Friday, September 30, 2005

Tribute to My Grandmother

Tomorrow I drive down to southern Missouri to help bury my maternal grandmother. Each of the grandchildren have been invited to bring a three-minute tribute, so here's mine:

Tribute to Della Marie Ades Holcomb
October 1, 2005

Going from childhood to adolescence in the 1960’s brought with it it’s own psychological baggage, but mine was made easier because of two grandmothers who believed in creating safe space. While most of the men of Holcomb descent had a propensity for cinder blocks and sawdust, I usually felt much more at ease near my grandmother whether it was swinging next to her while she snapped green beans or hiding out in the kitchen corner, a book in one hand, so that I could be near those incredible smells than always emanated from the oven. There were some culinary habits, though, that I found rather strange, whether it was the runny eggs she always made for grandpa or burning the toast just right for her own Germanic mother who had a propensity for then scraping off the burnt filings.

But the miracle for me was that, while the culture wars swirled around us and our leaders were being martyred, being at grandma’s always meant retreating to a safe place. One of the best places was in their cabin at the campgrounds in Gentry where she did her best to wipe away the dust and dirt that insisted on making its way past the screen door and into her home-away-from-home. I would do my best to stay out of her way while she scrubbed away the perpetual swirling of dust which always returned just the day after she had labored so long and hard to remove it. One time I made the mistake of getting too close to the cabin with my friends when performing typical childish hijincks. My Uncle Dean had shown me how you could put the better part of a package of peanuts in a bottle of Nehi and when you shook it up and down a few times it was sure to impress any girl. The problem was that I didn’t have the athletic ability of Dean when it came to controlling the arc of grape soda that shot out of the bottle and it splattered well past Judith Freeland to hit grandma square in the chest just as she was opening the screen door to rid herself of that day’s collection of dust and dirt. I remember looking at Raymond for a cue as to whether to laugh or not, only to hear my grandmother’s sharp intake of breath and demonstrative tut-tut of, “You, boys!”

So, today I want to thank my grandmother for putting up with her eldest grandson under her feet and for not paddling me when I probably deserved it; for inviting me into her safe spaces and always making me feel at home. May God give us more like her.

Friday, September 23, 2005

The 100-Minute Bible

Today's London Guardian released a story about the new "100-minute Bible." It seems people no longer have time to "wait on the Lord," so a dumbed-down version of the Good Book is necessary. I keep thinking about Will Willimon's words in The Intrusive Word: Preaching as Baptismal Encounter: "The gospel is not a set of interesting ideas about which we are supposed to make up our minds. The gospel is intrusive news that evokes a new set of practices, a complex of habits, a way of living in the world, discipleship. Because of its epistemological uniqueness, we cannot merely map the gospel onto our present experiences. The gospel is not an archaic, peculiar way of naming our typical human experiences through certain religious expressions. The gospel means to engender, to evoke, a peculiar experience that we would not have had before we met the gospel," (39).

Anyway, here's the news release:

For the busy faithful, the greatest story ever told - in 100 minutes
Ed VulliamyThursday September 22, 2005

They may be the words of the Lord. But there are simply too many of them for the modern attention span. That, at least, was the reasoning behind the launch yesterday of a more "user-friendly" edition of the great work.
The 100-minute Bible was published at the cradle and headquarters of British Christianity, Canterbury cathedral. It is a 57-page pocket-sized edition, the latest in the long and often turbulent legacy of the Holy Book, from Hebrew through Greek and Latin to Martin Luther, the glorious King James edition and various recent English translations. Entire cycles of frescos by medieval and renaissance painters may have derived from a few poetic sentences in the Bible, but the harsh reality of modernity suggests people just do not have the time to concentrate on the book any more.
The man who had the responsibility for condensing the Bible was the Rev Dr Michael Hinton, who spent two years on the task. "We have sacrificed poetry to clarity," Mr Hinton told people attending the launch. "Those who want a sense of the glorious poetry in the Bible will have to look elsewhere, but anyone who wants a sense of the story and the argument will find it here.
"This is a gateway to the Bible for everybody. We have to face the fact we live in an overwhelmingly secular society and must do all we can to present people with the story and what Christianity is about."
The Bible is summarised in elegant prose, without slang, and is not split into testaments. The Gospels are, said Mr Hinton, "central to the document", with the Old Testament dealt with chronologically, "incorporating the prophetic books into the story and dealing with a few books such as Psalms separately". They and Moses get a page each, for instance, as do the crucifixion and resurrection.
The publisher of the book, Len Budd, a former chairman of the deanery at Canterbury, said: "Is it a dumbing down of the Bible? Yes, but that's the world today. Although we as Christians love the Bible it is very user-unfriendly. People just don't have time to read it. If this book means more people can answer pub quiz questions on the Bible, so much the better."
It was "not an evangelical document", he said, but a version aimed at "interested outsiders", especially "young people who, quite honestly, don't know anything about the Bible, the story, or Christianity at all". He added that it had been written in a style to encourage page turning but lacked "literary gimmicks".
Mr Hinton said: "In the words of Frank Sinatra, 'regrets, I've had a few'. There are omissions." One of them is the book of Ruth, "which we just could not get in".
The audience at the launch included the Rev Stephen Cresswell, a senior Methodist, who was "curious". He said: "I was expecting at least a few more direct quotes."
Tony Washington, a youth officer for the cathedral diocese, said he hoped the new edition would "open the door for young people who these days just don't get to know the story".
· Can you do better? Submit your 100-word Bible to

