Monday, April 21, 2014

Vintage CC: A Post-Easter Conversation

This post from May 2011 is one of my all-time favorites. I had it in my head for years prior to actually writing it, and I love how it turned out. Easter always has a big circle around it on the calendar for me as a pastor, and even if things don't seem to connect exactly the way I think they should, there are more important things to remember, anyway.

Even as it takes its place in the noonday sky, the sun is still tempered by the crispness of late April. The frost has melted, but it now seems to hang just over one's head instead, a shield of sorts from more blistery days that are still weeks away. The birds have long been up to greet it: some pick at the dirt in between blades of grass rediscovering their green, while others playfully hop from branch to branch, their chatter dripping from the air's moisture along with the smell of tulips and dogwood.

I'm sitting on the front steps of the church, the grey concrete chilled by shadows cast by the steeple and the trees. I've long said goodbye to the last worshipper, all of them now scattered to homes smelling of ham or turkey and sounding like young children excitedly examining baskets of candy and coloring books. My tie hangs loose around an unbuttoned collar, my dress pants provide the slightest protection from the cool stone. I'm slowly making my way to the bottom of a bag of candy-coated Hershey eggs, taking them two or three at a time. I couldn't tell you why I decided to linger; why I sent my family home and told them not even to wait to eat. But I suspect that it has something to do with him.

The brown of his skin is darker than many would think, the sun adding a golden sheen that almost causes him to glow, though it's nothing like the paintings. His hair and beard are bushy and bedraggled, curly and short, as far from the flowing locks of Europe as you could get. His robes, however, are pretty much what you'd expect: a light tan tunic over a clean white robe. It's the sound of his sandals against the pavement, however, that really gets my attention: the crunch of a stray piece of gravel underneath, the accidental scuff that sends another into the grass where it noiselessly rests. These are what get my attention; they bring the reality of this moment into view.

Jesus just saunters up, gathers up his robe in preparation, and sits down beside me. He smarts slightly at the cold of the steps, at which I can't help but smile. I offer my bag of eggs, and he happily takes a few. We don't speak for a while, which lets us both settle into this time before having the conversation that we'll need to have. I steal a glance at his face, and sit amazed at how young he looks. Of course, I think...he's only a year older than me. What did I expect? Shaking it off, I wait to see who'll speak first.

"So," he says, "how'd it go today?"

I shrug. "They played tic tac toe."

"What?"

"The high schoolers. They were playing tic tac toe or something during my sermon. I saw them. One of them even looked up to see if I'd noticed, like they were getting away with something; like I'm a moron." I pop another egg into my mouth before I get too carried away.

He helps himself to another handful as well. "That's the first thing you respond with? A couple kids drawing on the bulletin?"

I straighten the folds of the bag, glad that I have something to fidget with. "Yeah, I guess. I worked hard on that sermon. You know how long I think about what to say for this day. You know how much I agonize over it. I want people to remember this one. If they hear one damned thing I say all year, I want it to be something from today."

I suppose that somebody who has seen what he's seen wouldn't really flinch at my language, but I look out of the corner of my eye anyway, just to make sure. He's watching a robin flit his wings in a leftover rain puddle, so I suppose I'm good.

He picks up a few pieces of gravel and moves them around in his palm with his finger. "So. All that preparation, and not everyone seemed to end up paying attention. Some of the stuff you've told me over the years, I can't believe that you're shocked by that."

"I'm not shocked," I mumble. "Just disappointed."

"Yeah, I get that." He turns his hand sideways and lets the stones fall back to the ground. "And that's going to be your lasting memory from today, huh?"

My shoulders sag. I know where this is going. "Yeah, I get it. I shouldn't let that one thing overshadow the good stuff. I got a lot of compliments and appreciation. A lot of people really did seem moved by the service. So I should just focus on that and move on, right?"

Jesus pops another egg. "Yeah, I guess. Why not?"

Now I have to turn my head and look at him. "Great. Thanks for the pep talk."

It's his turn to shrug. "You're the one who came up with the cliched answer, not me. You think I came all this way to feed you the same crap you've been reading in all those ministry books?"

This stuns me to silence. Jesus takes the bag and pours the four remaining eggs into his hand before crumpling it and handing it back to me. For a while the birds and the crinkle of plastic are the only sounds shared between us.

