Boots on the Ground Theopraxis

Boots To be a Christian is to be an optimist—to believe that good can overcome evil. In this day and time there are so many negative messages in the news: the Boston bombing, young women being held captive for years in a private home, the closing of US embassies around the world due to terrorist threats, young men of color being shot down in the streets…. To be a Christian, to be a person of faith, is to believe that there is a just and good presence that has, can, and will overcome evil.

One of my favorite theologians, Jon Sobrino, speaks about the crucified people. Sobrino teaches at the University of Central America in San Salvador, El Salvador, where in 1989 a government death squad entered the Jesuit faculty living quarters in the middle of the night, pulled everyone out of their beds (6 Jesuits, 1 female housekeeper, and the housekeeper’s daughter) and slaughtered them in the University square. These brutal deaths were to be a message to the people of El Salvador that evil was in control.  Except that the extremity of the event caused the message to backfire. As a result, the US ceased to support the government armies of El Salvador and the United Nations called for a cease-fire. In essence, this horrific event led to the end of a brutal civil war.

Jon Sobrino, away on a lecture tour, escaped death that night, but has been writing about it ever since. In his liberation theology we hear the call to search our souls for our own part in creating and sustaining the brutality of the cross. When asked at the Presidential lecture of Santa Clara University in 2009 how he would define ‘Liberation Theology’ his immediate response was this: “first we must ask, liberation from what…?” and then he answered his own question, “liberation from ourselves!” He went on to ask the audience, “how have we, how are we putting people on the cross?” This was not a general question, but specifically addressed to those of us privileged enough to be in the audience. “How have we, how are we putting people on the cross?” He concluded by saying, “we must work at taking people down from the cross, and if we are not working at taking people down from the cross, then we are part of the problem.”

Liberation theology brought to the world the challenge of theopraxis. No longer content with the discussion of philosophical systematic ideas about God and the work of God in the universe, liberation theology has challenged the world to put legs to faith. Latin American theologians and the theologians of Black Theology of Liberation in the US have pounded away for decades now crying out for boots on the ground theopraxis that essentially takes people down from the cross. Our global 20th century liberation theologians, of which there are many—far too many to begin naming them in this short blog—have shown us the way….

To be Christian is to be an optimist—to believe that God has, can, and will overcome evil. We need the faith to believe that resources are present to overcome evil. We need the faith to believe that the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth has overcome evil. We need the faith to believe that God reigns and people count. We need the faith to believe that our efforts can and will make a difference. We need to get our boots out, dust them off and get to work!

LeAnn Snow Flesher, PhD

Academic Dean and Professor of Old Testament

American Baptist Seminary of the West

What About the “Common Good”?

If you have been watching the news this week you know that Congress is once again in a battle over the budget.  It seems Friday, March 1, 2013 is the deadline for a 2 percent budget cut across the board.  While the majority of our Congressional members might agree that budget cuts are needed, they can’t seem to agree on the “what” and “how” of it.  The general population is getting tired of hearing about these battles and has been pleading in various ways for Congress to get its act together and work on behalf of the common good.  Here in lies the problem.  Not everyone who represents this fine nation in Congress is concerned about the “common good.”  It has been made clear over the past year that our bipartisan Congress is off balance—leaning toward the right fiscally, with the result that 1% of the US population has experienced an inordinate and obscene increase in wealth over the past 30 years.

Our US forefathers understood this danger when they put together the plan for a self-governing democratic capitalistic society to be run by the people and for the people.  Having paid a dear price to be set free from a class based hegemonic monarchical social and political system the founding fathers of our nation envisioned a society where individuals could be, and would be, treated as equals and provided equal opportunity to strive and thrive.  However, it was clear from the start the pairings of democracy and capitalism could create debilitating tensions that needed to be addressed.

