Onesimus Online: a blog to stir your thinking (Bill Black)

UPDATE: Onesimus Online no longer exists.

Ask any of Bill Black’s students here about him, and they will probably say: “he provokes; he really challenges us to think.”   Thankfully, for the rest of us, Bill blogs at Onesimus Online: history, theology, culture, the church, and other dangerous stuff. If you are at all interested in theology, theological education in Africa, global Christianity, missions, evangelicalism, American cultural Christianity, and other related topics, you might enjoy his blog–and having your thinking provoked and deepened. I know Bill appreciates the broader dialog.  Bill and his wife are both pastors, graduates of Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary, PhDs from Cambridge, and teachers here at NEGST.  Previously, they taught in Ethiopia. Plus, they are a lot of fun to talk to;  I’ve learned a lot from them.

Here are a few “sound bytes” from some of Bill’s posts to whet your appetite:

The passing of evangelicalism

…We Western Evangelicals thought we were the center of the Christian universe, only to discover that the glory seems to have departed and moved south to Africa, Latin America and Asia. Those tongues-speaking, hallelujah-shouting, other-side-of-the-tracks-dwelling so-called Pentecostals, even more derisively labeled as ‘holy rollers’ by the upstanding Christians in my home church who, of course, knew better, have become the most explosive force in the global expansion of Christianity ever. There is not a single individual person in my systematic theology class who would not identify themselves as either Pentecostal or Charismatic. On the ‘mission field’ at least, the old paradigms of missionary Christianity are in the process of being leap-frogged entirely. ..
…Anyway, the point of all of this is that things have changed. Radically. Decisively. The old verities and polarities don’t work anymore (if they ever did). The systems and structures which we created to manage the world as we knew it are being pressed into service beyond their capacity to cope. This is not a call to somehow change Evangelicalism. It’s actually too late for that. Its day has passed and cannot be recovered. Instead, …

A Plea for Civility, Sanity and Integrity in Theological/Political Debate (3 personal examples)

Theology is not safe:

…there is another reason why I am undertaking this blog. Theology is a dangerous thing. Theology that attempts to reduce God to what I can understand about God is an attempt to tame God. But the God revealed in the Christian Scriptures is untamable. Our Western theological traditions, both Catholic and Protestant, are attempts to mount God onto a specimen board, attempts to dissect and label God’s constituent parts, attempts to deduce divine physiology from divine structure. But efforts to catalogue the parts fails to apprehend the whole. Our orthodoxies miss the point…

…This blog then is becoming increasingly like my own incident at the fords of the Jabbok, my own wrestling with the one who refuses to be named and categorized…

The Western Captivity of African Christianity

…Not only are we forcing Western Evangelical categories on African students as the measure of all that’s true in the world, but we have simply assumed that our model of theological education itself is the baseline for all subsequent thinking on the matter…

…We theological educators in Africa are doing a bang-up job of reproducing North American Evangelicals for Africa, replete with our ways of thinking about and practicing Christianity. But in doing so, I’m not at all certain that we are either being true to New Testament Christianity or engaging effectively with the people of this continent as they really are…

Brain tumors, theological education and the church

The human brain is an unimaginably complex piece of work…Though my extended parable may be like the tumor it describes – a malignant profusion of words that obliterates the intended purpose – the purpose itself remains. The concern of this post is with theological education as it is actually practiced, especially at the higher levels, and its relationship with the church it’s intended to serve. My concerns come from my own experience as one who has benefitted from theological education and who has gone on to serve several churches in a professional ministerial capacity, and from my observations of theological education in actual practice…

…I think there are likely a number of reasons contributing to this fundamental dysfunction in our churches. First,…

….The breathtaking irony of all this is, having created such an institutionalized system for training our leaders (the theological education industry), a system that has succeeded in taking us further and further afield from that which Christ is calling us to be, we heedlessly presume our institutional model to be the most effective way to train Nigerians or Indians or Chinese or Ethiopians for the ministry…

Africa, Spiral Logic, Systematic Theology, and the Perils of Theological Education

The Indefensible Evangelical Habit of Shooting Our Wounded

Last week there was a gun battle outside our gate. Four gangsters had hijacked cars and shot drivers and the authorities finally caught up with them just over the fence from my house. In the ensuing firefight, two of the carjackers were killed outright, one escaped over the fence (and through my garden!), and the fourth lay wounded on the road…

Believers Baptism vs. Infant Baptism, Must it Matter?

