The Taser's Edge

Tuesday Reading Roundup, Week 5

Sometimes I find myself planning out blog posts just for the sake of blog posts.  For instance, this afternoon I thought about posting a couple short essays I wrote for Happiness, the Life of Virtue, and Friendship.  Then I realized, “No, that would be boring.”  So I spared you.  Yes, you’re welcome.

1. Planting Missional Churches by Ed Stetzer–You already know some about this book if you read my posts about it last week.  What has been great about reading it is that my imagination has never been fired by the idea of church-planting.  Now it is.  I’m finding that I do find a lot of the ideas exciting and that my imagination has some room to run around in them.  The question in my context now: Why liturgical Anglican churches?  Can such churches truly meet unmet needs in communities in the US?  Again and again, this book points me to the need for a robust ecclesiology (theology of the church) as a prerequisite for church-planting.  I think Stetzer falls short (and I think that’s because he’s Southern Baptist).  I’ll need to hit the books to develop that further.

2. Christians Among the Virtues by Stanley Hauerwas and Charles Pinches–A familiar favorite.  This week–reading about Aquinas.  This has been a really good read and a useful secondary resource.

3. Putting on Virtue by Jennifer A. Herdt–Again, a repeat.  Again, for the same class–Virtue, the Life of Happiness, and Friendship with Hauerwas.  It, too, is a secondary resource for this week’s reading of Aquinas, but I haven’t yet cracked it.

4. Treatise on the Virtues by St. Thomas Aquinas–The man himself arrives.  I’ll be reading this for the next two weeks.  Hopefully all this virtue stuff in my Hauerwas class will start making sense (and coming more directly from the primary sources, something which it has as yet failed to do).  I still remember how confused I was the first time I tried to read Aquinas, with absolutely no instruction as to his organizational method, in undergrad.  Derrida was an easier read.  Now somehow Aquinas doesn’t seem as difficult, at least once I get into the rhythms of his organization.  Of course, the fact that it is Tuesday night and I have yet to start reading probably bodes ill for my finishing the assigned portion for this week.

5. Deliverance by James Dickey–Famous poet writes lauded novel which is made into Burt Reynolds/Jon Voight film.  It’s always annoying to pick up movie tie-in edition paperbacks, but this is a new low–bare-chested Burt is never a good thing.  Four friends set out on a wilderness adventure in north Georgia.  Things go horribly, horribly wrong.

6.  Great Lent by Alexander Schmemann–Okay, so it’s a sham.  I’ll never start it, and I’ll always make it look like I read Orthodoxers.

7. Generation to Generation by Edwin H. Friedman–A modern classic on family systems (is there any other kind of classic on family systems theory?) within church and synagogue.  I’m told it’s good.  I’ll find out tomorrow before class.

And as for tonight?

1. Walk Pru.

2. Finish the rest of Stetzer’s book.

3. Quickly clean up some houseness.

4. Watch a yet-to-be-determined movie with Dave and possible more folks.

Reading Ed Stetzer (Part II of a Series)

There are things worthy of being critiqued in Planting Missional Churches by Ed Stetzer, it is true.  One of them is that it is written with certain assumptions undergirding everything.  I’m not sure if they are hidden assumptions, but I think they are not discussed because Stetzer’s presumptive audience holds the same assumptions.  But I think that my time at Duke has led me to question some of those assumptions, and there seems not to be a good way to do that.

When I brought up this idea of invisible assumptions of mainstream evangelicalism at lunch, the main one that I could think of, was the use of the Bible.  On p. 21 of Planting Missional Churches, Stetzer reproduces a graph called The Hughes Scale:

“Content” on the y-axis refers to Biblical content, “Culture” refers to cultural relevancy, and the ideal church would be in Quad B, with high Biblical content and fidelity as well as a high level of cultural relevancy.  The assumption behind “Content,” however, is not that the Bible is used in worship or even that Scripture is central to the formation of faith.  It is a very particular kind of Biblical hermeneutic (working def.–“way of reading”), one which I and other, smarter people have a difficult time defining.