Fundamentally, democracy is based on the ideal of political equality.  Every citizen is to have the same potential to influence what government does regardless of their financial status.  In the marketplace, however, money matters very much.  Markets are directly related to “effective demand,” what consumers can and will purchase with real dollars.  The consequent result for the US democratic capitalistic structure is that while the rich and the poor are equal politically, they will not be equal economically.  This combination could lead to two undesirable extremes: 1) mob rule by asset-less democratic majorities; or 2) oligarchic rule by the affluent.  Thus, government’s role is to oversee the enterprise through the creation of regulatory policies that prevent runaway markets and taxation that assures a sustainable distribution of wealth and resources for the whole population.  In order to achieve these goals political theorists have created models that focus on the creation and sustaining of a strong middle class.  The theory being that the middle class vote will regulate what goes on in the economy, i.e., the median voter will correct rising inequality in wealth as well as poor economic performance.[1]

Unfortunately, this system has not worked well for the US over the past 30 years.  During this time we have experienced a constant shift toward highly conservative tax policies and market deregulation.  While these phrases “conservative tax policies” and  “deregulation” sound positive, and we have been trained to believe this is true, the reality is the constant movement toward more conservative policies has led to our current economic condition in which the rich (the top 1%) are getting richer and the middle class and the poor are losing ground.

Some key terms must be addressed here: conservative, progressive, and liberal.  These terms get used frequently in our world and are often applied to differing fields of study with varying results.  For example: if I say I am fiscally conservative with regard to US national economic policies I am throwing my hat into the camp of the wealthy and saying I will vote on their behalf so that they will have reduced taxes and experience fewer regulations for their market enterprises.  If, however, I say I am fiscally progressive I am announcing my commitment to regulated markets, i.e., markets that will have limits set on their growth potential, and a higher tax rate for the wealthy, i.e., incremental rate increases applied in a stair step fashion to higher income levels.  If I declare myself a fiscal liberal, then I am committed to the progressive agenda plus the creation of social programs that will care for the immobilized members of our society.

All of the national policies and decisions mentioned above are the responsibility of the US Congress and those of the State are ruled on by the State Legislature.  What has been happening nationally is the concern for this blog.  Our nation has experienced a constant conservative policy shift for 30 years that has resulted in runaway markets and an ever widening economic gap between the rich and the rest of us.

Should Congress allow the current plan for budget cuts to engage on March 1st, we will see significant negative effects for our national infrastructure and for education.  Representative Bill Pascrell (Rep 9th district of New Jersey) spoke well today (Feb 26, 2013) when interviewed in tandem with Trey Radel (Rep 19th district of SW Florida and Tea Party supporter) on CNN.  Radel emphasized the need for efficient government; Pascrell agreed, but emphasized the concern for the “common good.”  In Pascrell’s words, “we believe in surgical cuts, not 2% across the board.”  In other words, Pascrell believes we need to cut the budget in strategic ways so as not to bring further harm to the middle and lower classes so as to work on behalf of the “common good” of the entire nation.

Fundamentally, we cannot cut our way out of deficit or recession, but must create a strategic balance between “surgical cuts” and increased revenue.  What can you and I do?  We are still a democracy.  Every US citizen has political equality.  We must exercise our political equality in every way imaginable.  Call and write your state Representatives and your Senators.  Flood their offices with appeals and requests.  Form grass roots groups that voice the need for equity and justice for ALL people.  There cannot be too many voices speaking at this time—there is power in numbers.

“Take Care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.”  (Luke 12:15)

 

LeAnn Snow Flesher, PhD

Academic Dean and Professor of Old Testament

American Baptist Seminary of the West


[1] Jacob S. Hacker and Paul Pierson, Winner-Take-All Politics: How Washington made the Rich Richer-and Turned Its Back on the Middle Class (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2010), 74-78.

 

What is the New Thing?

LeAnn Snow Flesher, PhD
Academic Dean and Professor of Old Testament

The State of Things

We are experiencing some very interesting days.  The wars continue to erupt in the Middle East, (despite reports to the contrary), the Arab spring has resulted in countries attempting to rework their political systems in the midst of continued unrest, the Euro is at risk of failing, Greece continues to falter and struggle for a means of survival, the Romney/Obama campaigns are roaring along, our economy still has not turned around, poverty in the US is growing at a rapid rate, and voices are clamoring around the world for peace, and justice, and relief.  We are living in a tremendously unsettled time. 

Added to this global reality is the fact that our nation is experiencing many new trends.  And when I say new, I mean trends that have been developing over the past 40 to 50 years.  I want to talk about these trends in four major categories: Industriousness, honesty, marriage, and religion. 

I am taking my data from a book put together by Charles Murray, a well known conservative libertarian political scientist and scholar, who is best known for his controversial 1994 book entitled The Bell Curve.  While I do not agree with Murray’s conclusions and suggestions for what next, I am greatly appreciative of the tremendous amount of data he has collected in his most recent book entitled Coming Apart: The State of White America 1960 to 2010.   

