Friday, September 12, 2008

The Saddest Story . . . Ever

Do you remember when you first started writing stories? The story would inevitably begin with a title and 'Chapter One'. Yesterday I was looking in our junior church library for a children's book to read on Sunday. After finding it I opened it only to find a page on which a kid had started a story. The illustration occupied primary place with a horizon dotted with mountain peaks and the most pressing image being a mountain on which a small dog appeared to be climbing. The mountain was imposing with its peak nowhere to be seen as its side was near vertical stretching beyond the limits of the page, it was also snowing. At the top of the page a few lines were written,
Chapter One: The Lost Puppy
Once upon a time a puppy was looking for a home and a name. But nobody wanted him.
Ouch. It made me almost want to cry . . . seriously. It reminded me of an 'at-risk' youth a worked with who was just beginning to learn how to read and write. He would spend time writing and illustrating in his journal. I can vaguely remember him writing thinly veiled allegories about a puppy who seemed to be having some similar struggles as he was. I am not saying that the person who wrote the above story was somehow personally in crisis, only that some of the primary concepts of love, value, and security and instilled and understood at such a young age.


Friday, September 05, 2008

Cracking the Cavey Code

I sent my review of The End of Religion to the author Bruxy Cavey and received a prompt and detailed response. I thought it would be helpful working through those points before shipping the Review off to Canadian Mennonite.

Cavey begins with the most important response stating,

I believe that understanding the target audience for my book helps clarify many things, which you have not mentioned in your review. The End of Religion is written primarily to non-Christians who could be described as religion drop-outs - people who are open to "faith" (whatever they mean by that), but would tell you (often in impassioned and colourful language) that they have a negative take on organized "religion". From that starting point I want to engage these readers in a "from here to there" journey toward the biblical Jesus and New Testament community. I believe I state this clearly at the start of the book and follow this approach throughout. . . .
So this book is my attempt to describe the biblical gospel in language these people might have ears to hear. If I were writing a book to a primarily Christian audience my approach may be very different. I see the approach I take in The End of Religion as comparable to the Apostle Paul's communication style in Acts 17, communicating the message of Jesus in words and images that beckons his pagan audience to go further in their investigation of Christ. No doubt he would phrase his teaching very differently if he were writing to a Christian audience (for instance, the New Testament demonstrates that Paul is not in the habit of quoting pagan sources in place of Scripture and calling all people, whether believer or not, "God's children").
I trust that if you read The End of Religion keeping in mind that you are eavesdropping on a conversation between me and a specific target reader - one who comes to the table with baggage that they need help putting down - it will go a long way to clarifying why I take the approach I take and emphasise the things I do.
The claim is that because Cavey is writing to a non-Christian audience the approach will be different. As I mentioned in my review I get the impression that for Cavey 'Christians' are stuffy old fuddy-duddies blinded by the lure tradition. But to these people I suspect he would want to bring the same message. In addition the lecture I heard at a Christian event ten years was also in the same medium. Perhaps he was unconcerned with those who already had a meaningful religious expression. I agree that when I teach Sunday School for 10 year olds and when I prepare a college lecture I will be using a different vocabularly and syntax. In the case of Cavey however, I see his medium and message so intricately tied together that I am not convinced he is interested in articulating the Gospel in any other way (though I have not heard his church teaching), which of course is fine only that his comment does not apply to my criticisms. I guess I am simply not sure why this would not be the same message preached to the church, because according to the book, the church sure needs it!

In my review I viewed Cavey's work as inappropriately seperating himself from church history. In response he says that he is interested in responding to the cynic who stumbles over the atrocities that the church has perpetrated and that he does acknowledge "that Christians are responsible for many wonderful examples of charity and benevolence through the centuries. But these positive examples cannot nor should not undo the repulsive effects of the judgmental bigotry and horrific violence that permeates church history" (58). It is fine to have that caveat but then it would be important to state that the chapter is dealing with a particular aspect of church history, as opposed to a near blanket statement. And this chapter would then be even more palatable if there were any sense that Cavey was interested in drawing from the wells of church history (other than the quotes that preface some of the chapters). The way Cavey overcomes the challenge of church history is seperate himself from it. My concern is that if the reader accepts Cavey's basic positions how could they then not also be swayed into thinking that Cavey's expression of irreligion is the climax (or return) of true Christian spirituality. Cavey explicitly acknowledges that his work is within the stream of evangelical/Anabaptist. I suppose it is the tendency of working within this stream to not elevate the role of church history and tradition. This, however, makes it no less of historical religious expression.

In my review I stated that Cavey's book led towards an individualistic 'me and Jesus' view of spirituality. Cavey responded by saying that in the end of the book the final thing the reader is encouraged to do is seek out intentional community (230). In reviewing the book I can more understand the role he gives for the community of believers. For instance baptism is a sign of the iniatition into a community and not just a personal experience of forgiveness. Communion, however, appears to have a much lower view of community. There is neither the act of economic distribution emphasized in Anbaptism nor the communal formation emphasized in more mainline traditions. It is rather a replacement of the the sacrifice for the individuals forgiveness. I understand that Cavey emphasizes the need for community I just find it in the end subordinated to the role of the individual in his overall work.