Evangelicalism Inc.

…Not only are the Western Prosperity gods raking it in, but developing-world prosperity-god-wannabees are trying desperately to get in on the cash…Dare I even mention the Evangelical publishing industry, which seems to have taken on the role of God in conservative academic and popular religion circles, raising up this one and ignoring that one, and on the grounds of whether or not it is ‘marketable’. I can’t imagine Jeremiah being able to secure a publishing contract from this crowd…

…Then there are the incredibly large and wealthy Christian aid organizations poised globally to respond immediately to the latest front page disaster and who must raise gazillions of dollars not only to feed the starving, but to buy the planes and Toyota land cruisers and computers and iPhones and Blackberries and pay the travel fees for all the conferences and meetings and consultations that must happen in the background for the hungry to be fed…

Does this bother anybody else?

…I do not deny the good intentions of most (I hope) of my fellow Christians involved in these so-called ‘ministries’. But I can’t help but thinking that we Evangelicals have become like addicts hooked on methamphetamine. We’ve got to have more, more, more. We’ve got to be successful, or at least appear successful, because if we are or appear so, more people will be drawn to our ‘ministry’ which will make us all the more successful. But like the meth addict, this stuff is destroying us…We dare not take a genuinely prophetic stance on anything, because if we do, someone will be offended and we will lose support. We’ve become like Ahab’s court prophets, cunningly discerning which way the wind is blowing before committing ourselves on any issue, and viciously smacking down anyone who does not toe the party line.

We Evangelicals are seriously compromised. And seriously compromised people are like salt that’s lost its savor…

And much, much MORE.

My Book

The beauty of a “post-Christian” era (quote)

[Post-Christian] I love that term, actually because Christianity could well be its best when it gets completely undone. And Christians who are committed to prophetic presence in the world should be, in one sense, thrilled by the possibility of it being post-Christian.

Because it may mean we’re coming to the end of some structures of religiosity that were deadly. You know, in the Protestant Reformation they were calling it the end of Christendom. And what emerged on the other side of it was a completely new form. [Example of John Calvin.]

Serene Jones from an interview with Bill Moyer (summary and highlights by Tyler here; watch here.) There’s a lot about economics and social justice. At another point in the interview, Cornel West says,

I think it has to do a lot with the profound spiritual crisis, a kind of spiritual malnutrition, an emptiness of soul, a whole culture of indifference that says, in fact, that you can possess your soul, by means of possessing commodities of thinking somehow you can conquer the world, your world, and end up losing your soul. These are old truths. These are old biblical truths.

I should probably note here (with my sociologist friend Brad Wright in mind) that these are anecdotal observations in need of more careful research; it’s quite likely that people have been observing similar trends throughout Christian history.

On the first quote, I agree, but I also hesitate because I feel like one of the “cool” things to do these days is beat up on the institutional church. . . the institutional church has always been something of a paradox.  On the one hand, we are well aware of all its limitations and shortcomings—how it hurts the wounded and hinders the good news. At the same time, the institutional church provides the place where many people meet God and provides the infrastructure from which so much of the world’s injustices can be addressed and healed. Any way you look at it, it’s full of broken people (including—maybe especially—its leaders), but God seems to be able to use it in spite of itself just has he uses us despite of ourselves.

The inevitable split of the Anglican church (Tom Wright)

In Today’s TimesOnline, Anglican Bishop Tom Wright (N.T. Wright to Americans) writes—The Americans know this will end in schism: Support by US Episcopalians for homosexual clergy is contrary to Anglican faith and tradition. They are leaving the family

In the slow-moving train crash of international Anglicanism, a decision taken in California has finally brought a large coach off the rails altogether. The House of Bishops of the Episcopal Church (TEC) in the United States has voted decisively to allow in principle the appointment, to all orders of ministry, of persons in active same-sex relationships. This marks a clear break with the rest of the Anglican Communion.

