Reflections from Seminary Students

The Missional Church

February 23rd, 2011 § 0 Comments

In the first chapter of his book Missional Church: A Vision for the Sending of the Church in North America (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), Darrel Guder states that there is a crisis in the North American church today resulting from the exiting of modernity into a pluralistic, privatized, and individualistic religion that seems to be leading to lower church attendance, loss of genuine spirituality, and widespread confusion about the message of Jesus Christ — as well as, I would say, growing biblical and theological illiteracy among believers (please check out www.spu.edu/cbte).

Source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/blackbutterfly/3261190647/

Taking Guder’s premise to be true, we can’t ignore his conclusion that the solution to this crisis will not be found in method or problem solving. Since the problems are spiritual and theological in nature, a hard look into the nature of the Church’s being will need to take place.

One of those looks into the Church is whether the Church is a place or a people. Guder says that we typically think of the Church as a “place where certain things happen.” This is illustrated when we speak of “going to church,” or “attending church,” or “belonging to a church.”

These statements all make the building in which we worship the central place for “church” to take place. What Guder argues is that we should move away from the Church as place and redefine the Church as community, a gathered people, a sent people, brought together by a common calling.

Missional People

If we who make up the Church understand ourselves as a sent people, as a missional people, a missional Church, we will challenge today’s norm that promotes an individual-centered church experience.

Being a missional people requires that we be on mission together, with God at the center of who we are as a people. This is how we understand how we fit in with the Missio Dei, or sent of God.

In a broad stroke, if God’s mission is to redeem all people, all places, all creation, then, as a missional Church, our mission is to engage and participate with that mission at all costs. At all costs!

What Gifts Will We Bring?

The way we understand what it means to engage the mission of God as a missional Church is found for us back in Psalm 72:10:

“May the kings of Tarshish and of the isles render him tribute, may the kings of Sheba and Seba bring gifts.”

In Luke 2, we see that shepherds brought gifts to the Savior, the King of kings, in their rightful service to him. It may seem insignificant that these were only shepherds, but wasn’t David only a shepherd when the prophet Samuel came to anoint him as king?

Therefore, the significance of the shepherds has been elevated, understanding that the lowest among us have become the greatest — kings even — and the greatest have come to bring gifts to the King. The shepherds are like the kings of Sheba who bring gifts to the king of Psalm 72.

Source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/taylorhood/57145661/

So the question is this: what gift will we, as shepherds of the Mission of God, bring the King? What gift will we bring to Jesus Christ that will honor him both as the Lord who gives us remission of sins and as the Lord who has anointed us as partners in his mission?

I submit to you that it is this: that we present ourselves as “living sacrifices” (Romans 12:1) — sacrifices of broken and contrite hearts (Psalm 51:17) that pour out before him any impediments that prevent us from committing ourselves to the Mission of God, that prevent us from becoming the Missional Church. This sacrifice Jesus will not despise — Jesus will in fact rejoice in creating in us a clean heart and renewing in us a right spirit that will align with his will for a Missional Church in this world.

– Raoul Perez

Book Review: The Art of the Commonplace

February 16th, 2011 § 0 Comments

The Art of the Commonplace: The Agrarian Essays of Wendell Berry, by Wendell Berry, edited by Norman Wirzba (Berkley: Counterpoint, 2003: 352 pp.)

Born in rural Kentucky, Wendell Berry is a farmer, critic, and prolific author. He has published many works in the genres of novels, essays, poems, and short stories. Berry received his B.A. and M.A. in English from the University of Kentucky before attending Stanford University’s Creative Writing Program. He obtained a Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship and taught English at New York University before taking a position on faculty at the University of Kentucky. After a decade of teaching, Berry purchased a farm in the Kentucky countryside where he works and writes about the virtues of connection to the land. Berry has won numerous awards, including the T.S. Eliot Prize, the Thomas Merton Award, and the Cleanth Brooks Medal for Lifetime Achievement from the Fellowship of Southern Writers.

Urban Jungles

Living in a city, we sometimes find nature a nuisance. Snow might display beautiful characteristics as it coats a meadow, but when it materializes during a commute, its beauty can be lost in the headaches it induces. Vibrant evergreens coating a mountain convey the highest forms of art, yet trees that stand in the way of a property owner desiring a “better” view convey only annoyance. Urban life is ultimately divorced from the land. A simple block-to-block walk downtown provides little or no evidence of ecology. The Art of the Commonplace decries these realities as it presents a case for an agrarian-minded society.

Berry’s collection of essays is divided into five parts:

  • a geobiography,
  • understanding our cultural crisis,
  • the agrarian basis for an authentic culture,
  • agrarian economics, and
  • agrarian religion.

In these sections, Berry makes the case for a countercultural understanding of society, a way of life rooted in and sustained by the land.

