Archive for January, 2008

Reframing Jesus

January 30, 2008

Human beings want to be happy, safe, and for things to be fair or just. Societies are formed, and resources are utilized to fulfill these desires. In today’s world, these attempts have grown to unsustainable levels. No one has a practical solution.

Brian McLaren believes we are stuck in this problem because of our dysfunctional framing stories: (1) we believe happiness comes from consuming more and more, yet greater consumption contributes to our problem; (2) we believe safety comes from violence, yet violence contributes to our problem; (3) we believe equity comes from adversarial systems, yet the us/them mentality contributes to our problem.

He believes Jesus may offer an alternative framing story that the world desperately needs.

In Part 3 of “Everything Must Change” (chapters 10-14), McLaren seeks to reframe Jesus. Without making this a marathon post, let me try to summarize his argument.

Jesus’s historical setting was the Roman Empire, a setting in which the Roman framing story (pax romana) claimed that happiness, safety, and fairness came from centering power in a divine emperor. This didn’t really work for everyone, including practically everyone that wasn’t an elite Roman male. But, hey, you can’t please everyone, right?

Jesus was a Jew. And seeing as how the Roman framing story didn’t include them so much, they had their own competing framing stories. There was the “we shall overcome” type of story, made popular by both the Zealots (those of the terrorist bent) and the Pharisees (those of the anal-retentive purity persuasion). On the other hand, there was the “if you can’t beat ‘em join ‘em” type of story, made popular by the Sadducees and Herodians. (There were also the “get out of Dodge” story – the Essenes – but since Jesus mostly wandered around the Empire, they don’t come into play much for this discussion.)

McLaren’s argument is that Jesus’s “good news” was that he didn’t buy ANY of these framing stories. He offered a new story for his world.

Now, here’s the overarching problem. Everyone knows about Jesus today, but the conventional view of Jesus has distorted, yea verily, compromised Jesus’s framing story. In fact, McLaren argues that the conventional view of Jesus has, ironically, made him a part of the framing story he sought to subvert. For example: There are those who, in the name of Jesus, take the Zealot/Pharisee story and make it out to be Jesus – let’s go defeat the sinners, “us” versus “them.” There are others who, in the name of Jesus, take the Sadducee/Herodian approach and make it out to be Jesus – let’s go be like everyone else. (There are others who withdraw, too, but they still get little airtime in this discussion.)

But that’s not all: Jesus, as commonly understood, not only fails to counter the self-destructive behavior of humanity – he makes it stronger. For example: since the conventional view makes Jesus concerned primarily with the afterlife, why worry so much about global problems anyway? Since the conventional view pictures God’s intent to destroy the world from wrath, then the downward spiral of the world is seen as God’s will.

McLaren, of course, thinks all this is a bunch of baloney. He believes Jesus came with a framing story intent on healing the world and leading humanity to employ transforming actions in a self-destructive world. Instead of choosing “any” of the framing stories available, he advocated a radically different way.

So how does he seek to reframe Jesus? Simply put, as an earthly king, with an earthly kingdom – a kingdom not of this world in that it operates differently than Caesar’s empire (and others, too), but a real king seeking to liberate all of humanity from their self-destructive ways. (Now he doesn’t dismiss all the afterlife stuff – just relegates it to less than primary status.)

Here are the words he chooses to summarize Jesus’s scandalous message: “The time has come! Rethink everything! A radically new kind of empire is available – the empire of God has arrived! Believe this good news, and defect from all human imperial narratives, counternarratives, dual narratives, and withdrawal narratives. Open your minds and hearts like children to see things freshly in this new way, follow me and my words, and enter this new way of living.”

So there you have it: McLaren advocates removing the framework whereby Jesus is solely concerned with the afterlife, and replacing it with a framework whereby Jesus establishes a kingdom very much concerned with the here and now.

NEXT SECTION: Reintroducing Jesus

[Side note: McLaren alludes to Urbino’s question in this section. And I quote, “…perhaps it could help us face and then turn away from at least some of the more disappointing failures that have plagued the Christian religion in its first two millennia. Perhaps it could even overflow the bounds of the Christian religion and bring some benefit to other religions and ideologies as well.” (page 92)]

My Favorite Things

January 28, 2008

I’m stealing an idea from my favorite pop culture blog on USA Today (Pop Candy), and sharing a list of my favorite things of the past week (or two).

