Thursday, May 31, 2007

Coffeeshops and "Third Places"

In this great little article by David Swanson, the importance of what have been called the “third places” is highlighted. A “third place” is a niche in a society between the home and the church where people find themselves relating. In some cultures it may be a bar or a pub, a lodge, or a neighborhood park. In our culture, it tends to be the local coffee shop.

Swanson notes one of the characteristics of a place like this as opposed to a church gathering:

Not only don't I know who I'll bump into at the coffeeshop, chances are, they won't look like me. While many churches tend to attract people who are similar, the coffeeshop doesn't have a target demographic....Our church is a highly structured and very busy suburban environment where spontaneous interaction with friends rarely happens....At the coffeeshop, however, I can count on bumping into someone who will be up for some conversation.

The “third place” offers an atmosphere that a church or even a home cannot, and it invites people a church or a home cannot. Is there a way for the church to engage in what the author calls “coffeeshop discipleship”?

It seems to me that there may be a great deal of upside to a third place where discussion and social circles can be more free-flowing than in a pre-structured environment. They might be great places for small groups, for planned discussions, and for impromptu meetings. Just recently I had a good discussion with a young man in a local coffee shop simply because I was sitting there reading a book.

HT: faith-journey

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Churchill and Academic Freedom

The infamous Ward Churchill is in the news again as the current CU Boulder president has noted that he should be fired. Predictably, there are a lot of professors taking Churchill’s side in this argument, not a few of them trumpeting the “catch-all” freedom of speech defense.

If there is still any confusion about this issue, Churchill should be fired for doing what any student or applicant would be kicked out of school for doing—plagiarizing and falsifying information in your school records. Churchill is not an academic in any serious sense of the word. He is a myopic political ideologue.

And if there is still any confusion about whether the school has a leaning in Churchill’s favor, consider the case of acclaimed history professor, Phil Mitchell. A highly awarded and tenured history professor, Dr. Mitchell was fired from his position for using the book, In His Steps in a religious history class. (In His Steps is the turn-of-the-century book that inspired the “WWJD” question.) Without any defense from the faculty senate (which cannot let go of Churchill) and without much ink spilled in the press, Mitchell was let go.

This is another example of a theory I have concerning Christians in the Academy. Not only is it a calling by God for a committed Christian to be an active and winsome part of the Ivory Tower, but they face an atmosphere that is currently making them the leading thinkers and researchers in the English-speaking world. When a Christian academic needs to argue their point every step of the way and win their positions of tenure and publication, they will certainly come out sharper and brighter than those who have it easy. Churchill will be able to find a position at just about any major University, not because he is convincing, innovative, and thoughtful, but because he is a poster boy for so much of the academic establishment.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Christians and Literary Theory

The book, Shaping a Christian Worldview, is a good compendium of essays ranging from foundational, “big picture,” essays to a list of essays addressing specific areas of discipline and what it would mean to shape a Christian worldview among them. One of the more interesting essays is by Barbara McMillin and is on the Christian worldview in the area of literary criticism.

To begin with, I approach this arena with a great deal of skepticism and even distaste for theories such as Deconstructionism and Marxist literary theory. With my prejudices firmly in place, I was pleasantly surprised by a practitioner at a Christian university who thoughtfully engaged several types of interpretive theory and saw things to be learned from each. The value of what McMillin drew from each theory ranged from genuine positive lessons, to the conclusion that a theory can be easily seen as vacuous when compared to a Christian worldview.

I like the sense from a Christian academic that her students need to be positively exposed to every prevailing point of view in their field if they are to be ready to engage the ivory tower. Christian English professors who know nothing about Feminist Literary theory will not teach at Princeton.

I also like the conclusion that when thoughtfully compared to a robust Christian worldview, other theories fall apart. I personally see little to no lasting value to postmodern deconstruction unless you are willing to throw away fundamental concepts like human personhood, God in Christ reconciling the world, and truth.

