Tuesday, July 5, 2011

WWJD? Pt. 2 - Should we do it?

My advice: read the first five chapters for a neat reading of the gospels.  For a systematic ethical rendering of Jesus or of a complete modern theological ethic, look elsewhere.
Disappointed, I must say that the remainder of The Politics of Jesus did very little in the way of offering distinct ethical advice.  The majority of the 2nd half of the book explains that Paul and Jesus did not, in fact, disagree in their view of ethics and that the early church did not see Jesus as a spiritual guide whose teachings were irrelevant to making political and economic decisions.  While essential in the flow of his argument, Yoder lost me with these points; he gets into detailed and even contrived counter-arguments against the supposed status quo Christian ethic that lack flow and are less than clear on his own position.  This brings us two-thirds of the way to applying a social exegesis of Jesus to a modern social ethic.  Yoder will not even say that we should follow Jesus' ethic as he described it, but rather discredits all the arguments to the contrary and leaves it up to the reader.  It is certain that he had a particular version of the Mennonite pacifist stance in mind and was only somewhat concerned with veiling that.  He is quite clear that Christians should not join in war, but allows room for policing and judicial authority.  There is an interesting bit on the willing subjection to government with full knowledge that one is actually free not to do so (the whole 'freedom through chosen submission' argument).  His reasoning is sometimes confusing and even seemingly contradictory.  He sometimes supported acting as an agent of change for social or economic ends, sometimes not, and the reasons for each situation are anything but systematic.
Overall, a good book with many interesting readings of the NT.  The relatively clear thesis, however, is not executed in an organized or even consistent fashion.  He proposed to build a bridge from exegesis to ethics, and it is my estimation that he did not do it clearly.  A fair amount of synthesis of his various chapters may translate into clearer principles but I half-expected him to do that for the reader.  The flavor of the book changed multiple times and it really reads like a handful of related essays edited together with a lengthy new introduction.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

WWJD? Pt. 1 - What did he do?

At long last I have delved into John H. Yoder’s The Politics of Jesus: Vicit Agnus Noster.  And it is as good as I thought it would be.  Yoder treads carefully on ground that many of us have, unfortunately, trodden haphazardly and with little care.  Perhaps it seems obvious that a proper exegesis of the life and words of Jesus in the Gospels would come to affect the Christian’s social, economic or political ethic.  However, that is a dangerous leap to miscalculate.  That is not to say that, once taken seriously, bridging Jesus and our ethics will not bring about danger or the propensity to go about saying dangerous things.  Should we breach the status quo, we must consider first whether we are: proof-texting a homemade radicalism or mimicking the true ethics of Jesus.  The radical Christianities proffered by the ‘emergent’ and post-modern realms may very well coincide with the latter while triggering a whole generation of ahistorical ingrates to do the former.  I’ve been fired up by revolutionary talk, but without really knowing the ideas behind the ideology, I’m like a jihadist motivated by peer pressure – thrilled, killed, but not self-willed.  So what were the social, economic and political ethics of Jesus?  Should that be read as universally normative?  How would someone apply the ethics of Jesus in our context?
Read the book if you really want a good introduction to the topic.  Perhaps I’m impressed too easily, but there’s a few game changers.  Most Christians accept that the life and teaching of Jesus is normative on some level to us, whether or not that means crucifying yourself on Easter (like a few Filipino Christians do) or just following the Golden Rule.  So there are 2 questions we must consider: a) Exegetically - What exactly did he say and do?  AND  b) Ethically - On what level must/should we mimic that?  

What did he do?
a)  It’s often said that the Pharisees and the multitudes and even the disciples misunderstood Jesus’ mission on earth as political in nature, whereas Jesus single-mindedly lived his life as a working out of prophecy for the express spiritual purpose of forgiving the sins of mankind.  Yoder argues that the contemporaries of Jesus merely misunderstood the nature of his social/economic/political agenda.  However, Yoder also assents to the immaterial and spiritual agenda, so to speak, of the Incarnation.  So it is not that the message of Jesus is spiritual OR political, but spiritual AND political.  Using the text of Luke (which is often taken as explicitly rejecting the political interpretation of Jesus’ mission), Yoder shows how the birth, life, teachings and death of Jesus are inherently political.  People didn’t want to kill him because they misunderstood him.  They didn’t want to kill him because he broke the Sabbath.  They wanted to killed him precisely because they did understand him and how dangerous his political ethos was to the status quo.  In fact, from the temptation in the desert to the garden of Gethsemane, Jesus is portrayed as having to come to grips with how the multitudes will implement his kingdom.  He prayed the Father would remove ‘this cup’ from him – why?  Was he only afraid of death or was there some alternative way the story could end that Jesus was not only considering but praying for?  Moments later Peter draws his sword to protect Jesus, who asks rhetorically ‘Shall I not drink the cup the Father has given me?’  It seems Peter and Jesus may have had the same thing in mind (armed insurrection), but only one had the self-control to choose the high road.  The social, political and religious order in Judea were broken and Jesus spent most of his time talking about that and showing how that could change.  Many saw him as leading the way to massive reforms and, certainly, he intended his teachings to lead to exactly that.  He willingly entered Jerusalem as a king, drove the moneychangers from the temple to assert his authority there and even asked the disciples to carry a sword.  Still, remained true to his own ethical teachings.  His kingdom would be different.
The Year of Jubilee - AD 26
Much of what Yoder goes on to explicate as the ethical agenda of Jesus involves the concept of the year of Jubilee.  Jesus literally proclaimed a year of Jubilee in AD 26, asked his disciples to forgive others their debt as their debts had been forgiven them.  He talked about money more than any other topic – this is common knowledge – but how he talked about money and what they meant to his audience, that’s the real interesting thing.  Jesus made constant reference to all of the main aspects of the Year of Jubilee and their application in his context.  That he came to proclaim release to the captives need not be spiritualized.  That he counselled the landless peasants to make friends with their enemies on the way to debtor’s court is not without reason.  The parables about absentee landowners and wise stewards don’t just have timeless lessons to offer.  Jesus was a bit of a political pundit.
More to come…