He holds out an egg. "I get that you're disappointed. And I'm not going to tell you anything you don't already know about that. You've been at this long enough now that you've found ways to let that stuff roll off your back and not get too hung up on it. Obviously it still upsets you, though. And that's good, too."

"How is that good?"

"Ask yourself this: why do you always work so hard on your Easter sermon?"

This brings another pause in the conversation. I think that we both know the answers to that, not all of them necessarily honorable. But he clearly wants me to say them, so I have no choice.

I sigh, and then I rattle them off. "Because...this is the only service that some people attend all year, and I want them to remember it. Because it's a bigger crowd, and I want it to be worthwhile. Because it's Easter, and I want people to actually know and feel like it's a big deal. It's the freaking heart of our faith, so show a little enthusiasm, dammit!"

Jesus tries to stifle a chuckle. Teenagers playing games and now this.

"Sorry," he says. "You're clearly fired up about this. Okay, so in all those reasons, what do you notice?"

I think back over what I just said. "Uh...it's what I want for them?"

"Bingo. You want people to remember this service, you want it to be worthwhile for them, you want people to be excited. Those are good reasons. It's kind of in the spirit of...what did you people end up calling it?" Jesus thinks for a moment and then snaps his fingers. "The Great Commission! 'Go and make disciples of all nations.' Obviously, it took some enthusiasm and excitement about the message for that to happen, right?"

"Yeah..."

"But it also took something else. It took some sincerity. It took those guys honestly caring about the people they interacted with for them to say what they wanted to say. Can you imagine if my followers just approached people out of the blue just to present some rehearsed talk about me for fifteen minutes, with no real connection made?"

I wince. "Well, actually--"

"Yeah, I know. The point is, you get yourself so worked up about this service and this sermon, why? Because you care about these people. It was bound to happen. You care about those kids drawing pictures and wishing it was lunchtime not just because you want to see some reward for your time and effort but because you really want something to happen inside them, something good and lasting and life-changing. Yeah, it didn't seem like it happened today, but it still might. And you may or may not ever see it. But are you really going to wait until a couple people seem to finally respond before you can feel satisfied?"

I lightly rub my jaw. "No. I guess not. That'd be kind of a crappy way to pastor a church."

Jesus stands and dusts himself off. "Yeah, it would. And you haven't been here this long just because a few kids don't seem terribly interested in worship."

I have to squint as I look up at him, the sunlight beginning to creep onto the front lawn. "No. It's because these people really are in my heart and I can't just pick up and leave."

"Yep. You're pretty much screwed as far as that is concerned. They've got their hooks in you real good." Jesus smiles as he reaches out his hand to help me up. "And as long as you keep ministering to these people from that point of view, you'll all be okay."

I take his hand and stand. We just look at each other for a moment, knowing that our meeting is at an end. He gives a wink before turning to walk away. As if remembering something, he stops and turns back.

"I did think that 'Christ the Lord is Risen Today' was magnificent, by the way. Your organist really opened it up for that."

I crack a smile. "She always does. I look forward to it every year."

He nods in understanding. "I know. A lot of them do. If whatever you say doesn't hit, at least you'll always have that."

He turns back and continues his walk. I only watch for a moment before knowing that I need to get home to my own family. I make my way across the empty parking lot to my car, taking my time as the remnants of the morning evaporate.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Holy Week Video Meditation

I created this video meditation for last night's Maundy Thursday service. Perhaps it will aid in your own Holy Week journey as well. Have a blessed conclusion to this Lenten season.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

"Far Different" - A Prayer for Palm Sunday

Matthew 21:1-11

On roadsides and street corners
Our feet curling over curbs
Our necks straining in anticipation
We hope for a glimpse of the holy.

We have our own ideas of what it will look like
With our cloaks spread on the brick and
Our list of demands in hand;
Our lips parting in songs of praise and welcome,
Our thoughts churning with what will be done for us.

And when the moment arrives,
The Promised One comes into view
Far different from what our mental images professed.

Riding a simple and slow beast,
Dressed in common regalia,
He passes by
And if one listens closely, it can be heard:
“Love your enemies.
Pray for the orphan.
Feed my sheep.”