Both the bishops and deputies (lay and clergy) of TEC knew exactly what they were doing. They were telling the Archbishop of Canterbury and the other “instruments of communion” that they were ignoring their plea for a moratorium on consecrating practising homosexuals as bishops…In Windsor’s language, they have chosen to “walk apart”…

…Many in TEC have long embraced a theology in which chastity, as universally understood by the wider Christian tradition, has been optional.

That wider tradition always was counter-cultural as well as counter-intuitive. Our supposedly selfish genes crave a variety of sexual possibilities. But Jewish, Christian and Muslim teachers have always insisted that lifelong man-plus-woman marriage is the proper context for sexual intercourse. This is not (as is frequently suggested) an arbitrary rule, dualistic in overtone and killjoy in intention. It is a deep structural reflection of the belief in a creator God who has entered into covenant both with his creation and with his people (who carry forward his purposes for that creation).

Paganism ancient and modern has always found this ethic, and this belief, ridiculous and incredible. But the biblical witness is scarcely confined, as the shrill leader in yesterday’s Times suggests, to a few verses in St Paul. Jesus’s own stern denunciation of sexual immorality would certainly have carried, to his hearers, a clear implied rejection of all sexual behaviour outside heterosexual monogamy. This isn’t a matter of “private response to Scripture” but of the uniform teaching of the whole Bible, of Jesus himself, and of the entire Christian tradition…

…It is a very recent innovation to consider sexual preferences as a marker of “identity” parallel to, say, being male or female, English or African, rich or poor. Within the “gay community” much postmodern reflection has turned away from “identity” as a modernist fiction. We simply “construct” ourselves from day to day.

We must insist, too, on the distinction between inclination and desire on the one hand and activity on the other—…

Keep reading

The Authority of Scripture in Practice: Reading, Hearing, and Doing (O’Donovan)

Here is a lecture by Oliver O’Donavan that ministered to my soul as I read it – The Reading Church (27 April 2009):

The authority of Scripture is emerging once again as a topic for theological reflection after a long eclipse. From a variety of recent literature I may mention the valuable little essay by Professor John Webster, Holy Scripture, as well as the more complex study by the young American theologian, Telford Work, Living and Active. [1] This follows a century or more during which theological discussion of the bible was led by a self-consciously scientific-historical and literary-critical line of questioning which deliberately abstracted from normative considerations. That tradition left us a handful of hugely important discoveries, a fair collection of helpful insights and a huge mountain of over-confident speculative rubble. But it also taught some indispensible reading disciplines, for it encouraged an attention to the text as close, perhaps, as at any time of Christian history. In reaction to that school of scholarly enquiry there arose a doctrinal and apologetic way of talking about Scripture, one driven by the pastoral need to secure the church’s respect for it as the revelation of the mind and purposes of God. Attributes of divine perfection were ascribed to Scripture, the negative epithets, “infallible”, “inerrant” etc., playing the same role as negative epithets do in the doctrine of God. The problem was not that these epithets could not be persuasively argued for on their own terms, but that they had no more to say about the authority of Scripture than did the scholarly tradition they challenged. They offered an icon of revelation for us to wonder at and worship, but no sense of how it could and must direct and shape the lives we have to lead. “Authority” is a term of practical reason, and it needs to be discussed within a context of practical reason.

Theology is no longer stuck in those opposed positions. Let me point to one small but interesting straw in the wind, blowing from a direction where the most old-fashioned views on Scripture are commonly supposed to prevail. The “Jerusalem Declaration” issued last June by the GAFCON conference included the following brief clause: We believe the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments to be the Word of God written and to contain all things necessary for salvation. The Bible is to be translated, read, preached, taught and obeyed in its plain and canonical sense, respectful of the church’s historic and consensual reading. [2] I have not seen any public remark on these words; yet I should have thought they merited serious interest. To anyone not tone-deaf theologically it must be clear that the key, even the tune, has changed. Where have the negative epithets gone to? In their place GAFCON has combined a formula of Reformation origins that speaks of the function of the Bible in salvation with a new statement about the practical requirements Scripture lays upon the life of the church.

