Not a Dinner Party


Thoughts, Musings and Opinions about Theology, Politics, and Life in Seminary.

Mark Noll and Soong-Chan Rah

I am very interested in Mark Noll’s new book about World Christianity and Soong-Chan Rah’s about American Christianity, with a focus on ethnic churches. I am particularly interested because of a) the Anglican communion issues and b) working at a Chinese Christian org last year, with ties to thriving and vibrant Chinese churches. More on this later.

Also, Mark Noll loves hymns, and so do I.

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On disclosure, discernment and Christian privacy.

Since I’ve started “blogging” again (quotes because I still don’t accept that this is a real word, and certainly not yet a verb), I have been thinking about the concept of sharing/over-sharing/appropriate online conduct/disclosure. Concurrently, I have been thinking about the Christian tendency to TALK a lot about vulnerability, strength in weakness, openness, and brokenness, while at the same time often ghettoizing, condescending to, and dismissing those who actually claim these attributes. I have been thinking about this because it has always been a challenge for me to walk the fragile line between sharing too much or too little. One of the reasons that this is an issue for me is that my life has been fraught with much difficulty, which does—when spoken of—result in judgment on the part of others, which often leads to a kind of demotion or dismissal, ESPECIALLY in the church, PARTICULARLY the evangelical church. Thus, since I have been doing better, and have been more “successful”, in the conventional sense, I have been more reticent to let anyone know that there have ever been any problems, lest doors are again closed to me, and people again see me as one less able to take on responsibility; a broken, dysfunctional person who needs “help”. No one wants to be looked upon this way, and it is only natural to launch a preemptive strike against this possibility by developing total opacity.

At the same time, what is the good of life experience if you are not using it to encourage and minister to others who are going through similar difficulties; to let hurting people know they are not alone? To let the world know that following Jesus does not mean being perfect? And so, there is a fine balance, with an attendant moral obligation to use our lives to serve and love others—to be a light, as we are called to be. Further, following Jesus is supposed to be costly. If we are stepping out on a limb because we believe that sharing our trials and how we have learned from them will minister to someone, then this may be the priority, over and against the priority of ambition or self-preservation.

Another facet of the discussion is the extent to which we can repress or alter our identities. While we are not defined by our “issues,” past (or present) dysfunction, or failures, we are also not persons apart from our personal history. Our personal histories inform who we are in the present; this is an inescapable fact. And so, to pretend that we have not struggled, sinned, erred, despaired, raged, etc. in the past, because we are worried that we will be seen negatively in the present is to repress the self, which will always come back to—pardon the expression—bite you in the ass.

Here I want to address—hopefully without “over-sharing”—the implications of this challenge as they apply to mental illness in the church, and in the world at large. I am not even going to ADDRESS the view that mental illness is a result of sin, or if you just prayed hard enough you would be fine, or that medication is a weakness/un-Christian, etc etc etc. These attitudes are both wrong and dangerous. What I do want to deal with is: what is the role of the mentally ill person—whether the illness is clinical or chronic; from postpartum depression to schizophrenia—in the church, and what is the role of Christian community in regard to the mentally ill person? Should people who are stabilized through treatment but have suffered from mental illness be allowed in church leadership? Should someone who is depressed be a pastor? Should these (hypothetical) people share their experience, or keep quiet in the interest of being reliable and appearing stable in the service of others? Read the rest of this entry »

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More thoughts.

Well, whenever one brings up the gender issue in a Christian context, one is going to generate a lot of response. Not surprsingly, this has happened. On some level, though, it is surprising, because the odd thing about the internets is, you get a lot of advice, affirmation, and attack from strangers. This is a good thing, in that you have the chance to be heard by people you normally wouldn’t, like Tim Keller; at the same time, you have to sift through a lot of comments and decide: a) who you’re giving a voice to b) who’s reading c) what you’re then going to be associated with and d) what the point of a blog is in the first place. My thoughts about this are as follows:

a) I don’t want to muzzle anyone, or not engage with people because I disagree with them. At the same time:

