Monday, 3 November 2014

Deanna Hove on Non-Denominationalism, Grace, and Sacrament

The church that I grew up in was the same that I was dedicated in as a baby and worshipped at for the following twenty-three years. There are many aspects of this experience that I am still unpacking, which can be difficult to do so in earnest when it has been the primary informant for many of my early theological ideas. The church is affiliated with the Associated Gospel Church (AGC) denomination, and has close relationships with other Baptist churches around the city. Additionally, the local university’s seminary is Baptist as well, increasing my insulation to different theological streams. There was a strange tension between having the idea that we were very theologically informed, and yet having no formal catechesis process, which resulted in a kind of culture that the way things were done, and the way things were thought about, were simply what Christianity itself were. I only later understood why those who tended to call themselves “non-denominational” were primarily from Baptist, Evangelical upbringings.

Coming out of this context, I was struck with the depth and significance given of the Eucharist that was in other traditions. It is on this background that I will address the practice of taking the Eucharist at this church. How this was approached at church largely informed how I think of grace and how God relates to us both despite, and due to, the fact that Communion seemed to be a marginal practice. What follows is my evaluation of what the practices meant, or rather, how they manifested themselves to me. Without delving too far into my pre-teen psyche, I will say that my experience with preparing to take Communion was fraught with anxiety. It was generally frowned upon for children to take part in Communion, although some families did allow their children to do so. My parents were particularly insistent on not taking Communion before you could fully understand what was going on. This was part of an emphasis on internal preparation, and ‘readiness’ to come to the table. Turning thirteen allowed me to understand what was really going on through Christ’s death on the cross, however I had been barred from partaking for so long, I did not know how to proceed now that I was allowed to truly remember. It was remembrance that was emphasized, rather than any present grace or future eschaton with the recitation of Luke 22:19 as the closest manifestation of a liturgy. We took of the ‘bread and wine,’ manifested as crackers and grape juice (in individual cups), as what was important was what they represented, rather than the elements themselves. Lacking an overt explanation of why things were done as such implied that there was no objective importance to what was done – it was not tied into our larger experience as the church body or historical narrative, rather our personal reflection on what Christ did for us. Further, by focusing on remembrance there was overwhelming emphasis on Christ’s death. We remember, and are thankful for his sacrifice. 

There was a strange degree of solemnity for a purely symbolic observance. I am inclined to believe that the fact that it was symbolic made it that much less accessible. This emphasis on Christ’s sacrifice was reinforced through the most important and most serious Communion service on Good Friday. Throughout the year, Communion services were held once a month – although not explicitly stated, I was impressed with the importance of the service, with it only being once a month. It should not be taken for granted, or become routine by having it more frequently. The focus on Christ’s sacrifice, and thus his death for our sins reinforced that we needed to acknowledge what this meant for us, personally. The preamble before the monthly service was generally the same, in talking about the importance of remembering Christ’s sacrifice, and we ought to be sure to pay credence to the event of the crucifixion, and remember the price paid for our forgiveness. This seemed to undercut the grace given, as we were sure to feel the appropriate amount of regret as payment for this gift of grace. The operating paradigm was very much that of personal salvation. Salvation primarily means that we are to be thankful to God for forgiving our sins, because Jesus Christ sacrificed so much. We are able to come to the table because we have asked for forgiveness. There was a shift partway through my attendance of this church, from being served in our seats through passing trays of crackers and the juice (although they were still referred to as the bread and wine) to having the elements stationed at the front of the sanctuary. This move was made to represent our active choice to reach out to God and His gift of salvation, as we had to move up to the front, rather than passively receiving the elements in our seats.

The presentation of Communion as something that someone must individually prepared for, and individually partake in showed an incomplete picture of God’s grace. Communion was both incidental to our faith, while at the same time having almost unspeakable importance, in putting it off until one could intellectually grasp what they were entering into. This importance though was not explicitly named, and I would suggest the gravity with which it was presented (in terms of truly understanding Jesus’ sacrifice) tells only part of the story, and is frankly a shadow of what the sacrament of the Eucharist is supposed to be. I am largely in the reaction phase having stepped out of this context, yet I do not want to paint this experience in a wholly negative brush. There are certainly elements of this practice that are important, however the practices enacted that they are trying to avoid (ritualism, transubstantiation, etc.) are not such that they must be so obviously side-stepped as to make Communion hardly a sacrament.