It is here that we have a choice:
To take up your demands instead of ours
Or point accusingly and try forcing you to conform.

Where will peace come if not from where we expect?
Through him you call,
Refusing our categories;
Pointing to love and grace and truth.

In a display of humility we are shown power.
We watch him ride past
Inviting us toward a new beginning.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Leaving Evangelicalism

On April 1st, Rachel Held Evans wrote some thoughts in the aftermath of a week when World Vision announced that they would employ people in same-sex relationships, then backtracked a few days later after thousands of good, faithful, evangelical, Bible-believing Christians threatened to, or really did, pull their sponsorships of impoverished children.

Please note the sarcasm in the last paragraph. Read no further unless you can see it. Thanks.

In part, here is what Rachel wrote:
For many years, I felt that part of my call as a writer and blogger of faith was to be a different sort of evangelical, to advocate for things like gender equality, respect for LGBT people, and acceptance of science and biblical scholarship within my community. But I think that perhaps I became more invested in trying to “fix” evangelicalism (to my standards! oh the hubris!) than in growing Kingdom. And as helpful as I know that work has been for so many of you, I think it’s time to take a slightly different approach. 
So rather than wearing out my voice in calling for an end to evangelicalism’s culture wars, I think it’s time to focus on finding and creating church among its many refugees—women called to ministry, our LGBTQ brother and sisters, science-lovers, doubters, dreamers, misfits, abuse survivors, those who refuse to choose between their intellectual integrity and their faith or their compassion and their religion, those who have, for whatever reason, been “farewelled.” 
Instead of fighting for a seat at the evangelical table, I want to prepare tables in the wilderness, where everyone is welcome and where we can go on discussing (and debating!) the Bible, science, sexuality, gender, racial reconciliation, justice, church, and faith, but without labels, without wars.
To me, Rachel sounds very tired. She's tired of trying to be part of a strand of Christianity that seems to be becoming narrower, more insulated, and further from what she and many others believe to be what following Jesus really looks like. And as she says above, being "a different sort" in the same camp just doesn't seem to be worth it any more. This World Vision issue just seems to be the final straw. What seems more fruitful, on the other hand, is to create a new community among others who feel disaffected from that larger community.

As one born and raised in the United Church of Christ, a tradition notably more progressive and inclusive, I support what Rachel is doing. Her message is really one not unlike what many in the UCC have adhered to for a number of years. She and many other Millennials in particular seem to be drawn to an incarnation of faith that is more welcoming.

This is not without some pain, of course. Even though one may seek sanctuary in a new community, it also means severing ties with an old one. Even though certain beloved practices may carry over, it still won't be the same. Some relationships might not survive. Some beliefs, even treasured ones that had once served as lifelines or helped provide a sense of commonality and belonging, might not either.

My own stay in evangelicalism was not extensive. It didn't last more than a few years in late high school and early college just as I was starting to really wrestle with both my faith and a sense of call to ministry. You might say that I dabbled at best, as even when I was deepest in certain aspects of the evangelical tradition, my experience was still colored by my UCC background and the scholarship of my religion classes, which kept me from ever really going "all in," as it were.

I felt like an exile for a little while after it became clear that I didn't really belong. Like Rachel, I tried to hold on but I should have let it go a lot sooner than I did. Some of us have such good intentions and high hopes about remaining, and are quite often disappointed.

For a while, I stayed in that exile mindset. But nowadays, I think that maybe I'm more supposed to be one of the ones helping to provide sanctuary. I can relate to the experience, sure, but how many of us may be called more to provide a safe haven for those who have finally realized that they can no longer stay, and who grieve not only leaving but what caused them to conclude that leaving was their best option?

It can be a huge and painful thing to leave the faith tradition that helped shape your life, especially after realizing that it will no longer make room for you; that even though you've changed, it refuses to change with you.

I hope that I can do my part to be welcoming; that I can listen to and honor what evangelical exiles need. Sometimes I wonder how well we communicate that there are other possible places where they can hopefully find the fellowship and understanding that they need.

