The Conversion of Han Solo

Following the release of the new Star Wars poster and trailer last week, a lot has been made of the various details contained therein.  Most often, questions about the place and role of Luke Skywalker are the ones that rise to the surface.

Han-Solo-changed-view-of-Jedi-and-ForceWhile interesting, there’s a much more intriguing motif running through the preview that has me (and others) thinking.  As you can see in the photo I’ve included here, it has to do with Han Solo.  While in the first Star Wars film he’s a brash young hero ready to reject supernatural beliefs in favor of his own abilities, it seems that his view of the universe has changed.  Now, after his experiences, he readily admits the world is more complicated.  He has embraced a new reality, if you will.

This kind of conversion motif, if you will, also marks the trailer’s conclusion, as a voice speaks to one of the characters, saying: “The Force is calling to you.  Just let it in.”  Likely a call to enter the Jedi life, this invitation was immediately reminiscent of nothing less than an old-school altar call.  Replace just a few words in that invitation and you’ve got a Billy Graham meeting.luminous-beings-we-are-not-this-crude-manner

The first Star Wars trilogy clearly borrowed from Eastern mysticism as well as Gnostic thought.  Dualism, pantheism, etc.: these were all philosophical and religious ideas that George Lucas borrowed (to great effect) in the films.  Though other themes and ideas could likely be perceived (think of Darth Vader’s last minute “salvation” here), the Force was understood deeply though the lens of Eastern thought as per Yoda.

I wonder, though, if the next film will borrow its broadly religious/philosophical ideas more heavily from a Christian or other conversion-based narrative.  Talking about conversion raises some interesting questions–perhaps most notably whether or not people really ever change.  I’m interested in seeing what the filmmakers have put together, and what opportunities for popular reflection and conversation such efforts may entail.

Life Is Not Just Moments

Today I’ll close out mHertwecky recent series on the need for reform in youth ministry with a corollary to my last entry.  Beyond the need for smallness is the reality of authenticity, immediacy, and consistency.  For this reason, the emphasis on “coolness,” high production values, and accompanying affective moments that can characterize some youth programs and events ought to be reevaluated.

Today in one of my courses we’ll be Skyping with David Hertweck, author of a new book called Good Kids, Big Events, and Matching T-Shirts: Changing the Conversation on Health in Youth Ministry.  I’m a big fan of his work here and commend the book to you.  As the title suggests, Hertweck is also looking for a new way forward in ministry to adolescents.  Speaking on “big events,” he says the following:

“When we tell ourselves that success and health in youth ministry means delivering high-energy emotional moments, we run the risk of manipulating kids’ emotions to get them to feel something…the problem is, the moment passes, and if it wasn’t an authentic work of the Spirit, there won’t be any lasting fruit.”

Though Hertweck may approach the topic a bit differently than me, his attention to what we youth pastors and leaders hope to do with our biggest efforts comes through.  Surely, after all, there must be something more to this than what we can accomplish with a well-crafted moment or worship set or lights show or experience or whatever. worship

Focusing on “big events,” key moments, and sometimes calculated coolness is not limited only to the biggest days on the calendar or the largest youth ministries.  Trying to tie everything up into such realities can and does become a cultural shift in ministry efforts (big and small) that are modeled on this pattern.  Such undertakings can make leaders and others proud of what they’ve done, create a great optic for participants, and fire our emotions and energy level.

Despite these momentary wins and their outward appearance, I’m not sure such a strategy will actually help in the long-term. As David Hertweck notes, “You can’t sustain a moment, but you can sustain a conversation.”  Youth ministry needs to be about God’s work amidst youth and their being now and over the course of many days to come, not about cool production values or sets of spiritual moments.  Dialogue, close-knit community, and ministries spending more and more time investing in mentoring IPE-mentoring-headerrelationships will therefore be a part of my suggested future.  It will mean stripping away a lot of the big box approach in favor of smaller and more incremental work with students.

