Saturday, July 27, 2013

Theology Rockers

The NuDunkers are all up to various summer break trouble-making: pilgrimaging on the Camino de Santiago, dissertating, vacationing in Maine, pastoring, and book-blogging. We're a bit scattered around the globe at the moment, making Hangouts a little tricky. But have no fear! We still exist, converse, think, write. We've agreed to write on 5 (or so) books that rocked our theologies. I'll update with links to my fellow NuDunkers' posts here. And if you're up for joining us in trying to narrow it down to 5 works that have shaped your own theology, kindly leave a link in the comments or on our Google Group page.

First, a confession or two:

While I appreciate systematics and can get into a rousing discussion of the philosophical sources influencing Christian tradition every once in a while, I'm much more interested in compelling expressions of lived theology. I don't mean watered down theory or pop-theology. I just mean that I find the Christian story to be best told when it's done in evocative language, impassioned narrative and applicable, teachable prose.

Yes, yes, Kant and Hegel are important to at least encounter if you want to talk about theology in any sort of systematic way, but they're background. They offer a framework. But they're also so embedded in our Western cultural assumptions - descriptive of a particular perception of reality, not descriptive of the potential for transformation. I thereby relegate them to the realm of Non-Theology Rocking writers.

Also: Come on. God created the universe. The least we could do is write stuff reflective of a tiny smidgen of all that beauty, grace, glory, grandeur, ferocity. Or, I guess the VERY least we could do is write things that are gracefully comprehensible to others, that capture some of the joy of a life lived in Christ. (I'm looking at you, John Howard Yoder! You had all the rich beauty of Anabaptist hospitality, humility, creativity, patience, and hope and ended up with...that.)

All that to say: If I can claim a theology that I consider my own, it is one bent toward intuition and aesthetics, poetry and practice. I hope that happens in responsible and thoughtful ways, but I also know that I am prone to picking the sentence that sounds nice over the one that's marginally more true. So it goes.

Enough with the disclaimers! Desist with those confessions! Onward to the good stuff!

5 Books that Rocked My Theology (a somewhat chronological and by no means exhaustive sampling that, were it to be a true representation, would delve much more deeply into the land of poetry, hymnody, children's literature and, I daresay, dialogue from The West Wing)

Stanley Hauerwas: God, Medicine & Suffering (alternately published as "Naming the Silences")

I first encountered Hauerwas in an undergrad course called, frighteningly, "Death." Dr. Hans Tiefel taught the course and opened doors in my head that I didn't even know I should have been looking for. This was a bit before Hauerwas became Time's Greatest Living Theologian, a bit before the Neo-Anabaptist renaissance, and a bit before I was aware of having any theological inclinations myself. What I remember is how Hauerwas (and Tiefel) turned the concept of "Death with Dignity" completely on its head; how the upturning made such sense to me; how I finally recognized that what I thought about God was in direct conflict with what people around me were constantly doing and saying about Her. Death with dignity might not be exactly what we think, they said. Dignity, for believers, might be something other than individual choice. Dignity might actually be the chance to be surrounded by community, the opportunity to surrender one's life back into the hands of its creator. "Holy shit," I thought, "I am not crazy." Or, if I was, at least it was a recognizable brand of crazy. And at least one of us was publishing books.

Parker Palmer: In the Company of Strangers

I spent most of seminary arguing. The good Methodists at Candler were very good Methodists, Wesleyan through and through, mainliners, practical, full up with three distinct kinds of grace and...wrong. So, so, wrong. You can see why I argued so much. Convinced that my own minority perspective (pacifism! priesthood of all believers! uncompromising sectarianism!) was the only way, I argued with those Methodists until I was blue in the face. And it was good. But Parker Palmer offered another possibility for witness: genuine hospitality. I read In the Company of Strangers in a course on Christians & Public Life with Steve Tipton - should Christians work in politics? Should public discourse be devoid of religious language? How does a religious group affect public life? Should they? Palmer's definition of hospitality shifted my understanding of sectarianism AND offered a way to encounter and engage others in the very conversations I was having with my Methodist friends:

He quotes Nouwen: "Hospitality is not a subtle invitation to adopt the lifestyle of the host, but the gift of a chance for the guest to find his own." And goes on to say:

"Hospitality means letting the stranger remain a stranger while offering acceptance nonetheless. It means honoring the fact that strangers already have a relationship - rooted in our common humanity - without having to build one on intimate interpersonal knowledge, without having to become friends. It means valuing the strangeness of the stranger - even letting the stranger speak a language you cannot speak or sing a song you cannot join with - resisting the temptation to reduce the relation to some lowest common denominator, since all language and all music is already human. It means meeting the stranger's needs while allowing him or her simply to be, without attempting to make the stranger over into a modified version of ourselves."

Amen, Parker.

Annie Dillard: For the Time Being

I cannot explain to you my love of Annie Dillard for fear of completely ruining your (inevitable, imperative) experience of reading her. She is a mystic from Tinker Creek, which runs right through my hometown. She weaves theology and scientific discovery and history's famous explorers into a single moment watching a moth burn in a candle flame, or a weasel feeding on a hawk, or a burning barn. I read Teaching a Stone to Talk and Pilgrim at Tinker Creek in high school, smitten. But For the Time Being came after seminary, and I think only then did I recognize what she was doing as theology and not just an exercise in literary wonder (though, truly, what's the difference?):

"We live in all we seek. The hidden shows up in too-plain sight. It lives captive on the face of the obvious - the people, events, and things of the day - to which we as sophisticated children have long since become oblivious. What a hide-out: holiness lies spread and borne over the surface of time and stuff like color."

Samuel Wells: Improvisation

When I started to work for the church, I got predictably cynical about the state of Christianity. The church sucks, y'all. And it is also a stunning glimpse of what might be possible. Sam Wells' Improvisation helped me to hold both those things together. He uses the idea of improv - in narrative and in theater - to form a structure for how the church might act in the world. It helped, of course, that I read the book in the context of a program for institutional leaders at Duke, and we learned about the concept by playing theater games and playing jazz. Besides: he's Sam Wells: delightful, thoughtful, clear and creative. The ideas of being resourceful, overaccepting, redefining and playing with reality are still shifting how I think about institutional life, congregational life, and the possibilities of ecclesiology in general:

"This ability to see simultaneously what is and what might yet be is the creative force of training in how to live well - otherwise known as moral formation. The pain and care of schooling in a tradition is about learning to see the ambiguity of the world truthfully, yet maintaining hope. The practice of the moral life, meanwhile, is not so much about being creative or clever as it is about taking the right things for granted."

Simone Weil: Waiting on God

Last but not least: Simone. A crazy lady who starved herself to death in solidarity with those going hungry in the occupied zone of France, her struggle toward integrity heartens and intrigues me in a morbid sort of way. To be so bent on putting one's ideas into practice that you eventually deprive your body of the simple nourishment it needs to live: this is irrational, crazy-making, impossible and yet it makes a certain sense to me. Theology is an impossible thing - it's trying to understand God, who, when asked about his very own identity, will only respond, "I AM." Enough to turn one on to the perks of entomology or podiatry. Waiting on God is a random assortment of letters and essays. It includes "Reflections on the Right Use of School studies with a View to the Love of God," an essay I had been waiting for all my life. She's talking about spiritual practices, here, and her conclusion is what I say to every volunteer and every intern and every youth with whom I get to share this idea of spiritual practices: anything, done with reverence and attentiveness and intention, can become a spiritual practice. God can speak to us through anything, if only we will listen.

"If we concentrate our attention on trying to solve a problem of geometry, and if at the end of an hour we are no nearer to doing so than at the beginning, we have nevertheless been making progress each minute of that hour in another more mysterious dimension. Without our knowing or feeling it, this apparently barren effort has brought more light into the soul. The result will one day be discovered in prayer."

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