Archive for the 'church' Category

A little litany for the masses

Feeling like the world is basically ok? Well, you shouldn’t be, least of all days today, Ash Wednesday, least of all worlds this one. To put yourself in a more proper Lenten frame of mind or, better, a proper frame of mind for any day of the year, read the Anglican Great Litany. You can find it here, in the original version of the 1549 Book of Common Prayer (“The Letany and Suffrages” begins on p. 30). If you don’t want to wade through 16th century typeface, you can also find it here, but the typesetting of the original, especially of the final prayer, is very beautiful.


The current Episcopal version, with the supplications for king and crown pared down to a one-line prayer for the President, and with “fornicacion” replaced by “all inordinate and sinful affections” is here. You can also hear it sung:

Learning from the social gospel

rauschenbuschThe future of Christian theology lies in the comprehension of Christianity into history. The future of Christianity itself lies in getting the spirit of Christ incarnated into history.

So Walter Rauschenbusch in Christianizing the Social Order, published 1912. In his article “Walter Rauschenbusch and the Saving of America”, in A Better Hope, Stanley Hauerwas quotes this and responds: “Christian ethicists after Rauschenbusch will never write a line like that.”

It’s odd and fascinating to watch Hauerwas give a fairly sympathetic appraisal of a man who could write a line like that and who, as Hauerwas notes, more or less identified democracy as the Christianization of politics. The purpose of the essay is not to critique, but to explore a piece of the history of Christian ethics in America and understand its influence.

Rauschenbusch was the greatest, and one of the last, proponents of the Social Gospel movement, which argued against individualistic conceptions of religion and for social embodiment of Christian principles. The kingdom of God was a main theological touchpoint and the prophetic tradition, and its recovery by Jesus after laying dormant, its main Biblical and historical touchpoint. This was the movement partly responsible for Prohibition and for WWJD which, long before acronym bracelets, was the key phrase in social gospeller Charles Sheldon‘s In His Steps.

Hauerwas notes many interesting things about Rauschenbusch’s social gospel. As best I can represent them, one is the combination of “liberal” theology with personal piety: “That liberalism and pietism might be at odds is a later development that is inappropriately applied to Rauschenbusch and his social-gospel friends. Their ‘social work’ was but a continuation of their understanding of the significance of their experience of Christ.” The social gospel was about reform, “but it was equally about prayer, hymns, and devotional practices.” Witness Rauschenbusch’s Prayers of the Social Awakening, which includes prayers for morning, noon and night.

A second interesting point is that for Rauschenbusch, theology was history and ethics were journalism. There was a movement in history running through the prophets, through Jesus, through democracy for the poor and the common good. To do theology was to narrate this historical reality and his ethics were “theologically and morally informed journalism. He narrated the social realities of his day by redescribing them Christianly.” Seeing historical realities of justice embedded in the work of Jesus was essential. I’ll quote Hauerwas at length for an interesting comparison of Rauschenbusch and Niebuhr:

Beckley notes that Rauschenbusch never proposed any universal principles of justice; rather his emphasis on the importance of, as well as his understanding of, the content of justice was grounded in his analysis of socio-historical circumstances. This is certainly the case, but I think what must be further said is that justice does not play a central role in Rauschenbusch’s work. This may appear a scholarly quibble, but it is important if we are to understand the significance of Reinhold Niebuhr. Justice becomes the overriding term for Niebuhr, and for many who follow Niebuhr, exactly because they no longer share Rauschenbusch’s account of Jesus. Put simply, and in a manner that is simplifying, once you no longer have Jesus all you are left with is the dialectic between love and justice. (his emph.)

I can’t pretend to know how well Hauerwas is doing his analysis of Rauschenbusch, but I think it would be interesting to chart the modern incarnations or echoes of the social gospel movement on the axes Hauerwas points out. I’m thinking of Jim Wallis and the Sojourners crowd, of the growing social justice and creation care concerns in conservative Evangelicalism, and the social stances of some of the mainline denominations (my own United Methodist church, e.g.). I have no desire for us to recapitulate Rauschenbusch, but I find the unabashed connection of social concern and practices of piety like prayer, hymns and devotion appealing. Do we see this anywhere now? My guess is yes for conservative evangelicals*; my guess for Sojourners is less so (although I’m not sure). For my own church (and some of the Sojo types too), I think there is a major temptation to subsume piety entirely  into social justice concerns, or (my church!) let them coexist in a sometimes-uncomfortable orthogonality.