When big things come–and they will, and that’s not bad–these episodes need to be shepherded by those working with students over the course of the many small moments and non-moments that make up their faith and life.  Hertweck reflects on the notion of Spirit-dependency being key to they non-events driven youth ministry, and I have affinity with his idea.  I appreciate even moreso his holistic philosophy: “Our students need to live in the Spirit in every single arena of life.”  If whole-life discipleship is what we are trying to accomplish, many big events–even if they are high-quality and strung together pathendlessly–are not what is needed for our students. Integrated discipleship demands more.

We youth pastors should strive to be good stewards of the many tasks we are called to undertake, including the occasional events, retreats, camps, and moments where good things can and do happen.  Even so, we cannot let our center of gravity remain in these brief oases or rest stops on the way instead of in deep presence and fellowship on the long road ahead.  We need to stop getting excited about the “exciting” things many have come to get excited about and instead turn to the “boring” work of everyday discipleship, because that’s where life is lived and deep faith is formed.

Matthew 19

“When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astonished and asked, ‘Who then can be saved?'” -Matthew 19:25

“How we deal with death is at least as important as how we deal with life, wouldn’t you say?” -Captain James T. Kirk

graveIn the part of the church world in which I serve, it is not uncommon to refer to someone’s entry into the Christian faith as “getting saved.”  Though years of seminary have made me often refer to this as “becoming a Christian” or “converting,” there is something powerful about the starkness of this vernacular phrase.

Thinking about crossing the line one faith and getting saved illuminates some things. It points to a human need for salvation, the possibility and path of salvation, and the reality that there may be someone or something that can actually do the saving.  Here in Matthew 19 the disciples wrestle with such topics.  They hear Jesus talk about the difficulties of the rich entering Heaven and they begin to wonder if anyone can be saved.

The question of eternity and our own personal final destinations are, in many ways, never far from us.  One accident, one medical situation, one moment of stupidity or violence, and life can be gone.  Understandably, most people prefer not to dwell on the inevitable for very long, focusing instead on other things.  Death stalks us all, in otmaxresdefaulther words, so there’s no use whining about it.

The matter of who can be saved from death is not just a Christian one.  Nor is it a necessarily religious one.  Confronting the inevitable end of this life is something that human beings deal with variously: via science, medicine, distraction, philosophy, and, of course, religion.  The answers we choose to embrace are different, but the fact that such answers are needed in the first place points to one reality: this life will one day be over.

We know, that–all things being equal–we will die, both as individuals and as a human race.  If science is our only guide, we must accept that this world will eventually end, whether by human hand or natural occurrence.  Even if we manage the planet in the best way possible, the sun will go nova in five or six billion years.  And if humanity survives that?  Well, eventually the universe may come to its conclusion with a “big smash” of all there is collapsing together or via a “cold death” in which entropy wears out all the potential energy of everything.  A bang or a whimper, it seems.

Not too optimistic, huh?  Picturing both the eventual end of everything and my own life’s countdown is, well, depressing.  salvation1If death is the end of consciousness and being, well, that’s one of the saddest things I’ve ever heard.  And if death actually takes us to an eternity either forever separated from our true home with God or eternally present in communion with God, that’s profoundly emotion-inducing as well.

I say all of this to remember that the question of “who then can be saved?” is not just a question for preachers.  It is a human question.  Whether death is a hard stop on our existence or entry into a plane the reality of which has eternal consequences, it can be a scary thing.  No matter what we think happens after death, it seems hardwired in us not to want to die.  Death is wrong, somehow.  It is an enemy.

Despite what the perceptible patterns of this brokedown world and our faltering bodies say, “with God all things are possible” (Matthew 19:26).  As a Christian, I know that God has made a way for life beyond death in Jesus Christ, and it is not just available for me but all who believe and accept it (John 3:16).  I offer this as the answer for all people, even as I’m well aware that not all accept this.

Here’s a question I’m interested in, then: what about those of you who aren’t Christians or who aren’t even particularlythese-eternal-questions concerned with matters of faith?  Honestly and humbly, I want to know how you approach death.  What do you think about it?  How do you deal with it?  Do you ever ask yourself how you might be saved, either from the sheer extinction of being or as you move into eternity?  As death is a common human experience, I think these are legitimate and real questions around which we could dialogue. If you’re interested in sharing, I really want to know what you think about death and end of life: how you approach it, what you believe, and why you choose to believe that as opposed to other answers.  For those who may participate, thank you in advance.

