September 30, 2011

Tom Oden on the Theologically Marginalized

Which group is now the most oppressed and underrepresented in mainline theological education? Here's Tom Oden's answer from Requiem: A Lament in Three Movements:
A new form of oppression analysis is required in our stuffy cubbyhole of academia, to show that the most marginalized and oppressed group in Protestant theological education is currently least represented in its faculties: those who come from its evangelical and pietistic heartland. Those most maligned and humiliated and demeaned are believers who bear the unfair epithet of "fundamentalist," like the Jews who wore the Star of David on their clothes in Nazi Germany.
Those who have the least-heard voice in the academic caucus game - far less than ethnic minorities or officially designated oppressed groups - are evangelical students from the neglected side of the exegetical tracks. I speak candidly of biblical believers who are assigned pariah roles in Scripture courses, those forced into a crisis of bad conscience by being required to conform in ideologically titled courses, who are given bad grades because they have read C. S. Lewis or Dorothy Sayers or taken Francis Turretin or have grown up loving the hymns of Fanny Crosby.
It is time for those who have patiently sat through repetitive courses in guilt to apply a specific social oppression analysis to the new oppressors: the tenured radicals in syncretistic faculties who replicate only themselves when new appointments are made, who are tolerant only of latitudinarians, who neither have nor seek any church constituency, who debunk the plain sense of Scripture, who never enter a room with a Bible unless armed with two dozen commentaries that enable them to hold all decisions in a state of permanent suspension, who lack peer review because they do not know any colleagues in the guild different from themselves (135).
So, according to Oden, the most underrepresented and marginalized in academic theology are not an ethnic or gender minority but evangelical orthodox believers. What do you think?

September 29, 2011

For the Poor and the Alien: An Evangelical-Wesleyan Approach to Immigration

Immigration is a hot-button topic in American politics these days, and it is a topic over which Christians disagree. Recent and stringent laws in Arizona and Alabama have kept the issue at the forefront of national attention, and church leaders have spoken to both sides of the issue. To this point I've held off writing about immigration, because I wanted to take time to think through the issues and reflect on a way forward. I've been tempted to draw a line in the sand, but have thought better of it. Instead, I want to offer some biblical and theological reflections on this polarizing issue.

Let me begin by saying that the following reflections arise out of my evangelical and Wesleyan commitments. I say that up front because it often seems to me that those who identify themselves as evangelical tend to favor strict immigration laws. I will contend, though, that an evangelical approach calls us to remember that God has welcomed us when we were not only strangers but enemies. When I combine this with my Wesleyan commitment that the people of God are to reflect the holy character of God, I find it leads me to believe that if we are to reflect the holy character of the God who lavishes his abundance on the stranger and the alien, then we must find ways to welcome and bear witness to the holiness of God with the strangers and aliens among us.

At the heart of this reflection is Leviticus 19:2, 9-10:
"You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy...When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest. You shall not strip your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the alien: I am the Lord your God (NRSV)."
God spoke these words through Moses to Israel on the heels of their deliverance from slavery under the Egyptians. They were strangers in a land not their own; they had no rights, no status, no privilege, no honor, and no opportunity for social mobility. They were poor and alien, strangers and slaves with no land to call their own. And in their impoverished state, God came to them and in his extravagant grace delivered them from bondage and slavery. He called them to be his people who would represent him to the nations (Ex. 19-3-6). They would learn his holy ways; they would share his holy character.

And sharing his character did not include unusual or wild commands (though they might seem that way to us at times); sharing his character meant regarding others the way God regarded them. And in this passage in Leviticus 19 that means showing kindness to the stranger and the alien, because God had shown them kindness when they were strangers in another land. One of the many ways that they were to show the world that their God was the God was by leaving some of their crops, some of their bounty, for the poor and the stranger among them. The foreigner was to be treated with hospitality not contempt; kindness not disdain. Why? Because that is what God is like.

But that is not all. The reflection does not stop with Leviticus, because Leviticus points forward to Christ. When we ourselves were in bondage and slavery to those dual evil masters of sin and death, God came in search of us. We were not merely estranged from him; we were wretched. There was enmity and strife between us and him. And yet he offered himself to us in Christ so that we could be reconciled to him and share his bounty. We had no status, no rights, deserved no favor, and still he demonstrated his love for us in that while we were sinners, Christ died for us (Rom. 5:8). When we were nothing, he gave us everything. And he calls us now to make known to the world the riches of his kindness in Christ Jesus. The question is whether we will live into our calling to make his holy love known to the nations not only abroad but across the street. The Holy One has come to care for the poor and the alien, and they are we. Will we share his holy character? I, for one, am deeply grateful that, when I was a stranger to God, I was not turned away but welcomed with open arms into the bounty of his mercy.
_____

September 27, 2011

What will your heritage be?

