Friday, 16 July 2010

"I, a poor miserable sinner..."

I'm not sure how other traditions handle it, but in the church of my childhood every service began with corporate confession.

"O almighty God, merciful Father, I, a poor miserable sinner, confess to Thee all my sins and iniquities with which I have offended Thee and justly deserved Thy punishment in time and in eternity..." (Lutheran Hymnal, Adelaide, 1973 edition)

Hey, talk about self-esteem!

In fact, I can still pretty-much recite those words off by heart from the liturgy that was pounded in Sunday by Sunday at St Matthew's in Hamilton. The current version has had a rewrite, but the substance remains unaltered.

Now along comes a dude who expresses all my misgivings in one lucid piece of writing. It probably won't make sense unless you have a background in this kind of liturgical tradition, but if you do, you might find yourself muttering an 'amen' or two along the way.

Aw c'mon Deane, quit holding back

Clicking on a link provided by Jim West, I found myself reading a pithy review of Jack Spong's book Eternal Life. The reviewer is "known" in the world of biblioblogging in the same sense that Her Majesty's Constabulary will confirm during the course of an investigation that a certain individual is "known" to them. As expected, it was a review with bite.

But here's the interesting thing. If you read the piece cold, you might assume the reviewer is a KJV-toting fundamentalist pouring Beckish bile on "liberal" Christians. If so, you'd only get half marks; bile there is, but Bible-thumping is not the place the reviewer is coming from. But Deane doesn't spell out exactly where it is he's coming from, which is a shame.

I have a more charitable view on Spong. He speaks for a lot of folk who have remained within the mainline denominations. To be caught in the middle, with the slobbering fundagelical loons on the one side and angrily disenchanted tantrum-throwers on the other is hardly a comfortable place to be, but for many people it's the only place they can be given the delicate balance between integrity and tradition. It's people like these who have brought change to their communities, the ordination of women, energy for social justice issues... I'm not sure their critics can point to any comparable accomplishments.

And, let's speak plainly, Spong's influence isn't limited to the pages of obscure church publications, Friday night pub rants and arcane academic journals. It's "out there" on the shelves of countless bookstores and public libraries. It doesn't matter whether it's Jack Spong, Lloyd Geering, or even Richard Dawkins; "popularizing" important issues and taking them to "the great unwashed" inevitably brings down howls of indignation from the people who you'd most expect to welcome the breakthrough of discourse on these very subjects.

"Spong appeals," writes Deane, "to a substantial proportion of self-confessed Christians... who have recognised the shortcomings of their faith but desperately attempt to cling to some form of it." Ouch! But there's an awful lot of assumption in that sentence. If we were to grant that the sentiments are accurate though, then the responsible alternative would be...

But that sentence didn't get written.

Saturday, 10 July 2010

Disappearing Presbyterians (and Lutherans)

This morning I read of the imminent black-hole collapse of two church bodies, the Presbyterian Church in the USA and my own old stomping ground, the Lutheran Church of New Zealand.

It's all a matter of statistics and graphs, so beloved of bureaucrats.

"I am an ordained PC(USA) minister. It is time for a dose of reality and plain speaking. I will spare us the reflexive focus on all the diagnoses and treatments and the carefully worded prognoses of the specialists. The Presbyterian Church (USA) is dying. It has been decades since the last time the denomination recorded a net increase in membership. In 1983, the year of the merger of the old Southern (PCUS) and Northern (UPCUSA) Presbyterian churches to form the PC(USA) of today, the combined membership was 3,166,050. Today, it is somewhere near 2,108,000. Recently published statistics for 2008 indicate membership loss in that year to be a staggering 63,000. The year before, as yet another movement among churches to leave the denomination for greener pastures elsewhere gained traction, the loss was a jaw-dropping 170,000. Since the merger in 1983, losses have been less than 30,000 per year only twice. The least decline in membership numbers in the PC(USA) was registered in 1998, when membership numbers fell by ‘only’ 21,517. Some wag has observed that if membership continues to fall at the present rate, there will not be a single member left in the PC(USA) by 2050." (source)

Yeah, well that's pretty dire. Meanwhile, far across the mighty Pacific Ocean, New Zealand Lutherans are gathering this month to discuss a similar trend.

"A 1996 study revealed the LCNZ lost an average of 84 members a year for that decade. At that rate we would disappear in the year 2017. Now 2017 is only seven years away. Has the trend changed? Will we survive into the future? In what ways will we be a different Church?" (source)

Now, OK, 84 members vs. 63,000 seems no big deal, but unlike the US, New Zealand has only sparse Lutheran numbers to begin with, the result of overwhelmingly Anglo immigration patterns until recent decades. Either way, that line on the graph is rapidly heading South.