Critiquing the System

Central to Berry’s thesis is a scathing critique of consumerist culture and industrial business practice. Where our ancestors lived in unity with the land, we exist in tension with the land. The Art of the Commonplace contains prophetic passages where Berry takes the form of a minor prophet beating the drum of repentance in the face of giant institutions.

Along these lines, Berry writes,

“It is possible to make a little economy, such as our present one, that is so shortsighted and in which accounting is of so short a term as to give the impression that vices are necessary and practically justifiable. When we make our economy a little wheel turning in opposition to what we call ‘nature,’ then we set up competitiveness as the ruling principle in our explanation of reality and in our understanding of economy; we make of it, willy-nilly, a virtue. But competitiveness, as a ruling principle and a virtue, imposes a logic that is extremely difficult, perhaps impossible, to control. That logic explains why our cars and our clothes are shoddily made, why our ‘wastes’ are toxic, and why our ‘defensive’ weapons are suicidal; it explains why it is so difficult for us to draw a line between ‘free enterprise’ and crime. If our economic ideal is maximum profit with minimum responsibility, why should we be surprised to find our corporations so frequently in court and robbery on the increase? Why should we be surprised to find that medicine has become an exploitive industry, profitable in direct proportion to its hurry and its mechanical indifference? People who pay for shoddy products or careless services and people who are robbed outright are equally victims of theft, the only difference being that robbers outright are not guilty of fraud” (233).

In his mind, the contemporary industrial economy shoulders much of the blame regarding what is wrong with the world. Not only does capitalism create a system where efficiency requires low quality and high profits, but also it compels business leaders to act right up against the barriers of what is legal. In such instances, it is no surprise to see broken laws and broken people.

Eating Strawberries on a Cold, January Day

Moreover, the industrial economy creates a civilization incapable of sustaining itself. Berry laments,

“Most of us, for example, not only do not know how to produce the best food in the best way – we don’t know how to produce any kind in any way. Our model citizen is a sophisticate who before puberty understands how to produce a baby, but who at the age of thirty will not know how to produce a potato. And for this condition we have elaborate rationalizations, instructing us that dependence for everything on somebody else is efficient and economical and a scientific miracle. I say, instead, that it is madness, mass produced” (85).

Forget growing a potato; I could not tell you even when they are in season. As a child, I vaguely remember my mother buying blueberries in mass quantities because they were in season. Today, I am a grocery store away from infinite resources of blueberries year-round. While I have not taken a poll of my generation, it seems that most people my age are in a similar position. The seasonal connection to the land by way of fruits and vegetables has slowly gone the way of the buffalo. If I do not understand the seasons, how can I expect to establish a green thumb?

Ultimately, Berry argues that our industrialized economy has created a consequentialist culture focused on efficiency. Berry asserts,

“Logically, in plenitude some things ought to be expendable. Industrial economics has always believed this: abundance justifies waste. This is one of the dominant superstitions of American history – and of the history of colonialism everywhere. Expendability is also an assumption of the world of efficiency which is why that world deals so compulsively in percentages of efficacy and safety. But this sort of logic is absolutely alien to the world of love. To the claim that a certain drug or procedure would save 99 percent of all cancer patients or that a certain pollutant would be safe for 99 percent of a population, love, unembarrassed, would respond, ‘What about the one percent?’ There is nothing rational or perhaps even defensible about this, but it is nonetheless one of the strongest strands of our religious tradition – it is probably the most essential strand – according to which a shepherd, owning a hundred sheep and having lost one, does not say, ‘I have saved 99 percent of my sheep,’ but rather, ‘I have lost one,’ and he goes and searches for the one” (154-55).

In short, reconnecting ourselves to the land both through a local economy and through an agrarian-based religion reminds us of the power of pursuing the one as opposed to neglecting the one by rationalizing that the 99 are enough.

Let’s Pack Our Bags; We’re Going to Eden!

While I appreciate and typically side with the critiques posed by The Art of the Commonplace, I find the conclusions to be slightly utopian in nature. In other words, Berry’s exhortation to reconnect with nature seems slightly akin to arguing that humanity ought to go back to a place and time before the fall, living a reconciled life in God’s Creation.

Source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/jermz01/3924618780/

The fall, in my estimation, significantly alters humanity’s relationship with nature. Granted, industry possesses a poor track record of domination over the natural world. Nevertheless, biblically mandated stewardship does not negate the possibility of development. As with most things, the extremes on both sides of the economic argument fall into untenable positions. Business provides valuable opportunities to assist those in need; local economies connected to nature remind humanity that it is a creature and not a creator.

Even though I do not find anything inherently evil about urban life, Berry’s writings present a counterpoint to the dominant views. As a society, we ought to remember and enjoy the natural world and humanity’s connection to it. Berry’s economic, cultural, and religious positions found in The Art of the Commonplace are worthy of wholehearted study. He poetically and unashamedly renders his positions; his critiques remind us that business as usual will never solve all the world’s problems. For these reasons, I recommend this book.