Finally, Cavey feels as though I have misunderstood and so misrepresented his intention for 'organized irreligion' which is what he sees as the natural expression flowing from the Gospel. I appreciate that his book is an attempt at helping people to take the next (or first) step in their faith. And I was almost ready to admit that I was in fact very wrong in how I understood his intention but then he made this strange statement, "I can only leave you to draw your own conclusion about the theology of The End of Religion, and certainly no human effort to communicate the gospel of Jesus is necessary. God doesn't need us - we need him." This I assume is in response to my statement that indeed we need to rely on the things Cavey rejects because they are the realities of life. Indeed they are God's medium as God was the one who came as the word. This is I suppose what I can't get around. All of these things, all of these things of faith are ultimately wedded in the material world. I never said God needed us and yes we need God, we need all that God offers us.

Cavey asks in his book that I do not get caught up in semantics. That I look to the essence of his message. But semantics are indeed part of the message. Yes many have come and found this message attractive (and I find hard to argue with a transformed life) and many others have found their way out the backdoor of similar 'emergent' expressions. So as Cavey asks in his book, So What? I suppose each should be convinced in their own minds and may any friction add to a fire that warms, illuminates, and purges.



From one of my quote feeds,

If your everyday life seems poor, don't blame it; blame yourself; 
admit to yourself that you are not enough of a poet to call forth its riches;
because for the creator there is no poverty and no indifferent place.
- Rainer Maria Rilke

This quote struck me as I have continued to do some writing but I feel my resources are depleted having moved from some saucy urban settings to the country.  I am not sure I can (or want to) sustain the reflective writing on nature that Annie Dillard does, mine seems to tied to humanness.  And well as I pastor there are many things I simply need to keep to myself.


Thursday, September 04, 2008

Proclaiming the End: A Review of Bruxy Cavey's The End of Religion

I will admit that I was prepared to hate Bruxy Cavey’s recent book The End of Religion: Encountering the Subversive Spirituality of Jesus.  I can still vividly remember Cavey speaking at my college about ten years ago.  The first words of his lecture were, “God hates religion!”  I was put off by his rhetorical style and it left a bad taste in my mouth since.  When there was a chance to review his book I jumped at it to see how his message had developed.  Cavey divides his book into three parts.  The first part explores the inadequacy of religion and its negative effects throughout history.  Second Cavey looks at the scandalous life of Jesus as he attempts to recover the subversive nature of his message.  Finally, Cavey draws the implications Jesus’ message should have on the life of those who follow him. 

