Thursday, December 31, 2015

Something From Nothing

I have gotten rather used to this.  Having taught for fifteen years in various higher education institutions in both Ethiopia and Kenya, I’ve come to expect (based on experience) that there will be at least one course that I’m supposed to teach that I have either not taught before (or even taken before) or that at some point during the week before the new term starts I’m informed that I’m actually not meant to teach the course I’ve been asked to teach but another one (which may or may not be one I’ve ever taught before).  My blood pressure used to go up at this point in the year, wondering how I was ever going to come up with the new course along with the 4+ others on my plate to teach.  Now I’ve come to realize that this is just the way things are, and that all of my colleagues are going through the same set of unnatural yoga positions as we all try to prepare for a new term.

So it comes as no surprise that this coming term is proving no exception.  About two weeks ago I was assigned to teach a course for our Masters program, a ‘modular’ intensive course that packs half a semester (20 hours of class time) into two weeks now and two weeks later.  The course was called ‘Christian Doctrines and African Christianity’.  I confess to not having a clue as to what that meant.  Fortunately, one of my colleagues had taught it before and was interested in trading the course he had been assigned, ‘Theology and Society’, with mine.  Given that I was having difficulty figuring out what to do with ‘Christian Doctrines and African Christianity’, I gladly gave it up and took custody of ‘Theology and Society’.

During this time, our university shut down for the holidays and won’t reopen until January 4.  This has been a problem because now I couldn’t go to the proper office and get ahold of a course description to see how this course has been taught before.  Moreover, with no library available, I couldn’t track down what if any resources might be available for me, much less my students, to figure out what ‘Theology and Society’ might be about.  So I have been left to my own devices, which is never an optimum outcome.

Searching online for other variations of ‘Theology and Society’ that have been offered at other institutions around the world, I made the rather alarming discovery that this is not a course that has been taught.  I found one Masters program at one college in ‘Theology and Society’.  But in terms of relevant books and articles that might serve as an introduction to (me and) my students, um, nothing.  Instead, I found several unhelpfully vague descriptions of how theology ought to engage in society (all in that sickly interdenominational theology-speak that manages to string together a lot of important-sounding words that actually mean nothing).  I walked away from my searches more convinced than ever that if this is the best we Christians can do in our engagement with the real world in which we find ourselves, no wonder we are marginalized and in trouble.

I then came up with the brilliant idea of sending an email to all my theology faculty colleagues asking their help to come up with a course description (an idea that would have been even more brilliant had I come up with it two weeks ago).  To my delight, one of my colleagues came through.  I now have the official course description.  But, Lord have mercy, I don’t think one could try and make a course description more unhelpful.

Let me see if I can explain.  The course purpose reads thusly:

To critically evaluate religious ideas and motivations which underlie the social, religious and cultural phenomena of public life, as well as examine how theology interacts with issues of contemporary concerns with special reference to how faith influences such issues and in turn how the issues impact theological orientation and education.

OK, I think I get what this purpose is trying to say.  But it is not being said with much clarity, nor is it making me want to jump up and sign up for such a life-changing educational opportunity.

The course content actually reads like Frankenstein’s monster:

Definitions (introductory matters); Theology and other disciplines (especially philosophy and science); place and task of theology; Social Justice and empowerment; faith and public policy; power and politics; place of faith in contemporary society; church and state relations; theories and practice in doctrines; God and public morality; ecclesial structures (African church governments); pluralism and unity; secularism and globalization

Yes and let’s just throw in ‘pluralism and unity; secularism and globalization’ for good measure.  It reminds me of the gobbledygook I often-times come across coming out of institutions of a particular theological persuasion that, cut adrift from any meaningful engagement with historical Christianity, seem to delight in turning recognizable Christianity on its head using language that sounds so utterly profound but on examination is simply vapid.

Substitute 'course description' for 'sermon'

The last ‘Oh Jeez’ from my perusal of my upcoming course’s course description was a look at its course bibliography.  The required reading is as follows:

Stott, John; Issues Facing Christianity Today: A Major Appraisal of contemporary Social and Moral Questions, London: Marshall Morgan and Scott 1984.
Pool, Jeff B., Ed. Through the Tempest: Theological Voyages in a Pluralistic Culture; Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1991.

Don’t get me wrong.  I like John Stott and benefitted greatly from reading his exegetical works.  But this work by Stott (who BTW died a number of years ago and who presumably is no longer interested in engaging theologically with society) came out in 1984 – 1984! I was not long out of university and a staff-member with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship in 1984.  My 27 year old daughter was not yet born in 1984.   A lot of water has gone under my bridge since then in my life, and I can only assume that the same is true for the rest of global society. As to Mr. Pool’s book, I have no reason to doubt that it is a worthy contribution to the discussion, but it’s a discussion that was taking place in 1991, not 2016.  In the remaining 9 texts in the recommended reading section of my course description, the most recent is from 2005.  The rest are from the 1980s and 90s.  The course (as I understand it) is meant to be about theology today, not historical theology.