The main elements that were distinctive of this Communion service, or spoke directly to how this congregation conceptualized God were that it was explicitly a symbolic gesture, it was an act of remembrance, particularly remembering Christ’s sacrifice, it was highly individualized and internalized. By not framing a Communion service as sacramental, that is, not a means in which God interacts with us in the physical world, it creates a dualistic framework between spiritual reality and corporeal reality, individual, inner salvation and the ongoing redemption of creation through Christ. This individualized approach not only creates the false dichotomy, but then relegates our salvation to the ‘spiritual side.’ This lends itself to become a personalized experience, and general conception of salvation. Communion is about your response to God, rather than God’s active work in the world – or, simply both. Our encounter of God’s grace does not precipitate at the table itself, but rather in what occurs prior to the table. There is no conceptual overlap through the consumption of the elements and the reception of grace. We are closer to God because we have once again come before him, and have acknowledged his sacrifice, not due to any grace or effectual change that is a result of participating in the Eucharist. There was dialogue of grace, and our reception of God’s grace through Christ’s death and resurrection, but Communion was not a culmination of this. Emphasizing personal preparation to come to the table through reflection, repentance, and prayer makes the elements an accessory – the work has been done. Although approaching the table was explained to be a response to God’s grace, there was still room left for coming improperly (unconfessed sin, or ‘inadequate’ repentance). This is not to dismiss the gravity of abusing the Eucharist, however this is generally warned against due to the real substance that is present in the elements.

Having Communion as a symbolic, internal exercise reduces the scope of what the Eucharist is meant to capture. Focusing on Christ’s death and resurrection very much historically dates the touch point of God’s grace. The Eucharist is indeed grounded in real events in human history. However, when primarily manifested as an exercise of reflection, this becomes limited to an event in the historical past, rather than an event that has far-reaching (all-reaching, rather) effects. Even more than ‘ripple effects,’ there is no ongoing work that is equally grounded in human historical narrative. The message of hope that is presented in this model of Communion is that we have hope because we have been redeemed, but this is limited to our present and past condition. It proclaims that Christ has died for our sins, yet the scope of that message is stunted.

A foundational principle in rhetoric of the sacraments, why they are what they are, and their importance to the Church is that God implemented them due to our creaturely nature and the difficulty that comes with this. He gave us something physical to orient ourselves, as we could not otherwise grasp spiritual principles. This may at first seem to be a simplification of the human condition, or denying the idea that we are both physical and spiritual; having physical reminders is helpful, but without them we cannot begin to encounter God? However, in a real way, we do indeed need physical reminders, as is evidenced by what becomes of our sacraments when this reality is ignored. Even more, we do not simply need physical reminders of spiritual things, but an incarnational model of how God manifests himself in the world.

Regarding the solemnity that surrounded a Communion service at this church (due to the focus on personal sins, and Jesus’ death), there are important theological impulses behind this, and though the practice should not be limited to this focus, it does well to highlights the difficulty of our sinful nature and how it is a real barrier to us before God. It does not fully align with the symbolic nature of that particular service of Communion, yet it is an aspect of salvation that should not be glossed over; our brokenness is complete before God. That said, this is grossly limited in terms of the story it tells and stops short of the nuances of how this gap is bridged. Focus on mental preparation places an undue burden on the receivers of God’s grace. In this context the elements are not an intermediary to God’s grace, but an expression of having already been cleansed. In an ideal context this may not be as problematic as it is often manifested: we remember, we are thankful for God’s grace and come to the table. What makes this difficult to achieve in many similar contexts is that Communion is primarily framed as remembrance, and thus an exercise in re-living the death of Christ and the gravity of sin that brought it about. In this light, we do indeed respond to God’s grace, but this is secondary. The largest misappropriation of the elements in this context is that it inadvertently paints a picture in which God receives us at his table only once we have mentally and emotionally realized the beauty of his grace.