Best TV Show I saw: I’ve got to give it to Friday Night Lights. Is anyone else watching this show? Because it’s fantastic. I love that it actually respects its characters, teenagers included. These are people that I knew growing up. Or wanted to know, in the case of Tim Riggins.

Looking Forward to: The season premeire of LOST on Thursday. Finally!!!

Best Movie I Saw: Atonement. Reviews were mixed, so I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect. As it turns out, it would have exceeded even high expectations. The story explores the consequences of a false accusation through the eyes of the accuser, the accused, and the accused’s lover. The movie poster calls it a tale of “sex, lies, and carnal fury.” That’s a pretty good summation.

Looking Forward to: No Country for Old Men and There Will Be Blood

Best Thing I Heard: No contest. The acoustic version of Everlong at the Foo Fighters concert on Friday night.

Best Thing I Read: Other than Obama’s speech that JU posted earlier? Honestly, it was probably reading Ellen Page’s name in the list of Oscar nominations. Go Juno!

Looking Forward to: Atonement. I loved the movie so much, I’m now itching to read the book.

What are your recent favorite things?

Let It Not Go Unsaid…

January 27, 2008

that Barack Obama’s win last night in South Carolina was astonishing, and the Clintons’ reaction to it was hateful, racist, and small.

Suicidal System

January 23, 2008

Okay, now we’re getting somewhere.

In Part 2 of Brian McLaren’s “Everything Must Change” (chapters 6-9, titled, “Suicidal System”), he outlines his model. He acknowledges that he has a model, you have a model, all God’s chilluns got a model, but to make sense of his goal of solving the problems of the world, we need to work with a model.

Chapter 6 shares several attempts to summarize major global problems – the Copenhagen Consensus, the Millennium Development Goals of the U.N., J.F. Rischard of the World Bank, Rick Warren’s PEACE plan, and a group of scholars McLaren calls the New Vision Group. He talks of how much he struggled to coalesce all these efforts into a model that worked for him until his friend, Leonard Sweet, used a term that brought it all together – the suicide machine.

By suicide machine, McLaren means that the major problems of the world aren’t distinct; they are interrelated in a destructive, reinforcing cycle.

He then attempts to develop a model of this social machine…

First, he presents three interlocking gears he calls prosperity, security, and equity. To summarize, society works to fulfill our basic desires to be happy, to be safe, and for things to be fair or just. These are all related to one another.

Second, he adds both input and output to his model – input in terms of raw materials and energy used to make products that fulfill the three interlocking desires, and output in terms of waste products resulting from this production.

Third, McLaren explains the suicidal nature of his suicide machine by pointing to the size of the interlocking gears – desires that have grown so large that neither the amount of resources needed nor the need for waste absorption can be fulfilled. (In so doing, he makes a nice little allusion to the Garden of Eden story, a place of beauty doomed to oblivion by the desires of human beings.)

There is a fourth section to McLaren’s model, the answer to the question of what drives the interlocking gears. He places one gear in the middle of the three interlocking gears (the desire to be happy, desire to be safe, and desire for things to be fair or just). This gear that drives the other gears is our framing story. And his conclusion is that ours is failing.

Let me share his thesis statement from each of the three areas:

THE PROSPERITY DYSFUNCTION: “Our story does not guide us to respect environmental limits, but instead inspires our pursuit of as much resource use and waste production (also known as economic growth) as possible, as fast as possible.”

THE EQUITY DYSFUNCTION: “Our framing story does not lead us to work for the common good. Instead, it legitimizes the growing gap between rich and poor in a variety of ways…” (and at the end of this section…) “Each group becomes a competing us/them faction that seeks advantage for “us,” not a common good for all.”

THE SECURITY DYSFUNCTION: “Our framing story does not lead these competing factions to reconcile peacefully. Instead we find, nested in the larger framing story shared by both rich and poor, a huge bank of patriotic and religious stories that celebrate how “redemptive violence” has helped good people (“us”) to defeat evil people (“them”) throughout history.”