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Bonhoeffer: Charismatic Professor and Prophet

Yesterday was my first opportunity to introduce Bonhoeffer's Life Together to the campus community. As with many others, I have found his life's story an inspiration which beckons me to be a better and truer theologian, unwilling to simply live life in an ivory tower. What follows is my attempt to set him and his work into its proper historical and cultural context:

In his recent book, Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places: A Conversation in Spiritual Theology, Eugene Peterson claims that, “Getting saved is easy; becoming a community is difficult—damnably difficult,” (250). Having just come off a lifetime’s project of translating the entirety of the Bible, perhaps no one has a better insight into this theme than does Peterson. For, it is clear as one reads through the story of both the people of Israel and the emerging Christian community that our call to be “little Christ’s” as Martin Luther suggested, is oftentimes thwarted by our own misperception and misunderstanding. Those of us who use the lectionary on a regular basis, are all too aware of this in the readings from recent weeks—whether it be Peter’s unwillingness to believe in a suffering Jesus or the deaf ears of the people of Judah to the prophet’s pleas for repentance and life change.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, whose book, Life Together, forms the basis for our thinking this semester, came to understand this difference between some kind of initial encounter with the gospel and the necessity of being converted into a Christian community. A classically-trained, brilliant, young German theologian, Bonhoeffer did his academic work in the wake of the destruction of the modern optimism which had characterized life in Europe prior to the Great War. That war resulted in millions of deaths and the loss of an entire generation—mostly men who were just slightly older than Dietrich. While we rightly mourn the loss of lives on 9/11 or in the recent hurricane in the Gulf, the casualties in both were miniscule compared to what Europe lost in the first quarter of the last century. This unprecedented slaughter by those who called themselves “Christian nations,” led to a severe crisis of faith from which the church in Europe has never fully recovered.

The young Bonhoeffer knew that the tired clichés of the past, that the old paradigm for living one’s life, would no longer work. So, in the early 1930’s he began to beckon several of his more serious students at the University of Berlin to a seminary community in Finkenwalde. I picture the young Bonhoeffer as being someone like my colleagues Gene Dunkley or Christina Smerick, who both ooze a kind of charisma that is attractive to impressionable students. Bonhoeffer’s seminars, his open-ended evening discussions, and field trips, all attracted a number of students, many of whom became his closest colleagues in the nascent church struggle. In 1932, these young theology students began to organize frequent weekend trips to a rented cottage in the country to “talk theology,” to engage in rudimentary spiritual exercises, to take long walks in the woods, and to listen to Bonhoeffer’s record collection. The young Dietrich was absolutely enthralled with two forms of classic Americana: the emerging jazz scene and the old African American spirituals. In fact, he had been tempted a few years earlier to accept a post at Union Theological Seminary in New York City, where he had stood out like a sore thumb at Sunday worship in predominantly black churches where segregation was still deeply imbedded in American culture.

As Bonhoeffer and his younger charges listened to records, cavorted through the countryside, and joined together for prayer and reflection, they began to think seriously about how to form authentic Christian communities through a structured spiritual life into which would be integrated appropriate forms of service to people in need. Though these beginnings in community life were informal and spontaneous, they provided the earliest sparks for the creation of the sense of community which was to be front and center on Bonhoeffer’s agenda for the next decade or so. Bonhoeffer had grown restless with those who spoke of Christianity only from their academic ivory towers, but he was also concerned about the “no-nothingism” that was allowing groups like the Nazis to make inroads into the national church. From this point on, he was interested not merely in reflecting upon the church but in being a part of a church-setting committed to God’s Word, accepting the self-sacrifice embodied in the cross of Jesus Christ. His longing for a type of community that was both courageous and obedient would prove fortuitous in the emergence of the crises which came to face the German nation and the world at large over the next ten to fifteen years.

