Archives for: August 2008

Naming God

Our Russia team was not allowed to mention the word "God" on their recent trip to orphanages there, but was allowed to say things like, "the Creator of the world said such and such." This forced them to rediscover some of the titles God has had throughout history.

What is the Biblical precedent for labeling the persona of God?

In an excellent essay, Michael Gilleland demonstrates that it was considered rude for a disciple (of, for example, Jesus) to utter the name of their superior, whether to his face or when absent, but elevating when the Teacher mentioned the name of the underling. I don't feel the need to defend Saint Benedict, as the author apparently does, but the analysis of asymmetric forms of address between superiors and underlings in hierarchic societies is top-notch.

Is it a dishonor yet today to call Christ by the name "Jesus" instead of Lord, Teacher, Master? Postmodern Western society would certainly say it isn't. I know lots of Christians who prefer to value Jesus' pronouncement that we are his friends over those more asymmetric roles, but even that passage says we're his friends (φίλοι) if we do what he commands us. So there's still some inequality involved.

Look, your parents were authoritarian and saw clear boundaries between acceptable behavior for peer interaction and acceptable behavior for interaction with superiors and underlings. So in your rebellion you've spent your whole life fighting that, and now teach your kids those lessons at every opportunity. The funny part is that you're overloading them to the point that they will reject your lassez-faire approach to religion, and will respond by fighting for more austere forms of religion. So don't be surprised when your kids mention the name of Jesus less and less. You may interpret their preference of "Lord" over "Jesus" as a slide into Docetism or form criticism, but if you rarely use the word "Lord", you may simply be at the opposite extreme, for " one can say, "Jesus is Lord," except by the Holy Spirit" I Cor 12:3b. Even the demons know his name; maybe their use of his name as an address was an insult.

How far should we allow our culture to dictate our relationship with Christ? Should we carry our American appetite for iconoclasm over to the very person of God and make him our best buddy? I'd prefer to say "no" but I'm a tiny grape in front of the steamroller of progress. What I can do is choose myself to address and discuss the Christ with respect.

Permalink 08/31/08 03:47:29 pm, by fumanchu Email , 479 words, Categories: Misc , Leave a comment »

Oral Tradition

"Please turn in your Bibles to..."

Heard that one before? Oh, every sermon ever? Yeah.

I don't want to knock the good people who have donated so much time and money to buying Bibles for their local church pews, but is it really a good idea to have your entire congregation reading the Sunday passage off a page? Maybe I'm just lazy, but in case you didn't notice, someone always reads it aloud anyway. And here I am using my own oculomotor nerves like a sucker.

Stop reading along in your Bibles in church. Listen instead of reading.

Text spoken by another is more understandable than text which is read to oneself. I proved this when I ran my spontaneous Shakespeare company; there were plenty of occasions when a spontaneous actor would read lines aloud from a script and not understand those words themselves, yet the audience understood them quite well (and that was Shakespearian English!). Studies of aphasic injury to Wernicke's area show us that subvocalization is critical to understanding what we read with our eyes, but there's something about actually hearing audible words that makes that comprehension more resonant.

When hearing speech, our other senses (especially the kinesthetic) produce an associated emotional response that aids in comprehension. Reading, which requires us to minimize movement and the distractions of our other senses, can't do that. Reading printed text can also lead to "passive" reading, where the visual cortex processes symbols but the auditory/semantic processing is quiescent. Surely you've done this many times, especially with the Bible and especially with well-known verses--you read a passage and are completely unable to explain or even remember what you read just moments before.

Closing your Bible and listening will do several things:

  1. Increase your understanding.
  2. Express solidarity with the billions (trillions?) of Christians throughout history who never got to read the Bible.
  3. You'll understand better the actions and reactions of Biblical characters, most of whom rarely read, if at all. Jesus' audience for the Sermon on the Mount had no recording equipment other than their own ears. You might also start to believe that oral traditions can actually be better transmitters of semantics than written ones, which tend to transmit syntax more accurately.
  4. You can use it as an opportunity to improve your phonographic memory. But keep in mind that memorization can actually reduce comprehension--recollection from memorized text can actually skip some of the semantic-processing portions of the brain.

Ignorance is strength, and that ignorance is maintained through shared hatred, triumph, and self-abasement, so maybe I'm crazy for asking you to experience more emotional impact during a sermon. Definitely read the passages again in the pew or at home until you've supported whatever febrile spirit-led conclusion your pastor threw out this time. But take the opportunity every Sunday to focus your attention on the spoken word when it's read for you.

Permalink 08/24/08 11:17:19 pm, by fumanchu Email , 485 words, Categories: Misc , Leave a comment »

Mr. J. Christ

"Jesus Christ" has two connotations in English, both of them bad. Either:

  1. It's a common curse, or
  2. It sounds like "Christ" is Jesus' surname.

Both of them get worse when you add the middle initial "H". ;)

So please stop saying it. I recommend using one of the following instead:

  1. Christ Jesus
  2. Jesus the Christ
  3. Jesus the Messiah

Odd how so many old hymns prefer #1 to "Jesus Christ".

