Tuesday, November 04, 2014

Interview with David Fitch: Evangelicalism, Anabaptism, and Being the Church in a Post-Christian Culture

This past spring, I spent a little over an hour on the phone with David Fitch, an author, pastor and theology professor. Our conversation has just been published in Anabaptist Witness, a journal published by Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary. 

For the last 10 years, I have been on a journey of rethinking what it means to be the church. Early on that journey, I stumbled on author and professor Scot McKnight, whose explorations of Jesus, the kingdom and the gospel as a larger Story were welcome manna along the way. As McKnight and Fitch are colleagues and friends, it didn't take long to run into Fitch's blog and writings about missional theology. I found Prodigal Christianity: Ten Signposts into the Missional Frontier a particularly challenging and affirming exercise of putting that theology into practice.

In May 2013, McKnight and Fitch were among the plenary speakers at Missio Alliance’s inaugural gathering in Alexandria, my home town. Missio Alliance is a multi-denominational coming together under a common commitment to provide a place to address what faithfulness to Christ and His Mission might look like for the churches of North America. In other words, what it looks like to be the people of God we are called and enable to be here and now.

I found great value in getting to know the faces and personalities behind the authors, thinkers, theologians and people in a conversation I’d been following for the last decade. In one session, Scot McKnight and Cherith Nordling touched on how the theological voices who change the way we think are not formless voices coming to us out of a void but connected to real people and personalities. And I enjoyed the chance to get to know those personalities, particularly Alan and Debra Hirsh, Todd Hunter, Nordling, Fitch, and McKnight.

And I was thrilled by the presence of Anabaptism in the discussion. It has been interesting watching the theology move from the margins and saturate the current conversation. For most of my life, I have straddled the Anabaptist and evangelical streams in my explorations of Jesus and the church, and I have found affirmation in maintaining that tension in Fitch and McKnight, who wrestle with those tensions as well.

Through Missio Alliance and writers like McKnight and Fitch (and Dallas Willard, Richard Foster—the list is quite long, actually), I have also found great affirmation that I am not alone in this journey. Truth be told, 10 years into it, I thought we might be further. But that’s my own weakness. Foster says it’s a slow process, and I’m impatient. But, for the first time in a long time, I am expectant. I see the movement of the church to the margins in a Post-Christian world as an unexpected opportunity, one that gives us the chance to loose the entanglements that have kept us from being the authentic communities of love, justice, and restoration into which our gospel compels us.

So, it was a pleasure to talk with David Fitch about what it means to be the church in a post-Christian world and about the growing relationship between evangelicalism and Anabaptism. May it be a helpful addition to the larger conversation about what it means to be the people of God we are called and enabled to be here and now.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Background noise

©  | Dreamstime Stock Photos
When I work, I often play music in the background. Recently I noticed that I was gravitating toward playlists I’d made from film soundtracks. I enjoyed the music itself, but I was also experiencing something else: comfort. It had been a challenging few weeks, and the music was helping me feel more grounded and peaceful.

