Tag: Incarnation

Incarnation and Cultural Engagement

When I wrote last month’s post on “pro-choice” evangelicals, some commenters on Facebook claimed I was arguing that Christians shouldn’t make moral choices but instead adopt an “anything goes” mentality to get along in pluralistic society. I tried to explain in comments and e-mails that I was arguing that we have had a tendency to oversimplify our rhetoric which makes moral positions harder to explain. The problem was not moral choice but how that choice gets characterized by listeners we are trying to influence.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the dynamics of moral argument in a complex, diverse, post-modern, post-Christendom culture. It’s been one of the overarching themes of my blogging over the last six months. I’ve written before about the impact of James Davison Hunter’s To Change the World (which I’m using in my social science of religion class this semester). Hunter, who had written earlier pieces on Culture Wars (1992) now suggests that we evangelicals have been too concerned about leveraging power to create cultural change. In the newer book, he calls for what he labels Faithful Presence.

While discussing the difficulties of cultural engagement with a colleague this week, I was suddenly struck with an image from my childhood: Brer Rabbit and the Tar Baby. It became a way of explaining the problem with conflict-based cultural engagement that has characterized so much of the Culture War debates.

If you ever saw Disney’s Song of the South (known for introducing “Zippity-Do-Dah” to the American songbook), you know it’s way too close to a minstrel show. The happy slave Uncle Remus tells stories in broken dialect to the owner’s young son. The Tar Baby is characterized in the stories and by Disney animators as an insolent black child. But there is a lesson for us in the story valuable enough to make me repeat part of the tale (I found a version without the dialect). In the story, Brer Fox places a Tar Baby in the road as a way to trick Brer Rabbit. The Rabbit greets the Tar Baby who says nothing (being a bunch of Tar shaped like a person).

Brer_Rabbit_and_the_Tar_BabyBrer Rabbit frowned. This strange creature was not very polite. It was beginning to make him mad. “Ahem!” said Brer Rabbit loudly, wondering if the Tar Baby were deaf. “I said ‘HOW ARE YOU THIS MORNING?” The Tar Baby said nothing. Brer Fox curled up into a ball to hide his laugher. His plan was working perfectly! “Are you deaf or just rude?” demanded Brer Rabbit, losing his temper. “I can’t stand folks that are stuck up! You take off that hat and say ‘Howdy-do’ or I’m going to give you such a lickin’!” The Tar Baby just sat in the middle of the road looking as cute as a button and saying nothing at all. Brer Fox rolled over and over under the bushes, fit to bust because he didn’t dare laugh out loud. “I’ll learn ya!” Brer Rabbit yelled. He took a swing at the cute little Tar Baby and his paw got stuck in the tar. “Lemme go or I’ll hit you again,” shouted Brer Rabbit. The Tar Baby, she said nothing. “Fine! Be that way,” said Brer Rabbit, swinging at the Tar Baby with his free paw. Now both his paws were stuck in the tar, and Brer Fox danced with glee behind the bushes. “I’m gonna kick the stuffin’ out of you,” Brer Rabbit said and pounced on the Tar Baby with both feet. They sank deep into the Tar Baby. Brer Rabbit was so furious he head-butted the cute little creature until he was completely covered with tar and unable to move.

Here’s my takeaway about Culture Warriors. The more one punches at the opposition, the more one gets ensnared in the debate. Regardless of what other good is done, including the desire to reach others for Christ, the tar remains. The culture warrior gets stuck in all the mess and seems unable to move in any way at all. And whatever he or she does, the tar remains behind. Just to name one example among many possible, even though Gordon College has attempted to explain the purpose of the Executive Order letter this summer, groups continue to separate from them (this week it was a school district). The tar is stickier than we imagine.

The difficulty, as Hunter tells us, is that power is a fickle weapon. It’s always dependent upon someone else exerting power from another side. Walter Brueggemann reminds us that power within empire always has a strong element of fear of scarcity. The power must be exercised to protect one against loss.