Permalink 08/17/08 08:00:05 pm, by fumanchu Email , 67 words, Categories: Misc , Leave a comment »

I'd like to by avowal

Previously, I wondered if speech was a critical component in our talkingtogod. I posed the question, "what if God can't hear you unless you pray out loud?"

That question was facetiously rhetorical. But now we get to the question of vows. Here's Deut 23:21-23:

When you make a vow to the LORD your God, you shall not delay to pay it, for it would be sin in you, and the LORD your God will surely require it of you. However, if you refrain from vowing, it would not be sin in you. You shall be careful to perform what goes out from your lips, just as you have voluntarily vowed to the LORD your God, what you have promised.

Ah so. Note particularly the mention of lips. Actual heard vocalization is the issue here, folks. If you think it, who cares; if you speak it, it's binding.

There's even a whole category of offerings for this--if you've ever read the phrase "votive offering" in your Bible and never bothered to look it up, it means a sacrifice given in fulfillment of a vow. For example, here's Judges 11:30-31:

Jephthah made a vow to the LORD and said, "If You will indeed give the sons of Ammon into my hand, then it shall be that whatever comes out of the doors of my house to meet me when I return in peace from the sons of Ammon, it shall be the LORD'S, and I will offer it up as a burnt offering."

Too bad that "first thing" was his only daughter. But he kept his vow. Is that at odds with your concept of what God approves of? Could he really prefer vow-keeping over a human life? I like what Alan Friedman (pdf) has to say on this point: "A person who invokes a neder (vow) or a sh’vuah (oath) places upon himself, upon others, or upon objects a status equal to a commandment from the Torah... "Giving one’s word," then, is not so much a point of honor as it is a sacred and binding obligation... breaking a pledge — that is, desecrating one’s word — is not just a personal failure; it is a chillul ha-Shem, a profanation of God’s holy Name." In our Society of Fairness we easily forget that punishment "was always...the sovereign's personal vendetta. The excess of punishment had to respond to the excess of the crime and triumph over it" (Abnormal, pp 82-3, but the subject is covered in much more detail in Discipline and Punish).

The power of speech is so strong that Jesus contradicts the words of the Father:

Again, you have heard that the ancients were told, 'YOU SHALL NOT MAKE FALSE VOWS, BUT SHALL FULFILL YOUR VOWS TO THE LORD.' But I say to you, make no oath at all... But let your statement be, 'Yes, yes' or 'No, no'; anything beyond these is of evil.

"The ancients were told" by God himself. I shouldn't have said "contradict" because you all think God never changes and I'm going to be stoned. But too late now. At any rate, Jesus still apparently allows people to speak aloud. I've heard many exegetes claim that he meant your 'yes' and 'no' should be as strong as oaths anyway, so the oaths are superfluous. I don't think that's right, given the Deuteronomy context; rather, he seems to be saying (along with a whole lot of other Rabbis) that speech at the obligation/binding-level of vows is to be avoided completely.

Aside: I have to laugh at Barnes' conflation of oaths with profanity. It really is quite comical and... quaint. I think it's pretty obvious that Jesus is deprecating true oaths as well as false ones. Matthew Henry missed it badly, too, and thinks Jesus means "oath" as calling God as a witness to the truth, instead of "oath" as a promised human act of sacrifice.

So, bottom line: don't ever make promises to God out loud, but if you ever do by mistake, you damn well better keep your promise. If you make promises to him in your head, fine--that's just neurons firing away in blissful irresponsibility. Don't sweat it.

Permalink 08/08/08 10:38:34 pm, by fumanchu Email , 810 words, Categories: Misc , Leave a comment »

Equipping Technology, part 2: Network Effects

In Part 1, I gave some analytical structure to understanding Equipping Ministries (EqMin) in terms of its technology; that is, the convergence of techniques of knowledge and of power. The second half of Part 1 talked about one of the knowledge-related techniques, specifically, "spiritual gifts assessments". In this post, I want to talk about the power side of the equation. Specifically, when the skills of all church members are explored, studied, classified, elevated, and exploited, we can expect a corresponding set of changes in the power relations within the church.


Many, many, modern Western churches employ either a monarchical (senior pastor) or oligarchical (elders) power arrangement at the top, and a hierarchy below, although it may be quite flat. I submit that to whatever extent a church embraces EqMin techniques, it will see a corresponding challenge to that power structure. Proponents and adopters often explicitly declare that an EqMin approach will "free the staff (pastors)" from their crushing workload--it should be no surprise in a voluntary organization that distributing the "work" will result in distributing the responsibility and the ability to control.