What's interesting though is how the insiders explain the decline. Here's how the LCNZ intends to tackle it.

"To define and address…
· Issues facing the LCNZ and strategies to achieve Godly outcomes
· Ways and means to build strong churches at the grassroots
· Review of vision statement
· Address the new Lutheran Church of Australia and New Zealand’s strategic initiatives of
  • Increasing leadership capacity at all levels
  • Increase Spiritual depth
  • Improve communication and engagement
  • Develop a pro-active mission culture
  • Leverage our assets to support ministry and mission"

Which sounds dandy, but open to wide interpretation. What, pray tell, are "Godly outcomes"?

But however inadequate those discussion points are, they at least don't misread the situation completely. Here's how one PCUSA minister explains it. First, the bit which truly does hit the nail on the head (Lutherans take note!)

"For years, denominational bureaucrats at all levels have been scrambling to come up with the magic program to reverse the terminal decline to no avail. Evangelism initiatives... church planting initiatives (which usually involves setting up a church-in-a-box in a fast growing area after identifying in surveys that there might be Presbyterians amongst the newcomers), as well as the usual retooling of the message so as to be relevant to the wider society. And yet the hemorrhage only increases.

"When asked ‘Why the decline?’, normally intelligent, educated, savvy denominational leaders become suddenly enfogged. ‘Most of the attrition seems to be as a result of older members dying,’ says one [not true, says the studies]. ‘People aren’t leaving our churches to join other churches, but rather are simply falling away to secular society’, says another [again, not true according to the statistics. And only amongst Presbyterians could one find someone who could consider losing members to secular society relative good news!]. ‘We aren’t “friendly” enough,’ ‘not “relevant” enough’, ‘not “engaged” enough’, ‘not “outwardly oriented” enough’, etc, etc. Studies are commissioned, presented in august committees, and shelved. Bureaucrats are shuffled, budgets cut, denominational structures redesigned. There is obligatory and collective wringing of hands. In the meantime, ordinary Presbyterians continue to vote with their feet. By their tens of thousands."

Yup, red herrings one and all. So what's the real problem?

"[T]he underlying cause of the decline and death of the PC(USA) will be that we traded the New Testament gospel of salvation from sin and death for a lesser model, equipped with all the religious-sounding language, ‘holding to an outward form of godliness,’ as Paul warns Timothy, ‘but denying its power.’ (2 Timothy 3:5)"

Translation: it's all because of those those wicked liberals!

"The PC(USA) is dying. The theological sideshows may continue for some years. So-called ‘liberals’ will continue to accrue and consolidate power. So-called ‘conservatives’ will continue to be outraged at the ever-increasing number of examples of the flaunting of orthodoxy."

The only problem with this analysis (well, not the only one, but a major one) is that conservative churches are inconsiderately in decline too.

Mainline churches simply have to adapt to the new world they find themselves in. The expectation that people will find themselves spiritually fulfilled on the old Sunday-go-to-church model is sadly delusional. A thirty minute drive to the church door, an hour of predictable liturgy and a forgettable ten minute sermon, bad coffee (if they're lucky!) and a thirty minute trip back home? No wonder they're staying away. Forget the navel-gazing, these folk need to bring in the services of a good sociologist.

High church attendance in the first half of the twentieth century had a lot to do with networking, especially for women who often stayed at home to raise families. No wonder then that on Sunday they'd eagerly drag the kids (and the husband if they could) to church to catch up with an extended community.

It was never about "spirituality" or brilliant homilies.

Times change. Society changes. We no longer live in the 1950s. Neither woolly good intentions nor a return to old fashioned rigidities are likely to solve the dilemma for either body.

Tuesday, 6 July 2010

Paul - an "F" for communication

Paul is generally agreed to be a great theologian. Deep. Which may or may not be the case. But consider, hardly had the apostle to the gentiles shuffled off the stage, than everybody seemed to agree that his letters were downright confusing. Whoever wrote 2 Peter 3:15-16 (it wasn't Peter) certainly didn't think much of Paul's communication skills. Then, for three hundred years, all that deep theological stuff was either forgotten or ignored. If you asked a second century Christian about justification by faith, they'd likely just stare at you blankly. The only guy who allegedly came close was Marcion, and he's regarded as a heretic!

