Structuration theory and Christian theology; Like Water Flowing Around Stones

Structuration is a theory, conceived by sociologist Anthony Gibbens, utilized in community development studies to describe how societies or cultures change, develop and evolve. It takes the view that traditions, norms and the institutions that embody them (the “structures”) shape people (the “agents”), but then again people shape those structures, in an on-going feedback loop/ Coriolis spiral of symbiotic, fluid, interplay.  It serves as sort of a macro-level, umbrella theory that encompasses many of the other theories of community development (all of which are noticeably true, it seems, in at least some ways, but incomplete in the bigger picture). In structuration theory you can’t point to just one element and say “that’s why societies change.” There’s something more complex going on.

I like to picture it as water in a stream flowing around stones.

Picture a stream flowing around stones. Close your eyes. Let out a deep breath. Feeling more peaceful already, aren’t you? I know, I know, I’m wonderful.

Anyway, the stream flowing around stones is a picture of Structuration theory. The traditions, beliefs and practices of society (also organized into institutions) are the stones (“structures”) and the water is the people (“agents”). Notice how the stones shape the direction of the water, here a boulder divides the stream, over there the ledge pushes the flow into a bend, down a ways the field of round stones causes a small rapid. However, the water shapes the stones too.  The water moves the stones around, wears them into new shapes, even, as happened here during a hurricane, moves the course of the stream completely out of the riverbed and carves something new (the Russian revolution of 1917 or the American one of 1776 would be examples  of this).  In the same way, in Structuration theory structures and agents are seen to mutually shape each other – a duality of affecting forces. Neither has priority over the other.

While more specific analyses of communities are necessary in order to avoid partial and/or too vague conclusions, a strength of Structuration theory is it’s etic, get-out-of-your-fishbowl, big picture overview. The reason I am talking about this is that I suspect Structuration theory accurately describes how Christian theology works, and has developed down through the centuries. We can get to that in the next post.

Working our way backwards to, not forward from, the Virgin Birth

When I’m drinking coffee with someone poking around on the edges of Christian faith, one of the things that sometimes comes up (especially this time of year), is serious doubt about the Virgin Birth. I’ve come to the spot where I no longer try to convince people of the Virgin Birth, rather I think it’s a doctrine we work our way backwards to; after discovering more and more what God is like in our own lives, it becomes easier to believe this God could and would do something like a Virgin Birth. Trying to get someone over the intellectual hurdle of the Virgin Birth before they can exert some faith in Christ seems to me, after 20+ years of full time pastoral experience, to be going about this from the wrong direction. I don’t know anyone under the age 50 who ever came to faith by saying “Well, since the Bible says Jesus was born of a virgin, he must be God!” That would be to suppose that people already assume the Bible is true, something by no means the case today.

So the conversation for me often looks something like this: First, I don’t follow Jesus or believe in the Creator God because of the truth or untruth of a doctrine like the Virgin Birth. Even if it turned out that the Virgin Birth was just a way Matthew and Luke were saying  Jesus was from God but not to be taken literally (though I think there are strong historical reasons why neither of them would want to write anything like the Virgin Birth narrative unless they believed it to be utterly and literally true – far too risky considering the easy comparison to Greco-Roman mythology – both of these men were demonstrably very smart thinkers; and no one, as far as we can tell, in the 400 years from Isaiah to Matthew, ever put together the idea of Immanuel and the Messiah until Matthew himself does – so it isn’t a case of text-proofing), I would still follow Jesus for all the reasons I believe doing so is the smart human option. I don’t do it due to his birth circumstances.

Second, after we “taste and see that the Lord is good,” after we get an experience little by little of what living the way of Jesus is like, and experiencing the strange and new experience of having His Spirit at work in our hearts and minds, we start to find ourselves trusting His way (and Himself!) more and more. As our based-on-experience time accumulates and we watch things happen in life that we have a hard time explaining outside of God, we become more and more aware that there are things God is doing in our lives supernaturally. We see situations change, prayer affect peoples’ hearts, hard-to-explain healings, and other things occur to the extent that we begin to find it easier and easier to believe that the God working in Jesus really did heal people (no one in that generation ever claimed he didn’t – they just accused him of black magic), and from there it becomes easier to believe that this God would do something extraordinary like a Virgin Birth, as well. When you’ve experienced the presence of God working in your own life more and more, and found yourself changing as a result in ways that delight you, when you’ve seen miracles occur, it becomes easier and easier to reason your way backwards then, to something like the Virgin Birth.

“Until then,” I usually say, “I wouldn’t worry overmuch about the Virgin Birth. I don’t mind if you believe it or not. I’m not saying disregard it, I don’t believe in intellectual dishonesty – it always backfires. But maybe it’s a subject you can always come back to, anytime you want. Right now, I’d suggest you set it off to the side for the moment.  At this point in your life, there may be more compelling reasons to consider trying out the way of Jesus. And you may find that the results shed new light on this whole question.”

To me. this approach makes the Virgin Birth a doctrine we work our way backwards to, rather than forwards from.