In this volume Murray begins with a description of the four categories I mentioned earlier: industriousness, honesty, marriage, and religion as the four founding virtues on which our nation was built.  He then proceeds to show how each of these four has diminished considerably in the past 50 years.  For industriousness he uses data from unemployment records and surveys related to number of hours worked in a week; for honesty he uses data related to crime indexes, imprisonments, and bankruptcies; for marriage he uses data related to extramarital sex, marriage, divorce and single rates, and surveys that report happiness levels in marriage; finally, for religion he uses data from surveys that reported faith commitments (or not), and church attendance (or not).   

I do not have space to provide all of the results and conclusions, but want to highlight some that I find particularly relevant to faith communities.  In sum, all four categories are declining.  It will come as no surprise to learn that employment rates are down in the US, but so too the number of hours worked by those who are employed. Similarly, incarcerations are up and so too bankruptcies.  Marriage is on the outs—depicted not only by the divorce rate, but also by the numbers who choose to never marry.  And, low and behold, attendance at religious services and commitments to religious organizations are down.  Murray’s conclusions?  We are going to hell in a hand basket, and if we don’t turn it around quickly we will disintegrate as a nation.  Could he be right?  Maybe.  But, here is what I gained from the data as an active theologian and committed church person. (Heavily influenced by my reading of Tavis Smiley and Cornel West’s book The Rich and the Rest of Us).

 High rates of unemployment have resulted in high rates of discouragement and depression, especially in the lower class.  This decrease in employment is due in large part to the loss of manufacturing jobs in the US. 

The “war on crime” that began in the early 70s has led to an outrageous increase in incarcerations in our nation.  Currently, more dollars are spent per person to incarcerate (tens of thousands more) than to educate. 

The recent mortgage crisis, the result of unethical strategies and policies (not illegal, but unethical), has led to increasing numbers of bankruptcies.

The number of people choosing not to marry, or choosing to divorce and never remarry, combined with the number of single moms in the US is nearly equal to 50% of the marriageable population. 

Now for religion: this is tremendously interesting and important for us today.  The number of people attending church, synagogue or mosque is declining – but so too the number of people participating in any type of volunteer organization: rotary, PTA, neighborhood groups etc.  In general there is a trend toward a social and civic disengagement.

One of Murray’s most helpful charts and conclusions has to do with levels of trust.  In general trust levels have declined throughout the US about 22% in the past 50 years (as low as 15% in 30% of the population).  To this statistic Murray has sounded the alarm—and it is at this point I have to agree with him.  One of the top issues/concerns in our nation (evidenced by or as result of all the mess I just described) is our inability to trust one another.  And, I believe, this is where the church can make a difference!

The Text

In Acts 2:17-21 (the Pentecost text) Peter quotes the prophet Joel

          In the last days it will be, God declares,

          That I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh,

          And your sons and your daughters will prophesy,

          And your young men will see visions,

          And your old men shall dream dreams.

          Even upon my slaves, both men and women

in those days I will pour out my Spirit;

and they shall prophecy

Peter is co-opting the Joel text to explain the moment described; to explain the move of the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost; to explain the new thing God was doing.

My overview of Murray’s study has shown the new trends in the US.  We are a nation of unemployed, underemployed, depressed, incarcerated, poverty stricken, crime infested, non-volunteering, isolated, single parent households that does not trust one another!  How will we, how can we untangle this mess?  I believe “. . . the Spirit of God will be and is being poured out on ALL flesh.”  I believe God is doing a new thing.  Will we be part of it?

If there is one place on the planet where people might be able to learn to ‘trust’ it’s the church. It’s time church!  It’s time to walk away from the traditions that entangle us—that strangle us.  It’s time to walk away from the hierarchy, the board meetings, the ineffective committee meetings, the endless political debates about music, or race, or gender, or sexuality, or politics.  It’s time to move toward the new thing.  What is the new thing? 

          The Spirit of God is being poured out on ALL flesh

          Your incarcerated sons and unwed mothers will prophecy

          Your unemployed will see visions

          Your poverty stricken will dream dreams

          Even upon the homeless, both men and women,

          In those days will the Spirit of God be poured out

          And they shall prophesy

The Call to Respond

Will we be willing to hear and to heed?  Will we be able, willing, and committed to rebuilding trust? 

