strands of my religious education I saw the scriptures take a central role.

As I have gotten older and matured, both in life and in faith, a central struggle has been what role do the scriptures hold in my life and my theology. Can the scriptures be more than the literally read club that I saw in church, used to beat up people that don't fall into whatever orthodoxy the church tries and limits them to? After first leaving the church altogether and then spending time in the Unitarian-Universalists, what I have gradually come to believe is that the scriptures must hold a central place for us. They are what makes us, us. They are what roots us to the story of Jesus more than any tradition, doctrine, or creed. Without the scriptures the church becomes nothing more than an ethical debating society and a poor one at that, with no central narrative to tie us together. It is this centrality of the scripture in my faith that has lead me back to the term “evangelical” as a word that I feel more and more comfortable with to describe myself. I have often been told that I am being “too biblical” when making a point or having a discussion.

One place this position takes me is the tendency to quote and use scripture to frame my arguments. For an example of what I mean, look back at my entry from last week. Thus, when Craig pointed out the danger in “proof-texting” this week in class, I was forced to have a nice hard think about if that is what I was doing. Was I guilty of pulling passages out of context to “make my point?” This is not the first time that I have been confronted with this question. I have certainly been accused of doing it before, normally when the person that I was engaged with didn't like the conclusion that I was drawing! However, after the readings this week and reflecting on my use of scripture, I would make the argument that this is not what I do.

By definition, mine at least, proof-texting is taking a small passage out of its greater context to support or “prove” a theological point. Both Migliore and Ford give us hermeneutical guidelines that, while different, both revolve around that pesky old concept of context. Both Ford and Migliore make the point that there are multiple contexts of which the student of scripture needs to be aware. After recognizing and honoring these contexts as best she can, the student can begin to pull meaning from the texts. The recognition of these contexts creates a place where the meaning of the text gets deeper, richer, and more full, turning it from a cold, flat, black-words-on-a-white-page text into a text that truly speak to us about the fullness and wonder of G-d.

As we make the scripture central to our lives, both as individual people of faith and as members of a wider faith community, we need to ensure that we continue to honor these contexts, placing passages into their context and not stripping them out in such a way that the true import and meaning gets lost. This is what I try and do when ever I approach, use, and quote scripture. I recognize, and am fulling willing to admit, that I make mistakes. That I give passages meaning that someone else might not. I, like Migliore, am predisposed to seeing the greater context of scripture to be one of liberation and hope for all people and I admit that this might create a set of blinders that closes me off to other meanings that reside in the text. However, what I do know is that it is in placing scripture in its context and letting its Truth shape and form us as individuals and as a church to its “liberating message” (Migliore, 44) that we allow scripture to have its full authority.


Books Cited:

Ford, David. Theology: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford Univ. Press, 2000

Migliore, Daniel. Faith Seeking Understanding, 2nd edition. Eerdmans, 2004.

Also, I just wanted to give a shout out to my professor, Dr. Craig Atwood. He blogs at The Flaming Heretic? In case you are wandering, the name of the blog is reference to Jan Hus, the founder of the Moravian Tradition, of which Dr. Atwood is a part.

Mea Culpa: I've been a slacker

So, I want to apologize. I know that I have been a slacker. Truth be told, there has been a lot going on with school that has preempted any attempt in the last week to update here. If you follow my twitter feed you will know that I have been silent there as well.

I figure the best that I can do for you at this point to tease about some stuff that I am working on.

First, in just a bit I will post the last blog post that I have in reserve from the posting for my Christian Theology class.

Second, I am working on a piece that ties in with the Table Talk project that we have going on at Wake Forest Divinity School of Theology. Let this also serve as a call to all of you to participate in this project in some way. If you live in the area, come to our in person meetings. The first one will be tomorrow at 8pm at Foothills in downtown Winston. If you are further away, please participate in the conversation online.

Third, I have been working on a paper for my Christian Theology class that, while too long to go up as one post, I hope to be able to split up into several smaller posts. I cover a lot of ground in the paper and some of the thoughts in paper might be of interests to folks if I just pull them out and post them on their own.

Fourth, I am currently doing a lot of reading (for a class) in the area of Queer studies and Queer theology. My intention is to engage some of that material here in some way.

Fifth, and finally, I have applied to be a part of the latest public theology blog project that Tripp over at Homebrewed Christianity is working on as part of the upcoming session on public theology at the American Academy of Religion. This would mean that I get a free book and some exposure. My "payment" for this would be to blog about the book, plug the blog tour, and post some video from AAR. Even if I don't get the free book this time around, I will still be posting about this project. If you are interested in participating in the project visit this post at Homebrewed Christianity and see what it is all about.