The easy way out is for us to call it a “literal” reading of the Bible.  Unfortunately, this falls short.  At least some of the time when people are accused of reading a text too literally, the accuser actually doesn’t want to read the text in any way at all, and thus is not actually calling for a metaphorical, allegorical, spiritual, or any other kind of non-literal reading.  My offered description–“one-to-oneness.”  Contemporary evangelical Christianity has a high one-to-oneness in its reading of Scripture.  That is, an understanding that the Bible can be directly applied to contemporary lives in one-to-one relationships, and that the Biblical text and each individual Christian life overlap near perfectly.  High one-to-oneness unfortunately masks the very real gap between my life today and the lives in the Bible (and perhaps, moreover and more dangerously, the distance which always exists between my life and any other person’s life).

This type of reading masks the fact that there is always a need for translation when reading the Bible (or, again, interacting with any other person or thing).  We all do translate when we read the Bible, but some of us, especially us Protestants, believe that our Bible reading does not require translation.  We are wrong, and it is only when we begin to notice that we need some process of translation that we can begin talking about whether we can define what is a faithful translation and what fails to be.

Being Read by Ed Stetzer (Part I of a Series)

When I first ordered Ed Stetzer’s Planting Missional Churches from Amazon, I knew that I was going to need to work at keeping an open mind.  It’s not that Duke faculty have an anti-evangelical message (and here I am referring to the specifically United States religious and cultural phenomenon of evangelicalism with all the trappings that it connotes, not anything to do with the Gospel), but I think the student atmosphere breeds suspicion of all things evangelical and seemingly evangelical.

Fictitious hall chatter: “Lots of Christians bought that book?  Then you know it must be bad.  A bunch of people go to that church?  You know its pastor must be saying what they want to hear.  A bunch of Christians listen to that music?  Then they must have no taste, or else their theology is underdeveloped.”

(N.B.: I fear that this post makes it seem that I believe all Duke students are hateful, arrogant, and hypocritical.  They certainly aren’t.  They are kind, loving, passionate, talented, smart, and they care about living out Christ’s love in the world.  But sometimes our assumptions and our desires to be accepted, personally and intellectually, trip us up.  At least they trip me up.)

Then there are these facts: (1) I personally chose to distance myself from reading Christian books before I came to seminary because I didn’t like them, and (2) since entering seminary the Christian books which I have read have been in a decidedly academic vein.

I knew that I needed to prepare myself for reading this book, that I needed to cultivate open-mindedness and charity toward this book…and I failed miserably.  The first several chapters are littered (yes, just like trash beside the highway) with stupid, snarky (yes, I hate that word, too, but it’s accurate) comments in the margin.  Oh, Nick!, they say to myself, you’re so clever and you can pinpoint all the wrongs of this book.  Thank you for saving its words.  While you’re at it, would you mind saving the world?

This afternoon I went to Hog Heaven, a local BBQ place–the one on Guess Rd. if you know Durham–with some friends.  Everyone in the group has some connection to Duke–undergrad, Divinity School, a couple Ph.D. candidates in the Religion Department.  And we often seem to talk about evangelical (and here remember my specific definition is still in play) culture.  One of the guys is an American Christianity Ph.D. candidate, so that’s his research interest.  It’s also all of our personal interest from our personal lived experience, past and present.

The quote of the week was something to this effect: “Evangelicalism is defined by its aversion to nuance.”  I think that’s a modified version of somebody else’s quote, but I can’t remember whose.  Pretty dang pretentious out of context, at least.  Or perhaps just damned pretentious, in the original sense of the italicized word.  Not that it was really meant in any harsh way, because most of us around the table would self-identify as evangelicals.  Also, as I pointed out and as they agreed, evangelicalism is a popular movement, and all popular movements (along with everything else in this world including this statement) have an aversion to nuance.

I get caught up in the way things could and should be in the Church and in theology, the way things work so nicely on the page.  And it’s not that easy of a mindset to escape.  But sometimes there’s outside help.  You get smacked in the face by the fact that in Oneness Pentecostal churches (which hold heterodox views of the Trinity), people do have their lives transformed by the love of Jesus Christ.  And you get smacked in the face by the fact that Ed Stetzer, who is Southern Baptist (a denomination in which Duke students only hesitatingly admit their membership, and which Stetzer’s own dustjacket blurb seems purposely to omit) knows what he is talking about when it comes to planting new churches.  What can I say when disciples of Jesus Christ are being formed?  Yes, certainly there is room for critique of methods and of theology, as you will see in the next post.

