Agriculture, Christian faith, and the world’s future

This summer my family moved to central rural Ohio to live at the epicenter of our relations while I attempt a PhD. In the transition, I have been working at a biblically Wendell Berry-inspired, organic, chemical-free, local-only, farm-to-table food co-op kind of “thing.” It’s a protest alternative to transnational mega-corporate food supply that harms both the biosphere, human health, and ultimately human community. We get Amish, and back-to-the-land small farmer millennial, and family-owned orchard produce, to people who live in the city and have no access to it. The whole concoction is hilariously fun. My boss gave me the following book:

Scripture, Culture, and Agriculture: An Agrarian Reading of the Bible by Ellen Davis of Duke Divinity School (2009).

In the forward by Wendell Berry, Berry says this:

“The human situation, as understood by both biblical agrarians and contemporary ones, is about as follows. We are, howbeit only in part, earthly creatures. We have been given the earth to live, not on, but with and from, and only on the condition that we care properly for it. We did not make it, and we know little about it. In fact, we don’t, and will never, know enough about it to make our survival sure or our lives carefree. Our relation to our land will always remain, to a significant extent, mysterious. Therefore, our use of it must be determined more by reverence and humility, by local memory and affection, than by the knowledge we now call “objective” or “scientific.” Above all, we must not damage it permanently or compromise its natural means of sustaining itself. The best farmers have always accepted this situation as a given, and they have honored the issues of propriety and scale that it urgently raises.”

There’s some solid theology in there. If we can divest ourselves of the end-times/Left Behind/escapist nonsense that has infected so much of contemporary Western Christianity, perhaps we can focus better on bearing the image of the Creator to the rest of creation as His stewards, and live on this earth, as intended. To many young Christians, this is one of the top-tier issues of importance if Christianity is going to be a functional, rather than dysfunctional, influence in our world.

Advertisements

A fantastic new book

In our time the doctrine of the atonement/ Jesus crucified has come under attention once again. The way it is usually explained within Western Christianity, it sounds like the all too familiar abusive father who takes his rage out on someone innocent, in this case his own child, and then dresses it up by wrapping his ugly behavior up with the word love. The idea that the Creator God Himself has to kill someone in order to forgive people has understandably caused people to wonder what kind of God we are talking about.

Into the midst of this, world-renowned theologian N.T. Wright has written an absolutely incredible book. He has clearly familiarized himself with both popular and academic treatments of the atonement written recently, and pastorally identified the very real problems our current understanding of the crucifixion brings to people. This is understandable, he says, and it’s fine, because the ways that the crucifixion is understood in Western Christianity have de-railed from the actual story and meanings in the Bible. In fact, he demonstrates, the way in which the prevailing theologies of Western Christianity are explaining the atonement end up de-biblicizing it, de-Judaizing it, and paganizing it.

If we start reading the Bible at the beginning, we find the problem is not that God made the world as a testing ground to see if people would go to heaven or hell, and then makes a way for the first rather than the second. No, that is not the story we find when we read the Bible’s story. And when we make that the story, we start mis-understanding the cross in all sorts of ways that fall far short of what the followers of Jesus meant when they said that he died “for our sins” and “in accordance with the Bible.”the day the rev began pic

Wright’s book is called “The Day the Revolution Began: Reconsidering the Meaning of Jesus’ Crucifixion.” It is a life-changing, worldview-changing book; one of the best things Wright has written in a while, and that’s saying something. Run, don’t walk, get a copy, and read it.

Wesley on our life

I’ve been reading a great book about Wesley and came across a great quote.  Not Wesley the Dread Pirate Roberts, but John Wesley, founder of the Methodists (1703-1791). The book is Organic Wesley: A Christian Perspective on Food, Farming, and Faith by William C. Guerrant, Jr and published by Seedbed, 2015. It’s very Wendell Berry-ish, and absolutely jam-packed with Wesley’s many thoughts on food justice. Wesley, who believed the Gospel to be about EVERYTHING (not just individual spiritual salvation) spoke quite a bit about food justice issues (distribution, animal treatment, industrialization, obesity, health, you name it) that are in the headlines all the time today.

So, the quote is in two parts, the first a statement he made in 1747 and the second he made in 1790. It’s a great image of God’s care for creation, our place in the scheme of things, and the implicit insight that God, Who has always been about relationship, is therefore all about synergism between Himself and humanity in the care of His world, and in, well everything. It summarizes our task very simply. Here it is:

“He who governed the world before I was born shall take care of it when I am dead. My part is to improve the present moment….  Do good. Do all the good thou canst.”