When I thought about it, that made sense. The music is associated with some of my favorite films that, in the midst of their sometimes dark worlds, are life-affirming and woven through with redemption, hope and love. In some way, the music was weaving the truths of those stories back into my soul.
And that intrigued me. I’ve long known that we human beings are wired to respond to stories, but I was struck by how subtly and deeply they were influencing me and my outlook on life.
In “Why Fiction Is Good for You,” Jonathan Gottschall notes that research indicates fiction profoundly shapes our perception of the world. Happy endings and themes like poetic justice, says Gottschall, “make us believe in a lie: that the world is more just than it actually is.” But believing that may make the world a more just place — “and it may even help explain why humans tell stories in the first place.”
This resonates, not because happy endings and poetic justice are lies per se, but because those two things actually reflect deeper truths: According to God’s story revealed in Scripture, we know the world should be — and, in the (happy) end, will be — a more just place.
All of that was stirring around inside me as I listened to the music from a few of those stories. That’s pretty powerful stuff.
No wonder Dallas Willard tells us we should be intentional with the things with which we surround ourselves. “We need to be in the presence of images, both visual and auditory (good sayings, poetry and songs),” says Willard in Renovation of the Heart. “These can constantly direct and redirect our minds toward God.” In particular, Willard suggests arranging these images in our living and work spaces as a way of “keeping entire stories and teachings effortlessly before the mind.”
I do this in my house. There’s a quote from Augustine on the kitchen window sill and crosses on the wall above our television. Collections of posters of films that strike me for their connections with faith hang on our walls. Books that have spoken God’s truth into my life are collected on a shelf in my bedroom that I see every day.
I’ve learned this is important because I get distracted easily. In “Five Ways You Don’t Realize Movies are Controlling Your Brain,” David Wong points out that because our brains are built to process everything we see as a story, we quickly lose interest in things — like ongoing news stories — if they don’t have a clear beginning, middle and end. We just kind of forget about it, he says.
This can happen with our own larger narrative as well. Though God’s story has an end, we are in the middle of it. If we lose track of it, we’re in danger of unconsciously taking on the culture’s narratives  images of which surround us every day on billboards, ads and magazine covers.
We’re influenced by story in deep ways, be it the stories that reflect our culture or stories that reflect God’s story. If we are intentional, we can keep God’s story in mind throughout the day — even by playing a movie soundtrack while we work.


This is a repost of my October 13 column at MWR.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Love will lead us home

The Giver is one of my favorite novels. Critics are mixed on the recent film adaptation, but I find it a good companion piece. I like how its visual nature heightens aspects like the impact of memory and the role of color. But most of all, I appreciate how it honors and develops the story’s focus on the transforming power of love.

The film matures Jonas and his friends from 12 to 16, adding a layer of depth to their relationships and the narrative, which stays pretty close to the novel. They live in a seemingly utopian community that aspires to “Sameness.” Everyone lives amicably, content in their assigned roles in a peaceable community governed by seemingly benevolent Elders.

That changes for Jonas when he is chosen as the Receiver. He starts to experience the world’s collective memories — from the beauty of snow to the horror of war and death — stored in the memory of the Giver, who serves as an adviser of sorts to the Elders.

Jonas also discovers that everyone in the community is medicated to control emotions in order to maintain an ordered society. But the injections don’t just eliminate hate, anger and fear. They also deaden love and joy.

The more memories Jonas receives and the more he learns about his community, the more he struggles to find a way to restore what they’ve lost. And love is central to that journey.

The Giver echoes a profound truth of our own journey: Love has the power to wake us to and transform us toward the kind of life we were meant to live.

God built into us the capacity and ability to love, says C.S. Lewis in The Four Loves. The love we feel for friends, family and beloveds are “natural images” or “foretastes” of God — who is Love Himself. As such, they provide “proximities of approach” or on-ramps that have the potential to become profound modes of transformation, moving us toward the love of Love Himself: as Lewis says, “love that seeks the good of the loved object for the object’s own sake.”

This is how we were created to love. This is the kind of love that overcomes and transforms hate, anger and fear in ourselves and others.

When we forget who we are, love wakes us up. Experiencing it transforms us and opens our eyes to, as the Giver puts it, “a life of shadows, of echoes of what once made us real.” We may not see perfectly, says Lewis, but “to know that one is dreaming is to be no longer perfectly asleep.”

The Weinstein Company
The Giver explores this kind of awakening. Jonas receives his first experience of love in a memory of a family at Christmas (a packed symbol of love in itself). That starts to change him: “Something within him . . . had grown,” as the novel puts it.

Then Jonas starts to experience love for those around him. As his experience of and capacity for love grows, Jonas and the way he sees the world transform (quite literally, in the latter case). By the end of his journey, Jonas has the capacity for the best love of all: laying down his life for others.

And Jonas’ capacity to love opens him to other things. “With love,” the Giver says in the film, “comes faith, comes hope.”

And it is these three things — love above all — that will lead us toward that day when “we’ll see it all . . . as clearly as God sees us” (1 Cor. 13:12-13).