I used to think I was facing challenges as a teacher of theology in what is one of the better Christian universities in Kenya, and that the problem was somehow me and my shortcomings as a teacher.  But now I’m realizing that we, my fellow faculty, indeed my entire institution, are the ones together facing what seem to be insurmountable challenges.  It is a difficult thing to teach, even when you have a classroom full of resources and a library that’s up to date.  But when one doesn’t have the stuff or the resources or the books or the articles and has just oneself and maybe a laptop – I hope you can get the picture of what a challenge education, much less higher education, is in such a context.

So this is my task – come up with a Masters-level course, by Monday.  And then teach 20 hours of it during the first two weeks of January.  All the while picking back up with my 5 courses at the diploma-level seminary which starts back up on Monday as well.

Ok, writing a blog about this hasn’t helped me make any progress in redesigning a course on ‘Theology and Society’, but talking about it has certainly been therapeutic.

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

On the Night of Nativity - A Poem by St. Ephraim the Syrian and a Selection of Nativity Icons

On the Night of Nativity

Pure is the present night, in which the Pure One appeared, Who came to purify us!
Let our hearing be pure, and the sight of our eyes chaste, and the feeling of the heart holy, and the speech of the mouth sincere!

The present night is the night of reconciliation; therefore, let no one be wroth against his brother and offend him!

This night gave peace to the whole world, and so, let no one threaten.  This is the night of the Most Meek One; let no one be cruel!

This is the night of the Humble One; let no one be proud!

Now is the day of joy; let us not take revenge for offences!  Now is the day of good will; let us not be harsh. 

On this day of tranquility, let us not become agitated by anger!

Today God came unto sinners; let not the righteous exalt himself over sinners!

Today the Most Rich One became poor for our sake; let the rich man invite the poor to his table!

Today we received a gift which we did not ask for; let us bestow alms to those who cry out to us and beg!

The present day has opened the door of heaven to our prayers; let us also open our door to those who ask of us forgiveness!

Today the Godhead placed upon Himself the seal of humanity, and humanity has been adorned with the seal of Godhead!

St. Ephraim the Syrian
(circa 306-373)

Nativity Icons

Eastern Orthodox iconography uses a multi-layered method of painting that has been described as beginning with the non-being of darkness and moving into the light of life.  Icons are 'theology in color' and 'windows into eternity'.  And given their role over centuries in parish churches and monasteries throughout the world, they have also played the part of a 'picture Bible' for those who could not read the words of the Scriptures for themselves.

Eastern Orthodox icons of the Nativity are busy.  They depict the entire story of the Nativity in multiple scenes.  But there are details that will surprise.  First of all, Mary gives birth to the incarnate Son of God in a cave.  And secondly, the manger where Christ sleeps looks suspiciously like a tomb or coffin, and His swaddling clothes like a burial shroud.  This is no accident, as the icon intends to call to mind, even with this portrayal of the Son of God's entry into human history, the events leading up to the end of His earthly life, along with his death and burial, and His subsequent resurrection from another similar cave.

Other details to look for include the animals, often an ox and a donkey, worshipping their Maker. Their presence indicates the fulfillment of Isaiah's prophecy, 'The ox knows its owner and the donkey its master's crib; but Israel does not know Me, and the people do not understand Me.' (Isaiah 1:3)  Another scene shows one or two women helping the Virgin by bathing the infant Jesus.  Angels announce His birth to shepherds with their sheep.  In some icons, kings from the East are on their way to present their gifts.  And in almost all of them  there is the curious depiction of Joseph who looks despondent (who is, after all, having to experience all of this upheaval by faith) and who is being addressed by a bent old man who is in fact the devil tempting Joseph to despair.

1497, from St. Kirill Monastery, Cathedral of the Assumption, Russia

Nativity Cave as Tomb detail

An Ethiopian Icon

Very Busy.  Including the slaughter of the innocents and the flight into Egypt, among other scenes.

An Ethiopian Icon

A Coptic (Egyptian) icon

Monday, December 14, 2015

Not As It Seems – The Scandal of the Incarnation

The human ways of exerting power and compelling conformity have been everywhere on display this year.  Whether it’s ISIS and its clones enforcing by sheer brutality their vision of Islamic society, or the noisy multitude of outraged racial, gender and alternative sexuality crusades using their own brands of shaming and intimidation to force on the rest of us their vision of how things should be, it seems our recognizably Western and Christian way of life is being challenged from without and within as never before.

And yet even a superficial survey of history shows that both religion and culture are fragile things.  The only constant is that things change.  I grew up in what I thought was ‘Christian America’.  I now find myself part of an American society that bears more resemblance to the hostile pluralism of the Roman empire than the Christendom of medieval Western Europe.

