Friday, January 31, 2014

Thanks, Atheists!

This post comes from colleague Linda Thurston originally posted on her blog January 24, 2014 you can find this and her other posts here

I recently read an obituary for a wonderful, faithful woman. It spoke of her love for her family and detailed her work with a variety of community organizations; it outlined her volunteer commitments and the career she made working on behalf of the disadvantaged. But for the mention of Vacation Bible School and other church commitments and the fact that her husband was a minister, however, a reader might never have guessed that her life of service derived from her faith in Jesus. There was no mention of God or Jesus anywhere in the obituary – not even a God-invoking euphemism for death or a mention of Jesus among the things that she loved.

This struck me because I’ve been thinking lately about how we Christians talk (or don’t talk) about God.

Perhaps you’ve heard about this new movement out of the UK called Sunday Assembly, which one of its founders described as, “all the best bits of church, but with no religion and awesome pop songs.”

As a recent NPR story put it, “There’s little God talk at Sunday Assembly.”

The movement’s website puts it this way: “The Sunday Assembly is a godless congregation that celebrate life. Our motto: live better, help often, wonder more. Our mission: to help everyone find and fulfill their full potential. Our vision: a godless congregation in every town, city and village that wants one.” 

The oxymoron-ish idea of a “godless congregation” and the photos of earnest non-worshippers, singing Rolling Stones tunes together hands in the air, make Sunday Assembly seem ripe for ridicule. News of a recent schism in the New York assembly will, no doubt, only increase the urge for parody among believers and non-believers alike. (See, it really is just like church!!)

 But I’m not interested in making fun of Sunday Assembly. Rather, I’d like to thank them for the opportunity to open some conversation about what it means to be church. You see, it seems like these atheists have a better understanding of what church is about than some church people I know.

One of the founders of Sunday Assembly started the movement because she wondered, “is it possible to have all the wonderful things that church does, like create community and help others and encourage thinking about the world, yourself and improvement, but without the God bit?”

 One commentator described what those attracted to the movement like about church – “”They miss the community, they miss the music, they miss the multi-generational coming together with people that you might not otherwise be hanging out with.”

 So often, when church people talk about why they go to church or what they love about their particular congregation, it is these things that they talk about – the music and the community and the opportunities to help others. At least in the Protestant mainline where I hang out, people seem much less likely to mention God or Jesus.

Now it could be that for many people church really is about all these other things more than “the God bit,” and perhaps these folks really would be just as happy at a Sunday Assembly as at their local Christian church. But it could also be that we leaders of the church haven’t done a very good job with the God-talk – both talking the talk ourselves and teaching and equipping people in our congregations to talk it.

When we don’t do the God-talk, to the outside world many of our congregations seem indistinguishable from other local community organizations that help people “live better, help often, or wonder more.” How is the church different from the Kiwanis or the Girl Scouts or even a health club that collects toys for impoverished kids at Christmas?

The folks at Sunday Assembly, at least, understand what makes church different from all these other organizations including their own. It’s not the ethical teaching; it’s not the service to our neighbors; it’s not the pastoral care; it’s not even the collective singing or the intergenerational fellowship (although these are harder and harder to find in our society). It’s the God-talk. Period.

While sometimes the problem may be that we’re simply lacking any God-talk at all, sometimes the problem is that the God-talk in various congregations doesn’t sound like very good news. Our God-talk should be the “best bit about church,” the most “wonderful thing that church does.” 

 The church exists to proclaim the good news of God in Jesus Christ, to “preach the damn Gospel” in the immortal words of Dr. Timothy Wengert, to tell people that God knows them and loves them anyway, that they are beloved children of God, created with meaning and purpose and called to help do God’s work in the world.

This is what makes us distinctive. This is what we have to offer the world. When our singing and our potlucks and our good deeds overshadow our God-talk, then we stop being the church and just become one more Sunday Assembly. So thanks, atheists and other non-believers for this important reminder of what makes the church the church.

Thursday, January 30, 2014

How do We Talk About Jesus and the Cross?

Who do we really promote? 