Two thousand years later Paul's letters have been pored over, each word and phrase studied, scrutinized and exegeted, to an extent unprecedented in ancient literature. The rule of thumb seems to be, if you think you've understood Paul, you haven't. But don't take my word for it, here's what Nicholas King, a British Jesuit scholar, wrote in the introduction to his 2004 translation of Romans: It is, he says, “very hard going, and the translator faces a formidibly difficult task. A single phrase in Romans 5:12, for example, may have as many as eleven different meanings, and the jury is still out on which of them best suits the context.... At times, I have to say, I have despaired of making Romans intelligible to a modern reader.”

The crazy thing is that it's non-Christian scholars, including Jewish New Testament experts (now there's poetic justice!), who seem to have the best handle on the prickly apostle. Paul, it turns out, has been misread from Augustine onward. Was Paul anti-Torah? Did he eat the first-century equivalent of ham on rye? Probably not.

Nobody tell Mike Feazell!

The point for the moment is this. If Paul was such a genius, how is it that he wasn't able to pass on his insights in any coherent form? What on earth did those Roman Christians - many of whom would have been illiterate - make of his letter to them when it was first read aloud? How much of it did they understand? How much do we really understand, even after reading it again and again?

If you haven't guessed it already, I've been tasked with writing a two-thousand word essay on Paul's theology. No sweat, the footnotes alone could easily come to two thousand words. Earlier I mentioned John Gager's book Reinventing Paul, then the stimulating work of Mark Nanos. Pamela Eisenbaum has recently released a new book provocatively entitled Paul Was Not a Christian. It sounded promising enough that I sent off an order for it earlier today. Even then it would be sheer arrogance to think that any of us has heard the definitive word on either Paul or his gospel.

You have to wonder whether the apostle is sitting up there somewhere, laughing.

Sunday, 4 July 2010

Reformation Homebrew

A nice quote from Cynthia Bolbach, the newly elected moderator of the US Presbyterian church:

I have to admit, up front, that on a personal basis I’d probably rather share a beer with Martin Luther than with John Calvin.

Tip o' the hat to John Shuck for that gem, and a good excuse to recall that the reformer was first and foremost a homebrew man, a task he shared with Katie, though he apparently was also partial to Einbeck beer, "said to be the most famous beer of the Middle Ages, available everywhere in Germany and shipped as far as Jerusalem. It began with two thirds barley malt, one third wheat malt. Kiln-dried malt was not used as the beer was to be "yellow in color and clear."' It had a "thin, acidic quality... probably a product of bacterial infection at the start and the multiple yeast strains, plus wild yeast from the air, all working together to ferment every last bit of sugar."

Thanks, but I'll settle for a Steinlager... But, setting the brew aside, consider the hardware.

"He ... had a great mug with three rings on it, one 'the Ten Commandments', the next 'the Creed' and third 'the Lord's Prayer'. He boasted that he could encompass all three with ease." (source)

I'm told on good authority that Jim West has one just like it!

Such is Life

The Polebridge US edition of Lloyd Geering's latest book is about to be released. Such is Life is subtitled "a close encounter with Ecclesiates", one of the most fascinating books in the Hebrew Bible (Geering describes it as "the heretical book of the Bible"), along with a fresh translation which truly breaks the mold. Unlike the usual, weighty and dense treatments of biblical texts, this one is quite different: it's couched as a personal conversation across the centuries between Geering and Qoheleth, the Proclaimer.

There are risks with this approach, and striking the right balance is a matter of fine judgment. Too personal an approach can be trite, too academic a tone and you defeat the whole purpose of doing it this way. In my view Geering has got it right ninety-nine percent of the time. The result: you won't need a degree in rocket science, let alone theology, to make sense of this engaging text. Here's the publisher's blurb from the Steele Roberts edition published earlier this year.

"The best we can do is to eat and drink and enjoy ourselves in our work." Though 23 centuries have passed since a Jewish sage calling himself the Proclaimer (Ecclesiastes) set down his thoughts about life, they are strangely in tune with today’s secular age. Lloyd Geering has ingeniously brought Ecclesiastes to life in a series of dialogues with him, which show that, in today’s terminology, Ecclesiastes was a free-thinker, a humanist and an existentialist. In fact, this biblical heretic is at odds with the rest of the Bible – he find no discernible thread of purpose in life or the universe, and proposes that though Nature operates in cycles, much of human life is determined by sheer chance. The role of the sage, as Ecclesiastes saw it, was not to pass on gems of eternal wisdom, but to goad us to think things out for ourselves in our search for meaning.

Saturday, 3 July 2010

Stark choices

"The central issues before us are ... religious literacy and critical scholarship vs. orthodox Christian dogma and fideistic approaches to the Bible. We can pretend to have both for a while, but as our Lord told us, "You cannot serve two masters." Which will you choose?" (John Shuck)