“The present to which we all make commitments is now called into question.”
That’s a quote from Walter Brueggemann’s book, “Prophetic Imagination,” which breaks down and re-constructs the relevant irrelevance of the Hebrew prophets for a Christian audience in North America. And well it should.
Those who count themselves ‘Christian’ in this most familiar context of ours desperately need an infusion of imagination, and it wouldn’t hurt if the Spokane demographic would rise up to see the forest for that lonely Ponderosa on the clear-cut hill, and generate one or more prophetic mouthpieces.
Or perhaps, it would hurt.
Once upon a time I held the theological opinion that every city, town and crossroads could benefit from a new church development. New churches, of course, now abound in the region, and there’s no signs of the baby-boomer trend dissipating under the auspices of the millennial generation. Bravo! I continue to applaud and affirm those who endeavor to create the interpersonal conditions necessary for the cultivation of a good hearing on the life, death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. Indeed, I still believe him to be the most compelling person in human history and that the very idea of the divine life becoming flesh and blood and face makes sense to me in the way that a paradox, as an utter contradiction of rationality, makes sense. Again, bravo!
What’s problematic, however, is the multiplication of hegemonic belief-traditions, in which the generations mix around the ‘answers’ that have been furnished them by either a denomination, a non-denominational consortium or a cadre of alpha-male entrepreneurs. I find the authentic fellowship, in which people give and receive love, wondrous and worth the agonizing effort. But I find the ready-made doctrinal statements (requiring implicit or explicit and literal ascent) pedantic, picayune and potentially dangerous.
“Let him who cannot be alone beware of community… Let him who is not in community beware of being alone… Each by itself has profound perils and pitfalls. One who wants fellowship without solitude plunges into the void of words and feelings, and the one who seeks solitude without fellowship perishes in the abyss of vanity, self-infatuation and despair.” (from Life Together, by Dietrich Bonhoeffer).
The hazard of the seemingly innocuous gatherings of the like-minded replicates for a new day what had concerned Dietrich Bonhoeffer in the late 1940’s—that is, the pseudo-community that cultivates the so-called ‘right ideas’ to the exclusion and perhaps to the demonization of those who do not conform, and perhaps (rightfully so) will never conform, to those ideas. Ideas, in the present age, have ubiquity going for them. They flood the social media platforms (even this one), and escape from precocious lips everywhere. But consider for a moment that which precedes every expression of every idea known to human, or chimpanzee-kind: it is the face-to-face encounter of two or more living subjects, who do not themselves take kindly to being treated as objects, pawns, minions… or as cogs in a political wheelhouse… or as marionettes in the matinee of even the most masterful of puppeteers. (Did I write, puppeteers? Damn spell-check! I meant to write pulpiteers… pontificators… peddling prognosticators, who even wear jeans and comfortable shoes, as they whimsically reduce profound mysteries to catchy slogans.)
Alas, before I got myself enmeshed in that parenthetic diatribe, I meant to digress in a different direction with some dubious text from “Gospel Reset; Salvation Made Relevant.” It’s a pithy book written by Ken Ham, who is identified as the president, CEO and founder of “Answers in Genesis—US”, which touts a Creation Museum and a genuine Noah’s Ark Encounter among its legacy-projects. Ham believes the issue in North America is crumbling foundation of a biblical world view.
On page 40, he compares what needs to happen now with the construction of a house: “We first start with the foundational teaching that God is Creator, and that sin and death entered the world, as recorded in Genesis…” Jesus and the proclamation of salvation constitute the walls, and the roof is the promise of a new heaven and a new earth. According to Ham, however, most churches begin with the roof—with the pie-in-the-sky—which all but guarantees the moral relativism in which we squalor. Ugh.
Christians, evidently, need a Gospel reset, which, it seems, is tantamount to a nation, governed by theocrats. Ugh, ugh…
The give-away for this sentiment becomes abundantly clear when Ham invokes the speech by former President Barack Obama on page 80. He cites this passage—
“Whatever we once were, we are no longer a Christian nation. At least not just. We are also a Jewish nation, a Muslim nation, and a Buddhist nation, and a Hindu nation and a nation of non-believers.”