I was reviewing Brueggemann’s argument in class Thursday night. I had a chart on the board illustrating the connection between Empire, Pharaoh, and Pilate (see chapter one of Truth Speaks to Power). The center of my Empire column was Power. Then, using Brueggemann’s analysis, I contrasted that with the Kingdom of God. What Yahweh, Moses, Jesus all share is a different starting point — a negation of power. We explored what would be in the center of that column. Students suggested Love, Grace, Sacrifice.

I told them that my word in the center is Kenosis. It is the emptying act of the Incarnation that establishes all of Kingdom thinking. As the Philippians passages tell us, this is the concept that was in Christ’s mind that is also to be in ours.

KenosisIf we begin mirroring the Incarnation, we don’t strike out at others. We try instead to enter their space and see things from their perspective. By showing sacrificial love from within that authentic place, we have the opportunity to demonstrate Faithful Presence.

I had two friends illustrate exactly this form of incarnational living in the past few days. Both of them happened into it accidentally, but quickly discovered what it means to incarnate another’s place. My colleague Eric told a story of how he had gone running on a warm Michigan day and had tied up his slightly longish (yet fashionable) hair in what he calls a “snork-like” pony-tail. When completing his run, a car of young men come up behind him and gave a catcall (thinking they were dealing with a woman). In that quick moment before the men realized their mistake, Eric knew the evil of sexism. He had occupied that space with others.

My friend Karen was asked to be on a radio program to discuss Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. What she didn’t know was that the show was organized around calling out all whites for the evils of racism (which the host called “White Supremacy”). A white woman from Virginia got to try to identify with structural racism for a couple of hours. Having listened to the interview, I can say she did a great job under the circumstances. She wasn’t defensive and when she couldn’t fully identify with the host or a caller, she said so. She validated their experiences, fears, and concerns while being clear in her own place as a white Christian academic. That she spoke so consistently of the evils of structural racism and why it must be exposed was as incarnational as I think one could be under the circumstances.

On Friday, Alastair Roberts wrote a fabulous piece for Christ and Pop Culture. Titled “Evangelicalism’s Poor Form“, it analyzed some of the cultural challenges of evangelicals in the postmodern age. But it ended in a hopeful place; one that I think aligns well with an Incarnational Faithful Presence within the culture:

 Among this wisdom is the recognition that, treated in the right manner, the external forms of our faith need not distract from our core evangelical commitments but can serve and strengthen them, forming the people of God within them and establishing us in the skills with which we can improvise a Christian culture that is robust and deep. My hope is that, through a recovery of the importance of these formative “externals” of our culture, we will once more be able to cast our core evangelical and Christian convictions in the sharpest of reliefs, living out an evangelicalism in which our evangelical culture neither distracts nor detracts from our evangelical faith.

Prodigal Christianity

ProdigalA number of books have significantly helped me as I’ve attempted to imagine how the evangelical church operates without building walls cutting us off from the broader culture, thereby talking primarily to ourselves. One of these I mentioned recently is Prodigal Christianity: 10 Signposts Into the Missional Frontier by David Fitch and Geoff Holsclaw.

I met David and Geoff at a Missio Alliance gathering in the west suburbs of Chicago last October. I attended the meeting because what I had read of the gathering resonated with what I had been thinking about shifting forms of evangelicalism in post-modern America. So sometime after the meeting, I bought a copy of their book (I’m ashamed to admit it was one of those add-ons to get free shipping from Amazon; but it was more significant than the primary book I was buying!).

It’s not hard to see the driving motif of the book. The Prodigal Son goes into the Far Country. But in this case, drawing on Karl Barth, it’s not the wayward son going forth to riotous living. Rather, it is the Incarnate Son coming into the present world. It becomes one of those Philippians 2 moments, celebrating how Jesus gave up what he had to enter where we are. If we take that seriously, David and Geoff say, our mission as Christians both individually and congregationally is but to do the same.

