Fair enough: Mad Men has been on for a long time, and there was bound to be a backlash at some point. What's interesting to me, though, is the form the backlash has taken. Over and over, people are saying: okay, we get it. The symbolism is heavy-handed. Parallel plots are too elaborately coordinated. Everything is becoming too simplistic. A recent…
An Open Letter to Dr. George Wood and the Assemblies of God Denomination – of which I was once a member
Note: My response to Dr. George Wood’s article in yesterday’s News-Leader can be found here. Before reading it, however, I ask that you first read the following (personal) reflections:
While I’m partly writing this post as a reply to the biblical and theological critiques that Dr. George O. Wood (the General Superintendent of the Assemblies of God denomination) made in his News-Leader response to the clergy letter signed by myself and 22 other Christian leaders in support of the LGBT community in Springfield, I would like to begin by sharing a personal note that is often lost in the public eye.
While this may come as a surprise to many, I have very deep roots in the Assemblies of God church. Not only did I grow up in Springfield, where the headquarters of the Assemblies of God denomination is located, but I was baptized into an Assemblies of God church where, surprisingly enough, Rev. John Lindell was once a youth pastor. I also had a Damascus Road conversion experience in the Assemblies of God that changed my life forever, and the Assemblies of God church is the first place I felt a call to ministry. For these reasons and more, I continue to hold the Assemblies of God very close to my heart.
In addition to these religious experiences – and every bit as important to me – are the close friendships that I made in the Assemblies of God church, for they remain the most enduring friendships I’ve made in my lifetime, and I will forever treasure them. I simply would not be who I am without them, as those who know me on a personal level can well attest.
This personal background is important for several reasons. First, when I respond to perspectives related to representatives from the Assemblies of God, I’m not simply thinking about a group of people with a certain set of beliefs from a certain denomination – I’m thinking about a group of friends who are very close to my heart. This underscores an important point: Unlike what was read into the clergy letter I signed, I do not for one moment believe that Rev. Lindell, or other representatives from the Assemblies of God, lack class or integrity – not for one second. In fact, in the same edition of the News-Leader in which the clergy letter appeared, I am on record as saying, “We consider pastor Lindell to be a person of integrity. It’s just a matter of differing opinions.” Several of my dearest friends are pastors in and members of the Assemblies of God church, and I have the utmost amount of respect for them. While many of us have long had differing interpretations of the Bible, we’ve never found ourselves questioning one another’s integrity. Indeed, we’ve been able to have meaningful conversations with one another about controversial topics precisely because we care for one another and respect one another. And I have no reason to doubt the integrity of Rev. Lindell, especially given the fact that so many of my friends who know him well speak very highly of him. I have no reason to disagree with Rev. Don Miller, the Southern Missouri District Superintendent of the Assemblies of God, when he says that Rev. Lindell’s “character is impeccable.” I only waded into these waters to help provide an alternative approach to understanding a very complex matter in the Bible. So, to be clear: this is not a matter of questioning one’s personal integrity, it’s a matter of biblical interpretation.
All of this is to say that, contrary to the popular misconception, having differing interpretations of the Bible is not to be equated with doubting the integrity of the one(s) with whom you disagree, for I firmly believe there are well-intentioned people at various places along the spectrum, including Dr. Wood and Rev. Lindell, as well as so many of my friends from the Assemblies of God, and I hope they think the same of me. I’m proud to be part of a Christian denomination in which we recognize that none of us necessarily view every doctrinal or social matter the same way, but even in the midst of a diversity of perspectives — especially in the midst of a diversity of perspectives — the love of Christ transcends our differences. We often borrow a line from the heroic civil rights activist William Sloane Coffin, who liked to say that “our unity is not based on uniformity of opinion but on mutuality of love.” And the same principle applies here.
So with this disclaimer in place, allow me to respond to the critiques made by Dr. Wood, with the recognition that I am not attacking his personal integrity or intentions but am simply offering a different interpretation of the Bible that I (and a rapidly growing number of Christians) experience as being (1) far more persuasive on a personal level, (2) far more credible on a scholarly level, and (3) far more helpful in the lives of individuals and communities.
Admittedly, this is an interpretation that the Assemblies of God doesn’t leave much room for, at least not yet, which is why it represents one of the primary reasons I had to leave the Assemblies of God church I loved so much – albeit with a backward wistful glance, the bittersweet effect of which I feel every time I drive by the Assemblies of God church of my youth, which remains very close to my heart to this day.