But What Stays the Same?

(Continued from Monday.)

When I consider the forces that have influenced and continue to affect world Christianity, I am reminded that such developments need not always be negative.  While the dangers of illegitimate religious types-of-theology1combination (i.e. so much mixing or religious syncretism that Christianity adopts practices, outlooks, or beliefs which at heart contradict key aspects of the faith) are real, this is not the only narrative at work.  For inasmuch as Christianity can be derailed from its broadly held orthodoxy it can also be powerfully impacted by cultures, customs, and ideas without losing its path.

Translation is the name of the game here.  As the Church is adapted into other languages, styles, places, and people groups, it by necessity is translated into those contexts in myriad ways.  As Christ is apprehended in such places, He is understood as unchanging Truth by means of new language.  Missionaries have engaged in such work for centuries.  They continue to this day.  Sometimes such work can, far from “polluting” the faith, actually illumine some powerful realities others have forgotten.

And yet: the translation inherent in cross-cultural work brings with it a unique set of challenges.  For while such a process can help newcomers understand what Christianity is all about, the very process of translation almost by necessity changes things.  No two languages or cultures are alike, and different languages have words and nuance that are not replicated in others.  Translation is therefore a “best guess” or approximation of meaning.  Because it is inexact, it leaves, adds, and alters

Can we accept this?  Well, I submit that we have to.  After all, I’m a beneficiary of such translation (language and culture) as I live out my own Christianity.  I, like you, read the Bible in a language and in a culture drastically different from the world from which it derives.  I’ve studied some Greek and Hebrew, certainly.  But I am far from an expert.  Even then, I do not understand it as a native speaker would in that time and place.  As I read the Bible, my context necessarily alters some of its meaning.  While I trust the divergence is so great that I’m at risk of departing from orthodox Christianity, I would be a fool to deny that my language and culture does not affect my faith.

While most believers’ (myself included) day-to-day interactions with Christianity can be discernibly orthodox, there is always the danger that things could diverge too far.  One of the reasons we need Bible scholars, teachers, and preachers is to help us understand more about the teachings of Scripture–both as connected to the language and culture in which they were written and with regard to their present-day implications.  But even they cannot perform this work perfectly without flaw or limitation.

HolyTrinityWhat I’m talking about here goes beyond culture and language.  I believe that humanity itself–regardless of learning–is simply unable to understand certain divine realities as they actually are.  We are limited and God is infinite.  We are bounded and God is transcendent.

Consider the Trinity–a complex doctrine if there ever was one.  Trying to explain it feels a bit silly at times, always careening between denying distinction in the Godhead, asserting some kind of created Jesus/Holy Spirit, and/or developing a doctrine of three gods.  Because we know from Scripture that God is three in some way while still one, we have developed the idea of the Trinity to explain it.  Does our theology describe exactly how God works?  Almost certainly not.  It is our “best guess”.  I think it is a fair one, but even so is limited.

Translation in language and culture–or at a more basic level from the divine to human–is a part of the tension at work in a faith that is both particular (i.e. Jesus) and universal (evangelistically open to all) at the same time. Such translation can pollute, forcing us to ask real questions about whether or not our perceived faith is close to the heart of God.  Even so, an endless and obsessive search for some Platonic form of Christianity to the detriment of the good and faithful ways it is practiced and embodied the world over is, I think, unfortunate.  Many of these ways are–like our articulation of the Trinity–limited and imperfect, but they are nevertheless representative of our “faith seeking understanding”.  As they remain grounded in Scripture and orthodox tradition and aware of the movement of the Spirit of God in our world, they can be powerful aspects of our shared faith.  light_clouds

Difference can mean heresy, but it need not always.  Sometimes it is just difference.

