Let me put one presupposition on the table before I even start this reflection: any approach to faith which is personalized in toto, so that it is only about my own personal salvation, and my own personal relationship with what we call God, in whichever way you might understand this, has broken with the tradition of Jesus (as well as the Old Testament). Thus, when I even consider a personal implication of faith, the Bible and theology, it still assumes that my personal faith has implications for the world around me, and is only in following of Jesus as long as this is true.

This this said, I can now continue to point to a less problematic, but maybe more complicated, question. Less problematic, since I consider all the views I will mention from here on as valid approaches to faith in the tradition of those who follow Jesus, but more complicated, since figuring out the best way now becomes a question for conversation.

Is the call of Jesus focused on my own personal life, or on the political system of the day? Does the Bible call me to change my personal life, or to work for systemic change? Should theology in the 21st century work for change in the personal lives of Christians (obviously assuming that this change is for the good of those around them) or for political (in the broad understanding of this term) change? Or both? Both would probably be what we opt for, but what do we mean by this?

And this is where the skeptic arrive, since we need to point out that this whole idea of a “personal” and a “political” sphere should be called into question. The personal is political. And the political is personal. We need to be thoroughly skeptical of anyone who claims that they don’t care for and are not influenced by politics. We need to be even more skeptical (and with this I guess I’m putting some of my own biases on the table) of anyone making the claim that their personal life doesn’t influence their participation in various forms of politics.

Only when we are sufficiently skeptical of anyone making claims that these two spheres can be separated (and we might consider being skeptical also of the existence of “two spheres”), can we again say: Both.

Our skepticism should get us wondering about claims that my personal involvement in the world, while attempting to not have anything to do with politics, will actually be making any kind of change. Not only the complexity and vastness of our world make us skeptical, but also questions on whether this personal involvement is not simply a way to rid me of my conscience for benefiting from systemic injustice. But in the same breath we must be even more skeptical of those who talk about systemic changes from a position of benefiting from the status quo. We should be quite skeptical and ask whether such an individual will not ultimately make sure that the status quo will be kept in place, and the systemic changes will ultimately not simply bring “more of the same”.

And this is where I think Christian eschatology and ethics should help us.

Working from what could be considered a very elementary contemporary eschatology, we should draw on image of an “already” and a “not yet”. It is this world, this “already”, this material reality around us that we need to engage. But we do it as Christians, as those who believe that what is “not yet” is possible, believing it against all odds, “wagering on a future that verifiable experience seems to belie” (Bosch). And this is personal. But its also political. When the church become a sign of what might be, it is both personal and political. It is exactly not yet a systemic change (cause then it won’t be a sign anymore), since it is a call to a society, providing a vision for possible future systemic change. It is thus a personal choice, a conviction, faith.

And in this way the skeptic in me has to bring the personal and the political back to the material reality around you:

Yes, we need to question those who are out on a mission (pun intended) to save to world, while the system within which this is being done is not being addressed.

Yes, we need to question those who talk a lot about some pie in the sky (pun intended again?) world if there whole life is dependent on the continuation of the status quo.

Then I guess what remain is those who’s personal life is more and more already reflecting the world of possibility which they are lobbying, fighting, writing, working for. We live the life we envision, so that we won’t become those who need to keep exactly that which we envision from happening, since that will challenge the privilege which the status quo is providing us.

In Violence Zizek points to some questions which again got me thinking about the always persistent notions in Christianity that we have a task to convert the whole society to Christ, meaning that all should become part of the church. He writes:

What if such an exclusion of some form of otherness from the scope of our ethical concerns is consubstantial with the very founding gesture of ethical universality, so that the more universal our explicit ethics is, the more brutal the underlying exclusion is? What the Christian all-inclusive attitude (recall St. Paul’s famous “there are no men or women, no Jews and Greeks”) involves is a thorough exclusion of those who do not accept inclusion into the Christian community. In other “particularistic” religions, there is a place for others: they are tolerated, even if they are looked upon with condescension. The Christian motto ”All men are brothers,” however, also means that those who do not accept brotherhood are not men.