Monday, September 21, 2009

A little housekeeping

For those of you who read this and know me in real life, you know that I love sending out links to articles that I find interesting.

I have had multiple people complain about how I can clog up their Facebook feed with links. Thus, it is a battle not to post a whole bunch of links here at Rambling Rambles. However, I feel that social media has come to the point that there is no need to post lots of links on blogs. From now on I will be reserving posts for things that I write myself, either original posts, things that I write for class that I feel might interest people who would read this (although I have to ask, why are you wasting your time reading me anyway? :-) ) and finally post that I write that are a response to something that I read else where.

If you are interested in reading things that I simply find interesting, please either follow me on Twitter or friend me on Facebook. Just to the right you will see where I have posted my Twitter feed to this site. Also, for those of you who would like to follow the Twitter feed but don't want to create their own Twitter account, if you go to my profile page (link above) you can add my feed to your RSS reader (I recommend Google Reader).

I hope to have a post up about the endings of Mark by in the morning. I am also working on a post in regards fundamentalism, but it is taking more time and careful thought than I originally anticipated.

Over the last few days, as I have gotten more active in posting and in promoting posts through Twitter and Facebook, traffic has increased here. I appreciate all of you who are reading this. Please, please, please post comments and start conversation. I am under no illusions that I am any kind of expert. I engage in all of these different forms of social media to participate in and create conversation and collaboration. (for some of my thoughts about this, see some of my earlier posts about the Open Source movement)

Thanks again for reading, and I hope to hear from all of you soon.

By Their Fruits

This is another post that was originally written for my Christian Theology class. After the post I will include the bibliographical information for the books that I cite.

I know that this one has the potential for being a little more controversial than the previous one. Let me state that I am intentionally being provocative, however, that does not mean that I am not serious in my assessment. Let me know what you think.


As most of us recognize, and has been mentioned in the readings this week, there is a always a greater context in which theological work exists and transpires. Part of Ellen Charry's goal in By the Renewing of Your Minds is to reclaim the pre-modern context of the theologians that she presents. One of the main principles of contemporary Biblical textual study is to ensure that the context in which the the text was written and presented to the community of faith is not forgotten or ignored. This premise is no less true for the theological reflection in which we are currently engaged in this course and with these blog entries. We are all writing in a certain time and place and out of certain cultures. Even within our class these contexts are different: we are a (relatively) diverse group of different ages, gender identities, denominational backgrounds, ethnicities, and socio-economic class.

However, our recognition of differing contexts should not be limited to these outward forms. Indeed, since Theological reflection can, and does, start in such an interior as the human mind, there is a personal intellectual and ideological (meaning here relating to or concerned with ideas) context that each of us carries into the discussion. This context may change on a daily (or even hourly!) basis as we read texts for other classes, engage in conversations, watch a movie, or read the news. No Theological reflection, or any intellectual pursuit, can exist in a vacuum; our thoughts and responses always arise out of the context of our culture and identity, both external and internal.

All of this simply to say that I am aware that my response this week has been largely shaped and informed by this larger context, by ideas that have been at the forefront of my thinking this week that may have given me a different emphasis when I was reading the texts.

What I found my self coming back to, again and again, was the theme running through both Charry and Migliore that the Christian faith should call us to a life transformed and that this transformation should and must have real implications on the life that we live and in the way that we treat our fellow human beings. This new way of being, acting, and interacting should be one, both Charry and Migliore assert, based on love, reconciliation, inclusion, justice, and righteousness. This stands apart from the conservative evangelical teachings that I received in the churches that I grew up in that stated that coming to G-d through the lens of Jesus was more about assent and “belief” in a certain right doctrine. But as Migliore states, “Surely faith is more than thinking correctly (a notion that might be called the heresy of orthodoxy). Faith is a matter of transformation --- personal, social, and world transformation.” (Migliore, 9)

In her extended analogy comparing theology and medicine, Charry points out that “Drugs are trusted and prescribed based on their demonstrated effects, not their theoretical cogency.” (Charry, 13) Thus, “you will know them by their fruits.” (Matt 7:20) Charry continues the analogy by pointing out how medical malpractice is no reason to turn to non-empirical healing methods and thus spiritual malpractice is no reason to dismantle the tradition. However, Charry misses here an important point. Just as a “doctor” guilty of medical malpractice must be stopped for the health of the community, practitioners of spiritual and theological malpractice must likewise be rooted out for the health of the community. “Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” (Matt 7:19)

For far too long “moderate,” “liberal,” and “progressive” (do these words have have any real meaning?) have shied away from calling out the false prophets in our midsts, all in the name of a misguided pseudo-pluralism that fails to recognize the negative consequences to the Christian community that arise from the toleration of false prophets. A “gospel” the fruits of which are greed, anger, hatred, murder, war, and fear, just to name a few, is not the Good News of Jesus.