Tuesday, April 08, 2014

Small Sips Ends Up Ranting a Little

Well, how about that. Charles Arn shares a "surprising secret" to church growth, which is neither surprising nor a secret:
Several years ago, a study by the largest Protestant denomination in the country found a startling relationship between the length of time pastors had been in their churches and the growth or decline of those churches. 
Their finding? 
Approximately three-fourths of their growing churches were being led by pastors who had been in their church more than four years, while two-thirds of their declining churches were being led by pastors who had been in their church less than four years. Their conclusion (with which I agree): Long-term pastorates do not guarantee that a church will grow. But short-term pastorates essentially guarantee that a church will not grow.
You may recall when I made it a point to study what goes into building a long-term pastorate a few years ago. My reasons at the time were more personal: I wanted to break out of the cycle of moving all the time that I'd known my entire life up to that point. I just wasn't used to staying in one place for longer than a certain amount of time, so I decided to read up on what might go into staying longer.

Some might ask what the usefulness of this topic is in a broader sense. Why should anyone have a vested interest in maintaining a longer pastorate beyond just not wanting to move as often? Well, here's your answer: Arn finds that longer pastorates tend to produce growth, stability, and trust.

Who knew? Oh wait, I did.

So many laughs. We've been enjoying these "Kid Snippets" videos. The gist is that kids come up with the dialogue and then adults act it out:



Get with the program. Or better yet, don't. Jan at A Church for Starving Artists shares thoughts on the usefulness of church programs:
The worst kind of programming – in my estimation - involves going, sitting, hearing, and leaving with new information. But nothing changes. No souls have been transformed. No cultures have been shifted. No vision has been cast.  
The Program Church is Over. The Relational Church is Essential in 21st Century ministry. 
For the record, some of the best ministers I know do what they do best via programs. But the difference is that the purpose of their program planning is about building relationships between each other and God. It’s not about college-application-resume-building or making the elders feel like the staff is earning its money because the calendar is so full of stuff to do.  
Especially during Lent, you’d think we would slow down a little. But alas . . .
In part, this sounds like a quality vs. quantity issue. Are we "program-sized" churches throwing out tons of activities just to look busy, or are we intentionally planning events or groups to help transform lives and build relationships?

I'd rather just quote this whole thing. Gordon Atkinson reflects on questioning the beliefs of one's tradition:
If you are part of a religion or spiritual tradition with a bible, scriptures, traditions, steps, or any sort of received wisdom, you should embrace your tradition’s teachings with humility. 
And you should be encouraged to take any two doctrines and throw them out. You get two. Any two that don’t sit well with you. And I don’t mean you should just ignore them. I mean go outside, look up or down or sideways or in whatever direction you think points toward your god and say, “Hell no. I’m not going to do that!” 
Stand on your own two feet and use a firm voice. Explain yourself. 
“I’m not going to do that because I think it’s evil. I think it’s going to hurt people. And it violates a sense of rightness I have inside of me. A rightness that I feel has been enlarged by my devotion to my faith tradition. And if you are the kind of god who demands such a thing from your followers, I don’t think very much of you.”
Hopefully that whets your appetite to read the rest. The journey of faith includes wrestling with questions and authenticity in profession. It also includes, if you have chosen a specific tradition to follow, striking the right balance between adherence and honesty. Those probably aren't the right words, but they were the ones that came to mind.

Ten. Thousand. Maybe you heard about World Vision's recent announcement regarding acceptance of employees in same-sex relationships, and their subsequent back-tracking. Matthew Paul Turner reflects on the fallout:
It took several days to count the total loss of sponsorships, a number that eventually rose to “just about 10,000 children,” according to Stearns. A handful of people did call back, hoping to start up their sponsorships again. But the majority did not. 
And that breaks my heart. 
It should break all of our hearts, regardless of whether you praised World Vision’s initial decision or panned it as “godless.” 
Even still, those three words should break us friends. Because it’s a number that represents 10,000 needy children, flesh and blood of various races and nationalities, little ones who are precious in God’s sight. 
And yet, a large number of so-called born again Christians treated their relationships with their kids like they were little more than subscriptions to HBO. Sure, some people probably stopped sponsoring their kid and began sponsoring another kid through a different organization. But that’s not any better. A child sponsorship is not a product that can be returned and exchanged for a different brand. There’s nothing “moral” about using a kid as a bargaining chip to punish a Christian organization for making a decision that you don’t agree with. There’s nothing honoring about using children to force an organization’s hand. There’s nothing “pro life” about that. There’s nothing remotely “Christlike” about that. It’s downright disgusting, manipulative, and sad. If I was a Pentecostal, I might even call it demonic.
Hey, remember that quote from Gordon Atkinson I just shared about rejecting parts of your faith tradition that may call you to hurt people? Ta-da!