In the end, Church history helps me by aware of the diversity with Christianity, both in terms of its dangers and potential.  It also reminds me that, from Day One, Christianity has been about translation.  This means I need to be comfortable with it, at least at a certain level.  As missiologist Andrew Walls has written, “God chose translation as his mode of action for the salvation of humanity.  Christian faith rests on a divine act of translation…”

Some Things Do Change

Pelikan BookI’m teaching Church History again this year, and alongside my work in the course I’ve decided to read through Jaroslav Pelikan‘s five-volume The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine.  As I write this morning, I’ve only just begun.

In the initial book of the series, Pelikan discusses early Christianity through the first six centuries AD.  While he does so, he addresses the culture within which much of the young religion arose: the late classical world.  To this end he writes the following:

The victory of orthodox Christian doctrine over classical thought was to some extent a Pyrrhic victory, for the theology that triumphed over Greek philosophy has continued to be shaped ever since by the language and the thought of classical metaphysics (44).

Christian theology as we know it, in other words, was profoundly touched and affected by outside forces fairly early on.  Such a statement might elicit a number of responses.  Some might deny that it is true, assuming that every bit of the Church’s teaching is exactly how the Apostles framed it.  Others, taking a typically modern perspective, might decry such additions and seek to purify the faith by removing them.  Postmoderns by contrast may simply yawn, asserting that since there is no such thing as “true” Christianity and hinton st marythat the faith has always been first defined through the lens of cultural metanarratives, there is no point in trying to discover what the earliest Christians believed.

As a Christian historian, I find myself in the midst of these questions when I consider the early Church.  It would be nice to assert, as per the first position, that Christian theology has always been understood by the Church in the same way.  While I would assert that one can trace a stream of orthodoxy through the centuries, even the most basic read of history reveals that the way the Church has reflected upon the “deposit of faith” has changed over time.

What of the second position?  Well, I am an historian.  I am interested in digging into the past.  The lure of understanding what the earliest believers understood about their faith is there.  I am reading the first volume of Pelikan’s work, after all.  But even so, I’m not ready to jettison all the nuance time and space have given to Christian doctrine and the language we have used to describe it in favor of some nascent and (likely) historically irretrievable arh430-530earlychristianartgenesis.  If it is possible to understand Christian theology completely untouched by the Roman world, we will still be understanding it from only one point of view and–unless new sources are available–likely incomplete and in need of further explication.  Besides, in the process of understanding it from our perspective, we might very well be doing the same kind of culturally-conditioned doctrinal alterations that proponents of this position would decry in the first place.

All of this points towards those holding the third, more relativist position.  Clearly this has its appeal.  Christianity is and has always been shaped by its historical and cultural location: first in the Jewish world, then in the Greco-Roman world, and on and on.  This to me is a largely agreeable line of thought.  But then there’s more.  With so many kinds of Christianities–both in Antiquity and today–it is easy to give in to the belief that it is all subjective.  There is an almost nihilism in the furthest extremes of this position.  If none of it matters ultimately, why does any of it matter?  Is heresy really heresy or just another “version?”  As an orthodox Christian historian, I have a difficult time with some of this thinking.

History as a discipline, aware as it is of the many narratives in which we are involved, still carries with it a certain connection to objectivity.  I often feel this pull as I engage in my work.  There is an actual historical record with which we have to deal, and the investigation of said record reveals both details and insight even as it bounds us.  It Archbishop's_Chapel,_Ravennatells us, I believe, that there are some basic things about Christianity that have persisted from the earliest days. It also reveals how doctrine has developed and changed over time.  To admit what Pelikan does in the quotation above is simply to state a fact.  How we interact with such facts vis-a-vis the three positions I’ve laid out is up to us.

Christianity has been influenced by the world(s) in which it has lived.  That’s a fact.  But it is Christianity that has been influenced.  The Church’s lively debates, factions, reforms, and reframing over time have always been with reference to the core ideas–and Person–around which it is based.  Though articulated very differently, I believe these can still be discernibly Christian.

To Be Continued.

Matthew 18

“I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.”