To undergird the discouraged and depressed; to fight for new public policies, new jobs, and a sustainable living wage for all?

To support the incarcerated and those newly released from prison; to assist their reentry into society?

To fight for new public policies related to the war on crime and education?  To insist that the quality of education be improved in our urban areas?  To lobby for more dollars in education and prevention than in incarceration?

To recognize single person and single parent households as the new acceptable trend in the US and to create ministries that support and encourage those households; ministries that empower for success?

To work at rebuilding trust in our fine nation by providing a place of support, encouragement, education, and much needed mediation between individuals and organizations: neighbor to neighbor, neighbor to school, neighbor to city council, neighbor to state legislature, neighbor to banks . . .?

I believe a new movement is forming and the church can be, ought to be, is called by God to be at the center of it. We have experienced the industrial revolution; the information revolution; the bio-genetic revolution; and now our country, our nation, our world is ripe for a spiritual revolution!

The Spirit of God cannot; in fact will not be contained in institutional structures.  When the Spirit becomes squelched by the structure that is formed around its pouring it will bust out to create a new thing:

–         In Joel we see it busting out of the prophetic structures of the Old Testament pointing to the Apocalyptic movement.

–         In Acts we see it busting out of the temple structure pointing to the Jesus movement.

–         Today we see it busting out of the denominational structure pointing to ????  The occupy movement?  The emerging church?  What will be the new thing?

–         Church . . . The only hierarchy that can hold us back is the one of our own creation!

The Spirit of God is being poured out on ALL flesh.  In this year, academic 2012-2013, Let’s get ready for the new thing!

Not Worried?

“I’m not worried about the poor. We have a safety net for them.”

Mitt Romney

February 2012

These unfortunate words, spoken off the cuff, have exposed Romney’s fundamental ideology on class.  To suggest that nothing more than a safety net is needed for the poor gives evidence of the dehumanization they currently experience in our nation–a dehumanization that will not end should Romney become president.  An introductory course in economics will teach us that capitalism runs off a basic structure of supply and demand.  The free market is set up so that my neighbors and I can create a supply for any demand and in the process make money.  The more we do this, the more the money flows.  At the same time, the free market is intended to allow and even encourages competition.  Theoretically, when healthy imagination is coupled with a creative spirit we ought to experience a well-heeled economy.  We ought to see entrepreneurs grabbing hold of opportunities and creating products to fill the gaps and meet the needs.  Theoretically, when healthy competition is in play we ought to see goods and services that are solid, dependable and affordable.  Unfortunately, in today’s economy we are seeing entrepreneurs closing up shop–or worse yet never opening a shop.  Something has gone awry with the system.

Case in point: in the small town I grew up in, LeSueur, MN, a young entrepreneur with a great imagination saw a possibility and started his own company.  He created Frog Tape; the green tape you see advertised today that when moistened creates an immediate seal disallowing seepage.  This tape is marvelous for painting projects when one is trying to create a clean straight line.  The product was created, tested, perfected, and marketed.  The company grew slowly, but eventually the brilliance of the product caught on and they were off and running.  The green Frog Tape was soon in serious competition with 3Ms blue tape known by all as the key to a successful painting project.  Frog Tape was giving 3M’s blue tape a run for its money.  All too soon the president of Frog Tape received notice that he was being sued by 3M for creating a product too similar to their patented blue tape.  In the initial court hearing the judge ruled on the side of Frog Tape noting the originality of the idea and the freedom the company had to continue with their enterprise.  But, 3M was not done.  They continued to press the point over a period of many years until they had exhausted Frog Tape’s resources. In 2004 the Frog Tape patent was sold to a much larger East Coast company.

The Frog Tape story is but one example of the wealthy overcoming the little guy.  About three years ago I was in the market to buy a condo.  I had a large down payment, nearly 25%, and yet could not get anyone to offer me a 30 year fixed mortgage.  I could only get a variable mortgage that would balloon up in 5 years at which time I would have to refinance. I walked away from the deal.  A few months later the bottom fell out of the housing market and everyone who had these variable ballooning mortgages was stuck.  Since then I have talked with others who have had the same experience, except that they signed the document and have now lost their homes.  These events raise many questions in my mind.  How is it that in a free market society someone with a brilliant idea cannot hold on to the rights to it?  Why is it that mortgage companies were allowed to create deals destined for bankruptcy? 

