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Thinking Out Loud
  • Lessons from Miles Davis

    by Michael Jinkins | Apr 12, 2011
    Nobody did a jazz ballad like Miles Davis. His version of “I Fall in Love Too Easily” is lyrical beyond words, and his “Someday My Prince Will Come” can make cynics weep. Or, Davis’s version of this classic could make cynics weep if the cynic in question hadn’t also seen the funniest Wheel of Fortune “before and after” puzzle, which read:

    SOMEDAY MY

    PRINCE WILL COME

    TO HIS SENSES

    Back to Miles Davis. Nobody did jazz ballads better.

    So, if he did ballads so well, why in the world did he dedicate so much of his life as a musician to edgy, avant-garde, experimental forms of jazz?

    I heard an interview with Davis, a few years before his death, in which he was asked, “What is your favorite kind of music to play?” He answered, “Ballads.” If left to his own preferences, he would have played them all the time. But, he said that he owed it to music not to stay in his comfort zone. He owed it to music to push the boundaries of jazz, to discover new sounds, new forms of music, even if his efforts stretched his audiences.

     

    When I first heard Miles Davis play, as a fledgling music student (trombone and keyboard) in High School, I was – I confess – bewildered. “What in the world is he doing?” I asked. Davis seemed to flaunt every accepted rule. I didn’t understand the whole musical theory he was working. Long-time fans of Miles Davis in the 1980s felt just as bewildered, even angry, when he embraced electronic forms and pop music.

    As much as I love Davis’s music, I appreciate just as much his advice, which (as a young pastor) I took straight into the pulpit. I owed it to the music of the gospel (preaching that would genuinely edify our congregation) not to grow comfortable with even the most well-loved and, apparently, well-received approach to preaching. I began to experiment, pushing myself to find new ways for the Bible to connect with the lives of the people I served. I preached letters and stories, and explored classical styles and new forms. I’ve been in debt to Miles Davis for more than twenty years for encouraging me to play more than “ballads.”

    Sometimes the experiments worked.

    Sometimes they didn’t.

    While I was a minister in Itasca, Texas, I preached occasionally about an imaginary friend, “Jesse,” whom I based on a rather sketchy character I had known as a teenager working on the road repair crew of the City of Lufkin, Texas. I got the strongest reactions from congregants who lit up with delight when they discovered I was preaching a “Jesse” sermon on Sunday morning. I also received the strongest reactions against “Jesse,” including from one of my very closest friends, the organist in the Itasca Church, who dreaded opening the Sunday order of worship to find “Jesse” on the menu.

    Anyone who has ever played improvisational jazz knows that it is a remarkable combination of set forms and “in the moment” creativity. Great jazz surprises us. It can resist us, even while it invites us “in.”

    At a time when so much attention is spent (as perhaps it should be) on analyzing how we can make our communities of faith more accessible and our worship services more appealing to outsiders unfamiliar with church, sometimes I think about jazz, great jazz, jazz that stretches and enlarges our hearts and minds, jazz that will never get played in an elevator, jazz that will never quietly slip into the background, jazz that requires too much of us to be ignored, jazz that provokes responses that may be hot or cold, but are never “lukewarm.” I think about this kind of jazz, and I wonder what it might mean for us all to take our responsibility to the “music” of the gospel so seriously, that we refuse to stick with the ballads, even when it’s ballads we love best.

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  • Dr. King’s Questions about the Church

    by Michael Jinkins | Apr 05, 2011

    Forty-three years ago yesterday Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was slain in Memphis. Yet, on this spring morning, I want our thoughts to turn not to that April day of 1968, but to April 1963.

    On the sixteenth of April 1963, Dr. King sat in the Birmingham, Alabama, city jail. He was there for leading a civil rights demonstration. As he sat in the cell that day, he wrote a letter that stands beside the Declaration of Independence, the Federalist Papers, and Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address as one of a handful of American documents that define and call into question our national character. The document also stands as a remarkable example of Christian theological reflection.

    As a teacher of theology, I have returned, again and again, to Dr. King’s text in courses on power and leadership and in the research I did on the doctrine of the church in preparation for writing The Church Faces Death (Oxford University Press, 1999).

    Dr. King wrote his letter in response to an open letter, which was published the previous January by eight leading white “liberal” clergymen, who charged King’s civil rights efforts with being “unwise and untimely.” There is an especially haunting passage in Dr. King’s letter that is particularly crucial for us to hear today, a passage that raises what I think are the right questions for us as a church. Dr. King wrote:

    “I have traveled the length and breadth of Alabama, Mississippi, and all the other Southern states. On sweltering summer days and crisp autumn mornings I have looked at her beautiful churches with their spires pointing heavenward. I have beheld the impressive outlay of her massive religious education buildings. Over and over again I have found myself asking, “Who worships here? Who is their God?”[1]

    Like a skilled surgeon, Dr. King probed the body politic of the American church. But he did much more than that. His questions probe the very meaning of “church,” the very meaning of “Christian,” and “human.” He reminds us that the question of God’s character profoundly relates to the question of our character as human beings, that both conceptions (God’s character and our character) are grounded in the reality of our historical contexts, and that each shapes our shaping of all endeavors.

    Dr. King’s questions anchor us in the reality of humanity and history. His questions will not permit us to float off into abstractions that begin with the phrase, “well, ideally the church should ….,” or allow us to slip into the backrooms of ecclesiology where we conveniently parse the church’s “is-ness” from its “ought-ness” so as to excuse our failings. As King’s namesake (the Reformer, Martin Luther) might have reminded us, our sins are real sins (otherwise forgiveness is meaningless), and our sins and God’s forgiveness begin at that point where we cannot be excused.

    But only to see the failure here is also to miss the genius of Dr. King’s observation.

    Traveling today across this great country of ours, passing churches large and small, in the north, south, east, and west, looking at soaring Gothic structures and small rural clapboard buildings, storefront churches and huge non-denominational campuses that look like corporate headquarters, Dr. King’s questions hold: “Who worships here? Who is their God?”

    I reflected on these questions, for example, this past weekend as a Florida pastor was back in the news for burning the holy book of another faith. With violence erupting on the other side of the globe in reaction to this breathtaking act of arrogance and intolerance, I asked myself what it means for us to worship the Christ who revealed God’s character and our character, not by bullying and self-righteous grandstanding, but by emptying himself, by suffering death on a cross for the sake of those who rejected him.

    As I listened to the news coverage from around the world, I felt as though a global parade of automobiles was driving by the churches of our entire country, pointing at the spires on top of our Christian churches, asking, “Who worships here? Who is their God?”

    Our steeples will not answer these questions for us. We will have to do this. With our lives, with our words, we will have to answer these questions. We will have to do this in a manner consistent with the gospel of Jesus Christ. And it will not be easy to get a word in edgewise in the cacophony and din of this noisome age. But this I believe: The time is right for serious people of faith to act and speak in contrast to the mobs of clowns and conmen who compete for their fifteen minutes of self-promotion. And the word we have to speak is the word of grace, peace, and hope that was entrusted to us by Jesus of Nazareth. This word may not grab the headlines, but it has the power to transform lives and societies.

    The singular issue of our time is how we can live together in an increasingly pluralistic world. If we do not get this right, our world is toast. For God’s sake, let’s get this right.

     

    [1] Staughton Lynd, ed., Nonviolence in America: A Documentary History (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merill, 1966), 477.


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  • Faith in the City

    by Michael Jinkins | Mar 29, 2011

    Although I spent some of my happiest years as a minister in rural and small town settings, much of my life has been lived in cities like Dallas and Austin, Texas; Aberdeen, Scotland; and Louisville, Kentucky. And I have long been struck by the fact that so much of the New Testament is – for lack of a better word – cosmopolitan in outlook. The faith that was born in Jerusalem grew to maturity in places like Corinth and Rome. So I was intrigued by two recent essays in The Economist, both touting distinctively urban virtues.

    The first essay (“The Capital’s Creed”) describes what the magazine calls “Londonism,” a new urban “creed” specific to London, England, which has found adherents among leading British leftists as well as right-leaning political sorts, including London’s former mayor, “Red” Ken Livingston (a well-known and notably left wing Labour politician) and its current mayor, Boris Johnson (an equally famed Conservative party politician). The philosophy behind both mayors is focused on London’s global leadership. It is characterized as “pragmatic about capitalism,” approving of “private development,” committed to state spending for improved infrastructure, and open to immigration. At the core of this urban creed, which anyone familiar with London will recognize in a heartbeat, is this belief: “The more open and multifarious the city becomes, the more it attracts people who want it to stay that way.” “Essentially,” writes The Economist, “it is a commitment to relentless growth and openness.”[1]

    The second essay is an extensive book review of Edward Glaeser’s new study, Triumph of the City (Penguin Press). Glaeser’s book is part love letter to cities, and part critique of which sorts of cities tend to be most resilient to the inevitable ebb and flow of history and economic stress. Glaeser, “a Harvard economist who grew up in Manhattan,” calls cities “our greatest invention.” According to the reviewer, “proximity makes people more inventive, as bright minds feed off one another; more productive, as scale gives rise to finer degrees of specialization; and kinder to the planet, as city-dwellers are more likely to go by foot, bus, or train.” In his critique, Glaeser notes that the cities that function best do so because they attract diverse people and “enable them to collaborate.” Cities, he believes, are always more healthy when their success depends on a diversity of people and enterprises, rather than on a single monolithic industry or the kind of protectionism that excludes immigrant populations because they might compete.[2]

    Strangely enough these two essays brought to mind a worship service I attended several months ago at Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church in New York City where my friend, Scott Black Johnston, serves as senior pastor. It was Pentecost Sunday. Tongues of fire, in the form of red paper, floated down from the church’s high ceiling as members of the congregation from around the world read the story of Pentecost in their own tongues. The laughter of the congregation’s children frolicking among the falling paper flames blended with the voices of global Christianity at the same moment that the annual “Israel Day” parade made its way down Fifth Avenue. The proximity of the diverse peoples, their intelligence, imagination, love, and energy, their innovation and enterprise, all bundled together by the Spirit of God in this one place at this one moment! I can see why the crowd witnessing the first Day of Pentecost was “amazed and astonished” (Acts of the Apostles, chapter 2). I was pretty amazed and astonished just watching the reenactment in this diverse and crowded city church in the midst of this diverse and crowded city.