Love wakes us to our “life of shadows” and reminds us of who we were created to be and the God who created us. In this world, we may not love perfectly. It may be “only an echo,” to play on Jonas’ final words in the film, “but it will lead us all home.”

This is a repost of my September 1 column at MWR.


Sunday, September 14, 2014

Syrian stories: Why they need to be told



Hadija is 10 years old. She wakes up at 6:00am, climbs in the back of a truck full of children, and drives to a potato field in the Bekaa Valley where she will work for at least seven hours. 
Rami is 12 years old. Two years ago, he was in school in Syria, where his mom was a teacher. Today, he is in Lebanon, where he spends his day working behind a desk in a garage fixing tires. 
Abdel is seven. He sleeps on a cement floor in a tent with a plastic chair, a bucket and a few blankets. His last meal was the day before. Some rice. 
Dania is also seven. Under her Hello Kitty shirt is a jagged, stitched-up wound reaching from her belly button to her rib cage. Her legs are covered with scars from shrapnel. 
Raeda is 15. She lost sight in her right eye after being hit by shrapnel.

There are over three million other stories just like these. Three million. That’s the population of Phoenix and Philadelphia combined. That’s more people than live in Chicago.

(Syria 1, Emergencies 6) (9362333059)
Syrian refugee children living on the 
building site of a half-built apartment block
near Reyfoun in Lebanon (Photo: Eoghan
Rice, Creative Commons, Wikipedia)
For the past several years, the Syrian civil war has grown in intensity and scope, leading to an historic humanitarian disaster. Over six million have been displaced, fleeing the violence; three million of those have fled the country to nearby regions.

According to the New York Times, the rate of diaspora of those fleeing the Syrian civil war has been characterized by the United Nations as the worst since the Rwandan genocide in 1994. According to UNHCR, 1.4 million have fled to Lebanon, 600,000 to Jordan, over 800,000 to Turkey, and the rest scattered throughout the region, creating a tremendous strain on infrastructures and economies in areas already stretched thin. They leave their homes, possessions and communities with little more than the clothes they are wearing. Over four in five refugees are struggling to make ends meet in urban areas, while almost 40 percent, like Abdel, are living in sub-standard housing. Three-quarters of the refugees are women and children.

The Lebanese government has opposed the establishment of refugee camps in their country, so the refugees fit in wherever they can. According to ABC News, there are some 600,000 Syrian refugee children in that country, and at least half of them don’t attend school. Many of them, like Rami and Hadija, work instead.

It is hard to wrap our minds around the staggering numbers and the immensity of suffering. That is why stories are important. They cut through the evening news and statistics and makes it personal.  They confront us with real people. My son is six months younger than Rami. My daughter is a year older than Raeda. That makes my breath catch and my heart hurt--and it makes me want to do something about it.

And it should. That's what Jesus did. He saw a blind man and took him by the hand, led him out of a village and healed him until his eyes are clear. He saw and was moved to compassion by a mass of people, hungry and desperate, so he fed them. He saw a mad-man, cast out a legion of demons and then sat and talked with him for hours. Jesus really saw people. He sat with them, touched them and met their needs—be it sight, food or dignity.

When we really see people, we are moved to act, too. But what can we do, half a world away?

We can tell the stories. As we learn more about the Syrian refugee crisis, we can tell others about it, speaking for those who cannot speak for themselves. God calls us to speak for those who have no voice (Proverbs 31:8-9)--and many in this region are just such people. Their stories must be told—and we must hear them and tell their stories to others. Stories like these give all those numbers the faces of real, individual people and those places a smell, a sound, a feel. And that can move others to act, too.

And we can support organizations that are making a difference: 
  • Heart for Lebanon is a ministry my church partners with, which aims to be Jesus’ hands and feet to those who have been marginalized and rejected in Lebanon by providing long term and holistic care. One simple step? Buy a bar of homemade Lebanese olive oil soap and help sustain and create jobs—and for every bar you buy, one is given to a refugee family. 
  • World Vision is partnering with the UN to serve those displaced within Syria as well as those who have sought refuge in neighboring Lebanon and Jordan. 
  • For my Anabaptist friends, there’s MCC, who’s providing emergency food, shelter, household items, trauma healing and education support and peacebuilding and disaster response training in Syria, Jordan and Lebanon to address the growing needs of Christians and Muslims through partner organizations. 
  • There’s also Samaritan’s Purse, Save the Children, the Red Cross, UNICEF—check out the charities you are familiar with and see if they are in need of additional support to make a difference in the lives of those suffering in these areas.