—and then proffers this explanation:
“I believe he was actually saying, ‘We are no longer a nation that believes in one God and builds our thinking on the Bible…’”
Ugh, ugh, ugh. A great sadness may arise here as we realize how Ken Ham and his cronies fancy themselves as exercising some sort of prophetic imagination. They couldn’t be more wrong. Of course, I’ve heard of how the Supreme Court has countenanced the view that corporations are persons, but if there’s anything that clear in the Bible—from the Book of Genesis through Revelation—it’s that nations are not persons who believe much of anything. In fact, one could argue that it’s both the cacophony of Hebrew voices, which comprise the Hebrew Scriptures, and the audacious assertion that Christ is Lord (and therefore, Not Caesar), which authenticates the raucous journey of the individual over and above any sanctimonious nationalism.
And so, to paraphrase a passage from Romans 8:26, in Ugh’s too deep for words, I do more justice to my particular set of beliefs if I honor those of others by asking more questions, and allowing my own air-tight remedies to be popped like carnival balloons. It’s the questions, I suggest, which ought to provide the most crucial corrective to all the timeless pronouncements which thwart our time-bound, human relationships. And yes, don’t look now, but it’s this thwarting of relationships that even occurs in polite, little, ol’ Spokane, Washington, where the news anchors engage in expert chit-chat between stabbings and bomb scares.
Having staked this claim, however, I recognize the dilemma. If persons of Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Sikh, Secular, Agnostic and Atheists backgrounds begin to poke around one another’s tribal totems and icons, what’s to prevent those anarchic circumstances that keep us so entertained on Netflix, or HBO, from infiltrating our sedate lives?
The last time I checked anarchy’s not conducive to fostering community-engagement. Somebody, somewhere, needs to commit to a certain set of core values, and somehow, on that basis, begin to engage with those who think differently about ultimate realities, or even mundane realities… And yet, does it have to be a foundational set of core values? Couldn’t it be a spider-web of core values? Or a tapestry of core values? You see, by adopting a non-foundationalist approach to this dilemma, we re-attach strands and leave lots of open space. And that’s the point, isn’t it? With the efficiency and equanimity of our churches, synagogues, mosques, temples, kingdom halls, humanistic book clubs, etc., we’re quite content with our own kind of ghettoized slabs of content, our own kind of ethical ethos—the kind that keeps our claims to truth unchallenged and our spiritualized caricatures of the other unchecked. Those whom we might caricature and mis-represent might appreciate the opportunity to detach a strand of the web we woven. I know I would.
“The present to which we all make commitments is now called into question.”
The quote from Brueggemann never grows old. It just keeps sticking to the present moment, which has now become my favorite moment, among all moments, to call into question.
Well, here’s a moment, and it’s strange for me to admit this openly, but I no longer feel at home amid a Christian congregation who fails to brush shoulders with those who reject the label (and even with those who are hostile towards it). In good faith, I want the conversation not to be steered by anyone’s propaganda. I want, instead, to gather around the possibility of the divine within the diversity of those who earnestly seek that possibility. Or I want to gather around those who are eager to parse words like possibility and divine for the sake of what? One another? Such a gathering, it would seem, doesn’t require a person to jettison his or her beliefs, but would require a modicum of listening before deploying them in public. There would be, without a doubt, some ambiguity. And, from time to time, there would be some non-violent anarchy among the dialogue-partners. All in all, however, there would be fertile ground for the prophetic imagination.
And here, I arrive at the reason I support what Spokane FāVS has accomplished, and is doing. On Jan. 6, the congregation, known as Origin Church—known formerly, as Covenant Christian, and previous to that, as Central Christian–votes to make a gift of its property to the imaginative and prophetic genius of a religion journalist, Tracy Simmons, and to the Board of Spokane FāVS. The official transfer of the land and the building (plus some additional resources) won’t be completed until the end of May. In the meantime, though, the diffusion of a 133-ministry walks and talks like the faithful thing to do, the hopeful thing to do, the loving thing to do. That is—frankly, it hurts. It hurts in the present, to which I make commitments, which I now call into question.
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