    The experience left me wondering if there isn’t perhaps a Christian cosmopolitanism that we sometimes neglect, an appreciation for the synergy and spiritual vitality that are possible when diverse populations are drawn together. Cities have been characterized as secular, as pits of vice, and as lonely places where everyone fades into anonymity, depending on the commentator. But there is another side to cities. There is a faithful side to cities. Drawn by the Spirit of God from among all the nations, people also hear and believe and respond to the Good News of the Gospel, and out of their diversity, out of the proximity of bright minds and faithful hearts, out of the appreciation of difference as a good in itself, God can create among them enterprises that feed the hungry, that welcome persons from every shore, that heal the sick and provide an education. I wonder if St. Paul would have been inspired to think of the metaphor of the church as the Body of Christ had he not been acquainted with the great cities of his time, their arteries flowing with immigrants and artisans from every nation, their limbs and eyes and ears and feet as diverse as any gathering of the United Nations, or any Sunday morning worship service at a Presbyterian Church on Fifth Avenue.

    This blog does not intend to slight the remarkable contributions of faith in small towns and villages anywhere in the world. But we have tended to praise these so often – certainly I have. And, perhaps, it is time to notice also what is sometimes lost in the shuffle, and to render a word of appreciation for the vitality of churches, large and small, in cities, varied in their ministries, diverse in the populations they serve, reminding us that difference is not a curse, but a virtue and an enduring blessing – in fact, a virtue that can make us stronger and a blessing that can contribute to endurance.


    [1] “The capital’s creed,” The Economist, February 5, 2011, 65-66.

    [2] “A tale of many cities,” Book review: Triumph of the City: How Our Greatest Invention Makes Us Richer, Smarter, Greener, Healthier and Happier, by Edward Glaeser. The Economist, February 12, 2011, 91-92.

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  • The Church’s Best Days

    by Michael Jinkins | Mar 22, 2011

    Recently, Warren Buffett, the oracle of Omaha, said that America’s best days are ahead of it. To put his money where his mouth is, he announced his personal investment in American innovation and ingenuity.

    I wonder where Christians are on a similar, though unrelated, proposition. If put to a vote, I wonder if Christians—at least in North America, at least of the mainline Protestant sort—would be willing to say that the Church’s best days are ahead of her.

    Certainly, if investment in the future, in innovation and ingenuity, is the measure, I’d have to say that the evidence is not in favor of the proposition. But it should be!

    Yes, the Church is facing challenges. But the Church always has faced challenges. And the Church’s best days are indeed ahead of her.

    My statement (the Church’s best days are ahead) is a theological statement related to hope, not just a general comment of confidence or optimism. You may remember the distinction I’ve made between hope and optimism.

    We are living into God’s future, a future we articulate every time we proclaim the Eucharistic prayer which affirms—in one way or another—that the Table around which we gather in remembrance is a recognition of the vigil we keep with all the saints in heaven and on earth, and a foretaste of that eschatological banquet we shall share in God’s eternal kingdom.

    The Church lives proleptically. The Church’s future folds back on us even as we lean into it.

    We do not live between realism and idealism, in other words, as though we were a community of Platonic philosophers climbing rungs or staggering out of a dimly lit cave. Rather, we live eschatologically, as disciples of Christ, between the times, with God’s future continually tugging at us, pulling us from the “not yet” into the “already.” The theology of the cross is always post-figured, its shadows cast in bold relief by the light of resurrection.

    It was precisely this eschatological tug that led Dietrich Bonhoeffer to reflect on the future of the church as he sat in a Nazi prison. If anyone had reason not to be hopeful, it was Bonhoeffer. The churches to which he had given his energy were in shambles. Some (the national-level church that had morphed into the Reich Church) had actively colluded with Hitler’s ecclesiastical thugs. Some (even among the Confessing Church movement) had retreated in the face of the social and political challenges that faced them. Some others lay in ashes, their followers driven underground, their leaders in prison.

    So when Bonhoeffer turned his attention to writing a new doctrine of the church, he could have been excused had he written a fairly defeatist statement. But he didn’t. Nor was his statement unwilling to face unpleasant realities. In fact, he pulled no punches, particularly with the “Confessing Church” to which he had devoted so much of his energy and life since the rise of National Socialism.

    “Karl Barth [whom Bonhoeffer had very much admired for a long time] and the Confessing Church have encouraged us to entrench ourselves persistently behind ‘the faith of the church,’” Bonhoeffer writes, “and evade the honest question as to what we ourselves really believe. This is why the air is not quite fresh, even in the Confessing Church.”

    The questions for Bonhoeffer were: What do we believe, really believe? For what are we willing to live and die?

    At stake for Bonhoeffer was “a genuine experience of God,” a personal “encounter with Jesus Christ,” which transforms human life. Bonhoeffer’s statement about the church reads like a latter day set of Pensees, such as those written by Pascal. And, like Pascal’s, they have an edge that can cut like a razor. They are especially sharp when they draw the line between who Jesus is and who we are called to be.

    When we realize, for example, that according to Bonhoeffer, “Jesus is there only for others,” we can understand much more clearly who we are meant to be and what we are called to do.

    We can also understand more clearly what the Church’s vocation is, and why the Church does in fact have a future.

    Bonhoeffer writes: “The church is the church only when it exists for others…. The church must share in the secular problems of ordinary human life, not dominating, but helping and serving. It must tell [people] of every calling what it means to live in Christ, to exist for others. In particular, our own church will have to take the field against the vices of hubris, power-worship, envy, and humbug, as the roots of all evil. It will have to speak of moderation, purity, trust, loyalty, constancy, patience, discipline, humility, contentment, and modesty. It must not under-estimate the importance of human example (which has its origin in the humanity of Jesus and is so important in Paul’s teaching); it is not abstract argument, but example, that gives its word emphasis and power.”

    Toward the end of his notes, Bonhoeffer writes: “All this is very crude and condensed, but there are certain things that I’m anxious to say simply and clearly—things that we so often shirk. Whether I shall succeed is another matter, especially if I cannot discuss it with you. I hope it may be of some help for the church’s future.”

    Reading these words, I feel almost as though you and I have just recovered a letter in a bottle that has bobbed and floated on the high seas since it was placed there some time in 1944. Miraculously it survived. Miraculously it floated with ocean currents and found its way to our hut. We pull it from the waves and read it and rush to find someone else to hear its message.

    If Bonhoeffer could believe against all odds that the church had a future, it is foolish for us not to embrace that future. He wanted to live long enough to help shape that future. He didn’t live long enough to get the chance. But we have.

    Do we think the Church’s best days are ahead of it? I can’t help but believe they are. So, let’s invest in her future. Let’s start by investing our lives.

    _______________________________

    Quotes are from Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison, edited by Eberhard Bethge (New York: Macmillan, 1953), 380-383. A new greatly enlarged critical edition of Letters and Papers from Prison is now available in the Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works series, Volume 8, published by Fortress Press in 2010.

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  • The Church’s Real “Competition”

    by Michael Jinkins | Mar 15, 2011

    A besieged church raises the alarm. Numbers decline! Churches close! Who or what is capturing the hearts of our former adherents?

    Choose one: (A) Galloping secularism. (B) Rampant modernity, or post-modernity, or post-postmodernity. (C) Other faiths. (D) That trendy church on the outskirts of town the campus of which looks like some corporate headquarters and “brands” itself with a non-religious moniker. (E) Atheism. (F) All of the above. (G Whiz) None of the above.

    Accusing fingers point to the usual suspects, but I would like to point to something lurking in the shadows, or, perhaps, hiding even more effectively in plain sight. Our real competitor today is henotheism.

    I’m not going to pretend that henotheism is a word I use a lot, but I think it is the right word. Officially, henotheism is a sort of tribal worship. The Oxford English Dictionary defines it as the belief in a single deity belonging to an individual, a family, a tribe, or a nation. Henotheism does not assert that there is only one god, just that this particular person or family or tribe or nation worships this particular god, a god cast in its own familial, tribal, or national image.

    My argument is far from original. I borrowed it from H. Richard Niebuhr who, a generation ago, argued: “The chief rival to monotheism … is henotheism or that social faith which makes a finite society, whether cultural or religious, the object of trust as well as of loyalty and which tends to subvert even officially monotheistic institutions, such as the churches.” In other words, the culture itself (that invisible continuum in which we swim like fish in a water tank) becomes our object of adoration, veneration, and worship.

    If Niebuhr is right, the chief competitor of the church in our times does not challenge the church directly. It does not need to challenge the church head on! Rather, it is insinuated into the lives and loyalties of our membership through seemingly benign sources, the many good things which should receive our relative loyalty and that only become bad things when they claim our absolute or ultimate allegiance.

    Henotheism isn’t a common word, but it may just be the most common faith of many Christians today, a faith which converts not its adherents to strange or foreign gods, but that subtly replaces the worship of Jesus Christ (who can challenge us in genuinely uncomfortable and unfamiliar ways) with a lesser deity (who often wins our hearts by not challenging us in uncomfortable or unfamiliar ways), while retaining all the trappings of Christian worship. The lesser deity is such a diabolical threat because it is familiar, even homespun.

    One can find henotheism on the right and on the left. It’s an equal opportunity variety of idolatry. It can take the form of an “America first” mentality that gives narrow national interests the veto power over the radical claims of the gospel and the disturbing call of Christ to be a neighbor to every other. Or it can take the form of a civil religion enshrining certain assumptions of the Enlightenment that seek to ban altogether the vocabulary of faith from the public realm. Household gods of all sorts tug at the coattails of Christians, demanding “you may go just that far with Jesus of Nazareth, but you must go no further.”