Indeed, God’s grace is sufficient, and grace itself is not transmitted through the ingestion of the elements. Where this story stops short is that we cannot actually be ready to come to the table in a fundamental sense. That is, we do not make ourselves ready. The message and function of the Eucharist is God’s coming to meet us, rather than us preparing to meet God. 

Thursday, 9 October 2014

My Experience with Homosexuality and the Bible

While my family subscribed to the classic Christian “hate the sin, not the sinner” approach, I often felt that, in practice, it was more about hating those you don’t understand, but making sure to accept yourself and those you get along with.
My parents had felt the guilt of their conservative upbringing, with their parents telling them that they would go blind from masturbation, and that getting pregnant out of wedlock meant shame upon the family. So my siblings and I were told masturbation was healthy, and if we impregnated someone or became pregnant ourselves, an open and honest approach would not warrant any scorn.
But homosexuality, we were told that was just gross.
As I got older, this line of thinking became more difficult to understand. When I was 15, I moved to a new school in a small town with people who lived different from my urban way of life. I was ridiculed and picked on everyday, and would often be physically beaten if I tried attending a party or waited too long to get on the bus after school. The only person who ever seemed to stand up for me was my friend David who, I would learn a few years later, was gay.
That same year, after working out at the YMCA, a fellow in his early 20s was in the open shower area with me and waited until everyone had left before he proceeded to stick his erection in my face and asked me if I “liked” what I saw. I said nothing and headed to the lockers where I knew people would be, and put my clothes on.
What he did was not right but I never felt I could judge him. I had been trying to convince my own girlfriend at the time to have sex with me, and I myself would often cross the line of appropriate seduction, if there is such a thing.
A few years later I was talking to David and he was telling me how he had become disgusted with his lifestyle. “One night stand after one night stand” was tearing out his soul, he suggested. He envied his friends in committed relationships and decided that he was going to commit himself toward monogamy, and relationships based on depth and caring.
He inspired me to do the same as well.
It is incredibly difficult to get a firm black and white position on how we should view homosexuality from a Biblical perspective. Some quote Hebrew texts like Leviticus, which suggest homosexuality is a violation against God, but also claim it is a violation to plant two different seeds together, and a violation to use certain fabrics together in the making of clothes.
Others quote one of the three New Testament references to the abomination of homosexuality, amongst the 7956 verses. Many scholars argue that the “homosexuality” talked about in the first-century culture of the early Jesus followers was actually child abuse, where middle-aged adults would be permitted to force themselves upon preteens.
While I don’t think the Bible supports homosexuality, I am not convinced it should be used to condemn others.
Jesus maintained a strong position on traditional marriage while choosing to remain silent on the issue of homosexuality in a culture where it certainly existed. Today Pope Francis is following a similar path. Let us not allow our religious convictions to keep us from taking a clear stance of non-judgement. Let us not become tied down by the games that are played by politicians in the arena of spirituality and religion. Let us humbly take up our Cross in the midst of the political divide and pursue the love of God and the love his people as Christ commanded us to do.  
(A version of this was originally written for The Reflector newspaper in May of 2011) 

Wednesday, 8 October 2014

The Left Behind Series May Be Wrong – But the Rapture Still Exists

There have been a lot of warranted theological disagreements with recent release of another Left Behind movie. However some of these these disagreements have led people to conclude not only that 1 Thessalonians 4 needs to carefully reexamined from its modern evangelical interpretation, but that the very idea of people being taken away and left behind is wrong. Those who want to ignore a Rapture even existing tend to maintain that Christ’s central purpose for return is only to heal a broken world. While I agree that God will come and bring restorative justice to the whole planet, Matthew 25:41 also declares that “two women shall be grinding at the mill; the one shall be taken, and the other left.” And Revelation 21:8 takes it a step further saying that “the fearful, and unbelieving, and the abominable, and murderers, and whoremongers, and sorcerers, and idolaters, and all liars, shall have their part in the lake which burneth with fire and brimstone: which is the second death.” This is not a pretty picture. I am not pretending to fully understand all that this might mean, but we shouldn't run the other direction and fool ourselves into thinking that Christ’s return is only going to be lollipops and rainbows; because the Bible seems to say otherwise.