More than anything, I want my friends (as well as those who often read these kinds of posts online), to know that I didn’t arrive at this place in my spiritual journey lightly. It’s not because I’m trying to be controversial. It’s not because I’m trying to go along with the crowd. It certainly doesn’t express the way I’ve always felt. And it’s not because I don’t take the Bible seriously — as you’ll see in my full response, I do. But my mind has changed over the course of nearly twenty years, and I am thankful to God for it.
Hier stehe ich. Ich kann nicht anders. Gott helfe mir.
Click here to view my full response #longread
Those interested in this conversation also might like to check out Justin Lee’s book, Torn: Rescuing the Bible from the Gays vs. Christians Debate
Subverting the Norm – A few takeaways, and one important clarification (Or, an apologia for deconstruction and Peter Rollins)
As I continue to reflect on Subverting the Norm, several things keep coming to mind. Not only did I thoroughly enjoy meeting so many people that I’m friends with on Twitter and Facebook, but I also loved making new friends altogether (including new friends from four continents!). And the conversations and presentations were absolutely fantastic. But for all of the things that I loved about the event, one thing in particular kept bugging me, hence the reason I’m taking to my blog to try to make what I think is an important clarification.
Those of you who’ve read my books (both of you, that is) know that I’ve been significantly influenced by what is popularly referred to as radical theology (although, from a technical perspective, it’s more accurate to say that I’ve been significantly influenced by continental philosophy of religion), and the basic point of the conference was to ask whether or not radical theologies, including ideas like deconstruction and the death of God, should have a place in the churches. Obviously I think they should, which represents much of the reason I was excited about organizing Subverting the Norm. Time and again, however, participants seemed to understand perspectives related to “deconstruction” and “the death of God” quite negatively, going away with the impression that the purpose of deconstruction is to destroy all that we hold dear, and that the “death of God” leads to nothing but a sense of meaningless nihilism in which the future is closed and all that is left for Pete Rollins or any of us to do is beat our breast in lament and despair.
So I’d like to go nerdy for a minute to provide some clarification: For those who read Derrida carefully, deconstruction actually has more to do with affirmation than destruction, which of course flies in the face of the church’s most popular assumptions. To make this point I often borrow from an obituary that John Caputo wrote in memory of his friend, Jacques Derrida:
What everyone has more or less picked up about deconstruction, even if they have never read a word of it, is its destabilizing effect on our favorite texts and institutions. Derrida exposes a certain coefficient of uncertainty in all of them, which causes all of us, right and left, religious and non-religious, male and female, considerable discomfort. That was the side of deconstruction that grabbed all the headlines and made it in the 1970s a kind of academic succès de scandale. Without reading very closely, it all looked like a joyous nihilism. But what his critics missed (and here not reading him makes a difference!), and what never made it into the headlines, is that the destabilizing agency in his work is not a reckless relativism or an acidic scepticism but rather an affirmation, a love of what in later years he would call the “undeconstructible.” The undeconstructible is the subject matter of pure and unconditional affirmation—“viens, oui, oui” (come, yes, yes)—something unimaginable and inconceivable by the current standards of imagining and conceiving. The undeconstructible is the stuff of a desire beyond desire, of a desire to affirm that goes beyond a desire to possess… His critics had never heard of this because it was not reported in Time Magazine, but they did not hesitate to denounce what they had not read…
His critics failed to see that deconstructing this, that and everything in the name of the undeconstructible is a lot like what religious people, especially Jews, would call the “critique of idols.” Deconstruction, it turns out, is not nihilism; it just has high standards! Deconstruction is satisfied with nothing because it is waiting for the Messiah, which Derrida translated into the philosophical figure of the “to come” (à venir), the very figure of the future (l’avenir), of hope and expectation. Deconstruction’s meditation on the contingency of our beliefs and practices—on democracy, for example—is made in the name of a promise that is astir in them, for example, of a democracy “to come” for which every existing democracy is but a faint predecessor state.
But if this religious turn made his secularizing admirers nervous, it made religious people still more nervous. For after all, by the standards of the local rabbi or pastor, Derrida “rightly passes for an atheist,” which gives secular deconstructors much comfort (but giving comfort is not what deconstruction was sent into the world to do). When asked why he does not say “I am” an atheist (je suis, c’est moi), he said it was because he did not know if he were, that there are many voices within him that give one another no rest, and he lacks the absolute authority of an authorial “I” to still this inner conflict. So the best he can do is to rightly pass for this or that, and he is very sorry that he cannot do better. That, it seems to me, is an exquisite formula not only for what might be called Derrida’s atheism, but also for faith. Rightly passing for this or that, a Christian, say, really is the best we can do. It reminds me of the formula put forward by Kierkegaard’s “Johannes Climacus” (more Socratic figures!) who deferred saying that he “is” a Christian but is doing the best he can to “become” one.