Near the end of this section, McLaren offers a final helpful analogy, and compares the world situation to an addiction. Our framing stories are globally destructive (picture the alcoholic turning once more to the bottle), but they produce a short-term “high.” Eventually, we’re hooked. And regardless of the problems we face, we keep turning to the framing stories (bottle) for solutions, only to discover that we are becoming hopelessly addicted to the very thing that will lead to our undoing.

McLaren concludes, “Without altering our framing story, we will never successfully solve our crises.” He then raises the possibility that a fresh look at Jesus may provide the alternative framing story that our world desperately needs.

NEXT SECTION: “Reframing Jesus”

The Vision Thing

January 20, 2008

The following is the text of a speech delivered by Barack Obama this morning from the pulpit of Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Georgia. I wasn’t around when Bobby Kennedy ran for president, but I’ve heard excerpts of his speeches. This is the only speech I’ve heard (or read) that approaches them. Follow the link at bottom for the full text.

The Scripture tells us that when Joshua and the Israelites arrived at the gates of Jericho, they could not enter. The walls of the city were too steep for any one person to climb; too strong to be taken down with brute force. And so they sat for days, unable to pass on through.

But God had a plan for his people. He told them to stand together and march together around the city, and on the seventh day he told them that when they heard the sound of the ram’s horn, they should speak with one voice. And at the chosen hour, when the horn sounded and a chorus of voices cried out together, the mighty walls of Jericho came tumbling down.

There are many lessons to take from this passage, just as there are many lessons to take from this day, just as there are many memories that fill the space of this church. As I was thinking about which ones we need to remember at this hour, my mind went back to the very beginning of the modern Civil Rights Era.

Because before Memphis and the mountaintop; before the bridge in Selma and the march on Washington; before Birmingham and the beatings; the fire hoses and the loss of those four little girls; before there was King the icon and his magnificent dream, there was King the young preacher and a people who found themselves suffering under the yoke of oppression.

And on the eve of the bus boycotts in Montgomery, at a time when many were still doubtful about the possibilities of change, a time when those in the black community mistrusted themselves, and at times mistrusted each other, King inspired with words not of anger, but of an urgency that still speaks to us today:

“Unity is the great need of the hour” is what King said. Unity is how we shall overcome.


At Least (by Raymond Carver)

January 18, 2008

I want to get up early one more morning,
before sunrise. Before the birds, even.
I want to throw cold water on my face
and be at my work table
when the sky lightens and smoke
begins to rise from the chimneys
of the other houses.
I want to see the waves break
on this rocky beach, not just hear them
break as I did all night in my sleep.
I want to see again the ships
that pass through the Straits from every
seafaring country in the world –
old, dirty freighters just barely moving along,
and the swift new cargo vessels
painted every color under the sun
that cut the water as they pass.
I want to keep an eye out for them.
And for the little boat that plies
the water between the ships
and the pilot station near the lighthouse.
I want to see them take a man off the ship
and put another up on board.
I want to spend the day watching this happen
and reach my own conclusions.
I hate to seem greedy – I have so much
to be thankful for already.
But I want to get up early one more morning, at least.
And go to my place with some coffee and wait.
Just wait, to see what’s going to happen.

Preoccupying Questions

January 17, 2008

In Brian McLaren’s Everything Must Change, chapters two through five attempt to flesh out chapter one’s introduction by offering “two preoccupying questions:”
(1) What are the biggest problems in the world?
(2) What does Jesus have to say about these global problems?

In the first question, McLaren hopes to identify the root causes of global crises. In the second, he continues criticizing Western Christianity’s preoccupation with the afterlife and inattention to global issues.

McLaren’s conclusion is that Christianity appears a failed religion, stemming from faulty framing stories. His hope lies in his belief that these framing stories are inconsistent with Jesus’s Kingdom of God message, and that revisiting Jesus’s message may provide a framing story that will address today’s global problems.

But enough McLaren (smile). Jeff and Juvenal have been leading our conversation down a fascinating road already (but oddly enough, I think we can still use McLaren’s questions).