Tuesday, 16 September 2014

Hollywood Actors: A Living Metaphor for Postmodern Pluralism

Often when we examine the life of a hollywood actor we assume their high probability for personal tragedy simply comes with the territory of wealth and celebrity. However, sometimes I think the negative spiral of an actor’s life has more to do with the intrinsic nature of their profession then we often realize.

The hollywood actor is intimately connected to the postmodern concept of fractured worldviews and the idea of play within a pluralized individual autonomy of choice. A well trained actor will assume a new perspective on life with each new role. When an actor performs, their deep devotion to the role is often illumanting but can be dangerous for their personal well being. I question the coincidence of Heath Ledger committing suicide after intricately putting inside himself the deep Nihilism that is at the heart of the Joker.

I think it is due to the very nature of their profession that quality actors often become uneasy with their own personal worldviews. My sense is that with each new role you become less able to ground yourself in a single foundational perspective on life. For some (including myself) this might seem exciting, but I think ultimately it ends in uncertainty and fear.

Interestingly, actors with a fixed worldview tend to play the same type of role. Clint Eastwood is always the tough quiet type, Arnold Schwarzenegger always has a Gun, and Chuck Norris is always well Chuck Norris.  While I am sure we can find examples that fit outside my theory, the analogy generally seems to fit. The more we play with different metanarratives throughout our life, the more uncertain and shaky our world seems to become.

The beauty of this pluralistic life is that we are able to be open to different viewpoints and other ways of living life. The tragedy is often the loss of belonging and foundations for living. Searching for a balance between these two frameworks has often lead me back to my own faith. Christianity declares that objective singular truth chose to enter into the diversity of created human beings. The Word of God remains the Word of God whether it is translated into Greek, Hebrew, or Swahilli. Followers of Christ are being transformed into his image whether we are male or female, Jewish or Chinese. Christianity teaches that diversity and singularity are not so much contrasting as they are paradoxical. We are one in Christ but have individual roles to play. We are different colours in the spectrum of light.  

Sunday, 6 April 2014

My Stance on Gay Marriage and Why I am a Hypocrite

Within the last year I have decided that it is impossible for me to believe that a canonical interpretation of Scripture can support gay marriage. Marriage as a union between a man and a woman for the purpose of child bearing is deeply founded in a canonical and traditional theology of the body, ecclesiology, eschatology, and even a general Christological framework as it has been understood throughout Christian and Jewish time and space. Of course our theological understandings and hermeneutics based on cultural change always open us up to rethinking things over time (usually for the purpose of justice and peace), but it has to be grounded in strong Biblical precedent and should be able to show that in the long run it will create more peace and unity in the church and the general human family. What is often downplayed in our society is that personal conviction acted out upon society often creates more harm, division, and violence then it is worth. Of course, there have also been times in history where personal conviction turns into communal conviction, and that, along with strong Biblical precedent for that conviction improves society (abolition of slavery as an example). 

In the case of gay marriage however there is simply not enough canonical evidence or support from the global church to change our understanding of marriage, nor is there as much at stake for LGBTQ couples. As oppressive as marriage inequality is (implicit with it is societal homophobia which often isolates and damages LGBTQ people, particularly in small rural communities), it is not forced labor or sex trafficking children. That being said, within the western world I support civil based unions/marriages with their central values being monogamy, fidelity, and mutual love. Within this generalized view of marriage, western culture is able counteract individual inequality. From a Christian perspective however this cultural definition is simply too much of an alteration from the traditional Christian and Jewish understandings and in the long run will do more harm than good if it continues to be forcibly globalized (or at least strongly encouraged with sanctions for those countries who refuse to oblige. See “Global Culture Wars” by R.R. Reno, First Things April 2014). What has happened in the past few weeks with World Vision is a great example of the harm that can come from forcing a large majority of people into a different value system they are not comfortable with (regardless of whether their response was right or wrong).
      Holding to this stance also makes me a bit of a hypocrite. As someone who has recently become engaged, forming a biological lineage for God’s glory is often the last thing on my mind. I am in love with my future wife, and I want to spend the rest of my life with her. She is the one I ache to be with, and desire to share my thoughts and space with more than anyone else. She is my best friend, my confidant, and the object of my lust. From a Christian perspective this has only limited relevance to what marriage is about. Occasionally I look into her eyes and perceive a future matriarch who has both the strength and wisdom to lead our children and grandchildren into their own maturation. But this is often an afterthought.       
    It is in these moments where I think about how difficult it must to be an LGTBQ person trying to live the traditional Christian life. Our culture inundates us with what a good life must be. A happy life is a life where finding romantic love and sexual fulfillment are a must have.  Leading a life of celibacy is foolishness, and marriage for the central purpose of procreation is not even on the radar. Marriage, even for the general purpose of forming a better world is barely even on the radar!

