Archive for May, 2009

Star Trek for Today

May 18, 2009

Watching movies must be my all-time favorite hobby, not least because they help me think. I don’t even have to agree with a movie in order to like it. I just want it to ask good questions and attempt to answer them with some intelligence. For attention-deficient people like me, movies do what books and plays did for previous generations.

Don’t get me wrong: the medium has its limits. I recently read Twilight before I saw the movie, and the book was way better. Two-hour movies can’t always capture everything, like subtle character development or the passage of time. But movies serve as insightful windows into the thoughts and dreams of the cultures that produce them.

Consider the long stream of Star Trek episodes and movies, which saw their latest installment this month, borne out of the prolific minds of J.J. Abrams and Damon Lindelof (the producers of LOST). Like any franchise that survives a succession of decades, Star Trek tells us a lot about the changes that have taken place since the series began.

Stanley Grenz argued that the replacement of Spock (from the late 60’s) with Data (in the early 90’s) illustrates the shift in our cultural values from the former generation to the next one. Spock was a purely rational being (even if he was half-human), a cool, objective bystander to the human condition, who judged Kirk’s dilemmas from his unaffected left-brain perspective. (Incidentally, some have also noted how the moody Dr. McCoy personified the other half.) Data, on the other hand, is not so purely logical (despite the fact that he is just an android). In fact, he seems preoccupied with becoming human, as if he is on a perpetual search of self. Grenz explains that this mirrors the shift from modernism to post-modernism. Spock represented the fully matured product of the Enlightenment, which taught us to trust Reason and pursue Science as the solution to every problem that life can throw our way.

But then Science failed us. The closer we looked into the make-up of our universe the more our neat categories crumbled and dissolved into uncertainties. Now mystery permeates all we do, just as Data is always mystified by events and by the choices of the strange creatures around him. Data represents the postmodern recasting of Spock, Grenz says, and he represents a sea change in our ideals. I would have to agree.

In fact, Zachary Quinto’s 2009 version of Spock does much the same thing, except with perhaps even more boldness. Now we’ve become so skeptical of Reason that we feel the need to rewrite the canon, making even Spock himself as susceptible to subjective bias as anyone else. In Abram’s movie, Spock is romantically involved with Uhura (who could blame him?), something unthinkable in Leonard Nimoy’s earlier incarnation. Quinto’s Spock is flappable and sensitive to insults (don’t talk about my momma!). Therefore he is no more infallible at the helm than any of us would be. Fascinating.

But perhaps most obvious of all (to me) is that James T. Kirk’s history has been rewritten. Previously, as the story goes, Kirk became captain of the Enterprise with his own father proudly looking on. But this 2009 retelling of the story goes back and writes the father out of our hero’s life. A Romulan bad guy goes back in time and kills Kirk’s father just as the young Jim is being born. Now Kirk grows up unruly, undisciplined, thrill-seeking his way through Iowa with no father to tell him which way is up. This is the kind of protagonist that the child of today can identify with. He’s brash, irreverent, impulsive, sex-crazed, and yes, fatherless. Makes perfect sense, really.

The new Star Trek brilliantly goes where no prequel has gone before: It alters the space-time continuum, creating an alternate reality in which characters’ stories can now be rewritten at the complete discretion of the producers. That’s a masterful stroke, really. I trust the newer incarnation of Star Trek will thrill fanboys as much as the new Batman movies do the comic book crowd. I wish all reboots were in their league, but alas.

At any rate, there’s my observation for the day. The new Captain Kirk fits our generation as well as the new Spock does. We no longer worship rationality as we once did, and we no longer identify with well-adjusted heroes. But then again, what comic book hero didn’t lose his parents at some point in his childhood?

Like I said, fascinating.


Family Resemblance

May 12, 2009

My good buddy Bill Heroman, a dedicated biblioblogger, forwarded me an insightful article written by Ken Schenck, a New Testament professor at Indiana Wesleyan University. In it, Schenck argues against seeking to establish, recover, or reinvent The Ideal Church. He does an excellent job.

He begins by explaining how Plato taught that, behind every real-life occurrence of anything, there is an ideal “form” (or Idea) of that thing. For Plato, that required an alternative world underneath this one in which reside all the ideal forms of everything (horses, buildings, people, love, etc). From that worldview, it was an easy step for many philosophers-turned-Christian to equate Plato’s forms with the apostle Paul’s “spiritual realm.” In fact, the two are synonymous for many thinkers even today. Somehow this notion leads us to search for the IDEAL New Testament church, and it leads us to imitate it as best as we can.

But Schenck warns that this is a misguided quest, because even the New Testament provides us with no such example of THE ideal church. There are only actual churches, varied and flawed in many diverse ways. I’ll contend that they had some similar characteristics which we are to emulate. But we are not to imitate them in every particular. Schenck illustrates it this way:

Over the centuries, thinkers have improved on Plato’s theory of ideas, I believe. For example, how do you recognize a member of my family, the Schenck family? Certainly there is DNA for those in my family who are not spouses or adopted. But is there some essence of a Schenck, an ideal Schenck?