A second question: how are current groups grounding their appeals to justice etc? Where are they on the Rauschenbusch-Niebuhr divide — working from a grounding in the historical person of Jesus, or off of principles of love and justice abstracted therefrom? I know this sounds nebulous, but I think it’s important. I don’t know where to place conservative evangelical social concern. My recollections of God’s Politics and my browsing of Sojourners websites convinces me that they are leaning heavily toward principles. At my own church, I think definitely the same — we are not connecting social concern with the particularity of Jesus at all.

Do I read things correctly? And tell me, what ought we be learning from the ways the social gospel reinvents and relocates itself? If we can never repeat with Rauschenbusch that Christianity is getting the spirit of Christ incarnated into history, can we say why?


* See here for an interview with Rick Warren in which he discusses the social gospel. Follow links there for a response from Rauschenbusch’s great-grandson, who argues Warren owes more to his great-grandpa than he realizes.

Hauerwas: marriage and capitalism

from Stanley Hauerwas’s essay “Resisting Capitalism: On Marriage and Homosexuality” collected in A Better Hope: Resources for a Church Confronting Capitalism, Democracy and Postmodernity:

Capitalism thrives on short-term commitments. The ceaseless drive for innovation is but the way to undercut labor’s power by making the skills of the past irrelevant for tomorrow. Indeed, capitalism is the ultimate form of deconstruction, because how better to keep labor under control than through the scarcity produced through innovation? All the better that human relationships are ephemeral, because lasting relationships prove to be inefficient in ever-expanding markets. Against such a background, the church’s commitment to as lifelong monogamous fidelity may well prove to be one of the most powerful tactics we have to resist capitalism.

This obviously cries out to be fleshed out at length, something Hauerwas doesn’t do in this short piece. Three pointers from the essay that might help in constructing marriage as resistance to capitalism:

  • Hauerwas calls for reshaping the church’s discourse on marriage around its practices regarding promiscuity, rather than ideas regarding sexuality. So formal commitment within the alternative polis of the church replaces negotiation of preferences.
  • He asks that all marriage be open to children, not in the sense that each must produce biological heirs, but in the sense that each must give an account of how it fits into an ongoing community practice that is procreative rather than consumptive. Mentoring, teaching, childcare etc. could all be filled in here.
  • And, of course, he rejects the romantic as the basis of marriage — moving away from marriage as desire-fulfillment.

I’d add

  • The marriage ceremony is an obvious place to work out a witness in the midst of capitalism, not just in the obvious ways like expenses and gift-giving, but in emphasizing the commitments the couple makes to the larger community and its projects as it receives their blessing.
  • This is a prime arena for an exercise of reclaiming the imagination, in the sense that Walsh and Keesmaat argue for in Colossians Remixed, regarding desire and need.
  • Periphery’s suggestion that gift theory would be really useful for Christian ethics might find especially great applications in conceiving marriage as a response to economics. It might be a really good language for working out the connections.


My excitement about Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza’s commentary on Revelation only grows. In her Introduction she argues for rhetorical analysis over against hermeneutics, critiquing the latter as fostering a false sense of value-neutral epistemology and apolitical readings of texts. We can ask a ton of questions about her approach here, but for the moment let’s leave these to the side and let me quote at length her introduction of a really fascinating term:

Competing interpretations are not simply either right or wrong, but they constitute different ways of reading and constructing socio-historical and theo-ethical meaning. What is appropriate in such a paradigm of Biblical scholarship is not detached value-neutrality, but an explicit articulation of one’s rhetorical strategies, interested perspectives, ethical criteria, theoretical frameworks, religious presuppositions, and socio-political locations for critical public discussion. … Questions such as how meaning is constructed, whose interests are served, what kind of worlds are envisioned, what roles, duties and values are advocated, which social-political practices are legitimated, or which communities of discourse are considered responsible become questions central to the interpretive task.

The distinction between hermeneutic and rhetoric thus has far-reaching practices for the theo-ethical practice of proclamation. By proclamation I do not mean just preaching, but all theo-ethical inquiry that is concerned with the uses and effects of biblical texts in contemporary society, culture, and churches. Such a broad understanding of theological biblical interpretation is necessary because biblical texts such as Revelation affect not only the perceptions, values, and imaginations of Christians but also those of Western cultures and societies on the whole. [She goes on to detail this with contemporary reference to the first Iraq war in almost exact parallel to current-day events!] In such a contest of words and symbols, a critical rhetoric, rather than just an appreciative hermeneutic, is called for.

                                                                            (3-4, my emph.)

My amateur translation: In a community that hopes to be spurred by the biblical texts we read to real commitments, we have to take careful note of how reading and interpreting the text interacts with the places we make those commitments. Reading and interpreting are affected by and affect where we stand and how we act socially and politically (in the broad sense of the polis). Interpretation that pays attention to this is the only kind suited to readers who want to forge real commitment in those realms.