Our capitalistic free market economy is running off a Darwinian ideology of the survival of the strongest.  In the long run It is okay for 3M to run over the creator of Frog Tape because they are bigger and stronger.  It’s okay for people to lose their houses in bad mortgage deals because the companies making the deals are bigger and stronger.  This is the ideology that was exposed by Mitt Romney when he ‘accidentally’ gave us a window into his soul the other day.  In other words, it’s  okay that our nation functions off a Darwinian ideology as long as we have a safety net for the poor.

As an ordained American Baptist minister and a liberation theologian who has studied the Bible from a faith-filled academic perspective for more than 20 years; and now does comparative studies with Jewish interpretations of the Hebrew Bible and Muslim interpretations of the Qur’an–I have to disagree with this Darwinian ideology.  In the Hebrew Bible the people of God are taught that a faithful Jew cares for the widow, the orphan, and the foreigner.  In the New Testament the faithful Christian is told the second greatest commandment is “to love your neighbor as yourself.”  In the Qur’an the faithful Muslim is told that “love of neighbor” (one of the fundamental ideals of Islam) means the person next door should never go hungry as long as you have food in your own house.  I wonder what the book of Mormon teaches on this point.

A society that does not value and nurture its own is destined for destruction.  Remember the wars in Central America?  Remember the Arab Spring?  Are we even aware of what’s going on in northern Panama right now? 

About 80% of our nation’s population is either Christian, Muslim, or Jewish.  Yet, we function off a Darwinian ideology.  Capitalism is an economic and political system not an ideology.  The machine can be driven for good or for ill depending on the ideology of the driver.  Think about it.

 

LeAnn Snow Flesher, PhD

Academic Dean and Professor of Old Testament

American Baptist Seminary of the West

A Word About Cone’s New Book

Every issue of the Review and Expositor Journal begins with a “Word from . . .” and a “Word about . . .”  This blog will appear in the winter 2012 edition of the Review and Expositor as a “Word about . . .”

 

The Cross and the Lynching Tree [Book]Race has been a topic of great concern in our nation since the beginnings of the Civil Rights Movement (1948 to present).  I am delighted that the Review and Expositor has given two full issues to the topic and even more delighted to provide a “Word About . . .” for this issue.  In this brief “Word about . . .” I would like to highlight a new publication, The Cross and the Lynching Tree, by Dr. James H. Cone (2011).  In this recent publication Cone addresses the historic reality of mob violence and torture that led to the lynching of Blacks post Civil War and after the end of slavery in our nation. In the book Cone notes:

The cross and the lynching tree are separated by nearly 2000 years.  One is the universal symbol of Christian faith; the other is the quintessential symbol of black oppression in America.  Although both are symbols of death, one represents a message of hope and salvation, while the other signifies the negation of that message by white supremacy.  Despite the obvious similarities between Jesus’ death on a cross and the death of thousands of black men and women strung up to die on a lamppost or tree relatively few people . . . have explored the symbolic connections. (xiii)

In chapter one Cone provides numerous accounts and details about lynchings that took place in the US post emancipation and during the time of Jim Crow.  From a sociological prospective, one can say that lynching was an extra legal punishment sanctioned by the community.  Many scholars date its origin in Virginia during the Revolutionary War when Charles Lynch or William Lynch (both were called the original Judge Lynch), with the support of the community punished Tory sympathizers. (3) During this era it was considered necessary to protect the community from bad people that were out of reach of the law.  In later years it was applied to the freed Black slaves, for whom resistance to lynching was out of the question as it would lead to even more of the same.

In chapter two, Cone goes on to discuss the significant theological contribution of Reinhold Niebuhr, not only to the terrible beauty of the cross (i.e., salvation in the cross, victory in defeat, life in death), but also to Christian social ethics.  Cone touts Niebuhr as “probably the most influential single mind in the development of American attitudes which combined moral purpose with a sense of political reality.” (32)  Throughout the first half of this chapter Cone gives Niebuhr numerous accolades for his work to create theologies that confronted the injustices and inequities lived out in the United States during his lifetime, and rightly so—for Niebuhr did indeed significantly change the landscape of American theology.  His work was seminal for many of the ideological emphases that we see today.  Towards the end of the chapter and throughout the remainder of the book Cone provides honest critique of Niebuhr’s work; affirming the positive as mentioned above and challenging his silence and lack of action around the cry for legislation that would outlaw lynching. 