My reflection at this stage does not concern the questions whether this is a legitimate interpretation of Paul, but rather the quote serve to open up questions concerning evangelical universalism.

A distinctive marker of Christianity is the ways in which it created categories for interpreting the act of entering into the faith community which opened up this faith community to all, regardless of culture or background. Obviously Paul’s thoughts was important in this process. I usually describe this to my confirmation classes by saying that the crime that the followers of Jesus, those called Christians, committed against the Jews was to open up the Jewish faith to everyone – they made it too easy to become a Jew. Gone where the days of circumcision, which made it literally painful to become a member once you were an adult (and obviously opened up possibilities for woman to become part of the faith community).

Again similar categories were created within the protestant Reformation, sola gratia, sola fidei. But again the critique from Zizek is applicable, because if membership is sola gratia, but the sola fidei is still a prerequisite, it puts a question mark either on the choice of faith, or on the non-believer. Either you don’t have a choice, or else you’re choice against that which is assumed is open to everyone open possibilities for the most brutal forms of exclusion (and the history of the church is ample examples of this).

However, this is not the only interpretations possible. In an article titled How my mind has changed. Mission and the alternative community*, David Bosch describes his own project from the years 1972-1982 as

What I have attempted to do— not very successfully, I am afraid, judging by the reaction, particularly in the Afrikaans Reformed Churches! — was to build on and develop further the intrinsic similarities that I believe exist between Reformed and Anabaptist ecclesiologies.

He unpacks this by explaining that

The more identifiably separate and unique the church is as a community of believers (Anabaptism) the greater significance it has for the world (Calvinism).

Whether this is what Bosch intended or not, I’m not yet completely sure about, but on a very simplistic level this assumes that church and world can never become the same, that the church should always be but a part of a broader community, and not identifiable as the community**, always smaller than the community, smaller than the world. The experimental garden. The place where things are possible which would not be considered in the world.

How then is this significance for the world to manifest when this community is truly unique?

I suggest that we need a deeper exploration of the idea of public dialogue.

If our own place is understood as part of a broader dialogue, and our contribution to the world and transformation of the world (mission) is found in our uniqueness, it opens up possibilities that this world can contain a place for others. Exactly as a Christian, I can create an openness which recognize the voices of others within this public dialogue, contributing to the positive evolution of society. However, I do this only from a position of faith, of a firm conviction that also the way of the church, in its uniqueness, has significance for the world.

Maybe, in this post-secular world, this could even be done without condescension. Not only could we recognize that certain distinctly different worldviews are siblings of our own (be it the monotheistic faiths, or secularism), but the growing recognition of the important role which for example eastern religions need to play in our time (think of conversations on ecology) also open up the idea of a dialogue where the other need not be defeated, but where uniquely different views are needed in the ongoing dialogue concerning what Christians would call the kingdom of God (that which is the dream of how things could be in this world).

And the church then? Well, we would need to discover and live our distinctness as the community which over the past 2000 years reflected on the tradition which grew out of the life and words of Jesus. For the sake of society we need to contribute from our uniqueness as church.

* Bosch, D. J. 1982. “How my mind has changed: Mission and the alternative community”, in Journal of Theology for Southern Africa. 41 (December), pp. 6–10.

** My guess is that chapter 13 of Transforming Mission, and the 1993 chapter in The Good News of the Kingdom: MissionTheology in the Third Millennium titled God’s Reigh and the Rulers of this World both open up the possibility that different church traditions might be appropriate at different times and places. This might open up the possibility of interpreting Bosch in such a way that at times a complete identification between church and community is possible, but as a rule I believe you don’t find this idea in Bosch.