But if it is in any way Christian critique, then it must be with love and, perhaps even moreso in this particular case, with humility.

Tuesday Reading Roundup, Week 4

My blog traffic has been abysmal these past few days, but my posts have been mostly cheating (videos and prayers–what?!), so I can’t blame anybody but myself.  At least there’s this beloved staple, which I can’t do without a bit of a personal touch.

1. Perspectives On Marriage edited by Kieran Scott and Michael Warren–For tomorrow’s class, I got to read about cohabitation vs. marriage.

  • First was a report on Cohabitation and Marriage by the National [US] Council of Catholic Bishops.  (You can probably guess that on the topic of cohabitation, they’re agin’ it.)
  • Then we moved onto an article by Kieran Scott, “Cohabitation and Marriage as a Life-Process,” in which he describes a history of Christian marriage.  Although his history is abit fuzzy (no real solid dates, for instance) sex after betrothal and before marriage was commonplace and expected in other eras.  He goes on to argue that the current system–no sex before marriage and then flip the sex-is-okay-now switch at the wedding ceremony–is too abrupt of a process.  I would say that he’s right on that count.  I’m just skeptical about his idea of reinstating betrothal today.
  • A couple other articles that I’ll skip over…
  • And finally “Sex, Time, and Meaning: A Theology of Dating” by Jason King and Donna Freitas, in which the authors lament the state of a theology of Christian dating.  They are right that evangelical Christians have a sorry track record.  I can attest to that from the late 90s and early 2000s.  But as much as I hate the mentality of I Kissed Dating Goodbye and others, I think these authors are overly harsh in their reading, to point of distorting those books’ views.  And honestly, I didn’t know it was possible to be too hard on them.

2. Planting Missional Churches by Ed Stetzer–Confusingly, this is the second edition of a book by a different title, Planting New Churches in a Postmodern Age.  I’m not sure what to think about the significance of the fact that this book is listed in many places as basically The Bible of Church Planting, yet Duke Divinity Library has no books at all by the author.  Is that a judgment of the validity of his work?  Or are new churches totally uninteresting to the Christian academy?  Or might the faculty of Duke Divinity and its library have no knowledge of church planting literature?  Let me know if you can think of other possibilities.  At any rate, I have to read it for this month’s Anglican Missional Pastor meeting, Friday next.  (I flipped Friday and next because it’s Anglican, you know.)  I’m hoping that my well-tuned critical unit can keep it down a little bit.

3. Becoming Married by Herbert Anderson and Robert Cotton FiteFor Duke CPE, I already read one book by Anderson, entitled All Our Losses, All Our Griefs.  Despite the cheesy titles of pastoral care literature, it’s really amazing stuff, and I feel entirely illiterate in the area, after five semesters at a top-tier divinity school.  (Perhaps the problem is that I went to a top-tier divinity school.)  But, to the point, this book is awesome.  The title refers to the fact that “becoming married” is a long-term process, not just a ceremony.  All kinds of family systems theory and psychology, which is incredibly helpful, although thus far lacking in theological insight.  One thing that is distinctive is that the authors insist that the personality inventories which are so common in Christian premarital counseling (and beyond?) are very limited in their usefulness.  While such inventories can pick up major incompatibility and personality issues, they fall short, because people entering marriage are often still growing as human beings and certainly in relationship to each other.  More helpful, insist Anderson and Fite, is a genogram, basically an in-depth family tree.  When we can see and discuss our family backgrounds, we can begin to talk better about what the new family will look like.   All this genogram talk makes me want to blog about it, but until then, see what Wikipedia has to say about it.

4. Christians Among the Virtues: Theological Conversations with Ancient and Modern Ethics by Stanley Hauerwas and Charles Pinches–Honestly, the readings I am doing this week were due two and three weeks ago, but I find myself, for the first time ever, having a bit of time to go back and catch up on the stuff I missed.  Huzzah!

5. Great Lent: Journey to Pascha by Alexander Schmemann–Discerning readers may notice that this first appeared two weeks ago, and then disappeared for last week.  That’s because I have yet to start it.  But Lent is also yet to start, so I’m safe.  The problem may be that I have nowhere in my schedule to read this.  As interested as I now seem to be in theology and such, I still can’t see this as “fun reading.”  Probably that’s a good thing.  I’m fine with being odd, but maybe I’ll hold off on that kind of odd.