b) A large portion (maybe 1/3+) of my friends and family (including my parents and only sibling) have no Christian faith, or even a Christian frame of reference. It is difficult to know how open to be about some of the debates that roil the (evangelical, mostly) Christian world. This is for 2 reasons: first, these debates can get pretty ugly, and often do not glorify God by the manner in which we conduct them; second, no non-Christian that I know is unclear about the fact that I believe in Jesus and in the exclusivity of the Christian gospel. This is not always easy or comfortable, and certainly not always popular, but it’s not something I beat around the bush about. However, the “secondary” things that I sometimes discuss with other Christians (gender, worship style, church gov’t, theology), or the things that embarrass me about evangelical behavior in the last 20+ years (religious right, buying wholeheartedly into free-market capitalism/patriotism as part of Christianity itself) are things that I don’t always like to publicize for non-Christians that I am close to. This is not because I am ashamed of the gospel, or any such thing, but because I think they are either secondary or a poor witness; for the people that I am referring to, some extreme opinions regarding the secondary issues would be an obstacle to ever listening to a sermon, opening a Bible, or setting foot in a church. If these are not my positions, and not positions I see as primary, I don’t want my blog to be a venue for evangelical-subculture debates where we continue to talk amongst ourselves rather than to the world that largely goes on without us. Read the rest of this entry »

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I would just like to call people’s attention to Pastor Tim Keller’s response below (in the comments section of “some clarifications”). As someone who has been an admirer of Tim for a long time, I can’t stress enough how honored I am that he would engage me here. While I continue to disagree with the PCA’s position, I want to acknowledge that I have several friends who attend Redeemer, and they echo Tim’s sentiment about the church being a place that is open to those with different opinions on this issue. Thanks for your words, Tim, and thanks for all you do in the service of the Gospel! I don’t mean to devalue your work at all, and appreciate the graciousness of your response.

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In my Sonia Sotomayor post, I cited the wrong Warnock (somewhat amusingly)–the Soj. author is CHUCK Warnock. I knew ADRIAN Warnock sounded familiar, and that is because he is in the Reformed blogging scene, which I occasionally peruse. Anyway, just wanted to clear that up, as I’m sure neither of them would like being mixed up with the other (unless they are related? who knows).

Anyway, thanks everyone for the encouragement and feedback. In the words of my friend Graham: “you look great.”

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Why do we think we have achieved everything by our own merits, but minorities haven’t?

On to the next hot-button issue: race!

I recently read two interesting articles, in two very different venues, and you should, too!:

Jeffrey Toobin, in the New Yorker, about Sonia Sotomayor.

Chuck Warnock, on the Soj blog, about evangelicals and diversity.

090608_talkcmmntillu_p233The thing that both articles made me think about is the fact that so much of debates about “identity” politics centers around a fundamentally-absurd assumption: that white Americans (or, in debates about international aid and development, Americans in general) have achieved any/every position in their lives through their own hard work, ability, intelligence, and dedication. Aside from the fact that, logically/statistically/proportionally this is impossible, it is also historically ridiculous. Obviously, when one group structurally and systematically bars another group(s) of people for hundreds of years, the former group is going to have an advantage that does not disappear in the 50 years or so since the Civil Rights movement. One reason for this is that for this is that white families who benefited from others not being allowed onto the playing field consolidate these benefits and pass them on to the next generation. The same is true of money. And when prestige is added to this equation, or name recognition, you get the 100 or so oldest, wealthiest families in America. Thus, we are immediately born advantaged or disadvantaged, and we certainly didn’t choose what womb we were going to come out of. Furthermore, when you disenfranchise people for years, they are more likely to be economically disenfranchised, to develop alternative economies which generate violence, etc. Due to socioeconomic and systematic limitations, minorities have often been ghettoized or concentrated into less desirable areas; even born to the hardest-working, highest-functioning parents, the womb still decides whether you are born in Beacon Hill or Dorchester (MA reference); Magnolia or Rainier Beach (WA reference). Certainly, my parents  worked hard to reach where they are, and certainly they faced obstacles (a woman in law school; the first in my dad’s family attend college), but they still had, in many ways, the advantage of the womb. My position can be summed up as follows: self-made-man, my ass.

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Some clarifications.