I love her attention to developing ways of reading that are suited to committed social and political impact of the text and I’m looking forward to seeing how this plays out in her commentary. I’m not ready to totally jump on board with her entire program but I’m hoping her perspective will provide a real toolkit for involved reading.

And I love this word proclamation. (Her commentary is in the Proclamation Commentaries series, btw.) I know she says this goes beyond preaching, but I think there’s an interesting implication here for just that. As I was telling my homegirl the other night, I hear many people refer to the Sunday morning sermon (very deliberately, I think) as ‘teaching’ rather than ‘preaching’. (Speaking only from experience, this is something I have, I’m proud to say, never heard in the churches I’ve been a part of which are broadly under the Holiness umbrella.) She and I think we can make a pretty good argument that the pastor as sermon-giver should not be considered a subset of the teaching function of the church. ESF gives even more reason to reserve ‘preaching’ as something different from ‘teaching’. Good preaching can be proclamation — the sermon (not each individual sermon, but the whole sermon-life of a congregation) pays attention to the church’s location in the world, its commitments, its involvements, duties, roles and values. It can critically examine of how the church is using scripture to these ends and it has special opportunities for this if it doesn’t feel obligated to try to be detached, value-neutral ‘teaching’.

Presumably good teaching can do this too, and certainly this sort of stuff goes on even in places where ‘teaching’ is the preferred word. But thinking of the sermon as ‘teaching’ seems to me to leave the congregation much more prone to assuming we are doing our ‘learning’ in a detached, value-neutral way, something I think she is right to critique, and robs the preacher and congregation of real opportunities and tools for proclamation.

Colossians Remixed reaction

Just finished reading and discussing Brian Walsh and Sylvia Keesmaat’s Colossians Remixed with a couple of my favorite peeps. I would describe it as ok but not good or good but not great, depending on my mood.

Their overall project is to reread Colossians from a somewhat postmodern perspective with a view towards how it might inform and be meaningful to postmodern readers who are suspicious of absolutes, feel ethically paralyzed in a world of diverse choices and viewpoints, or are anxious to cut themselves off totally from any external metanarrative.

In the earliest parts of the book they point in interesting directions:

In this discernment of our cultural context, postmodern emphases on choice, diversity, difference and otherness simply function as a smokescreen simply function as a smokescreen to cover the homogenizing forces of global capitalism. (32)

They go on to indicate that modernity and post-modernity, viewed via political/economic lenses represent a similar set of political/economic choices oriented towards autonomy and acquisition.

Stanley Hauerwas puts it this way: “Too often postmodernists turn out to be liberals in their ethics and politics who no longer believe in the conceits of liberalism but have no where else to go.” Economic globalization is late capitalism without the framework of a modernist ideology of progress to provide it a narrative foundation and ethical direction. (33)

This attention to the interplay between the political/economic and the epistemological really piqued my interest and seemed part of the basic grounding of their project. Unfortunately, they mostly ditch this insight in the rest of the book. As a result, the book — an argument for embracing elements of postmodern epistemology as a better way to conceive of the message of Colossians — is approached in a thoroughly modernist way! They set the problem in Part I, discuss epistemology (working with the individual) in Part II and then attack praxis in Part III. We attack knowing first, then doing can follow. And most of this can be done at the level of the individual (their Ethic of Community has to wait for p. 169).

I think they didn’t read their Hauerwas or their MacIntyre well enough. These things can’t be separated like this, certainly not with knowing preceding doing. If anything, doing precedes knowing or, better, there ought to be a dynamic and ongoing interplay between these. My ability to understand and conceive of moral choices is shaped by the practices I am a part of, my ethical choices, the story I am a part of, and this happens by involvement in tradition, a larger community.

I would have loved a book written holding the epistemology and praxis in interrelation throughout, diagnosing their connections in the problem, observing how our practices shape our knowing and imagining, working out how a newly conceived, engaged knowing re-informs practice. Alas, not quite in this book. But still there are a lot of fruitful pointers here for our own work on this project. A project that is definitely communal and definitely the work of being the church and will be way more convincing, inviting, exciting and engaging for the suspicious, paralyzed or hostile folks Walsh and Keesmaat want to draw in.

Questions for community

A recent exchange with roses brought the idea of this post to my mind.  In our exchange, roses raised the idea of the faith community. In part of my response I asked some questions about this community. I’m interested in fleshing these out as an item of independent interest to me, only peripherally related to the other discussion. (Roses originally meant something more like the idea of faith, and here I’m riffing on something that came up in our dialogue, not ripping her position.)