A few months ago, I saw the above video by Save the Children, which imagines the nightmare a British child would experience if war hit England, driving home the experience of refugee children fleeing Syria. Last month, I sat in our church and heard about the refugees that Heart for Lebanon is working with. Like Danielle Dellorto, who tells Abdel’s story, I am overwhelmed by it all—and I resonate with the final words in her story: “I don't know what the solution is. But I know there has to be a way to help Abdel and the thousands of others like him.” 

Today, I’m beginning that journey. 




Friday, August 01, 2014

"We are Groot" -- A kingdom image


Marvel Studios

Guardians of the Galaxy is the latest addition to Marvel’s franchise, and it is an eclectic mix. It has the saddest and most moving opening of a blockbuster sci-fi movie since Abrams’ Star Trek, and yet it is as full of quips and wit as Whedon’s cleverly-dialogued Avengers. It has a bazillion homages to great sci-fi films, but it still feels like its own story—complete with a  fully believable walking, talking tree creature and a wise-cracking raccoon.

And smack dab in the middle of all this? One of the more unusual kingdom images* I’ve collected thus far.

(Warning: some spoilers ahead)

A common theme in comic book movies is a disparate group of people coming together to form not just an association but a new community or family. In the X-Men films, it is a group of mutants; in Avengers, it is a group of superheroes. In Guardians, it is a group of people written off by the galaxy: Peter Quill is a smuggler and thief whose mother died when he was a child. Gamora is an orphan trained to be an assassin who's seeking redemption by working against the evil Ronan. Drax is a warrior seeking revenge for the death of his wife and daughter who were killed by Ronan. Rocky, a genetically engineered raccoon who is tortured by the memory of experiments performed on him, is a bounty hunter. And then there’s Rocky’s partner, Groot, a kind but fierce humanoid tree creature whose language is confined to three words—“I am Groot.”

While their association begins with a mission to collect a handsome payoff for a mysterious artifact, bonds begin to develop between them. When they discover the artifact could destroy the galaxy and it falls into Ronan’s hands, Quill asks the rest of them to help him get it back so that countless others will be spared annihilation.

“You’re asking us to die,” Rocky tells him, giving them all pause.

Yet, each of them has had a taste of what it feels like to have friendship and family—something none of them have ever had. And that taste is enough for them to risk their lives so that others they don’t even know will have a chance to live.

At one point, after a long battle, they are facing certain death. Groot begins to extend and twine himself around them in a sphere to protect them—a gesture that risks his own life. When Rocket asks why Groot is willing to die for them, Groot responds, “We are Groot.”
                                      
Groot no longer sees himself as an individual. The lives of his friends are now enfolded into his own. The well-being of each of them is not only equivalent to but above his own because this family is now his identity.

I find this a crazily wonderful echo of life in the Kingdom, where God’s people are called and enable to be this kind of “we.” A family of disparate brothers and sisters whose lives are intricately interwoven. A family of brothers and sisters who now willingly lay down their lives for each other, who no longer see themselves as independent individuals but whose identity is now a "we"--a family rooted in Jesus, who said: "This is my command: Love one another the way I loved you. This is the very best way to love. Lay down your life for your friends. If you love one another like this, everyone will know that you are my disciples" (John 15:11-15 and John 13:34, mix of The Message and NIV).

It makes sense that we will be known as Jesus’ disciples if we live as a “we” who loves like this because that is the kind of union and love from which we are fashioned. This is the kind of “we” and love shared among the Father, Son and Spirit. And if we are rooted in Jesus, this is the kind of “we” and love of which we are capable. This is the kind of “we” and love that strengthens, saves and restores. This is the kind of “we” in which God, as Dallas Willard puts it, “is tangibly manifest to everyone on earth who wants to find him.”