Hey, you. Yeah, you who are mad about marriage equality and homosexuality; who was scandalized by World Vision's original announcement: remember God's repeated claims to care for the orphan in the OT? How about Jesus saying that causing "one of these little ones" to stumble should earn you a millstone around your neck and a trip to the bottom of the sea?

No, you're too busy Taking A Stand for the Sanctity Of Marriage. Meanwhile the kid you just dumped is starving. Think about how First World Problem the nature of your cancellation is. You have a choice, that kid doesn't. And don't give me the whole "but I started sponsoring another child through this other much more Biblically faithful organization" stuff. The original kid still ain't eating, thanks to you. But hey, enjoy your feelings of self-righteousness. You have the leisure to do that.

Misc. Carey Nieuwhof on cultural trends that church leaders may want to take note of. It's not ground-breaking, but a good reminder. Jan on clergy salaries. PeaceBang on supervising church staff. Jamie on living with someone with a different process of doing things. Rachel on leaving evangelicalism, sort of. I think I have more to say about this later.

Friday, April 04, 2014

The Quiet and the Noise

Since Saturday, I've been feeling very quiet.

To be sure, there's been plenty to do. And there will be plenty to do as April goes along. We have Holy Week coming up, after all. This is one of the busiest times of the year for pastors. Not only that, but I'll finally be returning to Eden Theological Seminary for their spring convocation and my 10-year (!!!) reunion. Then I turn right around to come home and celebrate Confirmation Sunday.

That, and I'm working ahead a little in my spiritual direction program. The light at the end of the tunnel is getting brighter, and I'm doing what I can to will it closer. My practicum is winding down, and I only have three more class times to go.

So there's plenty of noise.

But I've also been feeling quiet. I've been feeling quiet about this space. It's not that I don't want to write anything. I just can't think of anything that I want to say right now. I worked myself up so much about the radio show, and now that it has passed I've been content to not say anything for a couple days, and I've felt a peace about that.

I suppose that's changed since I'm now writing about not writing. It kind of works against me, doesn't it? Maybe this is just a fancy way of saying, "Sorry, but I've been spending my energy in places other than this blog lately."

Even when life around me is fixing to get more and more noisy, I've been finding a quiet in the midst of it, and I've been enjoying it. I'm not in a rush to move away from it or jump start anything. There's enough to do, that's for sure.

So I'll go be quiet for a little while longer, and then I'll be done.

Monday, March 31, 2014

Me on Moody Radio

This past Saturday morning I appeared on the show Up for Debate through Moody Radio. The topic of the day was when one should or shouldn't leave one's church, thanks to this blog post that I wrote back in January.

You can access the recording of the program on their website under the "Past Programs" tab; just find the March 29th show. It's also available through iTunes.

All in all, I really enjoyed it. I found the host, Julie Roys and my fellow guest Chuck Betters to be very cordial and hospitable, and it was a good discussion. It was actually amazing how quickly the hour went. I could have said a lot more about the subject given more time.

Except I said "Um…" a lot. I didn't realize I was doing it at the time. Then I listened to it again and started yelling at Radio Me to knock it off. I mean, come on, man. Just make your point already. Sheesh.

Anyway, I was glad for the opportunity and the experience. I'd love to do something like it again.

Friday, March 28, 2014

March 2014 Pop Culture Roundup

Five items for March...

1. I read a book produced by a few different Baptist organizations called Rightly Dividing the Word of Truth, the review for which you can read here.

2. I also read Genesis and the Rise of Civilization by j. Snodgrass this month, the review of which you can read here.

3. There is one more episode of The Walking Dead left in season 4 before it goes away for the summer. On the one hand I'll certainly miss it, as it really is my favorite show currently on TV. On the other hand, I'll need that long to recover from the gut-punch that was the episode titled "The Grove." Those who watch know exactly what I'm talking about. Those who don't aren't getting a word about it here because I could barely get through telling Coffeewife about it. Instead I'll say this: yes, this show is about surviving the zombie apocalypse. But a big part of that is surviving ourselves and the others left alive. And sometimes that survival involves horrible, tragic decisions. Those moments on the show have been very well done for the most part, no less the truly awful development of which I will not speak. I'm very much looking forward to season 5 in October.

