Why I Wrestle…

There’s a wonderful scene in The Devil Wears Prada, where Miranda Priestly, played by the amazing Meryl Streep addresses her new assistant’s (played by Anne Hathaway) indifference — even disdain — for the world of high fashion that the fictional Runway magazine reports on. (watch the scene here; I’ll wait.)

I was thinking about this recently while wrestling through a book on the relationship between Paul and 1st century rabbinic Judaism (fascinating, I know). Streep’s character points out the relationship between the frontiers of “high fashion” and the seemingly mindless, instinctive choices that Hathaway’s character makes in shopping and picking out clothes each day.

“You think this has nothing to do with you,” she says. “What you don’t know is that that sweater is not just blue, it’s not turquoise, it’s not lapis, it’s cerulean. And you’re also unaware of the fact that in 2002 Oscar de la Renta did a collection of cerulean gowns … and then cerulean quickly showed up in the collections of 8 different designers; and then it filtered down through the department stores and then trickled on down to some tragic casual corner where you no doubt fished it out of some clearance rack … It’s sort of comical how think you’ve made a choice that somehow exempts you from the fashion industry when in fact you’re wearing a sweater that was selected for you by the people in this room.”

Chilly elitism aside, I think this is important. Theology — thoughts and study about God — is always growing and changing. Archaeology is revealing more about Jesus and Paul and their context. It’s easy to think that theology is irrelevant to our daily lives, but I think that wrestling with “deep things” is like high fashion – as folks think through the really big issues, it will work its way through the seminaries, colleges and churches and eventually into our daily lives. The problem is that I’m afraid many of us are wrestling with the equivalent of acid washed jeans and polyester shirts. The truth is, God is doing new things, always. Are we (as pastors and leaders) willing to wrestle with the “high fashion” theological questions — not so we can be faddish or “cool” but so we can keep in step with what we are coming to know about God, Jesus, and their message and mission for the world?

I believe we will walk out our theology; we will speak it into others’ lives; we will proclaim it from the platform.

I want to know why we pick the Cerulean sweater.


The Disruptive Gospel

As the 20th century drew to a close, a German scientist named Karlheinz Brandenburg was working on a logarithm that would help reduce the size of certain types of computer files; specifically music files. Eventually, he landed on a formula that helped him shrink the size of a standard music composition by about a factor of 10.

Because the file format was designed for a group of scientists known as the Moving Picture Experts Group, it took on an abbreviated version of their name, “mp3.” Aided by the explosion of Napster and websites like mp3.com, the phenomenon of music-as-digital-files exploded.

Music would never be the same.

“Disruptive technology” is technology that enters a given market and, because of its price and or innovation, not only competes in that market, it actually redefines the market entirely. To be concise, it renders “competition” irrelevant, and redefines consumer behavior – it becomes the new standard, the new paradigm.

Whether you officially consider mp3 file compression disruptive technology or not, it’s difficult to argue that the innovation significantly changed the entire paradigm of music consumption. It changed forever our thinking about music (music should be portable, free, and easily shared), as well as our behavior (we either download our music illegally, or pay .99 for a single through iTunes, rather than buying a physical disc or tape from a store).

Mp3 technology had a major part in rendering irrelevant everything else in the “market” of music – CDs, cassette tapes, etc. – and eventually contributed to the entire dismantling of the record industry as we know it.

Now here’s the deal: The Gospel is disruptive technology.

Allow the Gospel to enter into your life, and it has the potential — if we let it — to  realign and redefine our values, thoughts, and behaviors. It renders our old ways of behaving — of our need to control, dominate, and/or manipulate — irrelevant. Hang around long enough, submit to it, and it becomes the new standard of our life, not just something that is an “add on” or a part.

The Basics, Pt. 1

Was thinking this afternoon: what are the basics of Christianity, of discipleship, of apprenticeship to Jesus?