-Jesus, Matthew 18:22

reconciliation_webHow often should I forgive a Christian brother or sister when they wrong me?  A lot, it seems.  As we’ve seemingly been taught just about every time this passage is read, “seventy-seven” or “seventy times seven” is not Jesus being overly picayune about numbers.  Rather, it is Him using an exaggerated figure to let us know that we need to keep on forgiving people.  We’re not just supposed to stop on the 78th or 491st offense, in other words.  Such forgiveness is yet another hallmark of the Kingdom of God that runs counter to many “common sense” aspects of our broken world.  It seems neither fair nor safe, we say…and yet there it is.

The principle inherent in what Christ shares is a powerful one, and reminds us once again of the humility and grace that He embodies and to which Christians are called.  But as I am thinking about Jesus’ words, I wonder if a little “spiritual experiment” would help bring such forgiveness into sharper relief.  While perpetual forgiveness is a powerful thing, it can often just fade into to background in a general principle–lofty but inexact.

What if, instead, I actually decide to forgive a fellow Christian seventy-seven times?  Keep track of it all, consciously choose to forgive, and move through each and every one of the nearly eighty sins and wounds this person might inflict on me?  I realize, of course, that love “keeps no record of wrongs” (I Corinthians 13:5).  I wouldn’t be remembering these moments in order to angrily hold onto the pain and hurt.  Rather, I would do so in order to consider the way forgiveness really worked.56382620

Thinking about forgiving a person that many times–even the modest number of 77–seems daunting. Especially if the sins to forgive are weighty.  I recall one such instance in my life, and how hard it was to move on.  Seventy-six more of those?  That’s hard.  The concreteness of that number is stark, and it doesn’t allow us room to wiggle out of it.  And yet we know, deep down, that this kind of grace, mercy, and humility is exactly what Christ seeks to accomplish in and through us.

May we pray to be people of such forgiveness, both in moments one to seventy-seven as well as following that 78th sin.

A Small Reform

If youth ministry needs to change as much as I have been discussing, size needs to be mentioned.  To put it simply, we should consider how youth ministry might be smaller.  More personal and face-to-face.  More relationally close.

ym3Thinking about the need for smallness in youth ministry is a theme suggested by Mark Oestreicher in his book Youth Ministry 3.0.  It is further corroborated by youth ministries across the country that have turned to “small groups” to help address needs in the youth ministry.

While small groups that are a part of a larger “big-box” style youth ministry are often the model we have defaulted ourselves to, I’m wondering if that goes far enough.  In some (if not many) cases these small groups are not as central to ministry to adolescents as they could be, instead serving as appendages to a ministry still focused upon the youth pastor et al.  Ministry to teens that is small needs to go beyond the simple “program” of small groups and begin to consider a full-scale revision and rethinking of such efforts that lets go of the need for the big group approach.  Perhaps there don’t need to be any more regular youth group meetings; just small ministry efforts and whole-church gatherings.

Just writing that feels risky.  That’s how I know I’m suggesting change.

All ministers and churches are tempted by matters of size.  Gauging our human level of success by numbers is a far tooyouth-bible-study common occurrence, despite our stated principles.  While growth is a natural development in Christian ministry centered on the good news of Jesus Christ, such change need not happen in an “accumulating towards the center” fashion.  Instead it could mean a proliferation of smaller ministry moments and opportunities within the local congregation that are connected to the unique developmental and pscho-social realities of adolescence.  Like churches that grow to a certain size before planting or opening a separate campus, so too youth ministries, as they engage new individuals, can simply open new doors for engagement on the part of teens and adults alike.

51KkCpkHDIL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Where is the youth pastor in all of this?  Well, that’s a good question.  But, considering my comments the other day, perhaps a bit of an anachronistic one.  If we are to consider the option I’ve mentioned today, it implies a new direction for such ministry.  No longer should “small groups” be fit into an existing and traditional youth ministry model.  Instead, the desire to work in focused and face-to-face ways with young people needs to take the lead.  The rest of the things that we’ve come to know and expect?  Well, perhaps we should consider putting them away or adjusting them in favor of trying something new.  It certainly won’t give us the optics of the large group…but it might just develop disciples in a way we can often miss.

Just some thoughts, friends.  I welcome your comments.