Despite my assertion above, one thing that doesn't seem to have changed is the human addiction to power.  And whether it’s the Ming dynasty in China or Sennacherib of Assyria, or Ezana of Axum, or the great Khans of the Mongol Golden Horde, or Charlemagne, or the great Popes of the High Middle Ages, or the British Empire on which the sun never set, or the attempts, still in living memory, to impose murderous ideologies by Hitler and Stalin and the leaders of Japan, attempts thwarted only by the most massive effusion of human blood ever seen.  It would seem that power and force constitutes the only universal human language; these are the levers towards which everyone aspires.  Such a thesis is rather easy to demonstrate in the global halls of power.  But even in our own personal worlds, the dance too often is all about power and control, even when it is passed off by another name.

It is not surprising that our theology tends to view God through the lens of our own experience, our own perspective, our own preferred ideologies.  The ‘Fundamentalist’ thundering from the pulpit about a God who hates sin and hates sinners and who seems all too eager to send the unrepentant straight to hell is telling his/her listeners much more about himself/herself than about the God he/she professes to speak about.  But the ‘Liberal’ who preaches inclusivity and a God that happily affirms and celebrates everything countercultural one might wish to do is just as guilty of channeling cultural assumptions and agendas as the Fundamentalist is, albeit to different ends.  Both have recreated Jesus in their own image. Both appropriate their ‘Jesus’ to give credence to their own cultural presuppositions.  Neither is listening to the Jesus who actually is. 

Our leaders are not the only ones guilty of misappropriation.  Even at the personal level, there is often a profound disconnect between profession and behavior. For example, a person who professes to be a ‘Christian’, who is even considered a somebody by others may also at the same time employ rage, anger and abuse as one’s preferred method of maintaining power and control in one’s relationships.  The term found in the gospels that refers to this sort of behavior is simply hypocrisy. 

We seem to be prone to this confusion, addicted to power and control, even Christians.  We can only be grateful that God chose not to follow our example and fix what is wrong in this world and in our lives by force, compulsion and control.  Instead he comes hidden in full view, as one of us, quietly carried to full time in the womb of a virgin girl. A human baby boy, and yet Immanuel.  A toddler learning how to eat and play, and yet God in the flesh.  A teenager learning his father’s carpentry skills, and yet the Creator of the world.  A young man supporting his widowed mother, and yet One of the Holy Trinity. A man embarking to call his fellow Jews to repentance, and yet the rightful Heir to David’s throne.  Teaching the multitudes what it meant to love God and neighbor with all one’s heart, and yet the very Word of God himself.  Despised and rejected by the leaders and people he came warn, and yet the Suffering Servant Isaiah foretold. Crucified and embracing death itself, and yet lifted up like Moses’ bronze serpent that anyone who looks upon him may be saved.

None of this was obvious when it happened.  No trumpets.  No angels.  No public service announcements.  No advertising blitz.  All of this happened under the cloak of misunderstanding, of multiple attempts to appropriate Jesus for different agendas.  Even by his friends.  Some things never change.

It was the resurrection that transformed the perspective of Jesus’ followers.  It was the resurrection that convinced a growing circle of people that Jesus was who he claimed to be.  It was the resurrection that provided the lens through which to review Jesus’ life.  And it is in the light of the resurrection that we begin to see the incarnation, and begin to hear what Jesus is saying, and begin to see what Jesus is doing.  It is in the light of the resurrection that we begin to perceive how the incarnation changes everything.  Jesus is not captive to any interpretive ideology, Jesus is not enslaved by any cultural agenda.  Rather he draws us into his agenda, and acquaints us with his ideology.  When we insist on resisting, of pursuing our own agendas, of maintaining our own power and control, we end up creating our own religion that ends up merely using Jesus as a patron saint of our own views of what’s right or wrong, good or bad.

But as C.S. Lewis once said about Aslan, the Christ-figure of The Chronicles of Narnia, ‘He is not a tame lion.’  There is much nonsense and bullshit that goes on in the name of Christianity (and always has been).  But at some point, sooner or later, every single one of us will come face to face with Jesus Himself, and it will become irrefutably clear whether our knee has bowed to a golden calf of our own making or if we have submitted ourselves to His rightful rule over every aspect of our lives.  The mark of the latter is always repentance and self-giving love.  The mark of the former is always defensiveness, outrage, arguing, and self-justification.  A little self-examination now might save a whole lot of grief later.

The world’s way of power, intimidation, force, and manipulation often seems successful in the short-run.  But it has never accomplished what it promised.  The preferred modus operandi of so much of our world’s people is a cracked and dry cistern that holds no water. Our planet has been on the hamster wheel of futility since before history started keeping records.  The way of Jesus has also been littered with the wretched examples of men and women who have borrowed Jesus and Christianity for their own purposes.  But when men and women have seen Jesus for who he is and laid down their own pretensions, we become a beachhead of the very Kingdom of God right here in space and time, the ladder that connects heaven and earth

Icon of the Ladder of Divine Ascent