While intrigued by the engagement offered by the emergent church movement on the one hand, and encouraged by the certainty of the neo-Reformed movement on the other, they find neither quite gets to the Far Country. So they suggest ten signposts that might lead the way. I’ll summarize those mixed in with my own sociological gloss.

Signpost One: Post-Christendom. While debate can be engaged as to whether we were ever a fully Christian nation, it is clear that we’ve entered a period where Christianity is not the default position taken within society. Society, they say, is post-attractioal, post-propositional, and post-universal. These are all byproducts of forms of postmodernism, where my values are right for me but unintelligible to you. The response to this is to be local, to be present, to be incarnational. To be real. To engage. Too much of the Big Issues in evangelicalism take place as abstractions that never quite touch were real people live. This is why David hangs out regularly at McDonalds. He becomes known.

Signpost Two: Missio-Dei. This is a recognition that God is at work reconciling His Kingdom. We should be about the same. It begins with an affirmation that God is currently working. Dave tells a wonderful story of how he played a nearly insignificant role in helping one of the McDonald’s guys deal with a dental issue. It wasn’t about what Dave did but about what God was doing that Dave got to be a piece of. But realizing that God was working might have been more revolutionary for Dave than the guy with the tooth problem.

Signpost Three: Incarnation. Here is a surprising shift. While being at McDonald’s sounds incarnational, it is not Dave and Geoff called to be that. It is the church. Because the church is the Body of Christ, it is continuing the incarnational presence into the broader world, into families that hurt, into people who are confused (even those in the church). This is a profound theological and social psychological understanding that eliminates the need for walls. We really are all in this together.

Signpost Four: Witness. This is one of my favorite chapters and speaks directly to what I’ve been working on. Witness occurs when disciples tell what they have seen, through the guidance of the Spirit. It’s not about answers. It’s about sharing the reasons for faith. It giving testimony that there is something bigger going on that others may not see. Not that Christians know the secret handshake or anything. We become practiced at knowing where to look and tell others what we see. We don’t hold the secret close and tell ourselves how lucky we are to have it. We give testimony to those we meet along the road. Like shepherds or a woman by a well.

Signpost Five: Scripture. Going into the Far Country requires one to have a sense of the Big Story. Not easy proof texts or four spiritual laws but a story of God’s intention, faithfulness, sacrifice, resurrection, ascension, and ongoing work of reconciliation and restoration. This is the Good News. That story of intention, salvation, reconciliation, and restoration speaks into the lives of those we meet along the way. The problem with our past efforts at bibliocentrism is that those stories don’t impact the lives of people in the Far Country (signpost one). Story matters and when people see that God’s story encompasses their story, things begin to change even if just a little.

Signpost Six: Gospel. This signpost builds heavily on great work by Scot McKnight and N.T. Wright (how can one go wrong with that?). But the Gospel isn’t simply about going to heaven after you die. It’s about the reconciliation of relationships. It’s about seeing that there is Something at work in the world. It’s about how sin isn’t crippling. And it’s about how we all have a role to play with dignity. In short, it repairs lives in the here and now, which makes the imaginings of the life to come possible.

Signpost Seven: Church. This chapter draws heavily upon the ministry experiences of Life on the Vine, the congregation Dave and Geoff pastored (Geoff still does). Wesley called these practices Means of Grace and they are important. Communion and hospitality are central, as are discernment, baptism, reconciliation, and inclusion (expressed in intact families rather than isolating ministries). It is where the church embodies the Body of Christ in order to be Christ in the world (paraphrasing the Methodist Communion liturgy).

Signpost Eight: Welcoming and Transforming Church. This chapter was very interesting and I’m still not sure what all I think about it. The American fascination with, involvement in, and avoidance of, sexuality sits at the center of this signpost. While dismissing an easy accommodation of say, same-sex relationships, on the one hand and a dogmatic exclusion on the other, they call for the Church to be a place where we wrestle with real issues. Where we wind up being authentic with struggles, challenges, and victories in a quest for honest engagement rather than point making.  I’ll need to re-read this one and see what similar applications offer.