It takes very little time for most of us to identify Jeff and Juvenal’s intellectual abilities. It takes most of us much longer to understand what they have been saying, and even longer to summon up the bravery to engage the conversation. Let me be brave enough to attempt to frame the conversation, and then let it loose for everyone’s contributions.

Jeff points to a positive evolution of the human species as evidenced by positive changes occurring in global social systems. Juvenal claims that the positive changes in global social systems are tied to unsustainable economic prosperity and have not changed basic human nature. Jeff sees the fact that McLaren has an audience as evidence of humanity’s positive evolution (with religion evolving, too). Juvenal sees McLaren’s message as cyclical (nothing new), and influenced by economics.

Where both seem to agree is that improvements in global social systems would be helpful. They seem to disagree as to how helpful these would be over time…

And both seem to agree that the Christian emphasis on the afterlife is inconsistent with the message of Jesus. They seem to disagree on how effective Jesus’s “this world” message would be…

So back to the questions:
#1: What are the biggest problems in the world?
* I’m not sure (yet) of Jeff’s answer to this question, mostly because his comments have tended toward the positives…
* I believe Juvenal’s answers are (a) unsustainable economic systems, but on a deeper level, (b) problematic human nature

#2: What does Jesus have to say about these global problems?
* Jeff would offer “a lot” I’m thinking…
* Juvenal would counter with “less” than Jeff…

I’m really interested in hearing from both Jeff and Juvenal (in correcting my summaries, and offering answers to McLaren’s questions), and also from others as I try to work this all out myself (I’m particularly interested in the continued discussion on the interplay between human nature and social systems for anyone scoring at home).

NEXT WEEK: “Suicidal System” (chapters 6-9)

Huck vs. Mitt, in the World Series of Love

January 16, 2008

So Matthew Yglesias and others on the Left find Mitt Romney the least objectionable GOP candidate in this year’s field. Huckabee, meanwhile, is in a tight race with Giuliani for most objectionable.

I don’t get it.

Yglesias’s argument is that regardless of what Mitt might be saying on the campaign trail, however extreme (like doubling Guantanamo, or his answers to the Boston Globe survey on executive power), he’s such a pandering phony that you just can’t take that stuff too seriously. On Mitt’s record as governor, the argument goes, he’d probably operate as a competent, center-right technocrat once in office. Huck, on the other hand, is a True Believer; so all the nutty things he says on the campaign trail (like the one linked to above), he’ll probably really do.

I have two problems with that argument.

First, if Mitt wins after running on his Bush-and-then-some theory of executive power, the country loses even if he doesn’t behave that way in office. Simply running on it and winning legitimizes that ridiculous position. If he does it, he will have made that a legitimate, reasonable position to take, for every candidate for public office for at least the next several decades. We’ll be re-arguing this in every election cycle, as if it really is a perfectly reasonable constitutional theory. That alone would be a historic loss for the country, regardless of whether Mitt moderated his position once in office.

My second problem with Yglesias’s argument is that most of the really damaging things Mitt is running on, he could implement without needing much buy-in from Congress or anybody else. They’re executive functions. In fact, given the Bush precedent, he could implement them and not even bother to tell anybody he did it. Huck’s nuttier ideas, however, are generally of the kind requiring some pretty serious buy-in from Congress, the states, and/or thousands of career civil servants. He can’t just implement them by fiat from the Oval Office.

So to the Yglesias’s of the world, I say: feh. You couldn’t be more wrong.  Mitt, along with Giuliani, is the most objectionable GOP candidate. The least objectionable is John McCain, who at least has a reasonable, legally and historically justifiable definition of executive power.

This Mittmentum from the left — it’s gotta stop.*

[* Some others on the Left are rooting for Mitt because they think he’d be easy to beat in the general election. This is a different thing, though still too hazardous for my liking.]

Counting Our Blessings

January 11, 2008

I saw this on someone else’s blog and thought it was interesting. The below are some measures of relative privilege. I have bolded the ones that apply to me. See how many apply to you.