We have narrowed the purpose of life down to individual relationality, with very little focus on the greater good of a society.

We boast in the glory and goodness of human rights, yet ignore what it means to have a responsibility to our family and the formation of our Children (traditionally this is why marriage has offered tax breaks).  As long as all civil services are generically equal and you don’t directly harm or infringe upon anyone else you are free to do whatever you want. As someone who has been heavily influenced by modern values I cringe when I think of the unfair advantage that comes from being a heterosexual male. From the Christian perspective I am allowed to be married for the purpose of procreation, while someone from the LGBTQ community is called to live a life of celibacy. My wife will have to bear our children, while at the biological level I am simply called to provide the sperm. These realities seem to be extraordinarily unfair, yet this is the life we are called to as Christians.

The life of Christ seems to only further support a certain level of submission to forces of inequality. Throughout the New Testament we see a calling to take up our cross and imitate Christ’s suffering despite the reality of inequality in the world. 1 Peter 2:18 calls for those in slavery to “submit yourselves to your masters, not only to those who are good and considerate, but also to those who are harsh.” As oppression becomes increasingly more implicit within western society, and the insidious ideology of self-autonomy continues to pervade, the Christian tension between submitting to what God’s  Word has to say on the nature of the world, and working to provide individual compassion and care will only increase.

Thursday, 9 January 2014

Learning to Submit to Authority While Remaining Honest About Injustice

                In Ephraim Radner’s book Hope Among The Fragments he suggests that the Donatists “saw the practices of the Christian Church as corrupted and corrupting because of the sinful character of particular priests and lay people who might participate in them,” while “Augustine insisted that Christ’s sanctifying work in baptism and ordination, in particular, was effective over and beyond whatever sullying secrets were harbored by Church members who might participate in these rites. Since God alone effected his plan for the Church through these rites, the disposition of human participants was not determinative of their value for the Church (or world) as a whole” (Hope Among The Fragments, Ephraim Radner, 153).  
                 On one level Augustine is right. The work of the Holy Spirit will continue to move throughout history regardless of how sinful people attempt to pervert God's Work. But this is not simply a debate about the importance of human righteousness vs. Divine Providence. The Donatists were Christians before Rome had become a Christian state and they were economically oppressed as Christians by Rome. Now this same “Christian” Empire, was trying to tell them that they are no longer the real Christians. In fact with Augustine’s newly minted Just War Theory, they would be violently oppressed as heretics (The Story of Christianity, Justo Gonzalez, 176-179). This is the danger of our conformity to power and authority; all too often it produces numbness to injustice. Yet standing up for our individual convictions in defiance of our leaders often undermines the common good of a society or religious community, and only further creates more division and injustice.

    How then are we to act in the midst of this dilemma? Scripture calls us to submit to the authorities in our lives even as we look for opportunities to communally push our leaders toward a greater good. 1 Peter 2 tells us that as “slaves, in reverent fear of God” we are called to submit ourselves to our “masters, not only to those who are good and considerate, but also to those who treat you unjustly” (2:18-20). Jesus suffered patiently, “ giving us an example to follow in his footsteps; he does not lash back, he does not resist, he trusts only in God’s judgment” (1 Peter 2:21-25). The leaders of the church are called to be “willing examples of Christ’s sufferings for their flock,” while “others in the church are to be subject to the elders themselves” (1 Peter 5:1-5).
Learning how to leave room for a Prophetic Imagination within this hierarchical based church structure is the central question on my mind these days. How are we to imitate a Christ who eats with, washes the feet of, and maintains Judas’ place as an Apostle (even as Christ knows what Judas intends to do), but also calls out corrupt religious leaders as a “brood of vipers” (Matthew 23:33)?