. . . The five verbs of the Jerusalem Statement, “translated”, “read”, “preached”, “taught” and “obeyed”, no less than the famous five verbs used about Scripture by Thomas Cranmer in his Collect for Advent II, “hear”, “read”, “mark”, “learn”, “inwardly digest”, which, no doubt, they self-consciously complement, circle around the single verb, “read”. . . a church which is shaped in any measure by the authority of Scripture will be a reading church. . .

. . . so becoming a living expression of the law, circumcised in the heart, not dependent, as they ironically comment, on legal counsel that must be sought either from the heaven or from beyond the sea. The word is very near you, in your mouth and in your heart. Delicately the Psalmist contrasts the independence of mind enjoyed by the reader with the subjection to social influence of those whose culture is formed laterally, by those living around them. These walk in the counsel of the wicked; they stand in the way of sinners; they sit in the seat of scoffers. . .

. . . Speech is potent for good or ill, and therefore Christ says, Take care how you hear! Reading is a kind of hearing, yet it does not hear voices around us or speak directly to us. The voice the reader hears is from another place and time. As we read the historical and geographical dimensions of the world are opened up to us. . .

. . . Reading is serious to the extent that it exploits the power of text to span history. Much hermeneutic theory has taken immediate communication as the paradigm for all communication, and so assumed that difficulties in reading increase with distance of time and circumstance.   In my view, the opposite is the case.   New literature is more elusive.   Not yet detached from ephemeral communications, the importance it may have for future generations is not at once apparent.   Literature is quite different from music in this respect, which, as a performing art, always depends in part on immediate effect for its communicative power.   With literature communication is constituted essentially by distance, whether historical, cultural or simply philosophic. . .Reading is serious to the extent that it exploits the power of text to span history. . .

. . . The art of writing, Leo Strauss insisted, is an art of concealment, not of making plain. It aims at postponing the encounter with some truth. Perhaps he had in mind the prophets . . . Jeremiah, in compiling his collected works, meant them not for Jehoiakim, who tore them up and burned them, but for those who would read them seventy years on, when God’s purposes were ripe for accomplishment. What was written in former times was written for our instruction, wrote Saint Paul,. . .

. . .The text has its purpose beyond its own age and circumstance, and no text can be interpreted merely by careful evocation of the moment in which it arose. Interpreters who reduce the meaning of written words to a note about their provenance, merely misunderstand them. But neither is the text interpreted by what our age makes of it. . . .

. . What was written in former times was written for our instruction, that by patience and the comfort of the Scriptures we might have hope. The patience that endures the span of history, the comfort that belongs to the community of thought, yield hope for the coherence of time and for the fructifying of God’s long purposes. . .

. . . Acts of reading that refuse the text patience invariably miscarry. . .

. . . For Christian thought the idea of a canonical text has depended for its intelligibility upon that of a central, normative strand in history. The privileged book witnesses to privileged events. The end of the ages is not only the fulfilment of the promise of the text, but the Christ-moment which fulfils the promise of history, the moment at which history’s direction is made clear, the lurking promise of past events breaks surface in what God has done on earth through his Son. . .

. . . We must speak, therefore, of God’s self-emptying into Scripture no less than of his self-emptying into humanity. It would be the worst mistake to imagine the textual form of Scripture as a kind of straitjacket imposed upon the Incarnation.

I have not come to abolish the law, but to fulfil it. In that pregnant saying law and saving-history are mutually co-involved. We must think it through from both sides:- . . .

. . . the authority of Scripture is the moment at which the attested reality of God’s acts disturb the ideal constructions and zealous projections of human piety. . .

. . . I pass on quickly to the last of the five verbs, which may seem to be the most self-evident but is the hardest to come to grips with: we are to obey the Scriptures. Here is brought most sharply to our notice, what all the other verbs suppose, that the authority of Scripture is a ground of practical reason. It has obedience in view from beginning to end, and obedience is a way of acting. Precisely for this reason there is an element of indeterminacy in what the authority of Scripture requires of us. In a wholly determined world there would be no obedience. For there would be no need for thought about how to act consistently with what we have heard. If we were excused the work of thought, we should be excused obedience, too. Thought “how to” does not merely replicate what we have been told; it devises action, and forms it, conceiving of an act that will respect the norm within the material conditions we find ourselves in. . .