  1. Father went to college.
  2. Father finished college.
  3. Mother went to college.
  4. Mother finished college.
  5. Have any relative who is an attorney, physician, or professor.
  6. Were the same or higher class than your high school teachers.
  7. Had more than 50 books in your childhood home.
  8. Had more than 500 books in your childhood home.
  9. Had lessons of any kind before you turned 18.
  10. Had more than two kinds of lessons before you turned 18.
  11. The people in the media who dress and talk like me are portrayed positively.
  12. Had a credit card with your name on it before you turned 18.
  13. Your parents (or a trust) paid for the majority of your college costs.
  14. Your parents (or a trust) paid for all of your college costs.
  15. Went to a private high school.
  16. Went to summer camp.
  17. Had a private tutor before you turned 18.
  18. Family vacations involved staying at hotels.
  19. Your clothing was all bought new before you turned 18.
  20. Your parents bought you a car that was not a hand-me-down from them.
  21. There was original art in your house when you were a child.
  22. You and your family lived in a single-family house.
  23. Your parent(s) owned their own house or apartment before you left home.
  24. You had your own room as a child.
  25. You had a phone in your room before you turned 18.
  26. Participated in a SAT/ACT prep course.
  27. Had your own TV in your room in high school.
  28. Owned a mutual fund or IRA in high school or college.
  29. Flew anywhere on a commercial airline before you turned 16.
  30. Went on a cruise with your family.
  31. Went on more than one cruise with your family.
  32. You were unaware of how much heating bills were for your family.
  33. Your parents took you to museums and art galleries while you were growing up.

Everything Must Change

January 10, 2008

You’ve suffered through multiple posts from yours truly prompted by my readings of both Stanley Hauerwas and Walter Wink in the past. Prepare yourself for Brian McLaren.

Due to the combination of a recent post from Urbino calling attention to McLaren’s new book, Everything Must Change, and a generous gift of Barnes & Noble gift cards from my father-in-law, I’m about to wade into McLaren’s way of thinking.

And so are you.

Now I know you don’t have to participate, but I’m going to be thinking out loud, and I feel confident you won’t be able to resist pointing out the flaws in my thinking. 🙂

So let’s begin…

McLaren writes,

“…more and more of us are realizing something our best theologians have been saying for quite a while: Jesus’ message is not actually about escaping this troubled world for heaven’s blissful shores, as is popularly assumed, but instead is about God’s will being done on this troubled earth as it is in heaven. So people interested in being a new kind of Christian will inevitably begin to care more and more about this world, and they’ll want to better understand its most significant problems, and they’ll want to find out how they can fit in with God’s dreams actually coming true down here more often.”

Okay, admittedly, not everyone that hangs around this blog is a-flutter with the idea of fitting in with God’s dreams, nor even in becoming a new kind of Christian, but I think there’s a bit of kinship to be found here: we seem to be somewhat interested in caring about the world we inhabit, understanding its problems, and making it a better place, no?

As an introduction today, let me simply throw out for discussion what McLaren suggests (verbatim) are the four deep dysfunctions that lead to our many global crises. He suggests that the fourth is the leverage point through which the first three can be reversed:

(1) Environmental breakdown caused by our unsustainable global economy, an economy that fails to respect environmental limits even as it succeeds in producing great wealth for about one-third of the world’s population. We’ll call this the prosperity crisis.

(2) The growing gap between the ultra-rich and the extremely poor, which prompts the poor majority to envy, resent, and even hate the rich minority – which in turn elicits fear and anger in the rich. We’ll call this the equity crisis.

(3) The danger of cataclysmic war arising from the intensifying resentment and fear among various groups at opposite ends of the economic spectrum. We’ll call this the security crisis.

(4) The failure of the world’s religions, especially its two largest religions, to provide a framing story capable of healing or reducing the three previous crises. We’ll call this the spirituality crisis. (Note: McLaren defines framing story as “…a story that gives direction, value, vision, and inspiration by providing a framework for their lives. It tells them who they are, where they come from, where they are, what’s going on, where things are going, and what they should do.”)

Now, I’m confident every one of us would group the problems in different ways than McLaren (and each other), but I’m not asking for a better grouping. Instead, to begin, are there glaring omissions from McLaren’s list?

Or any other thoughts at the outset of a discussion of global crises and what to do about them?

NEXT INSTALLMENT: Two Preoccupying Questions