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Gendered church pedagogy, part 2: Metaphors

A comment by groundbeneathyourfeet.blogspot.com reminded me that metaphors are a strongly gendered pedagogical tool.  Identifying specific metaphors is more helpful than my previous, general comment on gendered analogies. I think that by speaking of metaphor we are not departing from meta-pedagogy; indeed, a metaphor like war or business can be so pervasive that we take on roles and act and speak as the metaphor would dictate. These metaphors are, in part, influenced by gender and are most definitely received differently by each gender. 

Biblical metaphor
Of course, this sends us in the direction of a discussion about the nature of inspiration; has God ordained both the medium and the message, does man's fingerprint on the book tilt it, does culture and place add something to it that we are free to strip away and replace with a more 'relevant' culture and place? I ask, because I believe that the war metaphor is perhaps one of the most commonly used in the Bible-it's no mistake that the church employs it. Of course, it may be rivaled by the image of the bride of God/Christ (adulterous Israel, the bride of Christ, etc); I would, however, place that metaphor in the masculine category as well. The notion of the stained or unstained bride, with ideas of virginity and cleanliness, pining for the groom - favours the groom; this is to be expected, as the groom stands for God, but I wonder if the metaphor favours the male so much that men either put themselves on the God side of the equation, or when that doesn't work, externalize the analogy as something to be observed because it is unpalatable to be placed in the vulnerable position of the pining bride. I know that's my reaction. And that's a biblical metaphor, heck, that's one of Jesus' metaphors. How much more must gendered, man-made metaphors in church teaching taint our understanding of the teaching, the church and our faith?

Man's metaphor - business
The business metaphor is the most ubiquitous one, forged by men and parasitically presuming the place of doctrine, defining the role of laity and leader, and surreptitiously knocking the pillars of faith aside and standing in their place to support the roof over God's house. It may be assuming to place 'business' in the masculine category of metaphors, but the numbers-oriented, categorizing, compartmentalizing, results-driven church, if anything, is a 'doer' of the Word (which I have identified as the more masculine). Even in the face of a slowly-changing world of business, the undeniable dominance of men in higher mgmt and in the development and maintenance of the Western, capitalist business ethos (and, indeed, logos) leads one to almost unquestionably place the metaphor in said category. So, it would stand to reason, that if such a metaphor holds such sway in the development of, pedagogy and group hermeneutic of teaching in today's Western church, that men and women must experience this differently. In a shallow church, where this metaphor and the seemingly opposing existence of emotionalism and experiential Xianity stand as the most dominant forces, it would be anything but surprising that the church would be full of: Women who simultaneously do their duty as employees while secretly seeking for passionate experiences & Men who, turned off by the 'femininity' of experience, either immerse themselves in 'running the business' or just punch-in, punch-out and never experience or live a real faith of any kind. If church is a business, you either run the business or you work for the business; either way, you treat it like a business - but in running it you are able to fool yourself that your busy-ness is related to having a faith. It's why the word 'commitment' is so popular; the word 'commitment' is an essential tool in the business metaphor's kit. {See how I used a metaphor to describe a metaphor? Either I'm creative or I lack the vocabulary to describe something without metaphor.}
Perhaps that is the true test of one's understanding of and Spirit-led following of the Truth - can we explain it without metaphor? Do we understand our faith, the church, Christ's teachings without resorting to metaphor? Christ himself used metaphor constantly, but either explained his 'real' point later or allowed that the Spirit would draw it out later - the point is that the metaphor was only a tool. 

The ease of metaphor and analogy has led us to build the church, our faith, our doctrine in the image of our metaphors. For the congregation, this pedagogy is flawed and will lead not only to a misunderstanding of doctrine, but a misplaced confidence that we truly 'get' what Xianity is all about just because we have a deep resonance with the metaphors our teachers used to build our idea of Xianity.