Many parents think about the heritage they will leave their children. We often think of it in terms of an inheritance, property, or even our family reputation. Perhaps more important is the spiritual heritage that we leave our children. I can think of more than a few stories from my own family that signify to me the importance of our family's spiritual heritage.

My first pastorate was south of Opelika in an area known as Beauregard, Alabama. I was appointed to a circuit of three United Methodist churches, and when I arrived at the first church to preach my first Sunday, I discovered that a number of the folks in the congregation knew my great-granddaddy, John Standridge, and remembered hearing him preach on occasion. He was known as "Red" because of his bright red hair. Some of them even said that I reminded them of him, probably because I shared his memorable hair color. He was remembered fondly as a man who loved Jesus deeply and preached with passion. It was very special for me to begin my ministry in an area where my Granddaddy Red had served with faithfulness. He left me a heritage that made me want to pursue excellence in order to guard his good reputation.

Not too long ago, my grandmother became quite ill and now requires constant care. During a recent visit I had opportunity to watch my granddad, Paw-Paw, care for her in love as he fed her and sang softly to her. What a magnificent demonstration of covenantal love. She has come to the point in life when there is very little, if anything, that she can offer. Yet he lavishes his love on her with joy. That reminds me of the way that God bestowed his extravagant love on me despite the fact that I had nothing to bring to him. In a day when people often go into marriage only for what they can get out of it, my Paw-Paw is leaving me a heritage of unconditional covenantal love, and I long to pass that same heritage on to my children.

My dad used to manage a restaurant. And anyone who has ever worked in a restaurant knows that no one looks forward to the day the truck comes, especially when it's summer time. The work is hot and sometimes heavy. My mother has told me the story of one day in particular when my dad was unloading a stock truck at the restaurant with several of the other workers. When the job was done, the driver of the truck came up to my dad and asked if he was a Christian. My dad replied affirmatively and questioned the driver as to how he had known. The driver answered that while all the other men were swearing and complaining about the heat and the work, my dad did his job quietly and with a good attitude. The driver must have thought that my dad's character could only be the product of grace that comes through Jesus Christ. I hope others see Christ in my life like that. That's a big part of the heritage that my dad left me.

So, what sort of heritage will you leave your children and others who come after you? There's nothing wrong with houses and furniture, but I hope that won't be all. I hope your children will remember you as someone worth emulating and a person of character. That's the kind of heritage that is being left for me, and I hope it's the sort of heritage that I will leave for my children and grandchildren.

Originally published in the Union Springs Herald on August 3, 2011.
_____

September 21, 2011

Where do we draw the line?

"The rediscovery of boundaries in theology will be the preoccupation of the twenty-first century of Christian theology," says Thomas Oden, United Methodist theologian and Emeritus Professor of Theology at The Theological School, Drew University. This agenda for the next century of theological study comes in his book Requiem: A Lament in Three Movements (Abingdon 1995). The book is Oden's critical evaluation of the state of mainline Protestant theological education, a world in which he has lived most of his adult life. The above quote comes as Oden is describing his deep concern that nothing is off-limits in the mainline seminaries. He is distraught by the reality that there is no longer any thing as heresy. From pluralism to paganism, everything is seen as the proper subject of theological inquiry and is adorned with allegedly Christian paraphernalia to justify the inquiry and resulting assertions.

Oden opens his discussion by telling of how he attended a chapel service at his own institution of theological higher education which venerated the goddess Sophia, a deity discernibly distinct from the triune God revealed in Christian scripture, though she was sometimes said to use Jesus as her own agent. If this event is indeed representative of what's going on in the larger world of the mainline seminaries, then Oden is certainly right that the boundaries have not only been crossed, they have been obliterated.

Oden interestingly points out that these sorts of things come under the auspices of ecumenism. Against such a claim, he argues that ecumenism is not merely a matter of the present but of the whole history of Christian thought. And anything that casts off the claims of what he calls historic orthodox Christian consensus can neither seriously nor authentically be called ecumenism. So, according to Oden, the project for the next generation of Christian theologians is to recover the consensus of orthodox Christianity and identify the boundaries for what may properly be called Christian theology.

My question at this point is this: how do we accomplish that task? I suspect that, as I continue to read the book, I will discover that Oden has some ideas for how this project should be successfully carried out. He promises as much in the opening pages. But he's got me thinking, and I want to open the discussion up to my readers. I've got a thought or two that I'll likely post later. For now, I want to hear from you.

What do you think? What are the boundaries of Christian theology? How do we discern those boundaries? What is the role of scripture in discerning and defining meaningful boundaries? What is the role of historic Christian consensus in discerning and defining meaningful boundaries? What is the role of the seminary? Theologians? The local church? Pastors? The laity?
_____
Image: Paul via FreeDigitalPhotos.net