Matt's blog

The story of me, an American in Edinburgh, Scotland finding my place as a musician, a husband, a father and a Christian.

How (Not) to Speak of God pt. 3

Thanks to all of you who have been reading these posts and leaving comments. If you haven't read either of my previous posts on this book, here's the first, and here's the second. Ln, I do plan on writing a bit more about my thoughts on Christianity as a journey, but I'll leave that untill after my last few comments on this book.

The second half of the book recounts ten services held at Ikon, and it is here that I find points to critique. (To be fair, Rollins points out himself that the services at Ikon do not reflect a central ideology and that one likely could not find a regular attender of Ikon, even among the leadership, who agrees with everything that is said and done.) Some of these points are rather important, and some less so, but I feel I would be doing a disservice to the idea of the Emergent conversation if I did not actively engage with the text and offer my two cents, such as they are.

Stories, poetry and parables are often used at Ikon to deepen the immediate personal impact of the topic. Many of the service examples use extended and embellished versions of biblical stories and parables, like many churches across denominational lines use. I feel there is a danger in embellishing the stories found scripture, particularly when the embellishment regards the person of Christ. One of the stories used in an Ikon service speaks of Jesus as having an “intense gaze, a look that never failed to draw you in.” This turn of phrase seems harmless enough, but at its heart if exactly the kind of idolatry Rollins spoke against earlier in his book. A Jesus with an “intense gaze” is a romanticised ideal of a leader dripping charisma, a leader which is easy to follow. I believe it’s Bonhoeffer in Life Together (someone tell me if I’m wrong) who speaks against this conception of Jesus. Bonhoeffer says the reason the fishermen drop their nets and follow Jesus when called is not because of any human charisma, but is because of the authority that flows from his very being. They follow him for no reason other than because he is Jesus. We should not love or follow Jesus because of his “intense gaze” or for any other reason aside from the fact that he is who he is. I believe that notion is more in line with Rollins intentions, but is betrayed by sentimental desire in the service.

At Ikon there are occasionally readings which are not from the Bible but are made to look like they are by a reader holding a Bible but reading or reciting something else. Sometimes this is done to make a ‘positive statement’ in addition to scripture, i.e. to read a complementary source, and sometimes it is done as parody, to read story such as Jesus collecting food from a multitude to feed his disciples to excess while the multitude starves. In both cases the Bible acts as an icon of authority, in the former to add weight to the reading and in the latter to heighten the sense of outrage by contrast. If one sees the Bible as simply a symbol with the connotation of authority, than there is no problem in using it such as a playwright might use a prop to accentuate his meaning. However, if it is more than it must be treated with more respect. I feel that even in a postmodern context the Bible is more than simply a symbol of authority. Even if you were to remove the concept of authority from the Bible, which I’m sure many approaching it from a postmodern perspective would like to do, the Bible still stands as a valuable record of God’s interaction, conversation even, with humanity for generations. As the record of such an important dialogue I feel the Bible should maintain its integrity. Certainly other literary sources can and should be used in our worship, but let the Bible be the Bible and in the same way let the other sources be themselves and stand on their own.

In one Ikon service a story is told of a wise man who asks Jesus for mercy. Jesus touches him with the words, “Your faith has healed you,” and blinds the man. The wise man then rejoices that he has been blinded by the most wonderful vision. I’m not sure if this story comes from anywhere in Christian tradition, but I’m fairly certain it doesn’t come from the Bible. I like maintaining the Bible as the sole source of the life and teachings of Jesus. By speaking of the historical person of Christ only from the scriptures, we limit (but not negate, I’ll readily admit) our ability to make Christ the spokesperson for our own ideologies. In the same way that I feel the Bible shouldn’t be used as a prop, I feel that Jesus shouldn’t be used as a stock character.

Here’s a bonus thought tangentially related to the book. Now, call me old fashioned, but I like the Bible. While scripture may not be the only way of knowing God, I agree with Wesley that it is the primary and normative authority which stands above and judges all other ways of knowing God. In this understanding it is not the scripture itself that has authority, but scripture which is the limited but adequate revelation of God’ will, who is the true authority. Hence, we treat the Bible as authority in order to always remain subject to God. This way of treating the Bible of course hinges on accepting it as the adequate revelation of God’s will. God’s will certainly exceeds the bounds of scripture, as it exceeds the bounds of comprehension, but we trust that God has made known in scripture what needs to be known. It is important to treat the Bible this way because our faith, along with our theology, should never be creative or speculative, but always responsive. Without some source of authority, even if it is one we choose to treat as an authority knowing its limitations, we run the risk of creating our own religion centered on ourselves. Treating the Bible as authority keeps us looking outside of ourselves for spiritual direction. Without this safeguard, religion degrades to humanism and acting spiritual for the sake of acting spiritual.