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  • Faith in a “Culture of Disbelief”[1]

    by Michael Jinkins | Mar 09, 2011

    I was on my treadmill doing an imitation of a hamster in pursuit of lower cholesterol scores and listening to NPR’s “Morning Edition.” Among the items that morning was a letter from a listener who dismissed a story from the previous day about “Fatwa shopping,” a phenomenon that is occurring among some Muslims. If, for example, a Muslim asks a religious authority for a judgment call on some behavior, and the judgment call differs from what he wants to do, he may simply shop for another religious authority with a different perspective. The listener said that such behavior is typical of all religions. The faithful all “drink the Kool Aid,” and if they don’t get the flavor they want at first, they look around for another flavor that suits their taste.

    Obviously, now, there’s some truth in this reading of contemporary religious culture. Christians also know the phenomena of “church shopping” and “church hopping.” And, since Feuerbach and Freud, at least, we have recognized the tendencies among the faithful to externalize their desires, hopes, and fears and to project these on to “God.” But the branch of Protestantism of which I am an adherent, the Reformed tradition, calls it idolatry when we craft gods in our own image. Don Henley (of The Eagles’ fame) co-wrote the song, “Little Tin God,” which in the right context could be a hymn of sorts. Okay, maybe not a hymn, but it is does sing like Calvinism with a strong backbeat. And a purely cynical view of religious faith and the reasons why people adhere to faith (and others do not) does as little justice to the subject as any naïve or superficially pious one does.

    If you will allow me to gallop through some recent reports that deserve much more careful study, I will try to arrive at my point.

    Many of us received the summary report of the American Religious Identification Survey by Barry A. Kosmin and Ariela Keysar (Summary Report, March 2009) and noted that the category of persons with “no religion” (the so-called “nones”) grew from 8.2% in 1990 to 15.0% in 2008, meaning there are as many people now in that group as there are among all Baptists (the largest Protestant group in the United States), and apparently without the benefit of any massive evangelistic efforts. The core message of this report was conveyed by its authors (and I doubt if there’s a minister or priest in our country who would dispute what they have to say): “The challenge to Christianity in the U.S. does not come from other religions but rather from a rejection of all forms of organized religion” (Highlights, p. 1).

    Not long after reading that study, however, I received the report of the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life titled, Faith in Flux: Changes in Religious Affiliation in the U.S. (April 2009). One of the most striking findings in the Pew report led to a fascinating Op-Ed piece by Charles M. Blow, “Defecting to Faith,” in The New York Times (May 2, 2009). Blow observed that a surprising number of children of agnostics and atheists are making their way to church. According to the Pew report, most people who grew up in families without faith affiliated as adults with faith communities because their spiritual needs were not being met (18).

    Where does this leave us?

    The answer may be in a third study, this one a couple of years old now, and of a smaller group in our society, college age adults. W. Robert Connor reported on this study in a fascinating essay, “The Right Time and Place for Big Questions,” in The Chronicle of Higher Education (June 9, 2006), where he observed that many young adults were frustrated that the big questions they confronted in life, the questions of meaning, of purpose, were not being addressed in their college classrooms or by their professors, many of whom were hesitant to speak beyond the limits usually permitted in the public marketplace of ideas.

    Young adults are searching for meaning that is not just of their own making and for purpose that transcends. They are looking for answers to life’s most persistent questions, the Big Questions, and they are finding in themselves longings unmet in a culture obsessed with itself and lacking a reference point for meaning beyond its own preoccupations.

    The fact that the parents of many of these young people do not believe doesn’t mean that the game is over. In fact, it means just the opposite.

    These young people, incidentally, are not asking to be entertained. They are seeking something much deeper. They are seeking faith. And faith is as much (if not more) about reverence, awe, and wonder for the Holy, who utterly transcends us, as it is about a set of beliefs we may or may not share.

    If you’ll bear with me for one more resource, I want to introduce you to Paul Woodruff’s remarkable (and humanistic) study, Reverence: Recovering a Forgotten Virtue (Oxford, 2001). Paul has taught undergraduates for many years and is now dean of undergraduate studies at The University of Texas at Austin. If anyone has his hand on the pulse of young adults, it is Paul. He senses (rightly, I believe) the need for a recovery of reverence, “the well-developed capacity to have the feelings of awe, respect, and shame when these are the right feelings to have” (8).

    Maybe this is what young adults are saying that they have not experienced in organized religion. Maybe this is what’s at the heart of their Big Questions about the meaning and purpose of their own lives. Maybe this is why they are coming again through the doors of the church. If so, let’s make sure they are greeted by something more thoughtful and reverent than just a sacralized version of the popular culture of consumerism, entertainment, and self-promotion that is not meeting their needs.

     


    [1] The title borrows from Stephen Carter’s, The Culture of Disbelief: How American Law and Politics Trivialize Religious Devotion (BasicBooks, 1993). Carter observed: “In contemporary American culture, the religions are more and more treated as just passing beliefs – almost as fads, older, stuffier, less liberal versions of so-called New Age – rather than as the fundaments upon which the devout built their lives” (14). The message that many people receive in this culture is: “pray if you like, worship if you must, but whatever you do, do not on any account take your religion seriously” (15).

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  • Beatitudes for Church Leadership

    by Michael Jinkins | Mar 02, 2011

    I was recently thinking about the pastoral staff and lay leadership of St. Charles Avenue Presbyterian Church, a grand and historic congregation in the Uptown, or University area, of New Orleans. A little over a year ago they asked me to lead a leadership retreat for them. This church offers one of the most inspiring stories I have ever heard of how a devastating experience can open doors to a new missional identity.

    Though their part of the city largely escaped the worst of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 (the church’s sanctuary was, in fact, badly damaged, but has been restored), the congregation of St. Charles Avenue has experienced a rebirth in the wake of the storm because of the sense of mission and ministry the devastation awakened among the membership. In the weeks following the hurricane, the congregation mobilized its people and resources. It assembled, coordinated, and housed volunteers from around the country to rebuild homes and indeed whole neighborhoods ravaged by Katrina.

    The vitality of the congregation is evident in its worship and preaching, as well as in programs of community service. As the leadership of the church reflected on the church’s future mission during the retreat, asking what might be the next steps the congregation needs to take, some wondered aloud what it would mean for them to re-envision their whole mission program yet again. Beyond the immediate goal of building homes and neighborhoods, what would it mean to allow their on-going mission work to afford also an intentional educational opportunity for themselves—and for others? They began to ask what it would mean for members of congregations to come to their city not only to rebuild structures and neighborhoods, but to gain new and deeper understandings of Christian mission that might transform the lives of their congregations and communities back home. St. Charles Avenue would become a mission-education center, as well as a coordinator of mission itself.

    The conversations over the course of these two days were lively and animated. In closing my portion of the retreat, I described four beatitudes that had been taking shape in my mind as I listened to them discuss their mission past, present, and future. These beatitudes may be worthwhile for all of us to remember as we continue to rethink, adapt, and transform the ministries of our own congregations.

    Four Beatitudes for Congregational Ministry

    1. Bless dissent. In the very first session of the retreat a theme emerged: No single one of us knows where our church needs to go next, but together we will. In order to discover the shape of our future mission we must bless dissent. The church is the Body of Christ, St. Paul tells us, and a body has many organs, each with its own distinctive functions. However, not only does a heart have a different function from a foot, it has a whole different perspective on the body and the world the body inhabits. Variety of perspective isn’t always pretty, but differences need not lead to divisions. We must learn to bless our differences, even (maybe especially) our dissent, because we simply do not know where the key insights are coming from that will transform us, and no one of us has the understanding we need to find our way.

     

    1. Bless failure. Samuel Becket once wrote a line of sheer poetry that also represents a fundamental insight into human maturity and good leadership. Becket wrote: “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” Notice: there are no question marks in this collection of six short sentences. The hinge on which maturity and health turn is in that third small sentence, with its gracious shrug of the shoulders. “No matter.” It transforms the fact of life (We try. We fail.), making possible the resolute and marvelous closing sentence, “Fail better.” The essential education we all need waits for us in our failures.

     

    1. Bless story. Someone once observed, “Do you know why I believe that ideas can change the world? Because nothing else ever has.” I love this statement because I love ideas, the bigger the better. And this statement about the importance of ideas is almost true. But there are times when good ideas, even great ideas, will not win the day. When great ideas don’t win, I’ve noticed that the thing that beats them is a story (though some of the stories weren’t even true). The power of stories, of legends, myths, fables and fairy tales is the greatest power for transformation known to humanity. The late Don Hewitt, the creator of the enormously successful television news magazine, “Sixty Minutes,” credited that program’s durability to the fact that they always answered a basic human request, which he summed up in four short words: “Tell me a story.” A church needs to cast its big ideas (including its mission) in stories.

     

    1. Bless blessing. The power to bless is ultimately the greatest power the church possesses. We live in a culture of cursing. Cable television and talk radio are driven by the power to curse. And if we, as church, simply conform to the mold of this age, cursing our way through our culture, we will have failed to live up to the call of the good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ, who came into this world that we might have life and have it in abundance. The curse boasts that its power is the only real power on earth. But, as the Bible reminds us, again and again, the end of the curse’s power is always a grave, and the power to bless raises us to new life.

    The author of the original beatitudes chose to end his list with this one, reminding us to “rejoice and be glad.” After all, it’s when we bless that people notice a family resemblance between us and the God who created us.

    This is certainly not all we need to know about church leadership. But, as the good folks of St. Charles Avenue Presbyterian Church taught me, it is much more than a start.

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  • When “Keeping it Weird” Isn’t a Good Idea

    by Michael Jinkins | Feb 22, 2011

    Several months ago I moved from a city, Austin, Texas, one distinction of which is its rather famous city motto: “Keep Austin Weird.” I moved to another city, Louisville, Kentucky, that has recently adopted this slogan for itself. All in all, I rather like the sentiment. “Keeping it weird” can be a way of affirming the off-beat and encouraging creativity. “Thinking weird” can convey an appreciation for the value of taking a fresh, sometimes apparently strange, angle on questions and ideas. Used this way, the word “weird” is a virtue. But, as I recently discovered, thinking WEIRD isn’t necessarily always good.