Thursday, September 08, 2005

Monologue Preaching in a Multi-Media World

I sometimes get the feeling that I'm something of a dinosaur (a colleague once referred to me as, "an idiosyncratic old fart"). Nowhere does this seem the case more than when it comes to preaching. The advent of an age known best for split-second media shots has made the challenge of ascending the stairs to stand behind the "sacred desk" daunting. John Chrysostom, the patron saint of Christian preaching, warns stridently of those who preach to "tickling ears," trying to create celebrity status for themselves and telling people what they want to hear. For, as my colleague Dr. McPeak often warns (paraphrasing Irenaeus), "If you give them what they want, what will they become?"

Walter Brueggemann has suggested that the preacher's task is to "recreate the world" by, "the evoking of an alternative community that knows it is about different things in different ways." He calls for a prophetic ministry, "to nurture, nourish, and evoke a consciousness and perception alternative to the consciousness and perception of the dominant culture around us." This is a subversive task which requires preachers to see themselves primarily as poets (see further Brueggemann's Introduction to Finally Comes the Poet: Daring Speech for Proclamation).

As a lover of poetry, I have realized of late that, not only is the love of language largely missing in our culture, but very few people read poetry--at least as it has been classically defined. The creation of "new worlds" is largely seen as an extension of Hollywood via the media of film or Nashville through the power of pop music. But even with the latter, there has been a movement away from a primarily word-oriented approach to the visuals of so-called "music videos" popularized by the creation of MTV a couple of decades ago.

Perhaps today's preachers, then, are like the prophets of old--speaking largely to an audience that is not listening or is, more likely, in denial. But, I refuse to believe in the death of language and the power of passionate prose to convert hearts and change minds. If I'm confined to being an "idiosyncratic old fart," at least it's good to know that I'm in good company!

Sunday, September 04, 2005

Learning to Sing our Faith

I have been thinking a good deal about the importance of learning to "sing" our faith. I notice that many of my students seem at their most passionate, seem most connected, when they are singing--particularly some catchy tune. But the culture has inordinate power to force us to sing its tune, whether one of consumerism, popularity, or impossible body images. Over against this, the church brings the historic liturgy which teaches us how to pray and what to say. From the weddings I conduct, to the funeral of my colleague's mother--the church provides us with the words, even the silences, necessary to sustain the community in its time of need.

Nobody has captured the power of this idea quite like the Lutheran theologian, Gordon Lathrop, who proclaims:
"We may teach each other to sing. When the song is bent around the ordo, when its words and rhythms gather a people to do the central things, such song may be our finest means of formation. Here, too, there is a constantly double character: Singing was once a familiar, popular folk-skill, available to everyone. Yet in our culture we hardly sing at all; we act ashamed, afraid. To teach singing is to welcome people to a thing that is already theirs, and yet to engage in a slightly countercultural event. When the words we sing are at their best – in the sung liturgy and in the great hymns of the church – they bring to expression the classic faith of the church. Yet the singing is both communal and personal enacting of that faith: we put our bodies into it. In the liturgy, when singing accompanies a communal movement into the building, up to the table, or around the font, or when a hymn receives the words that have been read, ringing metaphorical changes on these words, the structure of the liturgy is made tangibly available to participation. The singing may be one voice and many voices, an expert musician and all the people, working together in lively polarity.
The song can also be misformed. Its words may not be the faith of the church; its power may not be broken to the structure of the ordo; its mode may be the powerful performance of a few experts, essentially replicating the culture, barring participation, accentuating the people’s embarrassment or passivity. But when the musicians of the community are marked with the humility of the careful liturgical teacher, the assembly’s song can evidence the double character of fine formation. Singing in the assembly is words and bodies, the strange and the familiar, structure and participation, one voice and many voices. Singing is taught, yet it is experienced as if one is coming home.
Singing is taught; the structure of pascha is taught; liturgical roles are taught; and the catechism is taught. Where? The answer must be that the entire parish is constantly teaching. A local assembly may have a formal program for catechumens, close to the identity of the parish since the catechumenate is a major way the community lives out the ordo. But all of us are strangers, always coming anew. Parents beside their children in church, with a gentle word here, a whispered explanation there, are teaching. But when they both are before the holy gifts, with hands outstretched, the children are addressed as full participants and the parents find themselves needy seekers. Such reversals must occur repeatedly in other teaching occasions: in choirs, catechumenal gatherings, Sunday schools, training meetings for liturgical ministers. In fact, much of the life of a congregation needs to be structured around teaching and learning liturgy in a company of welcomed strangers. Justin says that “after these things,” after participation in the process of baptism, “we continually remind each other of these things” (1 Apology 67.1)."
--Holy Things: A Liturgical Theology (124-125)

So, Lord, my prayer for the coming week is that you will help me to teach others to "sing".