I recognize that this argument can be read as a potential attack on other faith traditions, however, I am hear only referencing my own tradition. I am a member of the Christian community and no other, making me wholly inadequate to critique any tradition other than my own.

Bill Maher's anti-religious polemic Religulous concludes with these words:

And those who consider themselves only moderately religious really need to look in the mirror and realize that the solace and comfort that religion brings you actually comes at a terrible price. If you belonged to a political party or social club that was tied to as much bigotry, misogyny, homophobia, violence and sheer ignorance as religion is, you would resign in protest. To do otherwise is to be an enabler, a mafia wife, for the true devils of extremism that draw their legitimacy from the billions of their fellow travelers.

By allowing these false prophets to continue to use the language of the Gospel to promote their heresies of hatred, fear, ignorance, and death, we do allow them the legitimacy of our faith tradition. I truly believe that it is time to stand in the light and love that is the Gospel of Jesus and name these people for what they are. For, as Migliore points out, “What the church needs at all times and especially in times of crisis is clarity of conviction and purpose.” (Migliore, xi emphasis added)


Books cited:

Charry, Ellen. By the Renewing of Your Minds: The Pastoral Function of Christian Doctrine. Oxford Univ. Press, 1999.

Migliore, Daniel. Faith Seeking Understanding, 2nd edition. Eerdmans, 2004.

When I cite the Bible, unless otherwise stated, I am citing the New Revised Standard Version.

Friday, September 18, 2009

The Fire This Time?

This was written for my theology class. The question that we were responding to was “What I am anticipating in a course on Christian theology” or “What I am anxious about in a course on Christian theology.”


As several have mentioned, it is interesting to read through this first set of entries, or to at least skim them. The one thing that many seem to have in common is a general trepidation that seems to center on a fear of “not being able to do it” (I am of course paraphrasing and generalizing here, but you get my point). I have no fear that all the students in the class will be able to bring their considerable and differing experiences together and be able to “do” G-d-talk.

Now, if I am giving the impression that I don't have trepidation and anxiety about this course and its subject matter, I'm sorry, because I certainly do have deep seated “fear and trembling” about being in this course. But not for many of the reasons cited. I did take quite a few philosophy courses in undergrad and my degree is essentially in political philosophy and history. I know that I can “do” this kind of work, but that ability is what scares me. My previous classes have taught me how to tear something apart, to look at it, examine it, name it, own it, and I am not sure if I know how to engage with ideas in a meaningful way with out doing that, and that scares the crap out of me.

All through my academic career I managed to avoid taking a class in/on theology. Now sure, I've read on my own, but that kind of self-work is not the same as rigorous academic study. And it certainly doesn't help that I have a deep seated suspicion of theology as an attempt to quantify, qualify, name, know, and own the very mystery of G-d, a mystery that we are told many times in Scripture, both Hebrew and Greek, that we can not know and certainly not name, own and control.

A friend of mine who is a Wake Div grad told me something over the summer that I think Dr. Tupper told her when she was a student: Div school is hard and scary and brutal because it forces you to rip out you still beating heart and examine it.

I am going to go out on a limb here and guess that for many (most?) of us our faith, our theology, our G-d-talk, is at the very center of who we are, that it forms a (the?) core of our existence. Knowing that, I can't help but fear that we are playing with fire. The Wild Land Firefighter in me is screaming to be careful, to not play with the fire, while at the same time the rebel/anarchist/wild-man/12-year old pyro in me can't help but to take a leap of faith, screaming, “Lets burn it all to the ground and see what new rises from the ashes of the old!”

One More Time

So, another school year has started, and that means that it is time, yet again, for me to pretend that I am going to start to regularly update this space. Truth be told, I am not sure how many people, if any, read this thing, so I am not sure that it matters.

One of the things that I have been thinking about is an idea that I had last year. I am doing a LOT of writing for class and such. I think that I am going to try and place some of the work that I am doing for class up here. Maybe some of you would be interested. In particular, for Christian Theology I have to write a bog entry once a week for class anyway, so I may as well post those here. If and when there are things that I think I need to explain, I will endeavor to do so.

Since I already have a back log of posts, I will place a couple over the next few days, starting here in just a minute.

So there we go. Another promise from me to do better and actually put some content up here. We will see if there effort is more successful than the others have been.