Signpost Nine: Prodigal Relationships. This chapter speaks to issues of justice and inequality. Raising concerns about political identification (from left or right) as inadequate roles for the Embodied Church, they instead focus on issues that are local and real. Justice is done in our surroundings, from the celebration of presence that requires humility, and by affirming Christ’s work in restoration. It’s not our work. It’s Gods. We are but instruments, as that other Francis said.

Signpost Ten: Diversity. Interestingly, this last signpost closes the circle to the first one. It outlines how the church works in a non-Christendom environment. Not making walls, through pronouncements of whose views are approved and whose are heresies. But neither it is a “whatever you believe as long as you’re sincere”, as Linus would say. Combining all that has gone before, the church becomes a vehicle for witnessing to the work of God in the world. It sounds remarkably like that “see how they love one another” stuff without the risk of insularity. And it rejects the means-ends efficiency that has dominated Western society. The outcome is God’s through the work of the Spirit and the ascended Christ.

Actually, I meant to keep my gloss much more separate from my interpretation of their argument and instead I interwove things a bit. Nevertheless, Prodigal Christianity is a powerful book for anyone interested in seriously engaging a postmodern, complex, post-Christendom culture in ways that bring glory and honor to God. Buy a copy for your church and study it.

Incarnation: More than the Manger


A line in a sermon yesterday caught my attention. Here’s my paraphrase: “Immanuel means God With Us. It doesn’t mean God is on Our Side and Opposed to Their Side.”  In light of our never-ending culture war controversies, it’s a powerful statement. But it also got me thinking about the significance of the Incarnation.

The quick review of Google images I did to find the above banner shows a great many pictures of the nativity scene with Immanuel blazoned over the top. The Star shines brightly over the young couple and their new baby. Many include references to Matthew 1:23 and Isaiah 7:13. All that is good, but maybe too good.

And yet the Incarnation is much, much more than that. I’m not taking anything away from the miracle of God Become Flesh. But I am trying to think about why it matters that God Became Flesh.

In one sense, God has always been with his people. He entered into covenant with Abraham and his descendants. Unlike other gods, who were capricious and could remove favor if not appeased, ruining crops, destroying nations, and so forth, this God seemed to be committed to his people even when they were facing hardship. The Isaiah passage looks forward to Bethlehem but is also a promise of support in the midst of Ahaz’s political turmoil.

But that isn’t enough. God moves from being with his people to being ONE of his people. Philippians 2: 5-13 explains how truly momentous this is.

5 Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus, 6 who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, 7 but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men. 8 Being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. 9 For this reason also, God highly exalted Him, and bestowed on Him the name which is above every name, 10 so that at the name of Jesus every knee will bow, of those who are in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11 and that every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. 12 So then, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your salvation with fear and trembling; 13 for it isGod who is at work in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure.

Paul argues that Christ becomes human while maintaining divinity. In doing so, he enters into the world.

Not the world we imagine in nativity plays, but a conflicted world. A world that isn’t anywhere close to perfect. A world with mad Kings who will kill babies to eliminate future competition to his reign (or that of his descendants). A world with pagan occupiers and religious zealots. A world of patriarchy, economic inequality, superstition, and political fights.

Even the nativity story is messier than we portray. Caris Adel observes in her post today that Jesus birth may well have been one of the first awkward Christmas family gatherings, what with the pregnant women and her betrothed gathering with all the cousins. “An unmarried pregnant girl and her boyfriend at the family home with all the aunts and cousins and gossip? Yup, not awkward at all.

Today Rachel Held Evans also wrote on the incarnation at the CNN belief blog. She explains that Jesus allows us to see what God’s priorities are: siding with the oppressed, hanging out with sinners, treating women with dignity, forgiving His enemies even on a Roman cross. She concludes:

But even when there’s nothing left to my faith but a little seed of hope, that hope is in the incarnation, in the radical teaching that God loved us enough to become like us, and that when God wanted to show us what he was like, God showed us Jesus.