I admit, I wasn’t looking for an image that reminded me of kingdom life when I walked into this movie—and, if I were, I certainly wouldn’t have expected to find it in a tree-like creature that can only speak three words. But those three words remind me of what kingdom life is like--and that brings God-talk into these open spaces.


Thursday, July 31, 2014

Broadchurch: The best stories raise questions


I expected a typical British police drama when I queued up the six-episode miniseries, Broadchurch. Instead, I discovered a gripping tale along the lines of P.D. James that pulls us not only into the mystery behind a murder but also an unsettling exploration of who we are.

Broadchurch is a small community on the coast of England suddenly unraveled by the death of an 11 year old boy found murdered on the beach beneath a looming cliff. As Danny’s death is investigated by newly appointed Detective Inspector Alec Hardy (David Tennant) and town resident Detective Sergeant Ellie Miller (Olivia Colman), we are confronted with the brokenness of human nature and our capacity for (self)deception, narrow-mindedness, and destruction—and how actions born of those things affect us and those around us. Broadchurch explores the things that bring us together and tear us apart. It explores how we see the things we want to see and don’t see the things we need to see. And it wrestles with our basic need for love in a culture of crowded isolation—and how that makes it difficult for us to love and be loved.
                                                                                                                           
Central to the story is a search for truth and how to live life in its wake—and that search raises more questions than it answers. But that’s what good stories do. Recently, during a panel for The Giver at San Diego Comic-Con, author Lois Lowry reflected on the power of good stories. “I think the best books raise questions rather than give answers,” she reflects. “The best books don't have messages because there are different answers to those questions.”
                                                 
And as Broadchurch unfolds, so do the questions. Why do we do the things we do—even when we know we will hurt others? We all need to be loved and to love others—but what inside us twists the need for love into something selfish and dark? Why do we know so little of each other? What keeps us from seeing the hurt, suffering and pain in those around us—or do we simply choose not to?

The series displays the power of learning another’s story in confronting and exploring these questions. As we learn the characters’ stories—especially those of the suspects—more times than not, they are not who we thought. We begin to understand their actions, which often rise out of suffering, wounds, shame or fear. It changes the way we see them—and, in most cases, it gives us some measure of compassion.

The series reminds me that who we are and the relationships we share with each other are complex; by knowing each other’s stories, we close the gaps between us, and that makes for a more authentic community. But it also makes me think about how little we know most of the people around us. It makes me contemplate the things that keep us from knowing each other—both within us as well as in our culture.


I was particularly drawn to the story of Ellie Miller, who has never investigated a death before. At first, she’s disturbed and irritated by Hardy’s constant reminder to watch and take note of the people around her as they try to figure out who killed Danny. At one point, Ellie laments the person she has become, open to suspecting her friends and neighbors of having the capacity to murder a child.

But, as Hardy tells her early on, we all have that capacity. The evil out there is in us as well. And one of the uncomfortable strengths of this series is how skillfully it confronts us with the awful truth of our capacity for harming others, often those closest to us. Marital affairs, substance abuse, accusations out of fear, turning a blind eye to suffering—all those times we put our own selfish desires and needs before that of others lead to actions like these.

The characters give us a difficult gift: they show us who we are and could become. How do we respond to that, in ourselves and others? With compassion? Disgust? Humility? Love?


There are some interesting moments of hope in the story, most having to do with our capacity to choose a different path. In one of those, Broadchurch’s young vicar tells the community that they’ve failed the second of the commandments, to love one’s neighbor—which literally led to a physical death but has the potential to lead to the death of their community. The inclusion of such a moment in the story allows us to consider a different way through our messy, broken lives.
                                                                                                                        
Broadchurch reminds us that the way of love often isn’t easy. Love requires confession, forgiveness, and truth. And in this story, truth is a surgeon’s tool, cutting deep into our nature and exposing the cancer from which we all are dying. The series’ portrayal of the complex ways we respond to that is part of what makes Broadchurch so noteworthy.