New book on Atonement

Nearly 70 years ago Nazarene scholars were saying that the penal substitution view of the atonement was counter to Wesleyan theological commitments and implied a God who had to kill someone (exacting justice) BEFORE he was free to forgive. Since not even we humans suffer that limitation, Wesleyan theology, has a very difficult time imagining that the God who is love is required, by His own sense of justice, to take it out on someone before He can forgive someone else. In penal substitution’s view, God is not free to forgive until He has punished someone; He is not free to be merciful, until he balances the scales of justice with retribution.atonement book vail

Despite this theological dissonance, no one in our tribe has gotten anything on paper to offer a better option. Until now. Eric Vail, professor of theology at Mount Vernon Nazarene University, has penned ‘Atonement and Salvation: The Extravagance of God’s Love.’  A fabulous read. Kindly worded, readable, it takes in the pertinent scholarship and discusses the atonement and salvation in large, Biblical categories, rather than more narrow, 16th century European ones. I recommend it. Beacon Hill Press: 2016.

Croatian theologian Miroslav Volf on public faith

I’ve been reading Yale theologian Miroslav Volf’s  A Public Faith: How Followers of Christ Should Serve the Common Good. (His former teaching home was Fuller Theological Seminary, among other places, for those of you for whom that means something). It’s a good read, a fairly academic argument about why and what the role of faith in the public square should look like in today’s secular, pluralistic world. One of the things I appreciate about Volf is that one of the themes in his career has been building bridges between communities and worldviews:  Christian and Muslim, Christian and secular, etc. Being from Croatia, I can only imagine Volf has a very agonizing sense of the disaster it is when a society comes apart at the seams due to divisions and factions (if you are too young to remember this well, Croatia was part of the former Yugoslavia, a country which devolved into savagery and appalling crimes against humanity in the 1990s. I’m talking The Walking Dead – style violence.)

To give you the flavor a bit, one of his questions is ‘How should we go about realizing a vision for human flourishing in relation to other faiths and under the roof of a single state?’ While it would take more than one post to give a sense of his work in A Public Faith, some of his thoughts include:

‘a faith that does not seek to mend the world is a seriously malfunctioning faith.’

‘when it comes to life in the world, to follow Christ means to care for others… and work toward their flourishing, so that life would go well for all and so that all would learn how to lead their lives well.’

‘a vision of human flourishing and the common good is the main thing the Christian faith brings into the public debate’.

‘Christ’s command in everything do to others as you would have them do to you (Matthew 7:12) entails that Christians grant to other religious communities the same religious and political freedoms that they claim for themselves. Christians… ought to embrace pluralism as a political project.’

Volf is interested ‘not on attenuating Christian convictions but on affirming them robustly and living them out joyously.’

Written by one of today’s highly respected academics, the book is still accessible and readable by non-specialists, and very much worth your time. I recommend it highly.

 

Reinhold Niebuhr on Economic Disparity

I admit that I tend, like most people, I suspect, to think of terms like economic inequality, social justice and social disparity as phrases growing out of the 1960s social movements. I understand why some of my friends roll their eyes at these terms, seeing as there has always been economic inequality among humans on Earth – for our entire history! – and that such terms are often favorite code words today for confiscating resources that someone worked diligently to earn to help their family, and redistributing them to people who are not working. In a culture built on the Protestant Work Ethic and Germanic ideals of work-hard-be-rewarded-well-prosperity, it’s easy to see why many people consider these terms less than useful.

However, Christians have been concerned about economic injustice and disparity since the beginning. Christianity’s emphasis on God’s concern for the poor is drawn from its constant appearance in the Old and New Testaments of the Bible. Preachers as far back as Gregory the Great (540-604 AD) not only railed about concern for the poor, but also were already analyzing contributing factors as to why they were poor in the first place (Gregory himself observed that rural poverty due to a poor harvest had a different genesis  than urban poverty where the societal structures in place kept rich people rich and poor people desperately poor.)* John Wesley, Anglican founder of the Methodists, argued that a Christian should make as much money in his business as he could – as long as it didn’t harm his neighbor’s business! (Sermon: On the Use of Money). For myself, I am not against a factory owner making more money than the factory worker. Having known those owners, and their story, including un-assisted rags-to-riches stories that, yes indeed, were done without crushing anyone, not even systemically, I don’t have a problem that they are enjoying the fruit of their hard work. The ancient scroll of Proverbs in the Old Testament celebrated the cause-and-effect benefits of diligent work 3000 years ago. Every time someone succeeds, it does not mean it was via injustice, however hidden. A seven-person broom business in Bangladesh started with a Muhammad Yunus micro-loan shouldn’t have to listen to the charge of systemic injustice. I know American businesses started by very poor people that succeeded the same way. Constant assumptions of systemic injustice whenever someone does well, are over-reaching on the subject.