    In the winter issue of Foreign Policy, a popular journal on “global politics, economics and ideas,” which, among other features had a two page spread on jokes about Hosni Mubarak (remember , please, the January issue of the journal went to print well before the revolution broke out in Egypt), there was a short essay on the problem of “weird science.” In this case, “WEIRD” is an acronym for: Western, educated, industrialized, rich and, democratic societies. The problem, according to authors of a study on the skewing of research “in the top international journals in six fields of psychology from 2003 to 2007,” is that 68% of the subjects studied (i.e. the persons used as “subjects” for research) “came from the United States,” and 96% came from Western, industrialized countries. “In one journal, 67 percent of American subjects and 80 percent of non-American subjects were under-graduates in psychology courses.”[1]

    The editors ask, “Does this really matter?” And the answer they provide is a resounding, “YES!” WEIRD persons (remember the acronym, not the adjective!) “tend to be more individualistic and more competitive than people from non-industrialized Asian and African societies.” They “are more likely to look out for themselves. They even perceive space differently.” Thus, any grand, sweeping generalities psychologists and other social scientists attempt to make about “human beings,” “human perceptions,” “human feeling and thinking” on the basis of this vast body of research is questionable, to say the very least.[2]

    There are implications here of real significance for the church as well. Often when we (especially in North American Protestant circles) speak of “the church” we are speaking not only provincially and parochially, but from a totally WEIRD perspective, allowing our WEIRD worldview to invisibly and uncritically shape our notions of churchliness. This has the potential to skew many of our conclusions.

    Recently, for example, Amy Plantinga Pauw, professor of theology on our faculty here at Louisville Seminary, in an extraordinary convocation address, “Two Cheers for Denominationalism!,” observed that “many Christians in Africa and Asia wonder why they should perpetuate … Western patterns of denominational loyalty.”[3] Their way of being Christian does not necessarily include as strong a denominational element as ours does. And it could be helpful to learn from such Christians in any number of areas. WEIRD thinking in the church obviously can prevent us from reading the Bible, as Robert McAfee Brown once said, “with third world eyes.” Thus, WEIRD thinking can cause us to miss the startling fact that the worldview of the Bible is, in many respects, far closer to the worldview of African Christians (just to note one example) than it is to our worldview. Our WEIRD thinking, therefore, can prevent us from hearing, seeing, perceiving, and thinking about the world, the gospel, the church from those biblical perspectives that clash with our own. And this is especially crucial when it comes to the church.

    As Kathryn Tanner observed in her book, Theories of Culture: A New Agenda for Theology, the Bible taken as a whole (what we refer to often as the biblical canon) gives expression to a wide variety of ways of being faithful arising from historical communities of faith.[4] There are times when I have almost felt that the only thing holding the Bible together is its binding! Even within the New Testament, the ways of being faithful as Christians varies enormously depending on whether it is Paul speaking to the various missionary fellowships he has founded among the Gentiles or the Book of James speaking amid a Jerusalem community, Matthew’s Gospel, or John’s. The biblical canon exemplifies a kind of proto-global view of faithfulness that could really help us today as we struggle in an age of massive and increasingly fast communications to make sense of a world of new insights, some of which are profoundly challenging to our WEIRD worldview.

    WEIRD church thinking in our time tends to exalt the individual over the body as a whole, for example, thus missing certain dynamics in Paul’s message of the body and its members (Romans 12; I Corinthians 12-14), a fact Paul shares with many Asian and African Christians. WEIRD church thinking tends to undercut cooperation and mutuality. It tends to privilege certain limited institutional structures at the expense of others (ironically some of which actually thrive on the innovation and creativity that could significantly enliven our contemporary Western church).

    The alternative to WEIRD church thinking, however, would not simply be a dethroning of the WEIRD (a decidedly partial view of the world) in favor of just another partial view. There is much that WEIRD church thinking still has to contribute to our life together and, one might well argue, to other perspectives around the globe. What I have in mind is a concerted effort to bring into a larger conversation (whomever hosts that conversation) those voices that are not so easily or so often heard in the WEIRD part of the world. Global provincialism, the elevation of any local voice at the expense of all others, would be as unhelpful as WEIRD thinking has been in its privileging of Western sources of information. But WEIRD thinking has too often cut itself off from the fullness of the wisdom of God represented by Christians and other persons of faith around the globe. That may not be a sin, but it is certainly more than just unfortunate.

     


    [1] “Weird Science: Most of what we know about how the world thinks comes from research on a handful of American undergrads,” Foreign Policy, January-February, 2011, 36. The study cited by FP was conducted by Joseph Henrich, Steven Heine, and Ara Norenzayan at the University of British Columbia.

    [2] Ibid., 36.

    [3] Amy Plantinga Pauw, “Two Cheers for Denominationalism!” 2011 Spring Convocation Address, February 10, 2011, Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary.

    [4] Kathryn Tanner, Theories of Culture: A New Agenda for Theology (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1997), particularly chapter 6, pp.120ff.

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  • Outfoxing Hedgehogs

    by Michael Jinkins | Feb 15, 2011

    It has been said that there are two kinds of people in the world: those who think there are two kinds of people in the world and those who don’t. The person who said this was making the point that things (and people) are always more complex than they may appear at first glance.

    And yet there always seems to be a ready market for reductionism, for experts and pundits trying to persuade us that their latest bumper-sticker philosophy of life will unravel the interminable knots of tangled human existence. How many times have you been told that particular churches are growing because they offer people “The Answer”?

    A few years ago, Tom Long, professor of homiletics at the Candler School of Theology, Emory University, preached a sermon in which he observed that the greatest heresy of our age is not atheism, but superficiality. I’ve quoted Tom’s line enough that one of us owes the other a lot of back royalties.

    Orthodoxy has sought to maintain the deep tensions at the heart of the gospel (such as Jesus Christ, “fully divine, fully human”) and has steadfastly resisted reducing these tensions to simple either/or statements. Heresy, on the other hand, inevitably loses its hold on one or the other opposing affirmations that only together can lay claim to the truth and, thereby, violates the integrity of the mystery of faith. In fact, heresy by definition loses the tension at the heart of faith. Think for a moment about the way the big heresies (for example, Arianism, Pelagianism) all do this.

    Of course, the heresy of superficiality is not restricted to the church. It infects society at large. Nicholas Kristof wrote in the The New York Times on research presented by Philip Tetlock, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley. Tetlock’s book, Expert Political Judgment (2005), found that the predictions of the most well-known experts—on whatever subject—tended to be correct only slightly more often than totally random guesses (Kristof said this was “the equivalent of a chimpanzee throwing darts at a board”).

    Fame follows over-simplification. The more famous the expert, the less reliable were his or her predictions. Famous experts tend to get famous because they get airtime representing clear, simplistic, easily remembered, and sometimes inflammatory, but consistently “black or white” points of views.

    In explaining Tetlock’s analysis of this research, Kristof makes a distinction between “hedgehogs” and “foxes” (drawing on the late Isaiah Berlin, once professor of political science at Oxford University). Berlin uses a passage from the Greek poet, Archilochus, to launch his essay. The passage reads: “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.”[1] In the rarified world of experts, according to Tetlock, hedgehogs are those who “tend to have a focused worldview, an ideological leaning….” Foxes, on the other hand, “are more cautious, more centrist, more likely to adjust their views, more pragmatic, more prone to self-doubt, more inclined to see complexity and nuance.” Kristof continues, adding, “while foxes don’t give great sound-bites, they are far more likely to get things right.”[2]

    With some regularity I am told by church or religion “experts” that lay people demand simple answers, black and white responses to the complicated moral and spiritual issues arising in this fast-paced world. It is more important to be interesting than accurate, one such expert told me. However, with considerable regularity I also teach classes and preach in congregations around the country, and the lay persons I meet in these classes not only read magazines and papers like The Economist, The Wall Street Journal, and other print and online media, they also run businesses, work in the fields of law and medicine and education, and are not only apparently able to whistle and walk simultaneously, they also crave a deeper more complex engagement with Christian faith. They are looking for a faith that is true to the challenging lives they lead. I’ve said this before, but in the face of a culture that demands reductionism as a price for admission, it bears saying again and again.

    We don’t have to treat matters of faith dully in order to preserve the complexities, let alone the mysteries, of faith and life. And we certainly don’t have to dumb-down our presentation of the gospel and of the gospel’s intersections with life in order to stimulate the interest of our audiences.

    A friend related a story about advice he received from an expert in Christian publishing. The expert told him that he needed to eliminate the nuances from a piece he had written for a lay audience. My friend responded with something that would drive a hedgehog crazy, but that is music to the ears of every fox: The really important stuff has to be nuanced, or else it isn’t true.

    That won’t quite fit on a bumper sticker, but it’s worth remembering.

     


    [1] Isaiah Berlin’s essay, The Hedgehog and the Fox: An Essay on Tolstoy’s View of History, has appeared in various collections, but is also available as a monograph (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, Ltd. 1953; reprinted by Elephant Paperbacks, Chicago, 1993).

    [2] If you like Kristof’s comments, be sure to read Philip E. Tetlock’s Expert Political Judgment: How Good Is It? How Can we Know? (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005) for yourself; it is a brilliant and imaginative study.

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  • Barbara Jordan’s Legacy

    by Michael Jinkins | Feb 08, 2011

    The United States Postal Service this month has issued a stamp in honor of Barbara Jordan, the first African-American woman to be elected to the United States House of Representatives from the South. This has led me to reflect on her legacy.

    Sometimes, you can date the precise moment when a person is noticed by the American public. This was certainly the case for Barbara Jordan. She burst on the national scene on the evening of July 25, 1974, when the cameras turned to her in the hearings of the House Judiciary Committee. Her subject was the constitutional basis for the impeachment of a president.

    I still remember one sterling passage, delivered with the rhetorical style one of her contemporaries called “Churchillian” and recently described by her friend, Max Sherman, as “eloquent thunder.” You will probably remember her words too:

    My faith in the Constitution is whole; it is complete; it is total. And I am not going to sit here and be an idle spectator to the diminution, the subversion, the destruction of the Constitution. (public audio file)

    I was a senior in college, watching the proceedings of the House committee on television. I don’t know about you, but when I heard her say these words I swallowed hard. Barbara Jordan was clearly one of the grown-ups at the table. I was pretty sure that if I diminished, if I subverted, if I threatened the Constitution of the United States, Barbara Jordan was fully prepared to deal with me in no uncertain terms. “Don’t make me stop this car, young man!” was pretty much what I heard her say. I suspect it is, in part, because of my respect for her that I have a leather-bound copy of the Constitution on my desk.