4. On a much happier note, we got the movie Frozen pretty much as soon as it came out on DVD at the strong insistence of Coffeeson, and watched it just last week. We meet the sisters Anna and Elsa, the latter of whom was born with powers to create all manner of frozen precipitation from her fingertips. When they are really young, they enjoy playing together with this power until an accident happens and Elsa cuts herself off from pretty much all of existence. When it is time for her coronation as queen, things start to unravel not just for her but for the entire kingdom. There were certain familiar Disney tropes present here, such as a princess pining for True Love, the silly sidekick, the Journey of Discovery, and, of course, the death of parental figures, but this also tweaked a few of them, mostly the True Love one, in several ways. There is also the strong message that you need to open yourself up to and trust others, with which I resonated. My only real gripe is that "Let It Go" had pretty well been worn out for me before this viewing, so when we got to that scene it just seemed like something I needed to endure. But that's not really the movie's fault.

5. My favorite musical discoveries are the ones that come out of nowhere. I recently stumbled across 17-year-old British singer-songwriter Birdy singing "Strange Birds:"



It's off of her new album Fire Within, which isn't yet available in the U.S., so if you're someone who can't wait to get it, you can do one of two things: fork over a little extra to get the import, or find a Youtube video of the entire album. Or both. Birdy at times reminds me of Lorde and at other times of Florence + the Machine. And with her being so young, I'd imagine she'll only get better with age.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Book Review: Genesis and the Rise of Civilization by j. Snodgrass

The core of a creation story is "Why? Why was the world created this way and what does that tell us about how to live in it?" What did the gods want from humanity? A creation story is like a blueprint or constitution, it contains the premise of the story people of that particular culture will enact with their lives. - j. Snodgrass, Genesis and the Rise of Civilization

My senior year of college, I wrote a research project in order to earn honors in my Religion major. I had taken an interest in the theology and writing of John Calvin earlier in my career there, and by the time I was set to start this paper was becoming more intrigued by the work of Karl Barth. To further both of these interests simultaneously, I decided that my paper would compare and contrast their views in a few major areas, drawing mainly from the magnum opus of each: the Institutes for Calvin, and Church Dogmatics for Barth. I even had the grand idea that I would write the paper as if the two of them could somehow be transported to a room across time and space and have a series of conversations with each other.

All things considered, Calvin and Barth are not incredibly far off from one another. While there are differences between them, they are considered to be in the same Reformed ballpark. Contrasting either of them with Luther, Wesley, Ignatius, Tillich, Altizer, and a host of others would have made for a more stark dynamic and probably for a more interesting paper. But this was my interest at the time, and I wanted to see it through.

In retrospect, however, I presented more of a contrast than perhaps was actually there. If you read my paper, I paint Calvin as this staunch conservative, perhaps even fundamentalist. There are undertones to his side of the dialogue that I made to sound rigid and even angry. On the other hand, Barth comes off as the more gentle and thoughtful progressive who tempers himself and his conversation partner. Clearly, my subconscious self wrote, this guy had come such a long way from the days of his predecessor.

It wasn't until later that I could read back over this and notice how I'd set up the dialogue in this way. Not only that, but I could see how the dynamic that I'd constructed between the two was a direct reflection of my own spiritual journey. I'd set up Calvin to represent not only my own earlier, more conservative self, but the viewpoint still taken by some with whom I'd had some conflict after moving away from that stance. In turn, I'd used Barth to represent the new space I was beginning to occupy, which was softer, at least further to the middle, and even a little battle-worn. Careful readers could probably notice the way I'd presented the personality and worldview of each, but it would take some extra work to learn the story behind why I wrote it in that way.

In Genesis and the Rise of Civilization, j. Snodgrass works carefully and deliberately through the first book of the Bible to seek the story behind the story. His working thesis is that these tales of creation and destruction, of wandering nomads and established cities, of individuals, couples, and families, represent the journey of a people, or of competing sets of people, who are trying to make sense of themselves, their relationships with other tribes and nations, and their understanding of God. Through the stories of Genesis, he argues, we can see bits and pieces of how the civilization that produced them understood themselves and their place in the world.