Certainly a number of us Schencks (not me of course) are quite free to share their opinions on things rather outspokenly–and not always with enough prior thought. Certainly many of us like to eat. A good number of Schencks have, shall we say, robust figures that perhaps betray a Dutch heritage filled with lots of bread and mashed potatoes. Some of us have biggish noses and others big ears. Some of my cousins at least seem rather tall to me.

But there is no ideal Schenck. Apart from DNA, there is no common set of characteristics we all share–particularly those who have married into this assortment of Schencks. There is no Platonic Schenck, just a loose set of Schencky characteristics and family resemblances. [2] Some of us have some of them, and some of us have others. But none of us have all of them. [emphasis added]

Well put. In the same way, there is no ideal New Testament church to imitate. Just some “New Testamenty” characteristics which bind together churches birthed by the same Spirit of God. They are infinitely diverse and complex in their particular expression.

Much like the human face. People often tell me that three of my daughters look just like me (the fourth takes after my wife’s family). They meet the first one and say, “She looks just like you.” Then they meet the second, who looks different, and say “Wait, that one looks like you, too, but in a different way.” Then they meet the third, who looks plenty different from the first two, and they exclaim, “Now that one really DOES look like you!” All three different, yet somehow each looks like me in different ways.

That’s what being the church is like. We are a family that expresses the life of our Father, but we are diverse in how we do it. And that’s okay. We may not be okay with it, but I’m growing more and more suspicious that the Father sees it differently. Oh, sure, there are things that clearly don’t express who He is, and we should steer clear of those things: Self-interest, self-preservation, spite, pride, etc. None of those things look like Him. If we allow those things to grow unchecked within ourselves, we end up looking like we aren’t even His.

But showing ourselves to be His involves showing His love, His mercy, and His compassion more than it involves meeting a certain way, structuring our leadership in a certain way, or even understanding the Bible in a certain way. These kinds of things usually occupy our search for the IDEAL church, but have little to do with really living out who we are called to be.

God is highly creative, and His work in this world is appropriately fresh and creative as well. So don’t be too stuck on the HOW part. If you want to see the church lived out “as it should be,” then look around and see how He’s actually doing it today, in our midst. Where do you witness those tell-tale traits of His presence? Where do you see the fruit of the Spirit showing up? What’s going on there? Maybe that’s what He’s up to right now. And isn’t that always where we meet Him? In the real-life “now”?

It was 19 years ago today that the Father called me into His family, and I’d have to say that this notion represents the newest discovery that I’ve made over these (almost) two decades. Right now I’m learning what it looks like to follow Him in the messiness of reality (instead of in the pristine perfection of my own theology). I hope it all makes sense in print.

New Endorsement for Christ In Y’all

May 11, 2009

Hey, if the Jedi Master himself liked it, shouldn’t you pick up your copy today?

Learning to Move On

May 8, 2009

Most of the students I teach are black. Incidentally, they never refer to themselves as “African-American,” so I’ll dispense with the political correctness for the time being (even if they are really more brown than black). Working with them has given me a new perspective on why the students I work with act the way they do. I’ll illustrate with two stories.

This morning during class an administrator brought one of my students a disciplinary form, asking her to sign it (indicating that the reasons for her suspension had been clearly expressed in her hearing). The student responded by crumpling up the paper and tossing it behind her before the administrator had even turned to leave the room. This is pretty typical behavior where I work. After the administrator left, the student announced to all who would listen: “My momma told me don’t never sign nothin’ the school give you!” Several of her friends voiced their agreement. “That’s the same thing my momma told me,” another girl offered. With parents harboring such deep distrust of our teachers and administrators, it’s no wonder we witness so much disrespect for our school’s policies.

A couple of years ago I was teaching a group of students who were all labeled with “behavior disorders.” One day I asked them: Which is worse, robbing a store at gunpoint, or telling the cops who did it? They unanimously asserted that the snitch was the real criminal. I told them that was pretty messed up but they just shrugged their shoulders and said “that’s just how it is.” Evidently these kids, who were constantly having run-ins with both school officials and law enforcement, were taught that siding with authority is the cardinal sin. And what’s even crazier, they apparently learned this from the adults who raised them.

One day it finally occurred to me: Multiple generations of blacks in the U.S., particularly in the South, grew up with racially unjust laws and corrupt law enforcement. When your local law enforcement is run by white supremacist segregationalists, you learn not the trust your authority figures. And you pass that distrust down to your progeny, and they pass it down to theirs. Now that equal opportunity is the rule of law, we’ve still got generations of convention to reverse, and it’s not happening quickly enough.