When I speak of 'metaphor', I switch between the proper idea of a metaphor and other, related, literary tools of comparison like analogy [which may use metaphors], allegory [an extended metaphor], synecdoche & metonymy [types of metaphor], or parable [a more removed form of allegory].  The effect of using any and all of these, repeatedly, over time transforms business & business-concepts into absolute metaphors, which means that business-concepts or terms come to take on their own meaning with reference to the church, removed from their original meaning, though their original meaning spawned the genesis of the metaphors that formed the absolute metaphor.  A related, but different, event is the conflation of meaning in 2 or more uses of a word; for instance, when the current usage of 'mission statement' in business and 'mission' in church come to mean something comprised of both concepts, though they were previously unrelated other than in their use of a particular word.  It's akin to, but different from, reading the properties of 'dynamite' into the use of the Greek dunamis, meaning power, just because 'dynamite' indirectly uses that Gr. root.  Of course, the use of dunamis would not intend to convey the explosive power of dynamite, but that precise comparison has been preached repeatedly. That's an exegetical fallacy, easily identified by scholars, but nevertheless commonplace and misleading in churches.  In the same sense, but in greater magnitude, absolute metaphors like business, though identifiable through close study and observation, hold considerable sway in the church teacher's weekly exegesis, nay eisegesis. In fact, they are so invasive that the exegete is entirely unaware that they are importing them into their hermeneutic. What they assume to be faithful analyses of text are, in fact, syntheses of the text and the absolute metaphor.  Perhaps the faithful scholar is, however, somewhat aware of his eisegesis, but continues in it precisely because of its pedagogical ease and the congregational response to such simplifications (read bastardizations) of doctrine.  I've knowingly done it out of ease,  due to the press of time, or to indulge the hearer.  It is difficult and unpopular to strip such window-dressing away, to even acknowledge it as such.  But so much rests on this.

Monday, February 14, 2011

The gendered church pedagogy: Doers, hearers of the Word

I'm reading blogs and education articles about the developmental differences between boys and girls.  I haven't done the research, but I'm certain that the nature/nurture debate is central to differences in findings.  Certainly we can acknowledge observable differences, regardless of the cause or source, between girls and boys, men and women, that persist into adulthood.  Such differences, acknowledged, change the way schools are run; extending such views into adult institutions, however, is culturally forbidden.  Charges of sexism would abound - and yet, strangely, many churches are somewhat immune to such charges (at least internally).  Men's and women's groups abound, PromiseKeepers and Ladies bible studies, are found, unquestioned, in Protestant churches everywhere. I care less about the ethics of this than the pedagogical implications for such segregations (or the lack of such segregations in certain churches) and all other forms teaching the church engages in, segregated or not.

How 'gendered' is the pedagogy of any given program/format/medium and how does that influence an individual and group hermeneutic?  Is a gendered response to that hermeneutic important or merely interesting? This is not about feminist theology.  This is not about the role of women in the church.  It is about the accepted forms and media for teaching within the church and whether these have implicit or explicit pedagogical biases toward a gender.  If they do, how does this affect each gender's reading of the Bible and understanding of faith matters?  And if I may be so bold, can we prescribe changes to ameliorate pedagogical weaknesses that either distort the Message or that impair the ability of a given group (gender) to assimilate the Message into their (gendered) framework/worldview?
Are these questions worth asking?
When we read about 'doers' of the Word, is there an inherent masculine expectation buried within our reading of 'do'?  When we think about 'hearing' or 'receiving' the Word, do we read something feminine into that?  Do we shrug off certain beliefs and practices because 'that's for women', but couch it in other terms like 'experiential', 'emotional', 'relational', etc?  It is convenient to divide the Bible up into the part for sick people, the part for conspiracy theorists, the part for do-gooders, the part for those with bad self-esteem, the part for women, the part for men, the part for children, the part for Pentecostals, the part for sabbatarians....Is it possible that this mental division reflects pedagogical practice and/or vice versa?  There are pragmatic rationale for dividing men and women into different groups for bible study, but is there a biblical rationale for differing modes, methods or even content? Do men need football analogies, do women need relationship analogies?  Is there anything distracting in 'gendering' our analogies or explanations?  Is there a difference between a gendered understanding of doctrine and a gendered doctrine?
I realize I am addressing 2 things: First, the fact that the way things are taught may privilege or alienate a gender and/or be received differently by each gender, and Second, the topics of teaching that are chosen in segregated and non-segregated settings may privilege or alienate a gender and may de-emphasize or over-emphasize particular doctrines or concepts for gender's sake.
So many questions, so little motivation to answer them.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Luther to a discouraged preacher:

" If Peter and Paul were here, they would scold you because you wish right off to be as accomplished as they. Crawling is something, even if one is unable to walk. Do your best. If you cannot preach an hour, then preach half an hour or a quarter of an hour. Do not try to imitate other people. Center on the shortest and simplest points, which are the very heart of the matter, and leave the rest to God. Look solely to his honor and not to applause. Pray that God will give you a mouth and to your audience ears. I can tell you preaching is not a work of man. Although I am old [48] and experienced, I am afraid every time I have to preach.
You will most certainly find out three things: first, you will have prepared your sermon as diligently as you know how, and it will slip through your fingers like water; secondly, you may abandon your outline and God will give you grace. You will preach your very best. The audience will be pleased, but you won't. And thirdly, when you have been unable in advance to pull anything together, you will preach acceptably both to your hearers and to yourself. So pray to God and leave the rest to him."