According to Cone, Niebuhr was “at most a moderate on racial justice.  Rather than challenge racial prejudice he believed it must ‘slowly erode.’” (48)  In chapter three, entitled “Martin Luther King Jr.’s Struggle to Redeem the Soul of America,” Cone emphasizes King’s famous discussion on “Why We Can’t Wait.”  Niebuhr encouraged patience; King responded “It is hardly a moral act to encourage others patiently to accept injustice which he himself does not endure.” (39)  For the transition from slavery resulted in the development of Jim Crow, yet another means for controlling Blacks in America; and along with Jim Crow came the rise of lynching Blacks in America. 

King is famous, of course, for his Gandhian inspired non-violent resistance theology that undergirded the Civil Rights Movement.  For King Non-violence was more than a strategy; in his thinking it was the only way to heal a broken humanity.  In response to the fall out that came from King’s “Beyond Vietnam” address at New York’s Riverside Church (April 4, 1967) King states: “. . . when I took up the cross I recognized its meaning. . . . It is not something that you wear.  The cross is something that you bear and ultimately that you die on.” (84)  It is clear King had seen the power of the cross that was made even clearer by Oscar Romero’s famous statement pronounced shortly before he was martyred “. . . if they kill me I shall be resurrected in the hearts of the Salvadoran people.”  In these two brief examples, I hope the reader can catch a glimpse of the profound significance of Jesus’ death on the cross that goes well beyond ideas found in classical traditional atonement theology. 

As a “professional” student of theology for more than 27 years now, I want to state clearly that it was not until I took a study trip to El Salvador, heard the stories, talked to the people, and read the theological reflections of their contemporary theologians that I truly understood the significance of the cross and, consequently, of its comparison to the lynching tree.  All of our big fancy theological words such as atonement, substantiation, propitiation, expiation, and so on, do not and cannot bring to life the truths found in the martyrdom of these great theologians (Martin Luther King, Jr. and Oscar Romero) who understood theology as something practical and active; who lived their theology and called out for others to do the same.  The martyrdom of these two men changed the world and the theological enterprise forever.

In his book, The Cross and the Lynching Tree, of which I have shared but a small portion in this brief “Word about, . . .” James Cone has exposed the gap between White progressive theology and the Black theology of Liberation.  He has dared to be open and honest about the theological developments in Black culture and in so doing called the progressive White theologians to task for not adequately and actively addressing issues of race in their ethics.  To Dr. Cone I say “Thank you for your honest reflections and your challenge to White America;” to White America I say “Please read this book and embrace its truth.”

“A Word about . . .”

By LeAnn Snow Flesher, PhD

Academic Dean and Professor of Old Testament

American Baptist Seminary of the West at

The Graduate Theological Union

Berkeley, CA

The Church and Apocalyptic Eschatology

LeAnn Snow Flesher, Academic Dean and Professor of Old Testament

Having just completed another semester and having read and graded the final paper I am once again impressed by what the students teach me as I strive to respond to their questions and concerns.  It is no secret that seminary training challenges a person’s faith-filled understandings of the bible and of theology in general. This semester proved to be no different.  I had a wonderful first semester class this year, and in some way they are all wonderful, but each group is unique taking on very particular interests and asking a unique set of questions.  The fall 2011 Introduction to the Old Testament class was one of the most earnest group of students I have ever taught.  This class was made up of mature individuals from all walks of life with considerable ministerial experience.  They came with a fist full of questions and the willingness to probe the difficult and the complex.  I am indebted to them, and incredibly grateful, for their willingness to have authentic conversation in the classroom and in their writing.

I close each semester of my introductory course with a session and an assignment on apocalyptic literature.  This is a topic and theme that does not get nearly enough attention in the mainline progressive seminary.  As a consequence the dominant voice on the topic in our culture has been the self-declared “prophecy teachers,” not to be confused with the prophetic preachers of our day.  The former read the bible in an individualistic judgmental manner–preaching fire and brimstone to those and for those unlike themselves.  The latter, the prophetic preachers, speak truth to power, crying for justice and equity for everyone. 