The theme of one of Albert Schweitzer's most famous works of theology was that portraits of the historical Jesus often revealed more about the author than they really did about Jesus.   Often how we talk about about Jesus in our congregations may in fact do the exact same thing.    There are many images of Jesus in the New Testament,  there are many more words used to describe him,  there are even more when one takes into account hymns, prayers. and even motion pictures that have been compiled in the time since the writers of the New Testament left us their own witness to Jesus.   The ways to describe Jesus are so rich and varied that we inevitably make choices about which words and images we use to describe him.   What I am asking you to consider is, are you intentional about the choices you make to communicate Jesus to others?   If not, how do you know whom you are really promoting?    He may be named Jesus, but is the person we are describing  simply be the reflection of our own biases and preferences, rather than who he really is? How do avoid falling into this trap?  


In my experience, the first part of the way to avoid the pitfalls is to make sure we are always focused on the cross and resurrection.   This time of year I often dust off my old copy of Gustav Aulen's Chritus Victor (Macmillan: NY, 1951), which deals with the very question of how do we talk about the work of God in Jesus Christ.  The ideas below are all his,  I will try to show how these affect our witness today.   Aulen looks at how people have described God's work through the cross in history.  He charts three main threads of speaking about the work of Christ. The term we use for this effort is the Atonement, which specifically deals with how Christ has resolved the problem of human sin through the action of the cross. Please know that faithful Christians hold each of these views;  they may sometimes hold all three simultaneously.  So while I have my own preference, I will try to treat each with respect, because all have their roots in Scripture and the experiences of the faithful.

Pleasing an Angry God

The view of the Atonement that may be most prevalent in many American churches both Evangelical and Catholic focuses on the idea that because humans have sinned they must make amends.  The strength of this view is it's condemnation of evil and commitment to setting things right.   The scales of justice must balance out.  Since we are so sinful, we need a perfect person to take our place to satisfy God, otherwise we are subject to God's wrath.  Jesus because of his perfection, has an infinite amount of extra credit built built up, which he gives to sinners to rescue them from the judgement of God.   The sinless human Jesus satisfied God's need for Justice.  Catholics access Jesus' extra credit through penitential rites, Protestants through accepting Jesus into their heart and having strong faith thereafter.

A version of this view particularly popular in the United States is known as penal substitution theory.   We deserved the punishment, Jesus takes our place, we get off scot-free.  This view has its biblical roots in the sacrificial system described in the Hebrew Scriptures and in the book of Hebrews in the New Testament.   This view is commonly known in theological circles as the "objective" view of the Atonement.   God is the object of the sacrifice of the cross.  This view was developed in the middle ages and became the basis for the medieval church to sell indulgences, which were basically notes of moral credit accumulated by Christ and some really good people who somehow had a positive balance.   The medieval church, through a narrow interpretation of Jesus' words to Peter about the keys of the kingdom, believed that they had the power to issue these divine bank notes to get folk into heaven.    This led to the Reformation which realized that this was a corruption of the original intent of the Gospel.

In Christians today I see this view played out in a number of ways.   One way is that is that when bad things happen they beat themselves up and say "If only I believed more, God would not have sent me all this hardship."   Prosperity and Self-Help preachers will describe struggles such as a loss of a job, depression, natural disasters as a result loss of faith. The argument goes, we are just getting our deserved punishment for being sinners; what do we have to complain about?  It places the focus of the cross exclusively upon the individual sinner.  Another weakness of this view is that it sets up a duality between Jesus and God the Father.   It is the human Jesus alone who is able to atone for us in this view, so it also devalues the gift of the incarnation.  Finally it may distort our picture of God, setting up a distant, angry, and scary god (lack of capitalization intentional).

Fixing the Broken Person 

There have always been Christians who have been uncomfortable in speaking about the work of Jesus in the terms mentioned above.   They saw the weaknesses of the "objective" view and argued that their fellow Christians had it all backwards.   God is the prime actor through the cross to heal and restore people.   This view is known as the "subjective" view, because God is the subject who does the action and people are the objects of God's redeeming work.   This view began to rise to prominence during the enlightenment and reached it's zenith in the liberal theological movement of the nineteenth century.   God loves human beings so God will restore them through the sign of the cross.    God, in this view, at all times only acts benevolently and graciously.   The atonement therefore is not so much a work that does something, but a symbol of God's love for us.   The sacrifice of the cross gets us to recognize our need to make amends, we give our faith over to God, we are born again and then are healed.  There is much in the New Testament to justify this.  The strength of this view is that it does restore some of the focus back to God and the act of love on the cross.   It does not take God for granted and does guard against an entitlement mentality that can spring up in an un-reflective person with the objective view.