Derrida visits upon all of us, Christian and Jew, religious and secular, left and right, the unsettling news of the radical instability of the categories to which we have such ready recourse, and he raises the idea of a still deeper idea of ourselves which (religiously?) confesses its lack of categories. He exposes us to the “secret” that there is no “Secret,” no Big Capitalized Secret to which we have been wired up—by scientific reason, by poetic or religious revelation, or by political persuasion. We make use of such materials as have been available to us, forged in the fires of time and circumstance. We do not in some deep way know who we are or what the world is. That is not nihilism but a quasi-religious confession, the beginning of wisdom, the onset of faith and compassion. Derrida exposes the doubt that does not merely insinuate itself into faith but that in fact constitutes faith, for faith is faith precisely in the face of doubt and uncertainty, the passion of non-knowing. Violence on the other hand arises from having a low tolerance for uncertainty so that Derrida shows us why religious violence is bad faith. On Derrida’s terms, we do not know the name of what we desire with a desire beyond desire. That means that leading a just life comes down to coping with such non-knowing, negotiating among the several competing names that fluctuate undecidably before us, each pretending to name what we are praying for. For we pray and weep for something that is coming, something I know not what, something nameless that in always slipping away also draws us in its train…
[B]eyond the “death of God” there remains the desire for God, which is the subject matter of the unconditional affirmation and call at the heart of deconstruction, for which we daily—believer and atheist alike—hope and sigh and dream and weep. This desire transcends categories of atheist/theist, secular/sacred, and so on. In the words of Jeffrey Robbins, “The love of God is a love without category or, better, a love that exceeds all categorizations—whether religious or secular, whether theist or atheist, and whether Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, Jewish, etc.” The death of God, as pronounced by the Enlightenment, “is not the final word, and religion is more fundamentally about desire—even, or especially, when our old beliefs have been worn away or stripped apart, whether it is by the brutalities of modern life to which we have all become spectators, or more complexly still, the pretense of self-sufficiency. God is the (or, at least, one) name that we give to this desire, and religion is the (or, at least, one) means by which it takes its institutional form. But even when the name rings hollow and the form grows stale, it is the event of desire that stirs beneath that we still strive to articulate, that we still mean to affirm.”
Elsewhere, Caputo has addressed questions related to “the death of God”:
It makes little sense to describe Derrida’s Circumfession in terms of the death of God. When Derrida filled that ballroom in Toronto at the 2002 A.A.R. with some fifteen hundred to two thousand people, these were not people who came to hear about the death of God. The “desire for God” would be much better… The name of God is not dead but the language of God is very haunting, and Derrida in particular has responded to it. I don’t think that we’re done with it yet. I don’t think that the name of God will leave us alone–not for a while…
When philosophers try to name the so-called matter of ultimate concern, or the thing that is the most deeply resonant for them, they have recourse to an invented vocabulary. They’ll speak of being or substance or monad or employ some such construct. They erect a technical vocabulary. They produce a term of art. But theologians draw upon a word that is deeply embedded in our conscious and unconscious life, in our everyday life and in our most sublime moments, at birth and death and everything in between. The philosophers have nothing to compete with this. The name of God is a name that we learn at our mothers’ breast, a word that’s deeply embedded in our language… It’s a word that saturates our experience and, for me, for deconstruction, I think it is endlessly, open-endedly analyzable. This is the event within it that invites us, waits for us. We seem never to get to the end of this word, never to finish probing this word and its work on us, what it’s done to us. In that sense, this word contains a deeper provocation than anything else, and what it means always lies before us…
I speak of the death of God in a restricted sense, in the sense of a critique of ontotheology, of the God of metaphysics, and, in particular, the God of sovereignty and power and omnipotence. But then I move on because for me to speak of the death of God in any final sense would be to speak of “the death of desire” or “the death of love” or “the death of affirmation.” Now, of course, we must always and endlessly criticize the idols of ontotheology, endlessly practice a certain death of God, but always as part of a pact with a more open-ended project… But it seems to me more fruitful to think of God as the object of affirmation and desire. Then the question is not whether there is a God–no more than there is a question about whether there is desire–but the question is the one that Derrida picks out of Augustine’s Confessions: “What do I love when I love my God?” God is the name–an endlessly translatable name–of what we love and desire and of affirmation and for me the question is, what is that? What do I desire? So the “death of God” is not a notion for which I have found much use.