I’m sure everyone has their lists, so here’s mine:

  1. Allegiance to the risen Christ. Christ is king, to the exclusion of all other pretenders. The pretenders in the 1st and 2nd centuries were Herod and the Roman emperor(s). Christ’s lordship was revolutionary (though not political or militant) and subversive. As I’ve written before, today’s pretenders are our middle-class, consumer culture, and nationalism. Christ claims allegiance over all, and demands that we submit our decisions to his criteria or constitution.
  2. Service to the least of these. Best example would probably come from Matthew 25. Christ paints a pretty stark (maybe even bleak?) picture of who has served him, who has “seen him”. You can’t read the gospels (or the Psalms, or Isaiah, or the prophets) without understanding God’s and Christ’s pretty serious orientation towards the poor, the marginalized.
  3. Communal orientation. As one of my former pastors used to like to say, “If you are looking for a lone ranger religion, don’t look at Christianity. Community is not an option.” I was reading through Paul’s first letter to the church at Corinth, and over and over again he seems to be saying, “I am free to do just about anything, but if my freedom messes with a brother or sister’s conscience in any way, then I will stop it. I will look at others first, rather than assuming the primacy of my own opinions and desires.” Individualism is the currency of the west. Sometimes I’m not sure if we can even begin to understand what it means to be “the people of God.”
  4. One story of salvation. This is where I’d probably cause a bit of a stir, but I’m beginning to believe more and more that the “one plan of salvation” through Abraham accurately captures God’s plan of salvation. For now, I guess the implications are (1) Israel matters. You can’t read the Old Testament and just read it as a “preamble” to the New Testament. God’s plan was always to work salvation through Israel for the rest of the world, and Christ carried it to its fulfillment through his death on the cross. (btw, this isn’t new theology, just new to evangelicals) (2) Relatedly, I guess you have to take what God wants from his people, as revealed in the whole of scripture (check the prophets, especially). That’s what it means to be the people of God.
  5. Growth is a part of the power of the Spirit. Being a Christian means being a disciple, which means living under discipline. Which means engaging the timeless practices of God’s people. Check here and here for some ideas. It’s not negotiable.

What’s missing? A lot of “doctrine”, I suppose. Was wondering this morning (obviously, I lot of wondering today): How much doctrine is in the bible? I think for a long time people assumed that Paul (and even the gospel writers) were writing church doctrine out. I’m not so sure anymore. I think Paul was trying to keep his little “flocks” from drifting into either extreme errancy and immorality or drifting back into an exclusionary, ethnic-based “Jew-only” faith. I think he was improvising according to the needs that confronted him (based on his knowledge of God-through-Torah, his experience of Christ, and his awareness of the Spirit).

I’m assuming a lot of love. I’m assuming the sacraments. I’m assuming living under the authority of the bible, being a people of the book.

So there. More later.

Reflections on Catalyst 2009

I just got back from the Catalyst Conference in Atlanta; it was my first time attending the live event, though I’ve watched DVDs from the past 2 years. I thought I’d throw out a few reflections from the event.

  1. The Justification Wars Are Hot. Though speakers from different perspectives were there, any anticipated public denouncing or “zingers” didn’t occur. What didhappen, however were a few decidedly public shots into the debate on justification, most typically represented by NT Wright and John Piper. One speaker, in the middle of a talk about something else, decided to clarify the definition of the gospel as the appropriating of the righteousness of Jesus to cover our sins (this to many shouts of approval from the crowd). Note: curiously, this same speaker immediately used — as an example of this gospel — the story of Peter converting Cornelius in Acts 10:31-43 in which Peter never references the “atoning blood of Jesus”.

  2. Resurrection Isn’t So Hot. In all the talks, there was very little discussion of the mind-blowing event of resurrection. People are still more intrigued by Jesus’ death than they are the inauguration of the new age.
  3. Please Stop Shouting At Me. Nothing personal, but by the middle of the second day I really just wanted the music to be turned down, and wanted a speaker to whisper the love and beauty of God over me. We (those?) evangelicals really like it loud and pumping, both their music and their teaching. Curiously, never in two days did 12,000 leaders pray, read scripture, or recite a creed in one voice. We could hear each other sing, but I sat thinking how powerful it would be to recite the Lord’s Prayer, or the Nicene Creed, or a prayer of confession.

There were other, more personal revelations, but I think that from an observational standpoint, those were my takeaways.