This year, as I contemplated the class discussions and read through the papers on Daniel 9 I came to understand the fundamental message of the contemporary prophecy teachers with new clarity.  There are two distinct ideologies evidenced in the biblical apocalyptic literature with which contemporary prophecy teachers resonate.  The first is a pessimism about the current social order.  In Daniel 7-12, the apocalyptic portion of the book, the Jews are suffering under the severe persecution of the Seleucid ruler Antiochus Epiphanes IV.  The book denotes a shift from living under friendly foreign rule (cps 1-6) to life under the persecution of Antiochus IV (chps 1-7).  In both sections the Jews are called to be faithful to the worship of YHWH, albeit with differing consequences.  In chapters 1-6 faithful worship and practice has positive results all around, even with the foreign king, but in chapters 7-12 faithful living results in martyrdom.  The result is a pessimistic view of the social order in chapters 7-12, with no hope for reform, and consequently, hope only that God will come supernaturally to bring judgment for the wicked and deliverance for the faithful worshippers of YHWH.

The contemporary prophecy teachers parallel these two major ideas: 1) there is no hope for the current social order to reform–and the only hope is that God will come to judge and deliver; 2) that God will only deliver those who are pure and holy and faithful–mainly themselves and their followers.  Thus, only those who live according to the regime outlined by the prophecy teachers can hope for deliverance.  This, of course, is a very dangerous perspective; and one that seriously thwarts openness to difference, cultural and otherwise.  It is also a tremendously controlling perspective that sustains a hierarchical authoritative exclusivistic structure.  To be clear, they believe wholeheartedly that they are the persecuted faithful that Jesus is coming again to rapture; and that they alone will be delivered and everyone else will experience an eschatological judgment.  End of discussion.

While each culture group probably has its own version of this theology, the resources used by students in my fall 2011 class, made up of African American and Korean immigrant students we’re written by white men associated with Dallas Theological Seminary.  I do not have space here to go into the differences between my class lectures and the writings of these men, but I have written a book on it.  However, what I do wish to emphasize is the influence these men have had on our society across culture groups, for two primary reasons.  First, there has not been enough attention given to apocalyptic eschatology outside of the writings of the contemporary prophecy teachers.  Consequently,  the only interpretation heard on this topic by the general population comes primarily from this source.  Secondly, prophecy teachers use numerous biblical passages–stringing them all together so as to create a brand new text that they then interpret.  This use of numerous biblical texts is very impressive to the untrained reader causing them to think these men really know their bible.  Finally, the prophecy teachers do accurately proclaim one of the essential messages of biblical apocalyptic, mainly that God is in control and at work, behind the scenes, preparing for the end when judgment and justice will come.  This word brings significant comfort to the general population, and is probably a major reason why their teachings are so popular.  But, of critical import is the manner in which this fundamental message is understood and applied to a contemporary world.

The main problem with the teachings of the contemporary prophecy teachers is twofold.  First, they do considerable violence to the biblical text, interpreting it as historically flat, and in every instance a prediction of Jesus coming again–totally ignoring the rich heritage and Profound truths to be found when biblical writings are interpreted within their own time and context.  Secondly, they do considerable violence to the Christian church and to our society, demonizing difference and diversity and focusing almost exclusively on individual salvation.  By focusing on individual salvation total attention can be given to recruiting people to pray the sinner’s prayer so that time and resources need not be given to ease social ills.  In fact, theologically they are not want to do so since the premise of their theology is on society becoming increasingly more evil until it reaches it’s height of wickedness at which time Jesus will come to deliver them and condemn the rest of us.  It is not their job to alleviate people’s suffering in the present “for their reward is in heaven.”

There is one final observation I would like to make before I close–and this is the profound reality that has hit me this semester.  Finally, the focus on individualism discourages the masses from organizing around a particular issue, such as racism, feminism, liberation, poverty, gay rights, etc.  Week after week the members of their congregations are told only to worry about praying the prayer and getting others to do the same.  No time or effort is put to alleviating current social ills.  They have already been told how they are to  act, the program has been carefully laid out and it does not include internal resistance of any kind.  People of color are welcome to join them as long as they follow the rules, the same for women, and gays, and the poor!  Is it any wonder the 1 percent have supported our current societal shift toward religious conservatism?

How Will We Reach the Nones?

LeAnn Snow Flesher, Academic Dean and Professor of Old Testament

This is the third in a series of blogs related to the state of Seminary education today.  In the first blog entitled Renew or Plan the Funeral I noted that decline is a natural and expected phase in the life of every institution (even faith based institutions) and, consequently, a phase that should be predicted and included as part of one’s strategic planning process.  When institutions begin to decline there are basically two options:  renew or plan the funeral.