I appreciate that faith is a theme in Broadchurch—especially that honest questions are voiced, easy answers are hard to come by, and struggles with faith and God are portrayed; those are parts of our journey that don’t get a lot of air-time on television or in church culture. But its impact on the characters and how they approach their struggles is rather limited—at least, in this part of the story. Apparently, series creator Chris Chibnall (Life on Mars, Doctor Who, Torchwood) originally envisioned a trilogy of stories, and another installment with most of the key cast members was announced in May. It will be interesting to see if and how this thread is continued.



There are lots of meaningful and revelatory moments in Broadchurch, most of which I can’t talk about without spoiling those moments. You’ll just have to watch for yourself—but watch it before the American version, Gracepoint (also penned by Chibnall and starring Tennant), comes out this fall. While Gracepoint’s trailer is almost word-for-word and scene-for-scene the same as Broadchurch’s first couple of episodes, Chibnall promises it will diverge after that. It will be interesting to see if it carries the same themes and weight as the original.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

A good story can change your life


Recently, Pure Flix managing partner and God’s Not Dead producer Michael Scott talked about his approach to faith-based films at a summitsponsored by Variety. For films to succeed, the message, he said, must come before the story.

“The engine that drives the train is the message,” Scott said. “We start with the message and then build the story around it.”

He went on to describe how Pure Flix surveyed leaders in their target audience for the messages they were interested in and then spent months marketing the films. Why?

“We need to let the consumer know what’s coming,” he said.

By box office standards, Scott’s approach is working. Yet, this philosophy not only reveals a key aspect that weakens many Christian films but also cheats us of the power of story and Scripture.

We live in a message-driven culture in which story is often seen as a tool to deliver the message. For example, The Flying Tigers film was made to encourage support for the Allies during World War II, and last summer’s Elysium had critics both hailing and lamenting its health-care agenda.

Pure Flix’s approach results in Christian movies in the same vein. On his FilmChat blog, film critic Peter Chattaway notes how audiences for these films are “entertained by propaganda; they want someone to preach at them, telling them what they already believe.”

This leaves viewers and artists unchallenged, says Chattaway — the exact opposite of what art should do: “draw the artist and the audience out of themselves and into something other.”

Message-driven stories are good at rallying the troops, but good stories are so much more. They reveal something about human experience, challenging us on what we think we know.

Good stories don’t simply wrap around a message; truth saturates and seeps out of them. “A story does not say, ‘Let me tell you what is true,’ but ‘Let me tell you what happened,’ ” says Daniel Taylor in The Skeptical Believer. “That illumination may simply entertain you, but it may also cause you to change — to modify your present story or even to abandon it for another.”

And no story can change us more than the Bible. “Stories are God’s idea,” says Taylor. “The Bible does not simply contain stories; it reflects God’s choice of the story configuration as the primary means by which to tell us about himself and how to be in right relationship with him.” It is this story by which we understand where we came from, who we are and who we can be.

Yet we often express faith and Scripture as sets of doctrines or propositions — or messages, if you will. In The King Jesus Gospel, Scot McKnight notes our tendency to reduce the gospel to a “Plan of Salvation.” While this plan flows out of the gospel, we miss out on a more robust and transforming understanding of the salvation if we don’t submerge it and ourselves in the larger story of the Bible. Yet habitually we default to propositions, often packaging them in a way to persuade others.

Films like God’s Not Dead reflect this approach, using story as a tool in which to package a message designed to affirm or persuade a salvation decision — a laudable effort, but one which feeds back a limited understanding of salvation and the gospel.

What can we do to break out of this message-driven cycle? “To become a gospel culture we’ve got to begin with becoming people of the Book, says Mc­Knight, “but not just as a Book but as the story that shapes us.”

Message-driven stories can entertain, please and even persuade. But a good story? It can change your life.