How (Not) to Speak of God pt. 2

The Emergent movement is not at its heart about changing what we believe, but is about changing the manner in which we believe. Rollins describes the Emergent movement as a revolution in which "nothing changes and yet the shift is so radical that absolutely nothing will be left unchanged." As one would expect from this introduction, Rollins writes in such a way as to challenge the conventional mainline evangelical point of view. He calls his readers to doubt their beliefs, to dispose of their theology and even to atheism. I think he wants to call his readers out, to encourage them to disagree with him and then to engage in the ideas he presents. So how do I respond?

I agree with Rollins’ book for the most part. While I did come across particular wordings that made me feel uncomfortable until I was able to follow him to his conclusion, I did not find anything in his book that I would flat out disagree with. However, I would not chose this book to communicate my position on these issues, mainly because his communication style is not my own. In fact, I found myself asking time and again as I was reading who this book was written for. It would certainly not be well received by the fundamentalists whose way of thought he would like to change. I think a much more subtle approach is needed to speak to those entrenched in the idea that their conception of God is accurate and exhaustive. I doubt that this book would be persuasive to anyone who comes in with ideas opposed to Rollins’. That leads me to believe that this book was most likely written for those already a part of the Emergent conversation or for those like myself who would not self-identify with that label, but who hold similar ideas.
Well, I wrote that last part before going out to dinner with Jeni's grandparents thinking that I'd finish up on this line of thought after getting back, but it turns out that it's far too late and I'm far too tired once again (you see a theme going on here?) to finish up tonight. Coming up in the next post I'll start discussing my take on the various sample services described in the second half of the book.

A Long Day and a Late Night

The post I put up yesterday about Rollins' How (Not) to Speak of God was the first part of several pages I wrote in a Borders in Santa Monica after finishing the book. (You all know we're in L.A. for a month on holiday, right?) My original plan was to just post that document in several chunks, but I've decided to take a little while to expand on it and address whatever comes up in conversation through the comments. I want to talk about the idea of Christianity being a journey that ln focused in on. I think that's a good point to start from to see how my point of view differs from Rollins'. I believe in the journey idea but in a different sort of way. In any event, the earliest you'll get that post will be tomorrow night after the baby shower that Jeni's mom is throwing for us. I hear there's a cake the shape of the Loch Ness Monster and roughly the size of an aircraft carrier. It should be a good time. Well, I'm off to bed to get up early to make sausage rolls for the party. Good night!

How (Not) to Speak of God

The Emergent conversation is something that I know very little about. Andrew has been involved with Emergent get-togethers in So Cal, as he has mentioned on his blog, and Jeni and I even attended a church which described itself as “emergent” for a few months in Spokane. I know that the Emergent movement isn’t an attempt to create a new denomination or religion, nor is it an attempt for another Reformation. I know Emergent in general values artistic expressions in worship. I also know that whenever the Emergent movement is spoken of it is usually tied to postmodernity, a word which quite un-ironically has no adequate singular meaning nor concise definition. On occasion I’ve asked Andrew to try to tell me more about the Emergent conversation, which is something I care about knowing more about if for now other reason than it is obviously quite important to Andrew and he is quite important to me. He lent me the book How (Not) to Speak of God by Peter Rollins who is involved in an Emergent community called Ikon in Northern Ireland. Rollins lays out his ideas in a theoretical context in the first half of the book and gives examples of ten services held at Ikon which reflect these ideas in one way or another in the second half. Today's post is a summary of Rollins' thought as presented in the first half of the book. Over the next few days I'll give my critical response to the services described in the second half of the book.

