The Taser's Edge

Christianity Beyond Belief: Following Jesus for the Sake of Others by Todd Hunter (and Ramblings for the Sake of Something by Me)

Christianity Beyond Belief: Following Jesus for the Sake of Others
by Todd Hunter (IVP, 2009)

After reading Tim Keller’s Generous Justice (reviewed here yesterday), my faith was restored that there might be some great books and authors I am missing because I often pass over books of ‘popular’ Christian theology.  Unfortunately, this is not one of those great books, and Hunter presents basically nothing new here.

It may be that I don’t hear what Hunter is saying because he’s not talking to me.  I don’t particularly need to be told that salvation needs to matter for this life, not just the next.  I already know that the church matters, and that personal salvation is only part of the picture.  I don’t need to be told that choosing community with one another furthers God’s purposes in the world.  And that’s about all Hunter has to say (although his Three-Is-Enough strategy can certainly do a lot of good, even as I prefer the larger small group format because it insures that you’ll be in close relationship with someone you don’t naturally get along with, which is the basic human piece of becoming a saint).

As for the subtitle, “Following Jesus for the Sake of Others,” I love the idea, but I hate the terminology.  The idea is that the church exists to bless people and the world by living into God’s call and the Spirit’s empowering to love our neighbors.  The terminology, however, (and I know it’s unintentional, but I personally am having a hard time getting past it) makes it sound that the church exists for ‘Them’ as opposed to ‘Me’ or ‘Us,’ and I just don’t believe Christians need an Us and a Them in our evangelism or in our love for the neighbor.

I’ve heard Hunter make the comment a couple of times (both in this book and then in a great lecture from the recent Anglican 1000 summit podcasts, available on iTunes now) that folks my age (and I think he’s definitely talking about me) are uncomfortable with evangelism.  There’s a generation gap between his understanding (and plenty of middle-aged evangelicals) and mine of what evangelism means or should mean.  His question to us in our discomfort with evangelism is this: “What if no one had shared the Gospel with you?”  And he’s totally right.  We have every reason to need to share the Gospel, from God’s love growing in us, to various words of Jesus and other Scriptural prescriptions, to the answer to his very practical question.

However, he misses my personal discomfort.  Often, the call to personal evangelism is presented as the call to make friends in order to lead them to Christ, many times explicitly in those terms.  My discomfort here is that rather than loving the neighbor, this often (although part of me wonders if that is necessarily or not) becomes using the neighbor.  If you actually become honest in that relationship, what of that uncomfortable conversation, “Wait…so you’re telling me you befriended me because you thought I was lost, thought that you had what I needed, and so you became my friend specifically so you could change me?!”

—The review now trails off, and a rambling meditation on evangelism begins (for more on Hunter, do check out his name on iTunes and check out those podcasts from Anglican 1000—

It gets worse.  I’ve met Christians who are embarrassed to admit that they have engaged in ‘evangelistic dating.’  Yes, choosing to date someone so that you can develop intimacy in order to share Jesus with them.  In praise of the one or two folks I’ve known who have done this (who did it years and years ago), they truly see it as something both totally misguided and even as needing to be confessed as a failure and sin against their neighbor, and they were dumb and young at the time.

[Note: This would be a brilliant plot for a painful-to-watch romantic comedy.  That scene of planning who to date, because that hot guy has a large ‘sphere of influence’ as captain of the basketball team, or that girl has good grades and therefore could be a great Christian lawyer or Christian doctor some day.  Another scene would have a group of ‘dating missionaries’ meeting to pray and discuss their progress.  And of course, there would be the actual falling in love, finding that the ‘missionary’ has something to learn about love from the target of their efforts, the truth coming out, the breakup in the rain after prom, then hope of reconciliation but a purposely ambiguous ending where both people know they are changed by the experience but don’t know if they can ever really date each other again.  If you steal this idea for your screenplay, just don’t add a baloney piece of all religions being basically the same or whatever, and don’t sell your script to anyone who will add that in.  But feel free to say that people can still love each other and disagree on religion.]

As for relational evangelism (which is jargon used to describe any sort of friend-ish way of relating to people and eventually moving to share the message of the Gospel with them), the term should be considered ridiculously redundant.  Yes, please talk to someone about the transforming power of Love incarnate, crucified, raised, and inviting us to join in the life of Love, and just try it without relationship.