The world we live in is equally messy. We have fights on all kinds of things: same-sex marriage, politics, women in ministry, politics, Duck Dynasty, racial reconciliation, politics, gender roles, economic issues, and politics, just to name a few. I just saw on twitter that the head of A&E is getting death threats for not supporting biblical marriage. Messy.

Here’s the big deal: God enters our world in all its messiness. It was messy in Abraham’s day (and Abraham certainly helped that). It was messy in Bethlehem. It was messy in the Galatian church. It was messy in the Crusades. It was messy in the modernist-fundamentalist controversy. It’s messy today. It will be messy tomorrow.

We too often act as if we have to get things straight so that God can show up. We need political clout to get “biblical principles” established into law. Even though we imagine God is behind our preferences, we don’t quite trust him with the details.

Yesterday, Micah Murray shared how pro-slavery forces in America used a “biblical defense”:

“This leads to one of the most dangerous evils connected with the whole system, a disregard of the authority of the word of God, a setting up a different and higher standard of truth and duty, and a proud and confident wresting of Scripture to suit their own purposes… They seem to consider themselves above the Scriptures.”

This stuck with me last night at a candlelight service when we sang O Holy Night. The third voice includes these lines: “Chains shall He break for the slave is our brother/And in His name all oppression shall cease.” The author, John Sullivan Dwight,  wrote these lines in 1855. He also had a vision of how God’s Kingdom should look.

To have both these views looking for God’s Kingdom seems troubling. But that’s only from my perspective. God Incarnate is capable of dealing with the messiness of modern life. He entered into the messiness to share remarkable news, maybe even more remarkable than what the angels shared with the shepherds.

The remarkable news is that “The Kingdom of God is at Hand.” It’s actually begun in our midst. Because Jesus became flesh and dwelt among us. It changes everything. Even our conflicts and confusions are part of that Kingdom. But slowly and quietly, we are being redeemed along with all of Creation. Because God became one of us, He enters into our messiness (both personal and societal) in line with “His good pleasure.”

Yesterday, I finished a wonderful e-book by Ed Cyzewski titled Why We Run From God’s Love (download it here for only $.99!). The last part of Ed’s book really triggered this entire post. This paragraph just floored me:

It’s crazy to believe that God would come to earth as a man, let people kill him, and then rise from the dead, but it’s even crazier to believe that this same God wants to bring this resurrection into our lives every day. God wants us to hand over our death, brokenness, and sorrow.

And yet that’s why the Incarnation is what we celebrate the day after tomorrow. Not just a nice story of angels and shepherds and wise men. But a commemoration of the day when Everything Changed. The day when the Kingdom Project begins . The day when my life gets caught up in this Large Story and I spent my days looking for the Next Advent and contributing to the Kingdom Project with “great fear and trembling”.

Christmas by the Numbers


In my last post I explored the confusions we have about Christmas, Santa Claus, and Jesus, suggesting that we’re really dealing with issues of civil religion rather than deeply held rational argument. It’s why an isolated teacher at some school or a municipality’s decision about the public square generates intense feelings of persecution and an idea that the whole thing is slipping away.

Last night we watched Miracle on 34th Street with one of my graduates and her husband. Miracle is in second place of my favorite Christmas movies, behind It’s A Wonderful Life and in front of A Christmas Story. I really like the movie a lot. It’s engaging, with stories of victimization and power, and John Payne (Kris Kringle) and Natalie Wood (Suzie) are delightful to watch.

But watching the movie after thinking about the celebrations of civil religion made me see it differently. (If somehow you’ve not see it, there are spoilers in this paragraph!) I was aware of the times that Kris is told that “we believe in what you stand for, kindness, joy, etc.” It was striking how much capitalism plays center stage, with stores embracing customer service because it could bring more profit. (Helper Alfred says, “of all the isms in the world, one of the worst is commercialism.”) It was great to see the Republican district attorney stipulate his admiration for government agencies (they had to ruin the remake because the post office was no longer part of the government). I also noticed that whenever Santa told a child that he would get his request, he told the parent where to buy it. No elves making toys — just parents running out after work to purchase the desired item. Even at the closing scene, where Suzy finds her house, Fred and Doris discuss the need to buy the house that Santa “provided”.