    Max Sherman, her old friend, a fellow Texas State Senator, and former dean of the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs where Barbara taught until her death in 1996, once told me the story of a day in the Texas Senate when Barbara was quietly speaking into the microphone at her senate desk, responding to business before that body. Max couldn’t hear a word Barbara was saying. So he spoke into his own microphone, asking her to speak up. Barbara was not only a person of deep convictions, she was also a shrewd politician. At that moment, she didn’t really want the whole senate to take any notice of what she was saying. So she turned to her friend, Max, and told him something to the effect of, “Max, when I want you to hear me, you’ll hear me!”

    And we all did.

    These days, we observe a general suspicion of power in our society—often for good reason. Barbara Jordan could be suspicious of power with the best of them. Her commencement speech at Howard University in 1974 is a classic statement in favor of limited government:

    It is the “stuff” of America that its citizens want to be free of government intrusions into their private lives and into their personal affairs. This concept of freedom in America is etched into the Constitution of the United States, into the Bill of Rights. There are no gaps; there are no inexplicable “hums” in the Constitution of the United States. The language of that document flows well. The men who sought to get it passed … fought for it because they felt that they were constructing a nation, the touchstone of which would be liberty and freedom and justice … they were building—creating—a new nation with a system of government with checks and balances and separation of powers which would forever protect the citizens of the United States from gross abuses of power by public officials and by gross excesses of power by the government of the United States.

    As powerfully as she warned against abuses of power, however, she reminded us of something else, something we sometimes forget. There are proper uses of power. Might does not make right, but right can transform might.

    This means that Barbara Jordan had a real appreciation for the things we can accomplish together through the powers at work in our democratic institutions, though we must respect the countervailing forces and balanced powers at work in these institutions. She understood that lasting change, lasting ideals, lasting social transformation ultimately has to find its place in institutional forms if it is to endure. Critics have their place, but the best criticism exists for edifying purposes.

    To that point, Jordan once remembered Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives Sam Rayburn’s statement. “Any jackass can kick a barn down,” he said. “But it takes a good carpenter to build one.”

    What some people didn’t know about Barbara Jordan is the source of her moral compass. She was a child of the manse, a woman of deep and abiding faith. This fact came through in remarks she shared at the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington, D.C., in 1984. She framed her comments that day in terms of the stewardship of creation:

    Would we behave as we do … if we truly believed that we are God’s stewards on this earth? Would our policy decisions be the same … if we were always consciously aware of our trusteeship role on this earth? Would our oversight responsibilities be sharper, more incisive, if we believed that we are God’s caretakers?

    Whether arguing the finer points of the Constitution, or speaking of the duties of public service, or trying to craft a more just immigration bill, Barbara Jordan reminds us of Edmund Burke’s famous observation that the only thing necessary for evil to triumph is for good people to do nothing.

    Obviously, if we would like to remember Barbara Jordan, we could buy the new postage stamp with her image on it. Might I also suggest reading one of two excellent books about her and her legacy:

    Barbara Jordan: Speaking the Truth with Eloquent Thunder (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2007) by Max Sherman, editor. This is the source of all my quotes today. It is a wonderful collection of Barbara Jordan’s speeches with a nice biographical note by her close friend. It also has a superb DVD in the book which allows us to see and hear her speak.

    Barbara Jordan: American Hero (New York: Bantam Books, 1998) by Mary Beth Rogers. This is a good biography by a former professor at the LBJ School of Public Affairs and former chief of staff to the late Texas governor, Ann Richards.

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  • The “Preaching-to-the-Choir Syndrome”

    by Michael Jinkins | Feb 01, 2011

    Or, When Talking Only Makes Matters Worse

    Deliberation—defined as open-ended conversation intended to help groups explore and better understand the complex issues that concern them—has often been held up as the gold standard for all sorts of social groups. It is considered by many to be the essential ingredient of democracy. But in recent days some studies have shed light on the darker side of deliberation.

    In their recent study, reported in Critical Review: A Journal of Politics and Society, David Schkade, Cass R. Sunstein, and Reid Hastie describe those conditions occurring in a deliberative group which actually produce extremism, rather than those that moderate the views of participants. In experiments among politically and socially liberal and conservative groups (the groups were selected so that they were made up of all liberal and all conservative members) in two Colorado cities, the researchers found that after a fifteen-minute discussion of current issues, “group members showed significantly more agreement and less heterogeneity in their anonymous post-deliberation expressions of their private views,” and their “deliberation sharply increased the disparities between the views of the largely liberal citizens of Boulder and the largely conservative citizens of Colorado Springs.” This is the key point: “Before deliberation, there was considerable overlap between many individuals in the two cities. After deliberation, the overlap was much smaller."[1]

    We might call this the “Preaching-to-the-Choir Syndrome.” Deliberation under certain conditions actually tends to drive us apart rather than draw us together, making it less likely that we will find solutions to the problems that face us.

    In contrast to this kind of deliberation, I am reminded of James Surowiecki’s fascinating book a few years ago, The Wisdom of Crowds, which described the circumstances under which groups made the best decisions. Surowiecki summarized his thesis, based on evidence drawn from a variety of social, economic, and political experiments: “under the right circumstances, groups are remarkably intelligent, and are often smarter than the smartest people in them,” he wrote. The “right circumstances” included diversity of perspectives and the absence of over-bearing personalities that tend either to squelch divergent opinions or to force consensus. Surowiecki writes: “If you put together a big enough and diverse enough group of people and ask them to ‘make decisions affecting matters of general interest,’ that group’s decisions will, over time, be ‘intellectually [superior] to the isolated individual,’ no matter how smart or well-informed he is."[2]

    Obviously, these reports are not talking precisely about the same things, but taken together they do call into question our tendency to talk and listen only to people who already agree with us. If these reports are to be believed, conversations among folks who share the same general values and perspectives tend to make our views more extreme. And the lack of diversity in our conversational groups probably makes our understandings and decisions less intelligent.

    Even the most fair-minded and dedicated of us can get kind of crazy in certain conversations when the partisan choir to which we belong really gets on a roll. We are better served to talk about the deeply contentious issues of our time in groups of persons who hold different views, who come from different perspectives, who have different life experiences.

    You know, of course, that St. Paul got here long before us. The soaring Love Chapter, I Corinthians 13, was never intended to be read at a wedding. It was written for instruction in the midst of a church fight and makes for far better reading at a church board meeting. It needs to be heard in the context of Chapters 12 -14, in which Paul said, “God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. If all were a single member, where would the body be? As it is, there are many members, yet one body. The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you,’ nor again the head to the feet, ‘I have no need of you.’ On the contrary, the members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and those members of the body that we think less honorable we clothe with great honor… .” (I Cor. 12:18-23)

    If we want to be smarter, if we want to make better decisions, if we want to have a better society, a better church, a better world, we would be wise to ensure that our deliberations do not include only people just like us. This is one of those values that may just be more foundational than the other values that we hold—if, that is, we value our common life more highly than we value our views. What was it G.K. Chesterton said about the difference between the heretic and the orthodox? Ultimately, the heretic loves his opinions more than he loves the church, while the orthodox love the church, even when she disagrees with it, more than her own individual opinions. There’s just no such thing as community without difference.


    [1] Schkade, Sustein and Hastie, “When Deliberation Produces Extremism,” Critical Review, Vol. 22. (2010) Nos. 2-3, pp. 227-252.

    [2] Surowiecki, The Wisdom of Crowds (New York: Doubleday, 2004), xvii.

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  • God Is Simple, God-Talk Isn’t

    by Michael Jinkins | Jan 25, 2011

    One of the benchmark doctrines of orthodox Christianity is that God is simple, by which St. Thomas Aquinas means that God has no physical parts.[1] Another fundamental teaching of orthodoxy is that God is incomprehensible. St. Augustine of Hippo warns us: “If you think you comprehend, then it is not God you’re talking about!”

    I remember as a young child asking my mother what it meant when Jesus said, “Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.” Jesus was not only the Great Physician and a master storyteller, he was one hard teacher to figure out. But you know what? I’ve never forgotten that text or the conversation with my mother about it.

    Last fall The Economist reported on new research by Daniel Oppenheimer, a Princeton University psychologist, which suggests that if you want people to learn something “make the text conveying the information harder to read.” The Economist comments that one of the perennial paradoxes of education “is that presenting information in a way that looks easy to learn often has the opposite effect. Numerous studies have demonstrated that when people are forced to think hard about what they are shown they remember it better.”[2]

    This may be why I can’t shake Louise Gluck’s intellectually challenging poetry, or Flannery O’Connor’s enigmatic short stories, or novels like Toni Morrison’s Beloved. They demand so much attention. I recall a conversation between Oprah and Morrison in which Oprah confessed she sometimes has to go over and over a passage to understand it. Morrison said that the process to which Oprah was referring “is called reading.”

    There’s a lesson worth learning for those of us who care about Christian education.

    We have done our people a breathtaking disservice by trying to make theology (God-Talk) easier to understand. Dumbing-down our God-Talk has only made us dumber about God.[3]

    God is simple, metaphysically speaking. But this statement (“God is simple”) is not simple. It is a subtle, complex theological statement with a technical meaning. And why should God be intellectually simple? Though God is (in the sense in which Thomas Aquinas used the terms) “simple,” understanding God (the creator of a universe in which distances are measured in light years and galaxies number in millions) is anything but simple.

    I am tempted as a theologian to say that God is so utterly incomprehensible that we can only speak of God by saying what God is not (God is not mortal, not visible, etc.). In the history of theology, this approach to speaking of God is known as “the negative way.” But even that way of speaking of God is also outrageously simplistic nonsense, if we believe it renders God comprehensible.