We are called by Christ to love God and neighbor.  So maybe we should start there.  Love…and see what happens.  Love…and experience what God has.  No, it doesn’t mean that you never talk about your faith because you don’t want to offend, but it does mean that you don’t make a friend in order to convert them.  This is a matter of discernment (contemplation and conversation with people and with the Scriptures) and action.

The rule of thumb is that the loves of your life will come up in conversation with the people with whom you are in relationship.  If Christ is the love of your life (and I hope he is daily becoming more so), then Christ will come up.

If you are in a friendship that is fairly deep (i.e., not brand new), and you can’t talk about the meaning of your life (in diverse and developing ways), then that friendship has problems (not death-of-relationship-problems but problems nonetheless).  If you are a Christian and you can narrate that ‘meaning of your life’ without reference to Christ, then there is a problem (which may be a problem with the life being narrated or may be a problem with the narration).  Even getting beyond ‘meaning of your life’, when we are in relationship with people, we talk about things that we think matter.

Now put all those pieces together–if you are growing in love and relationship with someone, and you believe that having met the person and reality of Jesus Christ and the Father through the Holy Spirit has changed your life, you will talk about it.  And when you do, you will be evangelizing.  The words of the evangelist to her friend are not “This is what you need even though I don’t know your needs.”  They are, “Here is The Good News of God as I understand it to be a transformational reality in this small life I have, a life in which you are a cherished piece.”

Or something to that effect.

Creating Christian Community and Naming the American Lie

This post is meant to be read after “Tasty, Tasty, Stanley-flavored Kool-Aid.”

Last night I traveled up to Roanoke, VA to visit Church of the Holy Spirit, an Anglican Mission in America congregation.  Actually, there are now three churches, the original Church of the Holy Spirit and two churches that it has planted in the surrounding area.

It was the first meeting of the new year for Anglican Missional Pastor, the clunkily named (hard to see that on a resume) program I’m doing to train to be a pastor within the AMiA.  It was a wonderful discussion about all kinds of stuff having to do with church planting and church leadership, encouraging rather than a bunch of technical stuff.  Eventually, one of the questions we asked was basically, “Can we name some basic human needs that our churches try to meet, no matter what the variables of a given setting?”  There are many answers to that question: hope, community, belonging, to be known, to be accepted, to be understood, to love and be loved.

Stanley Hauerwas has a catchy slogan depicting his reading of the claims of modernity: “You should have no story but the story you chose when you had no story.”  Although his wording is facetious, it is also true.  Think of the promises of America: you can be whatever you want to be, you can do whatever you want to do (provided it doesn’t harm anyone else), your political beliefs are your own and you alone formed them, your philosophical beliefs are your own and you alone formed them, your religious beliefs are your own and you alone chose them, your mind is your own, your body is your own, your identity is your own.  Your personal story started with you, has been defined by you, and only those influences which you choose (bad influences being able to be ameliorated by counseling) will affect you.

If you think this is an overstatement, look at the promise of Barack Obama: grows up in poverty, the child of a Kenyan, raised by a single mother, becomes the first black president.  It is a lie to say that any child in America has the same potential.  I have only to talk to my wife and her fellow public school teachers about their students’ performance on End-of-Course testing (North Carolina’s way of doing their part for No Child Left Behind) and I know that it is a lie to say that, in America, any child has the potential to be president.  (I want it to be clear, however, that I do believe that every one of those children has the potential to do great things, but for most of them, their greatness will not be one chosen from among a stack of possibilities, but one highly determined by the circumstances of their lives, circumstances which were far beyond their control.)

Once again, I’m far afield.  This post is supposed to be connecting the post on postliberalism to my AMP day today.  Here’s the connection.  As I mentioned in this week’s Tuesday Reading Roundup, I have been reading Bryan Stone’s Evangelism After Christendom, which brings many of the ideas of postliberalism to bear on Christian evangelism.  One very strong part of postliberalism is a focus on narrative-formed communities.  Each community has its own story, and the members of that community are not discrete beings.  Rather their identities are dependent on one another (intersubjective) and upon the story and tradition of their community.  Communities are particular because they and their members are formed by particular stories and traditions.  One of these communities is the Church and its story is the Gospel.  Certainly this idea can be relativistic–many communities, none better than another–but Bryan Stone claims it doesn’t have to go that far necessarily (as does Alasdair MacIntyre, on whose work much of narrative theology is based).