I’m sure I could deconstruct all of our favorite Christmas movies and make myself less popular that the judge at Kris Kringle’s sanity hearing (I already played around with A Charlie Brown Christmas.) Alan Noble of Christ and Pop Culture wrote this interesting piece on Wonderful Life. I’ll probably get around to A Christmas Story before next week and find other hidden meaning (besides the centrality of a particular gun to the plot).

I’m still trying to make sense of what people are really celebrating when they watch these movies. Yes, there are Christmas Carols played (in 34th Street, Good King Wenceslas is playing at the old folks home Christmas party and Hark the Herald Angels closes both Wonderful Life and Charlie Brown). But the content (except for the Linus speech) doesn’t quite line up.

In the midst of my pondering today,  two  reports of Christmas surveys came across my twitter feed. Pew’s Religion and Public Life Project did a poll on how people celebrate Christmas, how they think of the holiday, and a bunch of other stuff. Then the Public Religion Research Institute released their data on similar questions.

christmas2013-5The Pew Survey asked respondents if Christmas was Religious or Cultural. As the table shows, slightly over half see it in religious terms with about a third seeing it as a cultural celebration. Notice that the under 30 crowd reflects the same general trends away from religion I’ve explored numerous times before. But it’s fair to summarize the data as saying that a plurality see Christmas as religious with a sizable minority seeing it as only cultural.

Maybe this diversity is why the PRRI folks found that nearly half of their respondents favored having shopkeepers saying “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas”. It’s just not worth upsetting the non-religious folks. (Evangelicals differed greatly from the general pattern with 80% favoring “Merry Christmas”.)

The Pew survey also found out that just over half of their respondents said they would attend church services. Curiously, this is true regardless of their beliefs about the nature of the holiday. Sure, nearly 3/4 of those who see Christmas as religious plan to attend this year, but so do 30% of the cultural Christmas group and a quarter of those who say they don’t celebrate Christmas! Now, as a good sociologist who teaches research methods I need to point out the possibility of social desirability — answering questions as you think you’re supposed to answer. Call me scrooge, but I don’t think one out of every two adults will be in church services next week (even if you count children’s pageants).

Here’s another interesting tidbit that shows up in both surveys: People like Linus’s explanation of “what Christmas is all about”. The Pew survey asked if people believed in the virgin birth and found just under 3/4 agreeing, including over half of those who think Christmas is just a cultural tradition!

Similarly, the PRRI survey asked if people believed the “historical story” of the birth of Jesus (virgin birth, angels, shepherds, wise men). Nearly half of Americans report that they believe the story while 40% say it’s only a theological story. The PRRI reports a pretty significant shift away from the historical account over the last decade (down 18% since 2004).

All this data brings me back to issues of holidays of civil religion. I think it’s likely that the traditional Christmas story has become one of the strands of the civil celebration of Christmas. We dress up and go to the Christmas Eve service. We recite the story (or listen to Linus do it). But it all gets mashed up with Santa and presents and candy and trees. It becomes part of the general celebration.

But as I wrote last time, it may lack depth. This is why other surveys by these groups show a surprising lack on knowledge about the scriptures, theology, and the Good News. If we were really celebrating Christmas as a religious holiday, maybe it would be more of a season of reflection. Maybe we’d say less about greetings people use and say more about the mystery of Incarnation.

In fact, if Jesus can give up Divine Majesty to become a human baby (Phil 2), maybe I can give up being offended if people say Happy Holidays. Paradoxically, it I modeled the emptying (known as Kenosis) that is the heart of the Christmas Story, maybe I’d be a better Witness to the Gospel.