The chapters within these sections are short and digestible with plenty of anecdotal commentary.  My favourite is Cavey’s observation that most of the other religions’ version of the Golden Rule are stated negatively or passively (Do not do unto others as you would not want done to yourself).  Cavey views this as s theology of a rock.  A rock does not hurt anyone else.  As Cavey was trying to explain to his children telling them that we need to do more than just be a rock he says, “So we created a Cavey Code: ‘Rock on!”  Each day as Nina and I dropped them off for camp, we would hold our fists high as a family and say ‘Rock On.’”
Despite the pleasant writing style and accessible imagery I had some serious reservations about some of his basic theological positions.  First there is a type of anti-historicism in his work.  For Cavey history is heavy-laden with the shackles of religion.  With respect to current uses of the word ‘spirituality’ Cavey says, “I am encouraged, because I think we are finally catching up to what Jesus has been saying for over two thousand years” (43).  Cavey’s treatment of church history is found in his chapter “Chamber of Horrors” which he begins by saying, “If the history of religion were turned into a series of displays in a wax museum, visitors might think they had entered the Chamber of Horrors.  A centerpiece of the museum would be a body lurching toward you, seemingly animated – but headless.  The descriptive plaque would read, ‘The institutional church throughout much of history’” (57).  This chapter reads like a direct response to Sam Harris’ recent book The End of Faith which is a plea for rational atheism as a response to the dangers of faith.  Harris laments Christianity’s perpetration of the Crusades, the Inquisition, Witch-Hunts, etc.  In response to this Cavey offers a hearty amen to Harris.  Agreeing that indeed Christian religion is guilty as charged he is able to also shake himself loose of history say that “none of this is the way of Jesus” (68). 
Cavey falls unfortunately short here in not acknowledging how his own project is at the very least implicitly informed by church tradition.  Much of The Meeting House’s (Cavey’s church) ‘Manifesto’ reads like a paraphrase of an evangelical statement of faith.  But more than this Cavey has discarded a wealth of resources from those who have wrestled intimately and honestly with the subversive message of Jesus.  Cavey’s message of spirituality is fundamentally “me and Jesus.”  It is a group of individual followers of Jesus coming together as church.  This view of the church largely ignores the view of the church as Christ’s body.  As such if Cavey views the history of Christianity as largely headless then his own view becomes a bunch heads rolling around on the floor disconnected to each other.
Part of my issue with Cavey’s view of church is related to his misunderstanding of two important images in the Old Testament, the Garden of Eden and the Temple.  While I agree that Jesus transcended the Temple he did so on the basis of the Temple not in conflict with it and in returning to the Garden of Eden Jesus was not rejecting but using the religious imagery of the Old Testament.  Biblically the Temple was as much a theological reality as it was a practical or ritual reality.  The Temple (and the Tabernacle) depicted the way in which the world was ordered.  The Temple was a 3-D theological representation of the world as God is present in it.  In many ways Jesus was simply taking the natural steps back towards the Garden of Eden.  By calling the body the Temple Jesus makes God’s presence portable (as the Tabernacle was) but he also makes God’s presence relational (as the Garden of Eden was).  Biblically Eden and the Temple share many similarities in their actual geography.  In this way Cavey unnecessarily depicts Jesus as rejecting an aspect of religion that was deeply embedded within the biblical story.
Cavey also neglects to demonstrate how Jesus’ subversiveness was as much (and likely more) about power and economics than it was simply about religion.  One gets the impression from Cavey that the target of Jesus’ vehemence was aimed at a crusty old stick-in-the-mud priest instead of those who abuse power.  While Cavey is interested in the social aspects of the Gospel he still characterizes the Kingdom of God as a ‘spiritual’ ‘inner reality’ as opposed to the particular practices that Christians are called on to express this Kingdom.
After such heavy-handed criticism I have to admit that I did not hate the book as I was prepared to.  In many places I strongly sympathized with what Cavey was trying to accomplish.  However, the project seemed misguided from the start.  Cavey states early on that by religion he is referring “to any reliance on systems or institutions, rules or rituals as our conduit to God” (37)  There is a paradox here because we need to rely on these things in some way because it is in these systems, institutions, rules and rituals that we live and express ourselves.  A faith that could not in some rely on these things would be the worst kind if isolated and internalized spiritualism.  Jesus relied on these to spread the message of God’s kingdom.  It is a matter of living in the knowledge and trust of God’s sovereignty over these things and not the rejection of them.  Perhaps this is where Cavey is trying to end up with his notion of organized irreligion towards the end of the book where he softens up on what ‘good’ religion is.  However, this end renders much of his book unnecessary and suspect theologically.  Cavey’s final expression ultimately fits within the North American expression (religion) of evangelicalism in his approach to the Bible, mission, salvation, and to the broader church.  I do not say this as a criticism only that I think Cavey is being a little disingenuous in some of his claims.  Perhaps we need to stop proclaiming the end of religion and focus on proclaiming the lordship of Christ over our systems, institutions, rules, and rituals.


Who Cares Who Wrote the Bible?

For those of you who were riveted to my series on the origins of the Old Testament I have the devastating news that I will not finish the series. (I will pause as you regroup)  While I did enjoy the book and it has changed how I view the Bible I simply lost interest in exerting that much energy to distill it here.  In addition as I was working through it more closely I began to see to how forced some of the moves were that he made in order to sustain the overall project.  I do not deny that much of it might be true but I am certainly also not convinced of it.  As he reached the formation of P things started to get a little convoluted in who had what text when and why they got put together.  So anyway I'm putting that one to bed.


Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Crazy Canucks!

As I am sure it is common global knowledge the Canadian Broadcasting Cooperation dropped the license to the iconic 1968 anthem (bah, bah, bah, bah, bah, bahhhhhhhh, bah, bah, bah, bah, bah, bahbahhhhhhh). So they issued a challenge for people to submit a new anthem. I just got an e-mail from my friend and his submission. It's pretty straight up.


Who Wrote the Bible - Part IV - Ezra has the Book

After uncovering the author of D Richard Friedman moves into describing the period of the Bible’s formation from 587-400 BC. There is very little biblical narrative that deals with the exile and also little archeological evidence.

Life was difficult in Babylon as Judah’s religion did not allow for easy adaptation into the pagan pantheon. This period is characterized as having history and theology on a crash course. “Is Yahweh a national God? If so, he is left behind in Judah, and the people are cut off from him exile. This very question is asked by the author of Psalm 137, ‘How shall we sing a song of Yahweh on foreign soil?’ Or is Yahweh a universal God? And if so, why did he let this disaster happen?” The answer of course for many was that it was their fault. The exile forced Judah to reconceive theology and worship. It was however only 50 years later that the people were allowed to return to Judah. The Persian king who overthrew Babylon allowed the people to return and to rebuild their Temple. By 516 the Temple was rebuilt, though with considerably less ‘stuff’, no ark or cherubim or Urim and Thummin. It was only Aaronid priests who were legitimate priests. Levites were assistants. Ezra came to Judah in 458 BC. He was a priest and a scribe and was known like Moses as a lawgiver. Ezra also had the authority of the Persian emperor. Ezra has the torah read to the people and in these readings F. finds material from JE, D, and P. From this he believes that Ezra had the complete five books of Moses. At this point F. has left out P with very clear intent.