Although this is not some amazing theological insight, over the past months I’ve been reflecting on the church more and more as the community of those who continues the work of Jesus. The church is the resurrected community, which exists as embodiment of that which we confess to be God incarnate. But the metaphor is now stretching me into places which I didn’t expect.

We like to think of the church as the resurrected community, maybe keeping pictures of the triumphant Christ that is carrying the banner of victory while the whole evil world lies slain somewhere in the back of our minds. But what about the crucified church? Is the church not to become the crucified community for every generation?

When people stop by with the question: “did Jesus have to be crucified?”, I answer with a “yes”. But this yes can imply two things, and it is the second which I have in mind when I say yes. It can mean “yes” in the determinist way, thus saying that God had the whole life of Jesus planned out, and it ended with the cross, and thus God was the one hammering in the nails, God was Pilate condemning Jesus to be crucified, God was the Jewish leaders conspiring against Jesus, and God was the crowd shouting “crucify him”, because that is what “had to” happen, because “God planned it so”.

But what about this second option: Yes, Jesus had to be crucified, because when the source of all that is good enters this world, then crucifixion is the only option. The powers that be will always crucify the one who embodies that which Jesus embodied. So yes, it couldn’t have ended in any other way. The cross was the only way onto salvation.

But what then about the church? If the church is the be the resurrected body of Christ, the continuation of that which Jesus started, would than not imply crucifixion? Not in the martyr sense where I become the hero who “gave the finger to the man”, but simply facing the reality that where goodness is presented in the face of power, crucifixion is the only option.

I believe in the church crucified. Maybe that will be the church which stand silent in front of those who ask: “are you proclaiming the kingdom of God”, but the church who in its entire makeup shouts against those who misuse power. I believe in that church. The church crucified.

 

In the denomination I am part of, the situation concerning the debate over the Bible isn’t that different from what I belief exist in other places in the world. Within a popular environment “faith” is associated with a “high view of scripture” and a rejection of critical scholarship on the Bible. On the other hand “doubt” is associated with a “low view of scripture” and asking critical questions of the Bible.

There is however an obvious problem with this popular unpacking of two seemingly opposing views on the Bible. Wouldn’t true faith in the authority of scripture welcome loosening scripture from its parental ties of “divine inspiration”, stating that the ideas and arguments in the Bible, if taken seriously, can stand their own ground among the great literary, philosophical and religious traditions of history. And wouldn’t doubt in the authority of scripture require us to be all the more serious about its “divine inspiration”?

At this point criticism of the previous paragraph should point to the possibility of at least two other options (possibly more): That of critical engagement of the Bible with the exact purpose of pointing to the fact that it cannot stand it’s ground among the great literary, philosophical and religious traditions of history, and that of the faithful who critically engage the Bible in order to point to its divine inspiration. Both of these are self-refuting: Why even continue critical engagement with a text which cannot stand the text of time, and why even engage in proving divine inspiration to those who already believe in this inspiration (with this I need to mention that I believe that most modern-day apologetics are aimed at strengthening the faith of believers, not at converting the non-believers. If this were not true, why is it that conservative apologetics (all apologetics?) are mostly found in Christian bookshops and shelves?).

And is these last two examples not reactions against their opposites, rather than the natural result of their allies from the second paragraph? Critical engagement with the Bible with the sole purpose of pointing to its irrelevance, if continued indefinitely, is not really a continuation of the critical engagement with an authoritative and important text (in this context on the exact same level as other authoritative and important texts), but is a continued attempt to ridicule those who believe in divine inspiration. And Christian apologetics, if continued indefinitely, is not really a continuation of faithful belief in the divinely inspired text, but is a continued attempt at reacting against the criticism of academic study of the Bible.

These two then becomes the preached who preaches from the Bible against the usefulness of the Bible in modern society, or the academic which use the tools of the academy to point to the divine inspiration of the Bible, and to the fact that all we need is the Bible (but in both these acts the very acts in which is being participated argues against the statement being made).