. . . “If it is revealed religion we want to think about, it is to do with an agency, a freedom.” And it is because God freely summons us to obedient freedom, that “there will always be more questions put to us by what we encounter.” [Archbishop of Canterbury] How could there not be questions put to us if authority is genuinely a practical, not merely a speculative category, and if obedience is the final term of revelation, not merely assent? Obedience is never predetermined, it has always be thought through and sought after. . . .

. . . The encounter with Scripture is an encounter with what God has done in liberating us to work the works of God, as St John’s Gospel puts it, to work them here in our time and place, to work them here in our time and place, far removed as this may seem from the works of which we read in the Gospel text. The distance is not only of time and place, but of kind, too. Whoever has faith in me, will do what I do himself; and will do greater things than these, because I go to the Father. Disciples shall do more than simply replicate what Jesus did. . .

Lest you think I’ve quoted the whole lecture (The Reading Church), I’ve merely scratched the surface (and no doubt done it a serious injustice).

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Churches & Benevolence assistance

As long as we are on the subject of the poor these days (and I am self-conscious about spending most of my time in the library these days and not actually doing much that’s tangible for the poor), here is a list of questions from Beverly Ryskamp is a social worker and an attorney in Grand Rapids, MI: Financial Assistance: Is Your Church Ready?

I suppose most churches in urban settings already have processes in place, but they are helpful questions nonetheless.

How can you fine-tune your emergency assistance efforts ahead of time, so as not to depend on rooftop calls? Here are some questions you can consider now to be ready then:

  • Who will receive and process emergency requests? When should people submit requests, and when can they expect answers to them?
  • What information will the church need? (For example, what efforts have already been made? Is collaboration with other resources possible?) Can a church member with knowledge of local human services help standardize your information-gathering?
  • To whom would the church issue a check or other aid? What documentation is necessary to do that? Will the church want applicants to do anything special, such as volunteer, in exchange for help?
  • Will some needs take precedence over others? Define your priorities ahead of time: First come, first served? Number of people impacted? Connection to the congregation? Ultimate fallout of crisis, such as threat of children being removed?
  • What process and time are needed to approve checks for direct aid? Consider defining a threshold for minor benevolence that can be approved rapidly, without a whole committee. Some churches set aside a modest fund with a single experienced gatekeeper to handle small requests; clear guidelines and a detailed records system can make this work well for urgent needs. If a church desires more checks and balances, consider a phone or e-mail process for approving requests.
  • What needs does the church feel most called to assist (e.g., housing, food, utilities, medical)? What special areas of need can you fill? For example, in our area, agencies can help homeless clients with rent but never security deposits. Defining a niche assistance area can be very helpful – the community learns what the church offers, and the church becomes an expert in one area rather than a dabbler in many.
  • When requests for money can’t be granted, are there other kinds of support the church wants to offer – transportation, child care, networking from the church community, in-kind supplies like diapers, or gift cards for food or gas?

 

How American Congregations are changing (and staying the same)

Comparing data between 1998 and 2006/7, how are American churches changing?

  1. They are using more technology – email, the web, blogs,  facebook, twitter, etc. to communicate with members. Implications: more members commute from further, therefore more congregations are becoming more theologically homogeneous. What are churches cutting back on to pay for the technology?
  2. Worship services are more informal.
  3. Senior pastors are getting older – “the average age of the American adults has increased by 1 year, but the average age of pastors has increased by 5 years!”
  4. Age –  Church population (by percentage) is increasing faster than the general population.

What is staying the same:

  1. the median size of congregations (about 75 people),
  2. the high number of women in the pews,
  3. the low number of women in the pulpit, and
  4. involvement in social services.

– Brad Wright (making sociology accessible) in How American Congregations are Changing (and Staying the Same)

From Sociologist Mark Chave’s National Congregations Study.
Chaves, Mark, and Shawna Anderson, “Continuity and Change in American Congregations: Introducing the Second Wave of the National Congregations Study.” Sociology of Religion, vol. 69 (Winter 2008), 415-440. ( LINK )