For instance, Snodgrass presents the brothers Cain and Abel as two archetypes. On the one hand is Cain, the farmer, the one who undertakes the work of established agriculture, which would have been associated with a more ordered society. On the other hand is Abel, the herdsman who tends flocks; who would have been more of a nomad, leading his animals wherever there was food and wherever he could find for himself as well. Of course, the end of the story is Cain killing Abel after Abel's sacrifice is deemed acceptable by God while Cain's is rejected. This story is not only about the further tragedy of a post-Eden existence, but the writer or writers in some sense also had in the back of their mind the tension between the city agriculturalists and the rugged wanderers out in the wilderness.

This sort of approach to these stories complicates the traditional "documentary hypothesis," which is the view that mainly four writers, identified by the initials JEDP, authored the first five books of the Hebrew Bible. J, the author traditionally held to have written the Cain and Abel story, for instance, would have written his material during the heights of Israel's monarchy when things were relatively peaceful. Could it be that he saw some tension play out between established methods of farming and outlying groups of wanderers, and that influenced how he told his parts of the narrative? The result would have been that he was offering commentary that God grieved this conflict, and even went so far as to favor the nomads. What does this mean for our reading of such a story?

Snodgrass pulls from a wide variety of sources in this commentary. On one page you'll find a footnote citing Midrash or noted Old Testament scholar Walter Breuggemann, and on the next you'll find a citation of Isaac Asimov. He pulls from history, anthropology, sociology, Jewish tradition, Biblical scholarship, and so many other sources to piece together the possibility that there is a subtext to these stories; a running commentary on what life was like at the time of their composition that the authors had varying degrees of awareness that they were offering.

If nothing else, I found this book incredibly thought-provoking. Snodgrass' approach is mainly one of reading the resulting text rather than spending too much time wondering who wrote which particular piece, although he does make nominal use of those theories. His chief concern is the story as it is, as well as the story underneath. The result is that he is able to bring out details of the text that many may not consider, resulting in a fresh and richer look at these passages that feels brand new.

The layout of the book is like any basic Biblical commentary: a few verses, followed by analysis. It makes for easy reference if one wants to read up on any particular story. Rather than present the material as overarching concepts interspersed with a few verses to back up his points, Snodgrass undertakes to tackle the whole book of Genesis, lingering with each piece, until all has been dissected. The result is a new take on familiar stories and theories as he wonders out loud about the many more stories contained in this book that a basic reading may be able to notice.

(I was sent a free copy of this book to review by the Speakeasy blogging book review network. My opinions are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255.)

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Making My Radio Debut

In late January, I wrote a post titled Five Really Good Reasons to Leave Your Church. I wrote it in response to an article that had appeared in Relevant Magazine a day or two before titled Five Really Bad Reasons to Leave Your Church. I figured that the original article needed a counterpoint; someone to give voice to the good reasons that I and others have had over the years for leaving churches.

I wrote it with the same attitude with which I write pretty much everything here: it'll reach a few dozen folks who have me queued up on their browser or who'll see my link to it on social media, and that'll be fine.

Well, something a bit bigger than that happened on that particular day. Among other things:


When someone like Rachel Held Evans is retweeting your article, it's bound to go a bit further than you're used to.

And it did. That post has over 4000 views and counting. I'm still amazed and thankful that so many people have read and appreciated it.

But there was still more. By the end of that week, I'd been contacted by someone from Moody Radio to appear on one of their programs to talk more about this article and to discuss the general issue of why people should or shouldn't leave churches. Given what prompted this contact, I'll likely be expected to give more of the "should" side.

So if you feel so inclined to listen in, here are the details. The show is called Up for Debate, and will broadcast on Saturday, March 29th at 8 a.m. Central (that'd be 9 a.m. Eastern). If you don't have a Moody affiliate in your area or it doesn't carry that particular program, you can listen to it online at the show's website. And if you have more important things to do that morning, it'll be archived on the site and on iTunes for you to listen to some other time.

I'll admit some nerves about this, for multiple reasons. But overall, it should be good. Feel free to tune in.