I have a few thoughts before I get to my actual post for today: 1. I don’t want to have my page to become a venue for the endless gender debates on comment strings and blogs throughout the evangelical world, for two reasons: a. I want non-Christian friends and family to read this blog without running screaming for the hills and b. I’m not sure that there are any new arguments to be made. When I wrote yesterday, I was not writing about the exegesis of particular passages. I went to Gordon College; I’m in seminary at Regent; I’ve attended two seriously evangelical churches for the bulk of my time as a Christian–I know the arguments, I’m aware of the issues. I know it’s complicated. I also know some people think it’s clear cut, one way or the other. I also am pretty familiar with the Redeemer view, as I used to devour TK’s sermons, and wish I still could, but am finally realizing that you can’t just spend money whenever you feel like it, and I can’t go dropping $30 on a sermon series anymore, no matter how much I want to. However, before I learned to be more fiscally responsible, and while I was getting ready to get married, I DID listen to the marriage sermon. And I’ll say this: it’s the closest I’ve come to accepting the complementarian position. If anyone could have done it, it was Kathy Keller in her talk. But, for me, even though this might sound heretical, as I’m not following this statement with a Bible verse–I just can’t do it. It goes so deeply against my own sense of who I am, the priority of equality, etc. It goes against the argument of my heart, my clear sense of call, and the implications and practical ramifications of carrying these policies out in marriage, church, and societies, that will feel demeaning, whether intended as such or not.

BUT, that’s not what I wanted to write about yesterday at all–what I wanted to write about was the incongruity between cosmopolitan outreach and image and the actuality of adherence to traditional gender roles. It seemed that Keller was so attuned to the relevance of the city–of the opportunities, the diversity, the draw–and yet not attuned to the way it might strike a woman in this kind of context to be able to wield great influence outside of church, and have that affirmed by Redeemer, but then be constrained in church. I am aware that the sacrificial leadership/gracious submission model is not supposed to be domineering, sexist, or unequal, but there is no way around the fact that it is still hierarchical and disenfranchising. Anyway, just wanted to tease out that one particular issue of the PCA city model–in Chicago, New York, Vancouver–that ostensibly reaches out to high-achieving women, and then establishes this inside church/outside church dichotomy. This strikes me as somehow dishonest. I almost give more credibility to Mohler, Duncan, et al who embrace the traditional roles whole-hog (is that an expression?), rather than parsing out the exact arenas where women can or cannot do certain things.

Post Script: I am going to be very careful about approving comments, as I don’t want my comments thread to become an endless argument, and I don’t want to alienate all of the non-Christians in my life.

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“Marxism With Chinese Characteristics”: Communism, Religion, and the Myth of Chinese Atheism. (My Mao paper for History 2)

Hey all, I remember some of you asking to read my paper on Chairman Mao’s reinterpretation of Marxist religious policy. So, many months later, here it is. BTW, I think there are a couple of typos, but I don’t feel like going back through it to check:

When Mao Zedong sought to apply Marxist thought to the new People’s Republic of China, he was faced with a significant obstacle: a traditionally conservative agrarian society. While Marxism was birthed within an industrializing, European context, Chinese communism emerged, primarily, in opposition to imperialism, and to the feudal structure that colluded and cooperated with imperialist forces. Thus, the attitude of Marxist orthodoxy toward traditional religion took on a new meaning in China, and especially in what came to be known as “Mao Zedong Thought”. Whereas Karl Marx opposed Christianity as the institutionalized religion of the masses, standing in between the reality of oppression and the goal of a socialist revolution, Mao confronted an educated elite that espoused agnostic Confucianism and elevated the agrarian peasant class that adhered to an intensely supernatural form of popular religion. In this way, the Chairman of the People’s Republic opted for an innovation that would appropriate aspects of both Confucian and popular religious philosophy in order to rally the masses around a set of spiritually connotative symbols associated with his charismatic leadership. In the Chinese context, then, the Marxist philosophy of religion was turned on its head, discouraging the humanist agnosticism of the educated urbanites in favor of the popular faith of the uneducated agriculturally-based peasantry, whose objects of devotion he would then aim to replace.