The thoughts in Rollins’ book flow mainly from the idea that our words are inadequate to speak with any accuracy about the nature of things as they really are. Whenever we speak of anything we are limited by our cultural context, our prejudices, our selfish desires for the thing we are describing and the limits of our language. Hence, we are unable to speak reliably about even ordinary objects. My neighbor Rob gave me the example of a tree: a child sees it as useful to climb, a gardener sees it as decorative, a carpenter sees it as material for a table. Even among two carpenters, one may desire to build a table and one may desire 2x4s for framing a house. Our context defines how we understand things. This obfuscation of communication is compounded by the fact that we cannot experience God directly with our senses and compounded again by the fact that God’s being is far beyond what we could ever even conceive. Rollins uses Anselm’s definition of God, that God is “the one who is conceived as inconceivable.” God’s being overwhelms and short circuits our capacity for reason. Rollins uses this as the basis for his critique that the traditional way of dealing with God in the evangelical church, that is in a modernist context with a strong emphasis on reason and understanding, is inadequate and often shuts us off from God and buttresses our own ideals and interests in God’s name.

With that thought in mind, Rollins reaffirms several ideas which have been part of Christian thought for generations but which have fallen out of favor in evangelical Christianity. To quote from the introduction to the second part of the book, in which Rollins summarizes the first:

“This understanding includes a rediscovery of ideas such as: concealment as an aspect of revelation; God as hyper-present; the affirmation of doubt; the place of silence; religious desire as part of faith; Christian discourse as a/theological; God-talk as iconic; a recognition of journey and becoming; truth as a soteriological event; and orthodoxy as a way of believing in the right way.”

Rollins speaks pointedly against fundamentalism, which he characterises as the belief that “our ideas actually represent the way God and the world really operate.” He advocates instead for a belief that is aware of our limitations and hence incorporates an appropriate amount of doubt. A healthy faith incorporates even an element of atheism as we disbelieve our own ideas about God, knowing that they fall short of God’s true being. Since one cannot hold firmly to any truly orthodox ideas about God, Christianity is a journey and not a destination. One never becomes a Christian for that implies an ending point where one fully understands God, but instead one is always becoming a Christian, always being evangelised to and always growing. Since one cannot believe the right thing, one instead tries to believe in the right way.

The right way, by the way, is love.

In short, Rollins encourages us to deny the truth of our beliefs, since only God in Godself is true, not God reduced to doctrine. Instead we are to focus on believing in the right way, being overwhelmed by the hyper-presence of God and becoming people through whom God's love flows.

Check back in the next few days for my personal response to the book, and be sure to leave comments!

Without a Scream

Here's an old song that's kind of appropriate to have stuck in my head before heading off to L.A.

Without a Scream

Another morning, in bed again

Warm and snug with blankets pulled up to my chin

A cold December I've never seen

My Southern California sun shine down on me

I know that somewhere someone's cold

Someone's lonely, someone else is growing old

If I could only get that through my head I might find the strength to

Get myself up and out of bed

Open my eyes and let me see this world I've hidden from me

Open my eyes and end this dream for fear I'll wake without a scream

Another morning, in my home

Silence broken by the ringing of the phone

It's a long lost friend I haven't seen for quite a while

As she says hello I swear that I can hear her smile

She says soon she's coming into town

She'd love to spend a day or two, just hang around

I try to think of what I've done since we'd last seen each other

And I realize not a single thing

Open my eyes and let me see this world I've hidden from me

Open my eyes and end this dream for fear I'll wake without a scream

Don't let me wake without a scream

I'm falling, I'm tumbling

Towards the ground within my dream

And if I don't wake up in a cold sweat

How can I ever scream

Another morning gone to soon

Where's it gone the sunset is the only clue

If I could only see beyond my mind

I might take the day and

take the day and make it mine

(awesome guitar lick)

Open my eyes and let me see this world I've hidden from me

Open my eyes and end this dream for fear I'll wake without a scream

If you feel so inclined, you can listen to the song here.

Ever 3 and Ever 1

Here's a new song for y'all, this time in glorious mp3 format for easy access by all the peoples. I didn't know until just a minute ago when I checked Anastasia's blog that yesterday was Trinity Sunday, so the timeliness of this song is naught but a happy coincidence. This is a simple little Trinitarian song that doesn't try to plumb the depths of the nature of the Trinity (seeing as how I only devoted two lines to each person), but instead reflects on the interconnectedness (word?) of the Father, Son and Spirit. I made this recording this moring just intending to try out a new mic placement for the guitar, but ended up filling out the rest of the song as well. I think this is the best acoustic guitar sound I've gotten on a recording so far. The voice turned out pretty well, too, even though I'm still using an instrument mic for vocals. Also, I think the shaker sounds excellent.

Ever 3 and Ever 1

Later on this evening I'll convert my older songs from m4a to mp3 so everyone will be able to open them.

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