    This is the great adventure of theological education. I’m talking about the kind of theological education we do in our congregations, in Sunday schools, and in our homes, and not only the kind we do in graduate theological schools. It invites us to comprehend that which cannot be comprehended, to interrogate that which provokes ever new questions, to engage with our whole hearts and minds the God who created us out of nothing, though of course we have no real conception of what it means to say “out of nothing.” There’s no way to appreciate the fact that God numbers every hair on our heads without appreciating the endless expanse of a universe that is a Tinker Toy to God.

    So, three cheers for the doctrines of divine aseity (the utterly mystifying doctrine that God loves us, but does not need us, which Thomas Merton credited with winning his heart to become a Christian) and perichoresis (the doctrine of Trinitarian theology that reflects the mystery of the mutuality and harmony and inter-relatedness of the three “persons” of the Trinity). And three cheers for every pastor and teacher who glories in Jesus’ parables of the kingdom that have no simple answer and no clear moral, and leave us scratching our heads or offended!

    And three more cheers for everyone who can’t shake the feeling that if we just chew on this idea about God a little longer then maybe, just maybe, we will understand something that makes sense of it all. This way wisdom lies.

    “For those who have ears to hear, let them hear!”

    ______________________________

    [1] See: Q. 3. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica

    [2] The Economist, “Learning Difficulties,” October 16, 2010, 98.

    [3] I am grateful to the late John Macquarrie for popularizing the term, God-talk in his remarkable book, God-Talk: An Examination of the Language and Logic of Theology (London: SCM Press, 1967).

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  • People Are Good

    by Michael Jinkins | Jan 18, 2011

    People are good.

    This may sound like a strange thing for a Calvinist like me to say (“yes, Virginia, there is original sin”), but I make this affirmation on the best authority. My daughter, Jessica, thinks it is true. She should know. She talks to hundreds of strangers a week.

    Let me back up for a moment to explain.

    Recently, Jessica called me to say she had enjoyed reading the blog about getting our focus right. She said she liked the idea, but wanted to expand it. She has been noticing the way popular media focus on anger: angry political activists on the left and the right; angry crowds gathering at government buildings; angry politicians and pundits shouting over one another on television and radio; angry religious people objecting to the religious views and values of other religious people; and angry atheists objecting to the fact that some people believe in God. Anger. Anger. Anger. If you were just going on what you see and hear via the media, you would think that everyone is ready to pull everyone else’s hair out, that we live in a nation on the brink of revolution or civil war or, at least, a good smack down.

    However, Jessica continued, in her line of work she speaks to hundreds upon hundreds of people, people she has never met face to face, people who have no investment in her personally, people she meets over the phone as a part of her work counseling individuals regarding their health insurance options. She observed that if she talks to three hundred people, on average, only three or four of them seem angry—and these are people who don’t have to talk to her at all. In fact, most of the people she encounters respond to her with warmth and humor.

    Now, it helps that Jessica is the happiest person you will ever meet, more likely to quote from Young Frankenstein or Monty Python’s Meaning of Life than Hamlet, but she may be on to something. It may be that we find in other people exactly what we are looking for. Not that people are Rorschach ink blot tests we can simply fill with our own meanings, but I do think people are ready for their best selves to be encountered by others.

    I remember a story about one of my long-time heroes, Carlyle Marney. Marney was a renegade Baptist preacher with a voice deeper than God’s and a theological perspective that was “progressive,” to say the least. Someone complained to Marney that every time he presided at the Lord’s Supper the deacons sat on the front pew looking to all the world like model Christians. The complainer said that he knew for a fact that these deacons are hypocrites, every one. Marney smiled and said that these deacons and all the rest of us are just pretending to be what we want to become. A Barthian theologian might go one step further than Marney to say that we are pretending to be what we already are in Jesus Christ. [Marney was pretty hesitant to say that much. For example, when the volumes on the Doctrine of God were published in Karl Barth’s Dogmatics, Marney remarked that nobody knows 1,500 pages about God—not even in German!]

    A few days ago, as Seminary student Keatan King (a fellow native Texan) was leaving our house after a party, she stood on the front porch, facing into a bracing winter wind and blowing snow, and said, “And God called this good?!” Maybe it is even harder to call other people good than it is to say nice things about the north wind. But I think Jessica is right. We all have bad days, and God knows we all need forgiveness, but most people are basically good. They were created in God’s image, after all. Maybe they are just waiting for someone to notice and respond accordingly.

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  • Thoughtfulness, Politics, and Statecraft

    by Michael Jinkins | Jan 11, 2011
    We often hear that statesmanship (to use the old word) or statecraft, as I would prefer to call it, is in short supply these days. I sometimes find myself wishing for a return to the days when Tip O’Neill and Ronald Reagan could duke it out all day long, then retire to a private office in the evening to share jokes and stories and a convivial beverage. But that’s probably pretty romantic thinking. The good old days were rough around the edges too, as any of us soon discovers by reading about the presidential campaigns of Thomas Jefferson and John Adams or of John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson, just to pluck two examples. Most of us appreciate, however, the example provided by Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals, which demonstrates how political competition could survive and flourish at the heart of an administration, and ultimately become a force for the good.

    Recently, I was reminded of how well statecraft and politics can co-exist in the life of a leader in our own time, by reading Daniel Patrick Moynihan: A Portrait in Letters of an American Visionary, edited by Steven Weisman.1 I have long admired Moynihan. His book on the dangers of secrecy2 remains a classic. It sits on my bookshelf right beside Sissela Bok’s study, Lying: Moral Choice in Public and Private Life.3 I could hardly recommend two better books on moral power and public leadership than these. Moynihan had a knack for words and a well-deserved reputation for incisive thoughtfulness.

    Weisman’s collection of Moynihan’s letters and papers, in fact, reminds us what politics can look like, and how it can serve statecraft, when suffused with thought. Take, for example, this prime Moynihanian quip: “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion but not to his own facts.” Or this insight: “The central conservative truth is that it is culture, not politics that determines the success of society. The central liberal truth is that politics can change a culture and save it from itself.”

    I found myself amazed by Moynihan’s reflections on why the provincial will become more important—and not less so—in responding to globalization; and how the provincial and the local call forth protection against the homogenizing forces of the dominant culture. Not only were his observations prescient (written in 1965), they reflected a rare level of literary sophistication and beauty. First, he reflects on literary critic John Wain’s comments on Dylan Thomas’s “Welshness,” to explain why, as the world grows smaller, we need to recover the peculiar accents of our own villages. Then, responding to the erudite Harvard historian of Puritan New England, Perry Miller, Moynihan reminds us that “religious liberty in America revives not so much from the enlightenment of Puritan divines, as from their inability to muster a majority made up of any one denomination in order to suppress the others.”

    I also found myself moved reading a transcript of an interview from December 5, 1963, in which a young Pat Moynihan reflected on the assassination (just days before) of President John Kennedy. Moynihan served in the Kennedy administration (as well as the Johnson and Nixon administrations).

    “We all of us know down here that politics is a tough game. And I don’t think there’s any point in being Irish if you don’t know that the world is going to break your heart eventually. I guess we thought that we had a little more time,” he stated.

    Later, in that same interview, he reports what he said to his colleague, Mary McGrory. After the assassination of the president, she said, “We’ll never laugh again.” Moynihan said, “Heavens. We’ll laugh again. It’s just that we’ll never be young again.”

    Reading Weisman’s book, I found myself aware of just what a gift it can be to the complex needs and interests of a nation to have politicians whose thoughtfulness serves statecraft, who can lead us as a people into deep examinations of the sometimes incommensurable (and essential) values we hold: noting, for example, the irreducible tensions between equality and liberty, security and freedom, and so forth. In a time when “we the people” so often clamor for leaders to fulfill our every whim with no thought for the costs; to conform our public commitments to an idealized and sanitized version of our founding; or to reduce the interests of political, stately, and international affairs to a sport or a contest among celebrities, my theologian’s heart was strangely warmed as I read the reflections of this rather old-fashioned politician who refused to settle for easy answers, even under the pressures of winning the next election.

    Finally, I was struck by the liveliness of the thought, the originality of a mind willing to challenge the settled orthodoxy he had inherited. Here was a politician who emerged as a statesman because, ultimately, he refused to let his party affiliations trump his thinking. Sure, there was partisanship in Moynihan. There was ambition. There was opportunism too. But there was something else that redeems the lot. There was humanity and good humor—and thoughtfulness.

     

    1 Published by Public Affairs in 2010.

    2 Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Secrecy (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998).

    3 Published by Random House in 1978.


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  • Your Nominees for Today’s Niebuhr

    by Michael Jinkins | Jan 04, 2011

    A couple of months ago I asked that readers of this blog and those who heard my convocation address (The Life of the Mind in the Service of God: Why a Thinking Faith Still Matters) nominate candidates for Today’s Reinhold Niebuhr. As you will remember, I suggested Cornel West, Marilynne Robinson, and Stephen Prothero. Your responses were fantastic, and I’d like to share them with you. (The names of nominees are in bold while the names of those who made the nomination are in plain print.)

    One of the most provocative and interesting responses came from a member of the Louisville Seminary faculty, Frances Adeney, who asked, “Do we really need a Reinhold Niebuhr?” She affirms the postmodern shattering of any sort of monolithic perspective and observes: “Maybe we are doing well with Elizabeth Schüssler Fiorenza to help us interpret scripture, Eboo Patel to inspire us to work creatively with youth, and Titus Presler to show us how to do global mission.” Elizabeth Schüssler Fiorenza received another nomination, by the way, from Chris Lieberman, noting Fiorenza’s “depth of contribution to theological inquiry, biblical studies, and her ability to mentor and encourage women (especially) and people at the margins outside the established order to become dialogue partners in interpreting and practicing the gospel of Jesus Christ.”

    Louisville Seminary alum Hal LeMert (BD ’61) seconded my nomination of Marilynne Robinson, remarking how much Robinson’s collection of essays, In Search of Adam, strikes a Niebuhrian tone. And employee and alumna Steffanie Brown (MDiv ’01) seconded my nomination of Cornel West, remembering “an impromptu speech” West gave “at a coffee house in Louisville’s West End.” Another friend, Scott Black Johnston, has a great story about washing his clothes at the same Laundromat as West when he was a student. Brad Wigger (MDiv ’84), a member of the Louisville Seminary faculty, gave a third vote to Cornel West, incidentally, making West the most nominated of all.