And even though Pete Rollins tends to take his cue more from Zizek than from Derrida, I often wonder if he tires of having to explain (over and over!) that his project of helping people accept their fragility and humanity — rather than running from it by clinging to the drugs/idols of certainty and satisfaction — leads not to the sickness unto death, but instead to a deeper and more meaningful engagement with life. Contrary to the popular distortion, Pete’s is a fundamentally transformative move that, from a theological and philosophical perspective, is the very *opposite* of nihilism. And I don’t think this is very difficult to understand, especially when we consider the way drugs function in our lives and culture. When we are conditioned to believe that God is the thing that helps us escape our humanity (via certainty and satisfaction, a la the hit we can take for our next high), God becomes an idol (hence the reason it’s important for this idea of God to undergo a certain death). From my vantage point this doesn’t necessarily have to have anything to do with whether or not there is some sort of being we call God operating behind the scenes (who are we to say?) — but it has everything to do with the way Christianity functions in our lives. When Christianity is only about going to heaven when we die, or escaping our humanity by taking another religious hit (dialing one up from the big Other), it becomes a form of nihilism — it functions as an escape from reality (“Platonism for the masses,” as Nietzsche memorably put it). Yet by following in the footsteps of Tillich, Pete’s project encourages us to view God not as an idolic escape from life (another thing), but rather as that which leads us into a deeper engagement with life. In my view this is the point of Christianity, for it is about nothing less than being born again, here and now.
I’d love to hear your thoughts on all of this.
I appreciate the Springfield News-Leader’s coverage of yesterday’s Straight for Equality event at Drury University. If you’d like more information about how to get involved in Straight for Equality’s work in the Springfield area, please let me know…
Phil Snider, senior minister at Brentwood Christian Church, is not a typical Springfield pastor.
Not only does he believe homosexuality is not a sin, he is also active in the community as an ally of people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender.
At an event hosted Saturday by Straight for Equality, a national group focused on straight people who support LGBT issues, about 35 people gathered to hear Snider present “Why I Am a Straight Ally.”
A few weeks ago, I received a letter that changed my life forever. It read:
Dear Krista Dalton,
On behalf of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences of Columbia University, I am delighted to offer you admission as a candidate for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy in the Department of Religion, beginning in the Fall 2013 semester. I am also pleased to inform you that you have been named a Dean's Fellow, the highest honor conferred upon entering graduate students in the Department of Religion, in recognition of your impressive credentials as well as the promise that your department identifies in your future development as a scholar, pedagogue, and researcher.
I’m usually annoyed when a person reviews my book even if they haven’t read it (I recently received the dreaded three-star Amazon review for Toward a Hopeful Future that consisted of the frustrating albeit kind sentence “I have not had the opportunity to read the book, but I imagine it will be one that I enjoy and learn from as I am interested in the emergent church”), but, as is generally the case with all things Franz Bibfeldt, the normal rules don’t apply. Hence the reason Franz’s review of a book he had not read — Preaching After God — is still my favorite of all the reviews:
Over the years, I have seen too many reviewers lambast books they have never read. To offset this trend, I intend to heap my praise upon, “Preaching After God: Derrida, Caputo, and the Language of Postmodern Homiletics,” written by my dear friend, Phil Snider. I may not have
read the book, but that won’t stop me from recommending it to all my
At its existential pre-essence, this book falls within the tradition of Franz Bibfeldt. Instead of giving in to the all-too-modern pressure of advancing an either/or theology, Snider has split the proverbial theological curtain in two, reuniting God-talk and real-talk, the
sacred and the secular, the analytic and the continental. He accomplishes this by providing a hermeneutics of appreciation to Derrida, who provides a hermeneutics of suspicion to everyone else. Rather than demonize all of Paul Tillich’s ‘little demons’, Snider
transforms them into his hermeneutical daemons. In the process, he blesses Athens for the sake of Jerusalem.
While many – or, at least, James K.A. Smith – are left to wonder, “Who’s afraid of post-modernism?” Phil Snider is left asking, “Who isn’t afraid of post-modernism?” Well said, Phil Snider. Well said. If you are a Mainline preacher who isn’t preaching post-modern, you
should be very afraid, because that unassuming UCC church down the
road will start preaching hermeneutical circles around you when they get their hands on this book. Even Tony Jones won’t be able to save your mainline
church from becoming another Kierkegaardian cliche. “Without risk,
faith is an impossibility.” Take the risk and read “Preaching After
How does one preach “epiphany” in an “epiphany-like” way? And how does a preacher keep epiphany alive throughout the year in one’s preaching?
Epiphany, in one translation, means “manifestation.” It is the manifestation or “showing forth” of God’s glory and divinity in Jesus Christ. The word also translates as a sudden insight into the essential meaning of something, usually initiated by some ordinary occurrence or experience.