I’m watching black men and women try to discipline black students who were taught to distrust all authority, and it’s only reinforcing their social inequity. These kids are throwing away a free education and turning to crime so that yet another generation will grow up disadvantaged. If only their parents could acknowledge that the world has changed, or at least that they can no longer blame all their troubles on other people, things would change for them.

Maybe that’s why black churches are turning out most of the successful (law abiding) folks. They are preaching an alternative message. They are preaching personal empowerment. They are preaching prosperity through optimism and faith in God. And of course, in the best circumstances they are also investing in their communities, mentoring, and modeling responsibility to their young men and women.

I will occasionally make a crack about the prosperity gospel. I believe it misrepresents the message of pretty much every New Testament author, and it ignores the daily impact of the cross of Christ in the life of a believer. But I can see the benefit of all this optimism, too. I see great value in turning away from blame, racial defeatism, and of course violence and crime. These churches are teaching their members to MOVE ON. Look upward. Trust Him from whom your help comes. More power to them.

Leadership, Part Two

May 3, 2009

In the last post, I asserted that leadership in the body of Christ is organically grown, and that the authority it wields is spiritual rather than official. Perhaps the simplest way to restate my point is to say that local leadership roles in a church should be home-grown, and should mirror the ongoing spiritual vitality of the people in question. Leadership is not a static thing, and it changes according to the needs of a group. For example, a person who leads in one group may not find he or she has the same role in the next. It’s a fluid thing.

But today I’m thinking about how leadership is still totally necessary for a group of people, however they come upon it. I find this needs to be stated out loud because those of us who are into “organic leadership” tend to entertain the notion that a church can get by without leaders at all. Or perhaps some of us like to believe that leadership happens so fluidly that it never rests on any one or two or three individuals in a church for more than a few seconds at a time.

Poppycock. I’ve been in an organic, simple, home church now for nine years and I can tell you that churches need leaders. They need brothers (and sisters!) to whom they can look when things get really nasty. They need stable folks who can redirect things onto a healthy path when things get sidetracked. A church needs men and women who don’t freak out about everything, who don’t twist the truth to fit their own preferences, and who genuinely look out for the needs of other people rather than merely their own. In other words, there really are characteristics of a followable leader, and we should know what they are.

If each person in the church carries the same weight in every discussion, then the group will too easily be swayed by those who don’t know what they’re talking about. Yet somehow we entertain this romantic notion that everyone leads equally. Perhaps we do this because we love democracy so much in this country. We don’t like anyone telling us what we should do, and we don’t like the idea that someone might know better than we do. Hurts our pride. But there really are people who should be listened to more than others. These are called leaders. And we need them in a fellowship of fallen people.

What happens if a group of people never recognizes leadership? Then people who should not be followed will determine the direction of the group. Somehow, in the end, people without those qualities which describe a leader will have their way, and the group will suffer. Churches which are suspicious of authority and leadership eventually must learn what it looks like for God’s kind of leadership to show up.

Side note: Did you know it’s hard to write a well-thought-through blog post while your 18 month old is fussing at you? Turns out it is. I hope this is all still making sense.

So what counts most in leadership? What kind of person should a church be looking for amongst themselves?

My answer is: A person of character.

Yes, you say, but what is character? What does that mean? First of all, it does NOT mean simply that they can speak well, or convincingly. Being articulate is nice, and it’s useful for a group to have people that can talk, but how central is that, really? I suppose your leaders should be able to unify a group of people, and being able to think clearly, objectively, and being able to articulate what you’re thinking is useful for that end. But the character of that person is crucial. Useful things like intelligence and charisma must never eclipse character.

Most people like to be led by people who are smart. They like to follow someone who can write a good book, or deliver stirring speeches in front of crowds of people (e.g. megachurch pastors). But these are not the real reasons to follow a person. Successful preachers, writers, and entertainers (think of actors, musicians, artists) often have really crummy character under the hood. And in the end they will make decisions that are not good for a group. They wow us with their elocution, or their charm, but that’s not what we really need. So what DOES character mean, then?

Character is comprised of un-sexy things like commitment, stability, perseverance, and humility. People of character take genuine interest in the needs of other people, not merely their own needs. They take responsibilities seriously, and they follow through with what they say they will do. They have integrity–they do not say one thing but do another. In fact, as it turns out, what they say matters far less than WHAT THEY DO. At long last, I think this is what I’m getting at. We tend to watch people’s mouths. But we should be looking somewhere else.

When I played football, my coaches taught us that you should never watch the ball carrier’s shoulder pads. If you want to know which way they’re going next, you watch their hips. The hips don’t lie. A good ball carrier will juke and jive and fake you out. But a good tackler watches the hips. They tell you what’s up.

Same thing here. Watch one another’s actions. Pay attention to how each other lives. Notice those people who make wise decisions, who cultivate healthy relationships, and who do what they say. Follow those people. That’s what leadership is about, and we need it dearly.