What does strike me as a new conundrum, is that in the current way our transnational corporate world is organized, the factory owner now makes over 350 times what the worker does, whereas 60 years ago they made about 12 times more than the worker. The fact that the owner was from that same town and felt a sense of responsibility for his workers, created a context in which all-or-nothing short term profits were NOT the order of the day. This is one of the chief reasons thinkers like Fritz Schumacher argued for smaller businesses rather than mega. But I got thinking of all of this when I was reading The Theology of Reinhold Niebuhr by E. Campbell today and came across this passage – using those terms like social injustice, in 1932! Here is Niebuhr’s quote, from Moral Man and Immoral Society: A Study in Ethics and Politics (1932):

                “The sharpening of class antagonism within each modern industrial nation is increasingly destroying national unity and imperiling international comity as well. It may be that the constant growth of economic inequality and social injustice in our industrial civilization will force the nations into a final conflict… the disintegration of national loyalties through class antagonisms has proceeded so far in the more advanced nations, that they can hardly dare to permit the logic inherent in the present situation to take its course. Conditions in these nations, particularly in Germany… reveal what desperate devices are necessary for the preservation of even a semblance of national unity…

                If the possibilities and perils of the contemporary situation are to be fully understood it will be necessary to study the class antagonism within the nations carefully and estimate their importance for the future of civilization.”

Heightened disparity undermining civilization. This from a landmark Christian theologian back in 1932. Interesting.

*Wealth and Poverty in Early Church and Society (Holy Cross Studies in Patristic Theology and History) Susan R. Holman, editor. 2008.

We are not the New Testament church, and we aren’t supposed to be

I’ve been awol from the blog this past month, moving house, celebrating the holidays with a huge swath of family, and hunting deer (thank you, my sons, for killing four – the freezer is full!) Now I’m back. Let’s talk theology.

Our job is not to re-create the New Testament church. To do so would be to attempt to recreate the Hellentistic Jewish or Greco-Roman culture of first century Palestine/ Eurasia… which is precisely what the New Testament church chose NOT to do. James’ leadership to the Jerusalem church regarding the cultural practices of Jewish Christianity in Jerusalem was precisely not “recreate us” – it was to allow the Gentile churches to evolve within their cultures, not try to recreate the culture of the Jerusalem church.

So when folks often crank up conversations about whether or not a church practice is “biblical,” what you often find when you peel back the layers, is that they are actually talking about if the NT church actually practiced this or that. That’s utterly beside the point. Of course they didn’t drink coffee in foyers – they had neither coffee nor foyers, (but as soon as Christians discovered both, they latched on!) – they were busy eating communal meals in each others’ homes and selling their landed property to provide for the poor.

Their era was not our era, their context was not our context, their issues were not our issues. (Few people in North America are wondering if they should participate in ancestor worship or give homage sacrifice to the Emperor or figure out the relationship of Christian slaves to Christian masters who worship side by side as brothers in Christ). Their practices were a reflection of the era they lived in. Our task is not to recreate a theme park of first century Jewish or Galatian (et al) religious practices that Christians utilized. These were all drenched in their own culture’s practices so as to make sense of their worship of God.

So one church gets accused of not being Bible-believing for not using the term “born again” while another gets accused because they don’t speak in tongues meanwhile the other church is accused of because they do speak in tongues, while another is on the hook because they ordain women. This is all beside the point. I don’t know if I’ve heard of a church that was literally not Bible-believing. (It almost always translates that the other church doesn’t place as much directive value on, or interpret that particular VERSE, the way my church does!) It’s that we have different cultural practices in our worship, just like Ephesus differed from Antioch. It really doesn’t matter. In fact, the diversity is good – it allows people from diverse cultural backgrounds to choose a church that makes sense to them and nurtures their relationship with God. The Jerusalem elders’ letter to the Gentile churches in Acts is clear: we do not need to all practice church culturally the same.

What matters is that our practices –and God help us: our mission! – are theologically in tune with Jesus. You can do that a zillion different ways (and Christians do, all around the world) and the issue is not whether you light candles when you do it, for goodness sake. Whether it’s a “biblical” practice or not is NOT the question (the New Testament didn’t sacrifice bulls on altars anymore – a quintessential “biblical” practice!) The question is: is this practice utilized in such a way to bring glory to God, to advance His work in the world, to carry on the mission of Jesus in ways that God’s Spirit works through. To make it about whether a particular practice has historical or Scriptural precedent, is simply to fall into the argument going on within fundamentalist Islam today. And that’s not our schtick.

Ours… is (faith, hope, and) love.