In the jungles of Costa Rica

cabecar jungle

 

So I’ve been AWOL for a month here, in a flurry of activity that has kept me largely away from my computer and for sure away from doing things like blogging. One of the best of these activities, in a month packed with fun, (Thanksgiving, deer hunting, etc), was a week long trip to Costa Rica, where I found myself climbing mountains in the jungle on a remote Indian Reservation doing a feasibility study for development work for an inter-agency cooperation.

From 2012-2014 I did an MA in International Development at Eastern University in St. Davids, PA at Eastern’s  (Tony) Campolo School of Leadership and Development. As a pastor, I’ve always believed in putting your money where your mouth is, and a degree in development would, I hoped, help me comprehend better how to do good work in the under-developed world, instead of blundering through with good intentions.  It was great fun and very stimulating and put me with an incredible group of people I am blessed to call friends. One of the organizations looking at development work among the Native Americans in Costa Rica knew me and asked me to come along on an assessment trip as their ‘development specialist.’ An all-expenses-paid chance to hike around in the jungle and maybe even do some good? Easy choice.  My folks paid for our 17 year old son to come along as a student observer and that made it even better.

So it was pretty sweet, interviewing folks all over, taking a look at their water and sanitation issues, and education, health services and infrastructure needs. We spent three days in the jungle and the next three days hammering out reports and sitting in long, long meetings. All in all, it was dream work. The dream job. I’m grateful to belong to a denomination with a vision for transformation of not only peoples’ spiritual lives, but all of their existence, in culturally appropriate, missiologically and anthropologically sound ways.

Paul trumps Jesus’ own apprentices in Western Christianity

It’s ironic, is it not, that the three guys who actually spent THREE YEARS WITH JESUS EVERYDAY as his very own right hand men, disciples of the rabbi, have been side-lined in Western Christianity as second-rate to the great Apostle Paul, a guy who never met Jesus except in ecstatic visions? It’s hilarious. The six letters written by these three immediate learners from Jesus are down-played while Paul’s thirteen are held up as the centerpiece of Christian doctrine and belief.

How can we deny it? Western Christianity, and certainly Protestant Christianity, is built lock, stock, and barrel on Pauline theology, not least because the Reformation was largely a movement built on Pauline doctrines.  Every single time in my entire life that I have ever heard someone quote a passage from Peter, James or John’s letters that disagreed with something Paul said, everyone within earshot scrambles to make sure that Pater, James or John conform to what Paul said. “Well, what they really mean is…” is what they say, and what follows is a way of explaining the passage so that it agrees with what we perceive as Pauline doctrine. Not once have I EVER heard someone read something in one of Paul’s letters and make it conform to the theology in Peter, James or John. And yet, logically, who would we think knew what Jesus intended better?

Well, we say, Paul was SO WELL EDUCATED! And Peter, James and John, well, you know, dumb blue collar fishermen and such. Country bumpkins. Paul’s the real theologian. These guys are more like someone telling fireside stories.

I’m not buying it.

The Reformation is long done. We don’t need to keep chanting it’s formulas and favorite verses for the next two thousand years. Meaning: we don’t need to act like the Reformation question is the centerpiece of Christianity. Do we really think the point of the Bible is “here’s how you get to heaven”? If so, we’ve got a really, really, thick set of 16th century European lenses on for glasses.

What if we took Peter, James and John just as seriously as we take Paul? What if we took them even more seriously than we take Paul, and made his theology fold into theirs? Saw theirs as prior since they were WITH Jesus all that time? I can answer that: our theology would look a lot different.

And that’s not even to mention the more obvious question: What if we read Paul through the lens of Jesus, instead of reading Jesus (as we have for 500 years) through the lens of Paul?

Time for some theology, bro.

Is the Bible’s Story What We Say It Is?

The way that the Bible’s story is often pitched in evangelicalism is that the point of life is that everyone has sinned, thus infuriating God and causing Him to send everyone to hell, and you have to ask Jesus to forgive you or you won’t go to heaven. So the point of life is actually afterlife, getting to heaven. Sometimes this story-line is expressed with an even more sinister tone:  a friend of mine the other day summed it up when asked, What’s the point of earth in this version: “just a testing place to see if God will let you into heaven.”

But I noticed some time ago that if you read the Old Testament you would never come away with this story line. Reading the Old Testament, the point of it all doesn’t come across that everyone is sinful and God will take you to heaven if you ask forgiveness. In the OT, the storyline goes more like this: life on earth is being ruined by violence, oppression and injustice. God wants people to live uprightly, the opposite of those things, and to follow Him and His ways for a good life here. Jesus, when asked, summed up the OT with “loving God” and “loving your neighbor.” The point is explicitly summed up in verses like Micah 6: 8

He has shown you, O mortal, what is good.
    And what does the Lord require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy
    and to walk humbly with your God.

This is a story about life on earth and how God wants it lived, and that the problem is the destruction of shalom here on earth. This is not a story about earth as a testing ground to see who makes it to heaven.