    Wendell Berry was nominated by both Rollin Tarter (ThM ’67) and Brad Wigger. Brad also nominated Marian Wright Edelman; and Rollin also nominated John Caputo. Amariah McIntosh (MDiv ’01) suggested Professor Michael Eric Dyson, commentator Tavis Smiley, and the Reverend Jeremiah Wright, while Skip Hansen (MDiv ’76) nominated President Obama, who, himself, has mentioned his indebtedness to Niebuhr’s Christian Realism.

    One of our Seminary students, Deb Trevino nominated Leonardo Boff, mentioning that she was writing a paper for the course, “Theologies of the Global South,” focusing on Boff's books, Cry of the Earth, Cry of the Poor and Essential Caring: An Ethic of Human Nature. And a good friend and (like some other nominators) alum of Louisville Seminary, K. C. Ptomey (MDiv ’67), recommends Douglas John Hall “as a contemporary theologian who embodies the legacy of Reinhold Niebuhr.” Probably the best essay I read this fall was Hall’s “Cross and Context” in the September 7 issue of Christian Century. If you missed it, thumb through back issues of the Century or follow the link and read this one! Kathy Mapes, Director of our Academic Support Center, brought it to my attention.

    Without a doubt, the most touching nomination was from Dianna Bell who nominated her daughter Kathryn Dianna Bell as “a potential young Niebuhr.” Kathryn Dianna’s grandfather, J. Leslie, was a 1930 graduate of Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary; her father, Donald L. was a 1962 graduate of Louisville; and Dianna was a 1973 graduate of Princeton. Kathryn Dianna graduated from San Francisco and General Theological Union in 2006. Dianna wrote: “Donald and I are amazed and deeply thankful to see the gifts that God is honing in this young, intellectual, compassionate, committed, and playful individual.... She feels that the Presbyterian Church has settled for mediocrity at best. I think she has some significant possibility of being part of the church’s turnaround.” As a father and father-in-law of two Presbyterian ministers I can fully appreciate Dianna’s pride and hope.

    One of the things I love most about Niebuhr was his ability to produce a memorable phrase. So, today, by way of thanking you all for participating in this exercise, I want to leave you with a few classic passages from Niebuhr’s Leaves from the Notebook of a Tamed Cynic, the diary he kept as a young pastor in Detroit, Michigan. He wrote:

    An astute pedagogy and a desire to speak the truth in love may decrease opposition to a minister’s message … but if a gospel is preached without opposition it is simply not the gospel which resulted in the cross. 1

    On the other hand:

    If the Christian adventure is made a mutual search for truth in which the preacher is merely a leader among many searchers and is conscious of the same difficulties in his own experience which he notes in others, I do not see why he cannot be a prophet without being forced into itinerancy. 2

    Cynics sometimes insinuate that you can love people only if you don’t know them too well; that a too intimate contact with the foibles and idiosyncrasies of [people] will tempt one to be a misanthrope. I have not found it so. I save myself from cynicism by knowing individuals, and knowing them intimately. 3

    And, finally, one of my favorite Niebuhrisms:

    “It is so easy to repent of other people’s sins.”4


    1 R. Niebuhr, Leaves from the Notebook of a Tamed Cynic (San Francisco: Harper, 1980 edition). The original was published in 1929. P. 140.

    2 Niebuhr, Leaves, 54.

    3 Niebuhr, Leaves, 94.

    4 Niebuhr, Leaves, 165.

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  • Let Not Your Hearts Be Troubled

    by Michael Jinkins | Dec 27, 2010

    Welcome to the future. It’s not what we were led to expect. The Jetsons don’t live here anymore. It’s messier than we imagined it would be. Technology did not save us after all. Our high tech gadgets just fill up our inboxes while we sleep and leave us more perplexed when we awaken.

    Welcome to the future. No, it’s not what we expected. Not even in matters of faith.

    Presbyterians, Lutherans, and Episcopalians—the three gold-chip Protestant families—and all the other folk who brought us the famous Protestant Reformation are dismayed that people today don’t know or care how important we used to be. Years ago, we were the ones making the jokes about others (Remember Garrison Keillor’s joke about the Unitarian missionary-founders of Lake Wobegone and how they had attempted to convert the resident Native Americans through interpretive dance. Now we’re the punch line: What do you get when you cross a Presbyterian and a Jehovah’s Witness? Someone who goes door to door but has no idea what to say.)

    Welcome to the future. Now what?

    After decades of hand-wringing and self-absorption and blaming—none of which did much to change our situation—after spilling oceans of ink in the cause of self-study, and cornering the market on butcher paper to list our options, and running from one snake-oil-dispensing consultant to another who promised to rejuvenate our future by jettisoning our past (at the cost of $49.95 plus postage and handling), we danced across a dozen dance floors with every darling at the ball and ended up exactly where we started.

    What’s next?

    I suggest we learn again to dance. But this time with the one who brought us to the ball. I suggest we remember why we learned to dance in the first place. So, I’ve got a resolution for us that I know we can keep. Resolve: “Let not your hearts be troubled.”

    Just saying this, I know I risk sounding like someone who is drafting the ostrich brigade. But in bringing to mind the words of St. John’s Jesus (and lyrics by The Band of Heathens), I’m asking for us to do something more.

    So many of our attempts to respond to the challenges facing us have begun with us, with our ingenuity, our ability to structure and re-structure, our efforts of all kinds. I would never want to suggest that we are not full participants in every movement of God’s Spirit. But, I want to offer a suggestion that our confidence in ourselves is misplaced.

    I am not optimistic about the future of the church. I am hopeful. The difference is huge, and it is theologically significant.

    I think we sometimes forget the ecclesiological significance of the fact that we serve a God whose emblem is a cross. Perhaps the disciples who retreated to a safe house and discussed the reorganization of the messianic movement while the messiah was executed by the Romans (clearly the low point in the whole Christian movement) are not all that unlike us. While some disciples formed committees to explore the restructuring of the Jerusalem office and others simply mourned the burial of their ideals in Joseph’s tomb, God was at work. God is, after all, in the resurrection business. God is the only one who has ever achieved actual creation.

    It was inevitable, really. But sooner or later, once we came to believe that it all depends on us—our cleverness, our faithfulness, our efforts—at some point we were going to find ourselves anxious and exhausted, while the task before us remained tenaciously daunting, even impossible. Score seven for St. Augustine; Pelagius 0.

    Not only are the gospels true. They are real. And the point I’m taking from them as we begin a New Year is this: What is impossible for us is child’s play for God, whether it is the transformation of an individual’s life, the toppling of a seemingly all-powerful empire, the liberation of oppressed and enslaved people, or the spread of the gospel among those who seem utterly uninterested in God. God invites us to participate in all of God’s mighty acts. But, here’s the really exciting part, God invites us to participate in large part by remembering what God has done and by gossiping the good news of what God can do in the face of apparently impossible odds.

    You, of course, remember that whole passage from John’s Gospel: “Let your hearts not be troubled. You trust in God,” Jesus said, “Trust also in me.” I think this is one New Year’s resolution we can keep. And if we can’t, God will keep even this for us.

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  • A Christmas Message

    by Michael Jinkins | Dec 21, 2010

    “And it came to pass in those days that
    there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus….”

    When I woke up this morning, these words kept running through my mind.

    They are words rich in associations. I remember them read year after year in church as a child. They opened Christmas pageants and formed the text for many sermons. As I sit writing you this morning, they appear on the page of my grandfather’s Bible in the trusty old Authorized Version (aka, The King James Version) which lies open before me.

    Strange it is that these words refer to a tax law, whether real or legendary. The associations trump the literal reference and lean into the larger purpose of the text, to announce to us the unprecedented act of God and to tie that act of God to human history, our history.

    What does it mean to expect the impossible? That’s what Christmas is all about, isn’t it?

    The associations of this biblical text whisk me from an ancient tax law to a twentieth century poem. Both remind us why we expect the impossible. Simply put: Nothing less will do.

    As poet W. H. Auden says, in his Christmas Oratorio, “For the Time Being,” echoing the gladiator’s pledge to every Imperial Caesar and turning it to a redemptive purpose:

    We who must die demand a miracle,

    How could the Eternal do a temporal act,

    The Infinite become a finite fact?

    Nothing can save us that is possible;

    We who must die demand a miracle. 1

    Christmas is rich in possibilities. Every happy child knows this is true. And every unhappy child dreams of it. But we should never forget an even more important truth. Christmas is rich in impossibilities. As the child, whose birth this day commemorates, reminds us: that which is impossible to us is possible for God, and that includes our salvation. So I leave you this morning with a final word from the poet:

    To those who have seen The Child, however dimly,

    however incredulously

    The Time Being is, in a sense, the most trying time of all….

    Remembering the stable where for once in our lives

    Everything became a You and nothing was an It. 2

    Merry Christmas!


    1 W. H. Auden, “For the Time Being,” in Collected Longer Poems (New York: Random House, 1934), 138.

    2 Ibid., 196.

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  • The Foolishness of the Gospel vs. Rank Silliness

    by Michael Jinkins | Dec 14, 2010

    Morning “news” programs have never been just news. Chimps provided comic distraction from heavier news items in the early days of television. So for me to complain about a latter-day “Fall” from some mythical Golden Age rings hollow. But, these days, I feel almost as though the Morning “news” programs on all the major networks are trying to out-do one another in becoming caricatures of themselves. Silliness reigns supreme.

    Okay, I can accept this, though with some real regret. And I can make alternate arrangements—as I do now—to get my news otherwise. But what is really bothering me is that many churches seem to be taking their cues from the same cultural trends that have nearly trivialized to death the morning programs. I fear walking into some churches these days to be greeted by a dancing chimp, or worse.

    A few weeks ago, a student reported about an ordination service in which the head of the ordaining commission paused from cracking jokes (some of which were in really poor taste) to say, “Now we have to get to the boring stuff. I need to ask you these questions.”