One great lesson drawn from her essay, and from this book as a whole, is that Christians need to engage every corner of the academic world, no matter how far-fetched it may seem or be. Another lesson, just as valuable, is that there may not be truth in everything. A point of view may be so skewed, that the only worth to be drawn from it is the invaluable lesson about what to avoid.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Falwell Haters

G.K. Chesterton opened his essay, “A Defense of Humility” by stating, “The act of defending any of the cardinal virtues has today all the exhilaration of a vice.” So it is with the death of Jerry Falwell and those who were not fans of his. No person is perfect, and since Falwell was a person, I think we can safely say he wasn’t perfect. And being in the public eye for as long as he was meant he did things many people were not thrilled about. It is one thing to disagree with someone, but in our culture’s atmosphere, the way non-Christians “disagree” with Christians has turned, in Chesterton’s words, “exhilarating.”

The kind of vitriol being poured out against him in death is sub-human and deplorable. As one prominent example, the (basically) conservative atheist, Christopher Hitchens was interviewed on Anderson Cooper 360 yesterday. Part of the transcript reads:

COOPER: Christopher, I'm not sure if you believe in heaven, but, if you do, do
you think Jerry Falwell is in it?

CONTRIBUTING EDITOR, "VANITY FAIR": No. And I think it's a pity there isn't a
hell for him to go to.

COOPER: What is it about him that brings up
such vitriol?

HITCHENS: The empty life of this ugly little
charlatan proves only one thing, that you can get away with the most
extraordinary offenses to morality and to truth in this country if you will just
get yourself called reverend.

Hitchens has his reasons, and I agree that Falwell’s pronouncements after 9/11 were out of place, but the point is broader than that.

All you need to do in our culture to get your head cut off is stand up for orthodox Christian values. Even in death, those who cannot countenance the idea of Truth or the existence of God are eviscerating him. And on a larger scale, one of the greatest evils in the world today, if you listen to them, is the very existence of the Christian religion.

Christ was right when he said he did not come to bring peace, but a sword (Matt 10:34). The simple truth of his existence and uniqueness will sharply divide people—even divide them over the coffins of Christ’s followers.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Spiritual Formation and Spiritual Progress

I was talking with a pastor friend of mine just a few days ago, and he expressed a frustration I have felt from time to time regarding discipleship, spiritual formation, and the progress people make or don’t make. After spending almost two years with a group of young guys in a small group specifically geared toward spiritual growth and formation, he described the amount of progress he had seen by lifting his hand and making the “zero” gesture with his thumb and finger.

How often have we seen that exact thing in the lives of the people we work with, pastor, pray for, and live life with? It has to be one of the most disheartening realities in ministry—people who don’t progress in their walk with Christ.

Why does this happen, and what should be done about it? First of all, I think we all know that true formation to the image of Christ is something only the Holy Spirit can do. We can pray, work, and be as intelligent and clever as we want to be, but if a soul is not ready or open to growth, it probably won’t take place. That being said, however, pastors and leaders need to be as prayerful, intelligent, and attentive as possible when discipling people. The primary job of the spiritual director/mentor/coach is learning how God made a person, where God put that person, what God has given that person, and where God is taking them. From there, the wise director can lead the disciple on a journey of profound discovery and growth.

I had a really ugly experience with a “coach” in which this fundamental rule was broken. He ended up pigeon-holing me based on his latest conference notes, telling me I needed to reevaluate where God had put me (because I didn’t fit neatly into his latest conventional wisdom), and in the end, he questioned my calling. Needless to say, I did not experience the grace of the Spirit in the growth of my soul.

Secondly, there is another difficult reality to note with spiritual growth. In his wonderful little book, Invitation to a Journey, M. Robert Mulholland speaks wisely to the difference between “being conformed” and conforming myself. The first, the biblical principle, happens solely on God’s time and in God’s way. He does the conforming. The second, the way we like to handle things, requires that we wrest control from God’s hand, time and power. When I try to conform myself (or others), I formulate spiritual growth, erect unreasonable expectations for “input and output” (five days of Scripture reading=a deeper relationship with Christ), and anticipate the same from others. This is a recipe for disaster, confusion, and frustration.

When I allow myself to be conformed, however, the frustration is on the front end. I usually need to wait longer than I want. I tend to see fewer results in the short-run than I would hope for. But when God is allowed to do his work in his way and time, the pay-off will be more than I can even now imagine or hope.

These simple thoughts probably do not go very far in alleviating my friend’s frustration. I think he is a wise and prayerful pastor and leader, but the willingness of the disciple to be discipled…that is a different matter altogether.