Consider the following books and ask yourself if their message is about making it to heaven: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy? Chronicles? Kings? The Psalms? Esther? Jonah?  The Prophets? Hmmmm.

As for after-life, in the Old Testament we get a comment about resurrection in Job, a two verse mention of the Great Judgment in Daniel, and a handful of verses in Psalms about escaping Sheol or dwelling with the Lord all my days.

The Old Testament seems to be about life on earth. But we talk like the New Testament is about life after earth. Why the switch of subjects? Is there really a switch? Or have we simply prioritized some texts, skipped over or misread others, and assumed things about phrases like ‘Kingdom of Heaven’ which are different than what Jesus actually meant? If we assume Jesus came as an answer to the problem presented in the Old Testament, why do the New Testament answers (as we typically discuss them) sound like they are about a different problem?  Some have suggested that we have gotten this point-of-life-is-escaping-hell-and-gaining-heaven from the soaking Christian theology got via passing through Greek philosophy. Perhaps we’ve developed a Christianity focused so much on afterlife that we’ve missed the point of much of the Bible.

Earth is Not Detention Hall, Part Two

Part One can be read here  https://toddrisser.com/2013/11/12/earth-is-not-detention-hall-part-one/

The tikkun olam (repairment of the world) is a doctrine so lost in American evangelicalism, most modern Christians have never even heard of it. In fact, it is very common for life-long church-goers to say to me at funerals “I get the heaven thing, but what’s this about the resurrection of the body?” Resurrection and repairment of the world are two doctrines that go inseparably hand in hand in the Scriptures. Somehow we’ve lost track of some major parts of the Bible’s story.

I find it difficult to enumerate in a small space the vast, profound difference between believing earth is a short rehearsal before we leave forever, and believing that earth is the locus of God’s redemption, now and forever. This has profound effects on how we view the Creation, the scope of salvation, environmental and foreign policy, and a host of issues in our lives here and now, and tomorrow.

Seeing the world as God’s beloved creation, emerging/postmodern Christian faith has a stake in the state of this world. They realize atheist Sam Harris asks a good question when he asks “Can people who believe in the imminent end of the world really be expected to work toward building a durable civilization?” (Sam Harris, Letter to a Christian Nation, xii).

Rapture theology and end of the world despair is a two hundred year old rabbit trail that gained lots of traction in American folk theology, but that earlier Christians never believed. Getting back to a biblical eschatology is in itself a good thing, and of course affects our soteriology and morality here and now. Postmodern Christians, not longing to jet away to some ethereal heaven, have theologically compelling reasons to engage this world’s problems and conundrums with the Way of Jesus, and thus bring about more of the justice,  reconciliation and shalom God desires for His creation, which longs for the Day (Romans 8: 19-22).

Earth Is Not Detention Hall, Part One

“Left Behind” theology and other questionable bible exegesis (confusing ‘Kingdom of Heaven’ with a place away from earth where we spend eternity, etc) have  created a view of this world as detention hall. Having a long and thorough personal knowledge of detention hall, I can tell you that all you want to do in detention hall is successfully get out of there. The modern evangelical Christian attitude toward earth has been boiled down to “get me out of this run down trailer park of a planet before God’s tornado touches down.” (I think I owe Rob Bell for this turn of phrase). Or, in the words of Mark Driscoll, “fortunately, the pastor told us about the rapture, and how, if we don’t watch television and do vote Republican, we can fly to heaven just before Jesus opens a can of whoop in the end. This man was on a mission, but it wasn’t very missional. His mission seemed to be simply to get off the planet as soon as possible, which didn’t sound very incarnational to me.” (Mark Driscoll, Confessions of a Reformission Rev., 50). Believe it or not, I have actually had a missionary say to me the best thing he could have done for some ‘natives’ in his area, was mow them down with a machine gun after they received Christ. Is there any more glaring example of a heaven-focused, earth-denying salvation?

Drawn back to Scripture’s story  by such New Testament scholars as N.T. Wright, more and more mainstream Christians (led initially by the emergent movement down this road), have left off these “tired old theologies of abandonment and escape” (thanks again Rob Bell for this phrase), to embrace the biblical doctrine of ‘the renewal of all things’ (Matthew 19:28; Acts 3: 21, Romans 8: 19-25 etc), the call to doing the works of the Kingdom now (Matthew 25: 34ff), and the encouraging promise that none of that will have been in vain (I Corinthians 15:58). We are not oiling the wheels of a car about to go over a cliff. In fact, the Bible’s story ends with us here on earth, not far away in heaven. Heaven, it turns out, is vacation in between death and resurrection. Not our final home.

This is a dramatic theological shift: Postmodern Christians don’t see earth as a temporary and unfortunate part of God’s plan. With the early Christians, they don’t understand the Scriptures to say God is planning on tossing the earth in a scrap heap while we all jet off to some spiritual / non-physical heaven. They read in the Scriptures of God redeeming and restoring His good creation on the Day of the Lord and a resurrected life here on earth in the Age to Come.