This is a slightly longer and linkier version of my column that ran July 21, 2014, at MWR.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Pulling on a thread in another featurette of 'The Giver'



It is reassuring to seeing Lois Lowry in this featurette because it reminds me how involved she was in the film. Bringing novels to the bring screen is always risky, especially when it is like The Giver—not only beloved by a generation of readers (of which I am one) but a story woven rich with themes, questions, metaphors and characters that speak directly into our own lives and culture.
This featurette pulls on several of those rich threads, one of which is: What do we do with the pain and suffering we experience in life and cause each other? What if everything that caused us pain could be erased or controlled?
In a Wall Street Journal interview with Sohrab Ahmari, Lowry reflected on how she came up with the idea for The Giver. She was going through a difficult time in her life, and coming home from a visit with her aging parents in their nursing home. Her mother often wanted to talk about Lowry’s sister Helen, who had died young; her father, whose memory was failing, alternatively couldn’t remember Helen or what happened to her and had to be told over and over again.
“When I was driving back to the airport that day,” Lowry reflects, “I began to think about that, the way a writer does: Well, what if you could manipulate human memory, so that people didn't have to remember bad stuff that had ever happened? Wouldn't that be nice—and comfortable? By the time I got home, I had formulated the beginning of a book."
At first it does seem idealic, but The Giver explores the disturbing consequences of such a choice, not only for an individual but for a community. In attempting to remove pain, loss, hatred, and enmity, we also lose joy, compassion, and love (which, we know from our Story to be a most transformative and saving power).
Part of the power of The Giver is the way Lowry leads us down a road with which we flirt in our culture. Gradually we begin to understand just how horrific those consequences are—so horrific, in fact, that some people think the novel is not appropriate for children to read.
So why read stories like that? I resonate with and appreciate the way Lowry expresses an answer to that question in her response to censorship efforts surrounding her novel:
"That's the irony of it," Ms. Lowry says. "In talking to people about censorship, and the fact that there've been attempts to censor this book . . . the people who bring the challenges, they do so with the best of intentions. They really want to protect their children. I have children. I have grandchildren. I would love to protect them from everything as well. 
"But it's the wrong way of going about it. The best way to prepare them for the world that they face is to present what the possibilities are and to let them be scared of what might happen." She adds: "I think that's really what literature does in every realm. You rehearse your life by reading about what happens to other people."
That’s what good stories do: give us the opportunity to walk down a road of possibility and explore what might happen to the world—and to us. It reveals key truths about the world we live in, the people around us and ourselves. The really good ones? They even change the way we see and act in the world. And stories like that intersect with our own Story in ways that help us see more clearly. But I will save that for the film, because if it gives us the spirit of Lowry’s story, it’ll do just that—and that will bring God-talk into open spaces.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

What this survey really tells us

The Barna Group recently released another survey, this one on church going in America. The numbers aren’t surprising, and I’ll leave it to others to mull all that over. The most revealing part of the survey isn’t even the reasons that people give for not/attending church. For me, the most revealing aspect is what the survey asks—and what that reveals about the way we understand “church.”
                                                                             
The survey focused on whether people attend church, how often, and why they do/don’t attend. According to the report, the results reveal that America is evenly divided on if church is important, and then goes on to explore why Christians think it is important.  

But perhaps the question shouldn’t be if or why church is important but even more basic: What is the church? If we start there, we’ll find a road that will lead to a new way of approaching church (and, perhaps, the surveys we use to evaluate it).

For this reason, I appreciated the inclusion at the end of the article of Jon Tyson’s approach of going back to the early church while reflecting on Barna’s results (but then, I do have strong Anabaptist leanings). That is an excellent place to start exploring what is the church.

Today, we commonly use “church” to refer to a building or place we go, but for early believers it means something different.  “Ekklesia” is a Greek word referring to a calling out of citizens. They are the called-out ones of the kingdom-coming, the people of God. In TheUpside-Down Kingdom, Donald Kraybill says, “The church consists of the citizens of the kingdom… . The church isn’t a building, a sanctuary or a program. It’s the visible community of those who live by kingdom values.” And this church has a mission: “The church is not a place to which people go,” says Scot McKnight in A Community Called Atonement, “but a spiritual body that is on a mission to draw, as did Jesus, others to the One who sent him.”

In other words, we are the church—not a place to go but a people to be. And we are designed and called to live like a family.