Book Review: To Kill a Mockingbird

February 9th, 2011 § 0 Comments

To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee (New York: Grand Central Publishing, 1960.)

Born in 1926, Harper Lee is the author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel To Kill a Mockingbird. Although this novel was her only published work, its longstanding success contributed to Lee’s winning the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Lee attended Huntingdon College for one year before attending the University of Alabama. In the wake of success, Lee has accepted numerous honorary degrees. She currently splits time between New York City and Monroeville, Alabama.

Just Because We Can Share the Same Water Fountain Doesn’t Mean We Are Sharing the Same Water Fountain

According to a recent New York Times project, North Seattle is predominantly white while South Seattle offers a multicultural dynamic. Why is it that 47 years after the “I Have a Dream” speech, a city as liberal as Seattle is still segregated? For most white citizens, the ideals of equality have taken deep roots, yet family and daily routines insulate individuals from actively practicing such virtues. On the surface, humanity is created equal, but heaven forbid that ethnicities interact!

In light of recent evidence, Harper Lee’s classic novel remains relevant. Set during the Great Depression in a small town of Maycomb, Alabama, To Kill a Mockingbird is narrated by the protagonist, Scout Finch. Living with her brother, Jem, and her widowed father, Atticus — a lawyer of high esteem — the book narrates a story of innocence lost and racial relations in the Deep South.

Those Were the Days When Kids Actually Played Outside

Scout and Jem spend summer vacations utilizing the neighborhood as a playground with their friend Dill. Lee brilliantly channels the childhood mind in her descriptions of these summers. Fascinated with their reclusive neighbor Boo Radley, the children continually devise plans to see the man in his native habitat and concoct expansive stories about the source of his reclusive nature. Reading these sections reminded me of my youth and the fear of jumping a neighbor’s fence to retrieve baseballs. With innocent minds, the most miniscule task could be infinitely dreadful, while dangerous actions seemed commonplace and no cause for worry.

Lee summarizes the children’s age of innocence well when she writes,

“For reasons unfathomable to the most experienced prophets of Maycomb County, autumn turned to winter that year. We had two weeks of the coldest weather since 1885, Atticus said. Mr. Avery said it was written on the Rosetta Stone that when children disobeyed their parents, smoked cigarettes and made war on each other, the seasons would change: Jem and I were burdened with the guilt of contributing to the aberrations of nature, thereby causing unhappiness to our neighbors and discomfort to ourselves” (85).

Racial Injustice

In the same season, the court appoints Atticus to defend Tom Robinson, an African-American man accused of raping a white woman from an abusive family not popular with many folks in Maycomb. In the racially segregated South, such actions became the talk of the town and eventually spilled over to the lives of Jem and Scout.

As the plot unfolds, prejudice and injustice threaten to fracture the children’s innocence.
Throughout the story, though, the moral compass of Atticus Finch provides a beacon for his children. Despite the misgivings of the townspeople, Atticus not only educates his children on the importance of racial equality, but also allows his children to live out these ideals when they visit African-American churches and communities.

Incarnational Living

In an era rife with continued underlying segregation, To Kill a Mockingbird reminds us of the importance of incarnationally engaging in relationships with all cultures. Despite the fact that the grievous injustices represented in the book no longer exist, the insulated, mono-cultured lives of most individuals reinforce the idea that other cultures ought to remain other.

How should someone engage with other cultures? Should people of one culture move into the neighborhoods typically occupied by other cultures? Should people serve or work in multi-cultured organizations? While I am unaware of the perfect answer to that question, I realize it is important to do something.

To Kill a Mockingbird is a “masterpiece.” I am truly grateful to have read it as an adult, because I believe I gleaned more from it now than I would have as a teenager. For those who have yet to read this book, please read it soon.

Are We Biblically Illiterate?

February 7th, 2011 § 1 Comment

As Dr. Dave Nienhuis continues to provide readings on the book of Matthew for this quarter’s Lectio, the question of biblical literacy remains relevant. Is our society biblically illiterate? What does it mean to know the Bible? Is it enough to understand the basic stories or should Christians comprehend underlying theological implications of the text? Is the plain sense of the text all that is necessary? What about when Christians disagree on the plain sense of the text? Should Christians understand the lenses through which they view the Bible?

Source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/verbeeldingskr8/3638834128/

Before such questions find answers, we need to assess our current state. What do Christians actually know? First-year SOT graduate students Sophia Agtarap and Aaron Willett used the Practica component of their coursework to begin to answer this question. Utilizing social media, the team polled a wide variety of people asking basic questions about Scripture.

The duo’s project offers important first steps in the pursuit of biblical literacy: identifying current levels of biblical understanding.

Read more about the team’s work.

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