    The “boring stuff,” incidentally, was not just any set of questions, by the way, but the vows by which the new minister was promising God and God’s people to trust in Jesus Christ as Lord of all and Head of the Church; to accept the Bible as God’s Word; to be instructed and led by the confessions as she leads the church; and to be a friend among her colleagues as she seeks “to serve the people with energy, intelligence, imagination, and love.”

    When we make vows in the presence of God, as Thomas More says in Robert Bolt’s play, “A Man for All Seasons,” we hold our souls in our hands. This is a sacred drama unfolding in real life, in other words. And the drama played out in the service of ordination is far more powerful, provocative, and interesting than any weak comedy being contrived.

    I’m a funny guy. Really, I am. Everyone says so. And I enjoy being light-hearted, even in church. But we are in danger of converting the Temple of the Most High God into a bad imitation of Caesar’s Palace—and I don’t mean the Caesar’s palace we conquered by dint of faith two thousand years ago.

    In a recent New York Times column, David Brooks wrote a fascinating essay, “Weekness and Endurance,” about a new trend he is seeing. People, he said, in this post-bubble age, have rendered a judgment on the shortsightedness of the past two decades. It’s time, they are telling us, “to be a little more serious, to think about the long term more, to return to fundamentals.” Over-against the tide of ephemera and superficiality that has characterized the media and much else, “there must be room,” he writes, “for a magazine that offers an aspirational ideal… that separates for busy people the things that are enduring from the things that aren’t.”[1]

    If there’s room for a magazine to do this, I guarantee there’s room for a church. We’re in the “enduring ideals” business. And it is time we remembered this. Conan, Letterman, and Stewart have the comedy market covered. There are better story-tellers on NPR. And as long as Eric Clapton keeps doing his Crossroads tour, the church will never be better than a third-rate venue for rock music.

    What does the church have that others don’t? Please excuse me while I get biblical, but we have the Word of God in an earthen vessel. We have a genuinely serious response to the genuinely serious realities facing the peoples and societies of our world. We don’t need a church that humors our foibles, but a God who forgives our sin. We don’t need a liturgy that tells us to try a little harder, but a God who raises us from every death. There’s not much room in the foolishness of the gospel for base silliness; the folly of the cross is for real.

    We are in danger of trivializing ourselves right out of business here, dear friends, in our quest to look cool; and where else will the world turn when the world finally begins to wonder if someone somewhere has something serious to say about the human predicament and the state of the cosmos.

    When I finished reading Brooks’ essay, my thought went immediately to St. Paul, a pretty fair evangelist who was convinced that the gospel is a matter of life and death. But my thoughts went somewhere else, too. I returned to one of my favorite poems by that dyspeptic, old, agnostic Anglican, Philip Larkin, who visited an empty church one day and wondered at the mystery entailed in that “serious house on serious earth” where “all our compulsions meet, are recognized, and robed as destinies.” He reflected that such a place can never be obsolete “since someone will forever be surprising/ a hunger in himself to be more serious,” and will, therefore, gravitate “to this ground,” which is “proper to grow wise in.”[2]

     


    [1] David Brooks, “Weekness and Endurance,” The New York Times, Friday, November 19, 2010.

    [2] Philip Larkin, “Church Going,” Collected Poems, Anthony Thwaite, ed. (London: Marvell, 1988).

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  • Reports from the Field #2: Education for the New President (Continued)

    by Michael Jinkins | Dec 07, 2010
    Recently, I asked one of our professors a question that I am asking a variety of people in our larger Seminary community: “What are the challenges facing the church (both the Presbyterian Church U.S.A. and the larger church), and how might our seminaries serve the church to meet these challenges?”

    The professor was ready for this question. In fact, he had a book sitting on the table with a passage underlined. He read it to me: “Wherever ecclesiology [the doctrine of the church] moves into the foreground, however justifiable the reasons may be, Christology [the doctrine of Christ] will lose its decisive importance, even if it does so by becoming integrated, in some form or other, in the doctrine of the church, instead of remaining the church’s indispensable touchstone.”[1]

    After reading the passage, he gave me the book. I am grateful to my faculty colleague and to the author of this passage, Ernst Käseman. They both remind us of how easy it is for our focus to slip from what Paul Tillich called our “ultimate concern” to lesser matters, even when the lesser matters matter as much as “the church.”

    In another conversation, this time in a suburb outside Detroit, a young pastor who graduated from Louisville Seminary just a few years ago put his finger precisely on the issue. When I asked him what are the challenges facing the church, he immediately said that our church isn’t focusing on the right things. We are locked, he said, in interminable arguments to which there is no end, while all around us there are people in need of the good news of Jesus Christ, people in need of grace and love and care.

    We might call this “the theory of displacement of vision.” Focus on our ecclesiastical agreements and disagreements, focus on our institutional stability, organization, and survival, displaces focus on Jesus Christ as the revelation of God. It distracts us from the call that Jesus Christ addresses to each of us, to follow him in the way of the cross. And, paradoxically, it is only inasmuch as we focus on God that our own lives (not least our own life as church) comes into proper focus.

    Maybe we can only see the church well if we see the church with our peripheral vision.

    All of which brings me to one more conversation, this one with a student. Over a hamburger at a local Louisville restaurant he told me his story, of how God called him and his wife from lucrative careers and relative wealth to come to Seminary to prepare for a life in ministry. He told the story of his son’s grave illness and how God touched their family and transformed them all in the midst of near tragedy. This student was absolutely radiant. And his radiance did not come from confidence in the ability of the church to realign its structures. He reminded me that the church, for all her gifts and wonders, the church even as (to use St. Paul’s metaphor) “the body of Christ,” is really something of a by-product of humanity’s redemptive encounter with God.

    God brings us together. God creates the church by calling us. And if we hope for the church’s health, it is upon God that we must focus our attention. If we do this, then perhaps, out of the corner of our eyes, we will catch a glimpse of a renewed church. When we get our focus right, the challenges facing the church fall into place.


    [1] Ernst Käseman, Perspectives on Paul (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1969), 120-121.

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  • Reading People with Whom We Disagree

    by Michael Jinkins | Nov 30, 2010

    I am told on good authority that people today increasingly read only people with whom they already agree. If this is true, I think it is both pointless and sad. And it may be one of the factors contributing to the increasingly uncivil tone of our disagreements.

    Some of my fondest youthful memories revolve around reading William F. Buckley Jr., a person with whom I often disagreed. I recall something Buckley wrote asserting that the Jeffersonian notion that “all men are created equal” is a metaphysical affirmation that has only tenuous political application. I think Buckley was probably wrong, but I’ve been chewing on his remark for more than thirty years. His insight was penetrating and worth the thought. His insights often were. I also confess that I love Buckley’s brilliance and wit. When asked, for example, what was the first thing he would do after the election (he once ran for mayor of New York) if he won, he answered, “Demand a recount!” Who but William F. Buckley would have said that?

    My life would be much poorer if I ignored the thought of a thoughtful writer simply because our views differed. Why, in fact, ought we to read at all if not to encounter difference?

    Another case in point is Philip Larkin. While his poetry is unparalleled, I often have disagreed with Larkin’s musing on life and music. Larkin could not stand Charlie Parker or the progressive jazz developments exemplified by Parker and Miles Davis. Larkin said of this movement’s use of the chromatic (instead of the diatonic) scale: “The diatonic scale is what you use if you want to write a national anthem, or a love song, or a lullaby. The chromatic scale is what you use to give the effect of drinking a quinine martini and having an enema simultaneously.” How could you not enjoy someone with such wit, even if he utterly misses the genius and beauty of the music produced by Parker and Davis?

    An even deeper value of reading people with whom we disagree is illustrated in Larkin’s comments on children. He once wrote that “the first sharp waning of my Christian sympathies” occurred when he heard the verse, “The kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these [little children]” (Mk. 10:14). Larkin said that if heaven is populated by children he would be miserable there. Children, according to Larkin, are noisy, nasty, cruel, and silly. Perhaps Larkin was bullied as a child, or not chosen for childhood games. Or, maybe, he was just inoculated against the sentimentality with which many people view childhood. Personally, I think Larkin is wrong about children. I tend to side with Kenneth Graham in believing that children are the only completely real human beings among us. But Larkin makes me stop and think about a biblical text I have taken for granted.

    Good writers stimulate our thinking. They set the conditions in which we are encouraged to see things anew, because they refuse to be ruled by intellectual clichés. Writers should, I think, be judged as bad, not if we disagree with them, but if they leave us where they found us, unmoved, unchallenged, and unchanged. I would hope we would hold writers with whom we agree to this standard too. I would hope that we would enjoy writers large enough to encourage disagreement and agreement, people who think expansively enough that we cannot predict where they will land on a given issue.

    Arthur Schlesinger Jr., for example, is a writer with whom I have generally shared a similar worldview. But one reason I appreciate him so much is because he thought so expansively, and about so many things than there are subjects, that in certain cases, I simply cannot agree with him. His brilliant essay, The Disuniting of America: Reflections on a Multicultural Society (1992), for instance, argues for an America in which “ethnic differences” must melt away, or else (he believed) we are threatened by “Balkanization,” the violent opposition of different groups against one another. I disagree strongly with Schlesinger on this point. Balkanization is not the inevitable consequence of ethnic, tribal, or religious differences, but the result of one group (which believes it alone has the claim to truth and the privilege to exist) attempting to enforce homogeneity at the end of a gun. However, because I respect the thoughtfulness with which Schlesinger engaged this and other subjects, he makes a winsome and worthwhile debating partner. I could say the same thing about so many other writers with whom I usually (though not always) agree, including Barbara Brown Taylor and Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Annie Dillard and Will D. Campbell.

    My point is this: The uncivil discourse that dominates the airwaves and coffee-counters of our country could be moderated, at least somewhat, if (1) we demanded more thoughtfulness of those with whom we agree and (2) if we were more willing to listen to those with whom we disagree. The interminable shout-fest that has become the norm in our society—whether the subject is politics, religion, or culture—will only be displaced if we demand better. And I think the first step toward demanding better is to listen to thoughtful people with whom we disagree (and, yes, I would differentiate this category of writers from mere demagogues and partisan hacks).

    Would you agree?

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