Integral to Jesus’ kingdom movement, says Joseph Hellerman in When the Church Was a Family, was creating an alternative and surrogate family — one characterized by family-like relationships and bonds in which we’d be consistently and persistently loved, our physical needs met, our gifts nurtured. “People did not convert to Christianity solely because of what the early Christians believed,” Hellerman says. “They converted because of the way in which the early Christians behaved … The ancient Christians were known for their love for one another.” And because they lived out church as God intended, “the whole Roman Empire ultimately bowed its knees to the King of kings and the Lord of lords.”

As God’s people today, we talk about being a family, but the reality too often falls way short of the early church experience. Yet we are called and enabled to live like this, too.

This has been part of God’s plan from the beginning, says Hellerman: “Biblical salvation is a community-creating event. We are saved not simply to enjoy a personal relationship with God; we are saved to community:”
…. when we get a new Father we also get a new set of brothers and sisters. In Scripture, salvation is a community-creating event…… To be sure, ours sin must be forgiven or we cannot enter a community inhabited by the Spirit of the Living God. But God’s overarching goal since Pentecost (as was the case in the Old Testament) is the creation of His group. And under the new covenant, God’s group is His church—a society of surrogate siblings whose interpersonal relationships are to be characterized by all the family attributes encountered in the previous chapters of this book.
What does “a society of surrogate siblings” look like? When we look at Scripture, says Hellerman, it is characterized by “intimate, healthy, long-lasting relationships with one’s brothers and sisters in Christ.” In the Roman world, says Hellerman, Christians “placed the good of the church family above their own personal goals, desires and aspirations” and “could count on support from the community to meet their material and emotional challenges that often came with commitment to Jesus.” Above all, Hellerman notes, Christians became known by what Jesus said they would be known by and even sought after: their love. God’s family becomes a living, breathing message of the good news to a world that desperately needs to hear it.

Surveys like this one, however, still approach church as place to go and measure it in numbers and size (incidentally, the way our consumer culture views health and success).

It wasn’t surprising to me that community is one of the least cited reasons people seek church. I have a confession to make: I don’t “go” to church for community, either. The way we define and structure church today, especially Sunday mornings (and that is the core occurrence surveys like this measure) doesn’t make much for community or family. Like many others across  America, I walk in the door of a building, talk with a few friends,  sit in a row of facing a stage, sing songs of worship, listen to a sermon, stand in line to take communion with my kids and husband, sing some more songs, and leave. I find many of these activities very meaningful, but except in a very broad sense, there isn’t much of the family life Hellerman describes in that weekly event. (I know there are exceptions out there—and your gatherings may be one of them; I am speaking of church culture and experience as a whole.)

I find that family and community in bits and pieces throughout the week—gathering with others in smaller groups, serving side by side, working through messy situations and relationships, listening to struggles and rejoicing in celebrations. These are family-like activities; they reflect loving God, each other and those around us.

But frankly, I thirst for a deeper and broader experience of what it means to be God’s people. I long for the spread of missional communities who yearn and actively seek to live as the families that God calls and enables us to be. I long for a people that don’t see church as a place to go—one more activity in our week full of activities—but families who we gladly place above our own personal goals, desires and aspirations, families who live and breathe gospel rhythms, eat together regularly, are the first ones we pick of the phone to call in joy or sorrow, the ones with whom we love and serve side-by-side our neighbors.
                                                                                                                                                           
To be fair, I’m pretty sure George Barna understands all this—after all, he coauthored with Frank Viola Pagan Christianity? Exploring the Roots of our Church Practice, which gets at a lot of this. And frankly, he has my sympathy; I’m not sure how one would go about developing a survey to measure church as a people to be instead of a place to go.

If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you know that I fall in with those who observe that the reality of kingdom community is the exception rather than the rule, at least in this part of the world. And that breaks my heart. We are not only limiting our experience of the fullness of the salvation and redemption and transformation that God has planned for us from the beginning, but we are failing to live out the lives we were meant to live—to be the people in which God, as Dallas Willard puts it, “is tangibly manifest to everyone on earth who wants to find him.”