“Can we name some basic human needs that our churches try to meet, no matter what the variables of a given setting?”  People long for community, because although we are told that we can decide who we want to become, our identities are intertwined with each other.  This is not just a collective consciousness as a species (although I don’t necessarily have a problem saying that it may also be that), but it is more importantly about our collective identity as children of God.

Deep inside, we still know that we are connected to one another, that the divisions between us are wrong and somehow artificial (even though they go very deep), and that we are not separate islands unto ourselves.  No matter how loudly and often we are told that we can be whomever we choose to be, we know that our selves are not wholly determined by our choices or ourselves.  The Church has something to offer, because it is a place which (at its best and truest) affirms that voice within us and says to us, “Yes, you are connected to everyone else and also to something greater than you can voice or name, you are not alone, you were created to be loved and not to be abused.  Here is a community in which you are invited to experience and to have your identity be shaped by love, joy, peace, companionship (a word literally meaning ‘sharing bread’), and hope.”

Believe it or not, throughout history, there have always been some quarters of Christianity (a remnant, if you will) which actually work like that, and there are churches where it happens today.

Tuesday Reading Roundup

It’s that time again (for the first time)–the Tuesday Reading Roundup!  It seems like regular features could be a good thing, so I’ll invent this one, in which I’ll tell what I’m reading of a Tuesday (and the week to come), providing impressions and reviews along the way.

1. Nicomachean Ethics by Aristotle–Much easier to follow then my memories of Aristotle.  (I remember having to read a section of Poetics my junior year at Concordia, and I got basically nothing out of it.)  This time I have to read all but the fifth book for Virtue, Happiness, and the Life of Virtue, a class I’m taking this semester with Stanley Hauerwas.  Such an intensely focused way of thinking through things and of organizing thought.  Reading it through the particular lense of Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue, as Hauerwas is wont to do.  30% completed.

2. The Bean Trees by Barbara Kingsolver–Although her last book (and perhaps her most well-known to many of that book’s fans) was the non-fiction Animal, Vegetable, Mineral, Kingsolver is really a novelist.  This is her first novel, from 1988.  Solidly southern lit, strong female characters, immigration issues.  The story, the characters, and the warmth of Kingsolver’s writing make this book very enjoyable.  Her writing, at a technical level, is very good, but she doesn’t work at the sentence-by-sentence method of many other writers who perhaps write more finely, but could never come up with characters and a narrative so compelling.  A fast, light read too, if that’s what you find yourself needing.  85% completed.

3. Evangelism After Christendom by Bryan Stone–Bryan Stone is a professor of evangelism at Boston University School of Theology and this book looks at evangelism as a Christian practice, in the MacIntyrean/Hauerwasian sense of the word practice.  Stone draws heavily on Alasdair MacIntyre, John Howard Yoder, and (unsurprisingly, considering the first two) Stanley Hauerwas to create a postliberal revisioning of what evangelism is meant to be, namely a practice of witness by a church of integrity.  Stone argues both against evangelistic techniques that end at conversion and models of evangelism which measure their success in numbers.  He also is not about to say that the church should keep to itself.  Witness to the reign of God, done rightly as a traditioned practice, is a good in itself, and the results-based focus of many modern evangelistic movements fails to speak this clearly enough.  Unfortunately, it seems that, at this point in the book, Stone is mostly tying together the three authors that I have already mentioned.  I’m hoping for more than simple synthesis, and I’m assuming I’ll get it, so don’t read this as a negative review.  I will have it read within the next couple days as it is my reading for this month’s Anglican Missional Pastor meeting, which begins Thursday evening.  45% completed.

4. Perspectives on Marriage: A Reader, edited by Kieran Scott and Michael Warren–This is one of the main texts for Christian Marriage and Family Across Cultures with Dr. Esther Acolatse this semester.  The reading for this week’s class (the first session) is from this book, but I’ll admit I haven’t yet picked up my copy from Cokesbury.  0% completed.