This view has been popular for many modern Christians.  It has some very enticing aspects.  We become the objects of God's love, evil is really explainable as an illness that can be corrected,  God is safe.   However the things that make this view attractive betray its weakness.   First, it does a poor job of dealing with the reality of evil.  Those who experience great evils like poverty, war, crime and abuse will find this explanation wanting.  Secondly, it feeds into our narcissism, it seems to communicate that God just has to love us.  This takes away God's free will and choice.  Finally, by reducing the cross to a mere symbol it proclaims the powerless god (lack of capitalization intentional).   Evil can not be assuaged by this god, people can only be persuaded to change.   It is therefore easy to see how this can lead one who holds this view into either despair or apathy.   It may soothe people in the short term, but once bad times come folks will see no need with the I'm OK, your'e OK vision of the subjective view of the Atonement.

The Good Story

Both the above ways of talking about the atonement can help Christians in their faith life in certain situations.   They both developed historically to help proclaim the Gospel to people of a particular place and time.   That the views have weaknesses should not betray that both views have much truth embedded in them.  God is committed to truth and justice,  God is loving, that love has been demonstrated by Jesus.   Luckily for us we do not have to choose between the subjective and objective views. We can choose what works in our situation to best be there for our Christian brothers and sisters, and thankfully there indeed is a third way.  It is the story of the Gospel itself which should keep us all grounded.

The Dramatic View

Aulen calls the final view the  "dramatic view" of the atonement.  Its focus is the Gospel itself brought home in its fullness with a powerful view of the biblical imagery in all its colors.   It is also called the "classic" view in that it was formulated during the classical period not long after the writing of the New Testament.   In this view the drama is this: people are captured and bound by sin, death, and the devil.   Sin as in the writings of Paul, is a power that binds us, corrupts us, and most importantly is beyond our control to remove without the work of God.    God sends Jesus on a special ops infiltration raid to rescue God's children from their prison to the three demonic powers mentioned above.   (Luther, who also held this view speaks of God deceiving or tricking the devil).   In this view, the cross sets off an explosion that establishes a complete new reality.   The temple curtain torn in two,  graves opened (in Matthew) earthquakes, black skies etc.   In this view all the Biblical actions of God in the Gospel demonstrate their remarkable consistency.  God sends Jesus as a human in the incarnation to deal with sin death and the devil,  God defeats these on the cross (atonement),  and finally God validates the redeemed by inviting them into a new freedom in life in communion with Jesus Christ (justification).   God is loving, but also does not tolerate evil.    Sin and evil are real powers that can hurt both morally pure and impure alike, but are never insurmountable by God.   God is sovereign, powerful, and cosmic in this view, not limited to dealing with only personal concerns.   This view has always been with us and has been promoted by many of the giants of the faith,  Luther, Bonhoeffer, Barth etc.

The rise of the other two views happened because people sought to explain in rational terms how the cross worked.   So in the other two views the most vivid imagery of the Bible is often discarded because it can't be explained.  It may even be that in trying to explain Biblical imagery, people were led to see things they really did not want to see.  This is because these remind us of our own powerlessness in confronting sin, death and evil when they plague our world.    The truth is that Jesus is God,  God is bigger than our words.  All our efforts to explain what God does will always be incomplete.   That is why I like the idea of accessing the truth of God's action through the Story.   Everyone loves a good story,  no matter your theological persuasion,  your world-view, or your politics you can be moved by the Story of the Gospel to a new reality. We love stories because they usually work better in communicating deep truths than our efforts at explanation.   Jesus taught us this himself as he used stories to teach about God's kingdom.    Looking at the they way speak about Jesus, and critically examining how if our description may coincide, or deviate from the story will be helpful in our calling to be humble disciples.  So to be intentional about speaking about Jesus, and to avoid the problem that we might only be promoting ourselves, we will need to tend to the story of the Gospel and let it speak.