I want to propose a set of questions that any community should be able to answer. I poked around for resources on a theory of community, and found only this, so if anyone knows of a better resource let me know. (Alasdair MacIntyre‘s After Virtue is in the queue, and will hopefully soon make an appearance in some posts. In the meantime, let me just say that I know I’m woefully uninformed.)

I take it as axiomatic that any notion of community involves boundary, a sense of who’s in and who’s not, and that this need not be hostilely exclusive, but is necessary for a community’s self-definition to be coherent and not vacuous. (So “I am a citizen, not of Athens, nor of Greece, but of the whole world” is incorrect if Socrates wants citizenship to reference involvement in a community.)

Finally, since terminology like ‘the faith community’ or ‘the math community’ is pretty well established and yet not what I want to describe, let’s do what we do in math when the terminology well runs dry and coin ‘strong community’ or, better, ‘community in the strong sense.’

Any community in the strong sense should be able to positively and substantively answer the following questions:

  1. How is community membership defined? What defines the community’s shared identity?
  2. How and where are social networks between members created and used? (Here we need real interaction, preferably but not exclusively physical, face-to-face interaction.)
  3. What commitments are expected of community members? More particularly, what responsibilities to they have to one another? (Real, meaningful mutual obligation is necessary for community in the strong sense.)
  4. What behavioral norms are expected of the members?
  5. What symbols, rituals, habits or language characterize the community?

Lest it seem like I’m cooking these up to end up with church as the only community in the strong sense, take as examples some subsets of the math community: the community as a whole, the dynamical systems (here, DS) community, the community of my department. On question 1: membership is defined around shared expertise, and the dynamical systems community is more like a community in the strong sense than the math community. For question 2: conferences (the yearly Penn State-Maryland cycle for the DS community), and local seminars, colloquia and afternoon tea for the department. For question 3: writing letters, giving talks, writing reviews for MathSciNet, refereeing journals, attending seminars, answering questions — all more pronounced at the more specific DS level than at the general math community level — and normal department requirements. On 4: cooperation, friendliness, professionalism, participation lightly characterize the DS community and much more heavily the department. And yes, for 5, there are rituals and habits. We all applaud twice after a talk, once when the speaker concludes, once after the question time, prompted by the obligatory “if there are no further questions, let’s thank our speaker again.” A (minor) symbol: no one puts their own name on a theorem; you only self-reference with an initial, M. or perhaps M—. (It’s truly remarkable to me how pervasive this bit of symbolic humility is.) Each department surely has its own little habits, and it’s clear that a common language not shared by the outsider characterizes math as a whole, it’s subfields even more strongly. (Technical language, yes, but other usages as well — ‘community in the strong sense’ is itself somewhat a tongue-in-cheek reference to such language.) These aren’t strongly formative things, but they are definitely indicative of close and initiated involvement in the community.

Conclusion: There is probably no such thing as ‘the math community’ in the strong sense as it totally fails on 2 and only answers the rest weakly.  The DS community has a much stronger claim to such a distinction, and a healthy department could very reasonably be community in the strong sense. What abut the faith community? I think there’s even less reason to believe there is a ‘faith community’ in the strong sense than that there is a ‘math community.’ Individual faith traditions, denominations or sub-confessions therein and local congregations could all exhibit community in the strong sense increasingly well. Those of these that I belong to, however, do not always (often?) do so terribly well.

A proposal: the word ‘community’ is very popular in church usage. But in Christianity, where community is not just descriptive of something we like when we have it, but where strong community is constitutive of the faith itself, maybe we should reserve the word only for something more like community in the strong sense, or our attempts to attain it.

can I just say, I’m excited?

Just got my copy of Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza‘s Revelation: Vision of a Just World. Here’s her dedication:


         Idania Fernandez
         Maura Clarke, Ita Ford, Jean Donovan
         Dorothy Kazel
         Elisabeth Käsemann
         Celina Maricet and Elba Julia Ramos


I’m really looking forward to her reading.

Idania Fernandez was a Nicaraguan martyr heavily involved with liberation theology, who fought with the Sandinistas.

Maura Clarke, Ita Ford, Dorothy Kazel and Jean Donovan were three American Catholic nuns and a lay missionary (respectively) martyred in El Salvador.

Elisabeth Käsemann was one the ‘desaparecidos’ in Argentina and (wow!) daughter of the New Testament scholar Ernst Käsemann.

Elba Julia Ramos was the housekeeper for six Jesuit intellectuals involved in the liberation theology at the Jesuit Universidad Centroamericana in El Salvador. She and her daughter Celina Maricet were killed along with the six Jesuits.