I think a case can be made for those who doubt in the ability of the Bible as important text to stand its ground, and therefore remain true literalists, not attempting to explain the text against any background, and not taking random verses and sticking them together. Simply taking the text, the whole text, and nothing but the text as the Word of God (although I question whether such a position of radical doubt in the text and absolute faith in God who wrote the text is possible in our modern society).

Therefore I propose that we take the position of the absolute faithful. Putting the text out there on the marketplace, in the classroom. Opening it up for every possible criticism, for every literary and philosophical reading possible. This is faith. Facing the possibility that in this act you might be proven to be mistaken, but nonetheless acting out of your conviction. Only this act of radical criticism can be an act of radical faith in this modern society. And only through this can we find a text which has something to say for politics, philosophy, economics and spirituality.

I find the expectations we have of youth in our congregations more and more interesting. In a congregation where the average member will attend church every second Sunday or so, the expectation remain that our youth should attend church, Sunday School, as well as one more “youth event” during the week. Add to this some Christian youth group at school during a break. Yet, we continue to bemoan the fact that their is a “crisis with our youth” on the one hand, and talking about how the next generation will transform the church or Christianity or moral life (I pointed to some example concerning gospel music and the reference to “‘n Nuwe Generasie” (Afrikaans) as well as youth and racial issues)

Maybe these are connected: our continued enforcement of religious activities on youth at a rate which few members of our congregations are willing or able to keep up with, as well as the continued insistence that the “next generation” will be the ones making all the difference. But this always remind me of that scene from Keeping the Faith where Brian and Jacob tells each other that Catholics and Jews want their Priests and Rabbi’s to be the Catholics and Jews that they could never be. Is this what we are doing with our children? Requiring them to be the Christians that we could never be? Asking of them to build the church that we could never build? If it is, then maybe we are using our youth to mediate salvation to us. If we can say that although we couldn’t do something (get over our racism, go to church 4 times a week, or whatever), as least we could create a next generation that could do this, then their might be some experience of salvation to be found in that. Youth then become Priests, where they perform some “sacrament” on our behalf, or at least provide the promise of performing on our behalf sometime in the future.

At the same time their are limits to what we would find acceptable in their act of taking Christian life to a deeper commitment. If, for example, this would mean that they become a voice of critique against the church that we have sold out (be it to ideologies of race, consumerism, private religion), but critique which not simply chastise us for our sins in a way we would expect of something like a medieval purgatory (thus providing some pain, and afterwards eternal pleasure), but rather in a way which would portray our deep betrayal of the vision of Jesus, or which would require us to actually change the way live life, challenge that which we never even think about (thus becoming a form of critique of ideology), I think our reactions would be somewhat different. No longer are they the Christians that we could never be, but suddenly they become idealistic and rebellious. When they become prophets rather than priests, when they call for change, rather than mediate salvation to us who didn’t change, then I wonder whether we would still talk about the wonders of the “next generation”.

The two are similar in the sense that we assume that a next generation would be closer to where we should be (if nothing else, at least a sign of hope, a form of eschatology in a sense, where the future calls us closer to some divinely inspired hope of what we might become), but where the first seek to strictly guide youth into becoming the Christians that we could never be, the second would require us to change ourselves, to open up spaces where we can be changes by the radical critique which a next generation always carry into the conversation (if we allow them).

I use the plural “we” to in a way write from the perspective of congregations as I experience them, also because I’m not so sure I’m not guilty of what I describe.

In a brilliant paper analyzing research in the behavioral sciences titled The Weirdest People in the World? (HAT-TIP to Richard Beck) it is pointed out that

(A) recent analysis of the top journals in six sub‐disciplines of Psychology from 2003‐2007 revealed that 68% of subjects came from the US, and a full 96% of subjects were from Western industrialized countries

Furthermore

In the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, the premier journal in social psychology—the sub‐discipline of psychology that should (arguably) be the most attentive to questions about the subjects’ backgrounds—67% of the American samples (and 80% of the samples from other countries) were composed solely of undergraduates in psychology courses. In other words, a randomly selected American undergraduate is more than 4000 times more likely to be a research participant than is a randomly selected person from outside of the West.