Christianity held a unique position in the Chinese socio-cultural and religious milieu at the time of Mao’s assumption of leadership, in that it held no indigenous positions of institutional power. As a result, it could neither be utilized to maintain the social hierarchy, or to provide supernatural explanations for natural phenomena, both of which Karl Marx identified as the consciousness-dulling functions of pre-socialist primitive religion. To Mao and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), the greatest sin of Christianity was its association with Western imperialism. As we will see, then, Christianity, while officially addressed in the anti-religion policies of the CCP, may be more accurately understood in the context of a vigorously nationalistic movement, which opposed the faith because of its political associations, rather than on Marxist orthodox principle. Because Chinese nationalism and anti-Western feeling were far more developed than early Chinese Marxism, the young nation actively opposed Christianity on nationalistic grounds, with a focus and energy not present in their opposition to traditionally Chinese faiths long-associated with feudal structures. In this way, it may be concluded that Mao Zedong was only loosely committed to a policy of eradication of religion for its own sake; rather, he hoped to place himself at the center of Chinese religion and philosophy, while rejecting Christianity in order to consolidate nationalistic sentiment and nationalist movements.

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Anger: My Inspiration, Or: Why the Tim Keller article in CT finally made me start my blog.

I have long meant to revive the habit of blogging that I began in China. However, I have long been too lazy busy to do so. However, three things have finally provided the necessary momentum: 1. I just read a number of articles which upset me deeply. This caused me to post one on facebook, and proceed to write one paragraph describing it, followed by 2 paragraphs commenting on my own article. It occured to me that this is not the appropriate use of the “status update” box (similarly, Twitter only allows one 140 characters–try figuring out how to condense 3 paragraphs into 140 characters).  2. This week I have been bored out of my mind. Mostly, I have used my break from school to sleep til noon, and then lie around all day. Thus, at night I have trouble falling asleep, and I stay up thinking about all the thoughts I want to share with the world. I figure this combination (boredom + racing thoughts) could produce a blog! 3. I have been working on setting up a website for George–my husband, who is an artist–and this has gotten me back into the swing of updating something regularly.

So, now, here is what I was so worked up about on facebook: I woke up early this morning (9:45 AM!!), and glanced through bleary eyes at my Twitter feed, wherein I saw that Christianity Today had done a cover story on Tim Keller and Redeemer Presbyterian Church, with this tantalizing sub-title: The pastor of Redeemer Church is becoming an international figure because he’s a local one. It seemed like local-movement-meets-my-favorite-preacher, or grass-roots-community-organizing-meets-fabulous-church, which are all things dear to my heart. For those of you not familiar with Keller, check out the Newsweek article, or the CT article above for a more thorough/evangelical angle. Anyway, I love to listen to TK’s sermons, have grown immensely from them, and he–along with Jurgen Liias at Christ Church, Hamilton and Paul Smith of my first church, WSPC–has been one of the preachers with the greatest impact on my life. What I love about the Redeemer model is that it is deeply invested in cities. As someone who has always felt a strong draw toward the vibrant, multi-cultural, intellectually-diverse, socio-economically-diverse, artistically-rich life of the city (any city), I am excited by churches, pastors, and leaders that believe that Christians and their churches have a central role in urban life: to influence, to minister, to learn, to share, to offer hope, to engage in works of compassion, to challenge, etc. In addition, since being at Regent, and especially since sitting under professor Rikk Watts (cf Rodney Stark’s work on the early church and cities), it has become clear to me that cities were integral to the growth of the early church, and the same should be true of the Church today, if we want to have anything to offer the world.

Also, in terms of content, Tim Keller and those like him have insisted that churches do not have to be “relevant” or “cool” to attract young people. In fact, it is quite the opposite: many in their 20s and 30s have had enough of being treated as consumers in every area of life. We want substance, truth, beauty, wisdom, and depth. For me, this means I want intellectually challenging, in depth preaching; I want to sing hymns, and I want a connection with the traditions of the church. So far, I have seen 2 great models of this: 1. Christ Church, Hamilton (now self-destructing in a tragic split, and located in the suburbs, so not a fit with my call to the city) and 2. Redeemer Presbyterian (although there are a couple big problems here, which I am coming to, shortly). While I also have deep affection for West Side Presbyterian Church, Seattle, I am specifically getting at churches that draw large amounts of young people, as well as those with an emphasis on influencing and cultivating arts and culture.

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June 2009