For millenia, the Christian church has existed in tree structures, with laity at the base, local leaders above them, up to a pinnacle of leadership for each local church; then associations of churches as sees, presbyteries, etc., culminating in a pinnacle of leadership such as a Pope, president, or assembly. Christ is usually the stated Head. That history is rife with reformations and splits whereby a large tree is decomposed into multiple, smaller trees. There have even been groups for which any human authority above the level of local church was abandoned--a very small tree indeed; however, even these groups tend to keep a monarchical/oligarchical tree of power within themselves.

Equipping Ministry efforts push against those tree structures in several ways. Note that these pressures stem directly from the techniques of knowledge and power which Equipping Ministries employ. They are not afterthoughts or conflations, and, although they can be noted and mitigated, they cannot be eradicated without abandoning the techniques themselves and therefore the program as a whole.

  • Tree structures tend to produce a well-defined split between those who make decisions and those who do the work. In contrast, a common phrase heard in EqMin circles is "everyone is a leader". The laity are specifically trained not only to perform works of service, but to be leaders and trainers of further leaders. Increasing the number of leaders of itself changes the relations of power.
  • Hierarchical controls stem from ascribed authority much more than attained authority (often increasing in this trend as they grow older). "The system we have is good because God made it." The line of authority is assumed to descend from God himself. EqMin focuses much more on ascribed skills ("gifts"), on the one hand, and on developing those skills through training on the other. Note there is no intermediary between the lay member and the initial gift. The power relations are changed from a line (often several layers deep) of authorized middlemen to a directly-empowered layman. The role of church leadership changes from corralling shepherd to inspirational guide.
  • Modern churches tend to exert their power only in negative cases: the eradication of sin in the life of the layperson (or, sometimes, the eradication of the layperson from the group). In this way, the tree structure maintains itself and is inwardly-focused. EqMin programs focus much more on exercising leadership power in positive ways: to expand the boundary of the church through evangelism and works of service. They trade an emphasis on one's hidden relationship with an invisible God for one on visible relationships with other people and measurable manifestations of functional skill.


If I had to guess what sort of structures EqMin implementations tend to produce (verifying this against current practice would be another good Master's thesis), I would say that they are moving from a tree structure to a network structure, that is, away from hierarchy (with its emphasis on roles and power imbalances) and toward unordered collections of persons and mostly-power-neutral interpersonal relations. Take, for example, the set of product categories available from EMI: Outreach series, Core Relationship series, Advanced Relationship series, Leadership series, and Teacher Training. Each of these is an interpersonal sphere of activity. Even the category which could imply an imbalance of power is diluted: "The leadership series will give your team members practical, hands-on training to assess the strengths and weaknesses of your church or organization, encourage ownership in your team, identify individual team member’s gifting, and navigate through conflicts." (emphasis mine)

What kind of effects does a network structure produce?

One effect might be that Time is derogated. Previously, Time implied growth, wisdom, and status, and church functions supported that--for example, the senior pastor is allotted the most time talking to the most people (every Sunday morning) because he has spent the most time studying and has the highest ascribed status. In a church-as-network, that role could diminish or disappear entirely. Another example: I was told not too many years ago that I should become a deacon because it was "a stepping-stone to elder someday." Tree structures promote the concept of "climbing the ladder". Network-oriented power structures minimize all of that--Time is largely ignored since God has directly given the instruments of organizational operation (gifts) to each person. No node in the network graph is given more authority than any other node, only different functions. If time is taken into account, the number of "ladders" multiplies from 1 to many--you might see Senior Elders, Junior Elders, and Elder Interns, for example.

Another effect might be greater cultural variance and fluidity. Each church is a small network interfacing with the world on one side and with other church-networks on the other. Together, all of the local church-networks aggregate in a Grand Church Network. But this network is not ordered; that is, there is no disparity of power between or within any given set of Christians. At the same time, this allows (demands?) each local church to vary, since no other church-network has authority over it. Churches-as-networks are able to fully conform to their host environment (culture), without any pressure from "higher-ups" to conform to cultural norms of other places or times. Each church is no longer trying to be a perfect copy of the heavenly kingdom; instead, they try to implement the kingdom in a contextual manner.

One final thought: a network emphasizes function and especially the interfaces between nodes. As more time is spent studying and exercising external aspects of the Christian life, it seems inevitable that less time will be spent improving personal integrity, loyalty, and obedience. It's also entirely possible that those who can (and desire to) maintain the greatest number of interpersonal links will be ascribed the highest status.

I hope no-one is reading judgments into these analyses which I'm not placing there. I honestly don't have a horse in this race yet, and don't much care whether or how fast a church might change its power structures. What I would hope is that, as you and I become better informed about the possibilities (and the strange attractors of the ministerial landscape), we encounter less shock and therefore less conflict when change arrives. It will arrive, you can be sure of that--perhaps not as I've guessed here.

Permalink 08/05/08 10:52:05 pm, by fumanchu Email , 1252 words, Categories: Misc , 1 comment »

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