In my second blog entitled simply What to Do I outlined the current and future demographics of the seminary classroom and made some recommendations related to the major shifts coming down the road.  In this second blog I attempted to highlight the need for a complete overhaul of what used to be the Gold Standard, i.e., the MDiv program.  Both of these blogs were published on the Pathoes blog page (as well as the ABSW blog page) which provided a means for people to respond.  Curiously, many of the responses I have received, verbally and in writing, focused on the state of the church, rather than the state of the seminary—suggesting “the problem” is really at the level of the church.

The responses I have received have inspired this third blog.  A close friend sent me an article the other day from The New York Times Sunday Review entitled “Americans Undecided about God?”  In the article, the author, Eric Weiner, describes what he terms “. . . the nation’s fastest-growing religious demographic,” the “Nones.”  Weiner has distinguished this group in contrast to “the True Believers, on the one hand, and the Angry Atheists on the other.”  He defines the Nones as the 12 percent of the population who say they have no religious affiliation at all—and he notes the percentage is much higher in the younger population, as much as 25%. 

Weiner goes on to say that while a growing number of Americans are running from organized religion they are by no means running from God.  To support this statement he quotes statistics from a survey conducted by Trinity College in which 93% of people surveyed say they believe in God or a higher power.  And he concludes that this holds true for most Nones who he further defines as “. . . the undecided of the religious world;” people who “drift spiritually and dabble in everything from Sufism to Kabbalah, to Catholicism and Judaism.”

I particularly appreciate Weiner’s description of the Nones.  He is truly on to something with this description, although his reason for such may be oversimplified—he suggests, based on his reading of works by David Campbell and Robert Putnam (University of Notre Dame and Harvard Kennedy School respectively), that the contemporary mixing of religion and politics is to blame, i.e., people don’t want to associate with religion because they don’t want the political affiliation that comes with it.  I suspect there is a kernel of truth in this statement, and perhaps many kernels of truth, but I would suggest we also need to look at formalized religion itself.  Many people, including a high percentage of the younger generation, see the church as being too hierarchical, too contradictory, not concerned enough about the evils of the world, or even the world itself.  I like very much what Weiner says at the end of his article about the need for “a new way of being religious” that would be “straightforward, unencumbered, intuitive, and highly interactive.”  He is sounding very emerging church like here; very Robb Bell like.

The reality is that the structure(s) of our traditional religious institutions have run their course and it is indeed time to renew or plan the funeral.  It’s not that the structures are wrong or bad in and of themselves, but they simply no longer fit the needs of the majority of the culture.  Our culture has shifted tremendously over the past 50 plus years.  In my lifetime we have experienced the development of the personal computer, the cell phone, and the internet!   People are connected in ways never imagined 50 years ago.  Simultaneously, we have experienced the shift out of the industrial age into the scientific age, to the information age and now the biomedical age.  We have moved from modern ways of thinking into post-modern ways of thinking.  We have shifted from national perspectives to a global mindset.  The world is a new place and information about it is at our fingertips.  Simultaneously we are experiencing all time lows (for the current generation) in education and income.

A recent report has noted that 50% of the US school districts are failing and another report has revealed that 40% of the US population is poor.  People are not as prepared as they used to be to enter graduate levels of education, and with the rising costs at Universities and Colleges the trend is headed toward fewer and fewer young people completing 4 year degree programs.  People are not as interested as they used to be in participating in religious rituals and traditions (high church—if you will).  People are still interested in spirituality, but would rather participate (not merely observe) in it without the pomp and circumstance, without the chants and incense, i.e., without the bells and whistles and most certainly without the politics (both internal and external).  When polled, the majority of students who enter our seminary doors passionately state that they want to make a difference in the world, and they believe our school can help them achieve their goals. 

People are not less interested in things spiritual or things faith-related; people are not less interested in making a difference in the world; people are not less interested in helping others.  But, people are less prepared and have fewer resources to engage higher levels of theological training.  Simultaneously, people want to be involved in something practical that they feel is significantly impacting the world for good.  The church and the seminary, in their current structures, are at risk of becoming totally irrelevant to contemporary culture.  Who will reach the Nones?  According to Weiner, who has self declared as one of them, they are open, searching and experimenting.  How will we break through the structures that are holding us back from engaging this new generation of faith seekers?