This group is called WEIRD (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich and Democratic) because, not only do they point out that not all studies on this group can be universalized, but in comparative research it would seem that this group generally lie on the extreme many different aspects which research has been done on. You can find many examples in the paper.

In a growing conversation over the past years many of us have become skeptical of the easy way in which we buy into American church models and ideas. Think about our models for youth ministry, mega-churches, emerging churches etc. Think about all the times George Barna statistics is quoted, usually with a disclaimer such as “we know that this is America, but we are only a few years behind them”.

Although this article doesn’t talk about church, it does raise the suspicion concerning the effectiveness of American church models even further. It compares Westerners to non-Westerners, only to find that Westerners are somewhat weird in the world, being the extreme in different aspects of their being, and not the universal example. The Americans are compared to the rest of the Western world, just to find that in many respects Americans are the extreme with the Western world. Other comparisons are also made, and some things which do seem to be universal is also pointed out.

Reggie has been pushing me on this point over the past years, and I’m more convinced than ever that he is correct: We need to do local research on church, society and theology. This do not mean we ignore American research, we can learn a lot from the vast amount of research that is being done in America. But the findings cannot be assumed to be true for our own context. Furthermore I would suggest that it would be almost impossible to engage American dialogue partners whom are unable to recognize the contextuality of their own approaches to church and theology (and sadly many of the American books on the shelves of our Christian bookshops, and speakers we fly in to “teach” us do not seem to have the necessary skills to recognize this, although they might mention “this is how it work in my context” a few times when talking).

If their is truth in the study in behavioral sciences, and if the behavior of a group influence the forms of church which gets created (not such a far-out assumption to make), then many of the typically American models of church created speak not only to a context which is different from the context in which I need to work, but are born from a context and speak to a context which is really on the extreme of society in the world. This might be the last place where we should look to if we were to find universal ideas on church.

This is not a total rejection of American diologue partners. I have learned a lot from American voices, but just a call that we listen to Americans as Americans. A country somewhere out there which seem to be quite strange when compared to the rest of the world. I am from South Africa, and this country is also quite strange when compared to the rest of the world. So let’s find ways of engaging our own strangeness.

Are you a teacher, parent, youth mentore? Watch this TED talk. Yes go on, watch it now:

You can download it from here.

We struggle with youth ministry. And I say this not because of all the youth who are leaving the church. I say this because when I look at young adults, I see people who have been drenched with theology which are really harmful, in my humble opinion. We’ve sent our kids to 11 years of Sunday school, and if you’re in a super congregation, 11 years of whichever other youth activities, sometimes amounting to 3 events a week, and after 11 years they are stuck with theology which are really harmful. And here we are, me and you, and probably we’ve been through this process as well.

I get my confirmation class last year, and they are somewhat terrified of challenging God. But then they dig into Genesis since they have to make a sermon from it, they struggle with the narrative of Jacob fighting the man and then being told that he has fought with God (Gen 32). The theme of there sermon by the end of the year was that people may challenge God and ask God questions. And this isn’t some wild and wonderful insight. This is the tradition we’ve been in, but which we seem to be suppressing through the models we present to kids in youth ministry.

This year they get into the confirmation class, absolutely sure that God is on our side and not to be found with anyone whom ain’t a Christian. So we were reading 1 John 4. And we read it again. And we are still reading it, and then sharing what we see. And it’s challenging the popular theology that we were fed for so long in school openings, classrooms, CSA meetings, Sunday schools, and also church.

The task of youth ministry should then be to get youth to play, to fiddle, with God, or at least ideas about God, in such a way that they can grow up to have useful skills in doing theology in their daily lives – this meaning that they can bring the resources concerning God into conversation with that which face them in their lives.