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 »

Equipping Technology, part 1: Gift Boxes

I finished a good deal more of Foucault's lectures to the Collège de France, published in English under the title Abnormal. In lecture 8, he discusses the similarities between witchcraft and possession; namely, that (reports of) witchcraft increased during the Inquisitions (1478-1600's) because their courts provoked a reaction wherein marginal persons made legal pacts with Satan; and that (reports of) possession increased during the invention and spread of the confessional (1516?-1700's) because its techniques, which rooted evil in one's own body/flesh ("titillations" and such), provoked a reaction wherein primarily Christians, and even high-ranking ones, found evil presences within themselves which were not entirely under their control. He summarizes and continues:

When the Church was confronted with these phenomena that both followed the trajectory of its new techniques of power and were, at the same time, the moment or point at which these techniques came up against their limits and point of reversal, it sought to control them. It sought to liquidate these conflicts arising from the very technique it used to exercise power.

That is, both the courts of the Inquisition, and the confessional, were techniques, or "technologies", where a given set of knowledge and power came together. Those very techniques provoked reactions which challenged them at their own limits of applicability--reactions which the Church then attempted to ameliorate. In the case of possession, the Church was forced to abandon most of the study and therapy of possession to the burgeoning field of psychiatry.

Anyway, you can read all those fascinating lectures on your own for more details. The questions I want to address are:

  1. What are the techniques/technologies (that is, the convergence of knowledge and power domains) which the Protestant, and especially Evangelical church employs today? What does the Church study? What information does it collect? How does it use that information to control its own well-being as an organism?
  2. How are those techniques resisted?
  3. How does the Church combat that resistance?

I don't propose to answer those questions in full here. That's the work of several PhD theses. One might study the persuasive lecture format of modern preaching, or the various membership/commitment requirements required before being able to administer sacraments. Gender, race, class, wealth, and age issues could fall under this, too.

What I am going to study is the new wave of "Equipping Ministries" from this perspective. An EqMin implementer has said:

EM is not just another church program. It is leading to a different way of being the church.

This should raise eyebrows, since it implies that the existing forms of knowledge and power will be replaced. If EqMin were a smaller change, it would still be subject to those larger, existing controls--this change explicitly states it will not be subject to them because it will replace them.

Let's jump right in:

What does EqMin study? What information does it collect?

Varying implementations of EqMin say slightly different things on this point. One claims to analyze "our spiritual gifts, our personality, our passion and call", another purports to "grow in the exercise of Christian living and in developing their spiritual gifts". Another: "Our training infuses your people with passion: the will and the skill necessary for building authentic Christ-centered relationships." Another: "...explore your Spiritual gifts, Heart, Abilites, Personality, and Experience. In a follow up one-on-one meeting with a SHAPE coach, we'll help you see how these fit with ministry opportunities..."

Even a brief survey reveals "spiritual gifts" as a major taxonomic domain, with "personality assessments" a reasonable second. EqMin is larger than just spiritual gifts; however, most proponents of EqMin teach techniques of gift analysis. Even the one example above which did not mention "spiritual gifts" in its excerpt (EMI) includes a "Finding Your Gift Path" course which promises to "Identify your gift mix/spiritual DNA." For the moment, I'm going to set aside the discussion about personality assessments (such as Meyers-Briggs/Kiersey/MMPI/DiSC/FIRO-B etc.) and focus on "spiritual gifts" tests/assessments/questionnaires/"discovery tools" etc.

The recent flood of "Spiritual Gifts" assessments, in our terminology, works by standardizing a taxonomy of gifts. For example, one such test may use the category set (Preacher | Teacher | Prophet | Apostle | ...), while another uses (Healing | Faith | Teaching | Giving | ...). Photo of mail sorterI'm using the vertical bar character quite deliberately, here, because such taxonomies are often used as "columns" in a grand conceptual table, even if never written down that way. In many ways, the activity is analogous to a mail sorter: mark off boundaries between groups of people and pigeonhole them into the right groups.

How does EqMin use that information to control its own well-being as an organism?

Unlike Foucault's analyses, we do not yet have the benefit of several centuries' hindsight. However, we can identify several potential answers, and, since my church is currently involved in developing such a ministry, I'll be subjective here and list them as "dangers":

  1. EqMin could use the selected gifts taxonomy to pigeonhole people into classifications at odds with their personal desires and self-image. I remember my father, an experienced, well-studied, adept teacher and also very skilled at interpersonal relations, taking a gifts test in the early 1990's. The category which the assessment boxed him into? He was informed he should donate time to the church as an electrician, since he had had that vocation for 30 years. He was less than thrilled with that result.
  2. Several flavors of EqMin employ a large-grain separation between "equipping gifts" (those mentioned in Eph 4:11) and "normal gifts". This has the potential to be abused as a new caste system.
  3. Perhaps even more dangerous is the potential for any EqMin taxonomy to separate people into "gifted" and "ungifted" classes. Not that any one of them would explicitly add "ungifted" as a category to their taxonomies, but there will be people who fall outside of the chosen categories, either in quality (no such gift) or intensity (no "dominant" gift). Given a classification based on utility, it's not too much of a stretch to imagine a society bounded by the utile as the "workers" and the remaining inutile as the "work".

How will those techniques be resisted?

If the witchcraft and possession of the 15th and 16th centuries are any guide, resistance to EqMin techniques will include a form which takes EqMin's own techniques and exceeds their limits of analysis and control. We don't like to believe in Satan anymore, so perhaps this will manifest itself as systemic challenges to the equipped, networked church. Maybe a Strange Loop will arise in which the equipper and equipped are inverted in a destructive, but unavoidable fashion. Perhaps an emergent property of the equipped church will itself be a challenge which is not tractable via spiritual gifts. Too early to tell for me. Maybe someone out there has already seen it, however.

How will the Church combat that resistance?

In the example of possession which Foucault gave, the Church responded to the resistance in two ways: first, by attempting to revert to the techniques which worked in a previous regime; in that case, it was to put on trial for witchcraft the very man who worked hardest to correct the possession. I can easily see a postmodern church reverting to modern techniques of spiritual authority to correct any challenges it finds in an equipped ministry.

Second, possession was eventually given over as a field of study and therapy to the developing industry of psychiatry. In fact, psychiatry used possession to increase its own status and insert itself even further into the judicial and medical systems of its day. The equipping movement faces similar dangers; if a sufficient challenge arises, the Church may find itself giving over control of that challenge to secular management consultants, leadership gurus, and life coaches; EqMin already borrows much of its terminology and technology from those industries.

Whew. I have a lot more to say, but I'll save it for later. This post is too long already.

Permalink 08/04/08 09:47:27 pm, by fumanchu Email , 1387 words, Categories: Misc , Leave a comment »

Asynchronous communion

I got derailed yesterday talking about prayer that is not prayer, and forgot to say what I really wanted to.

Poe has a song, "Hello" which says:

"Not even GOD takes this long to get back...so get back."

This is not a bad thing. At work, we use IRC (Internet Relay Chat, for you luddites). A lot. About as much as you young-un's "text", which uses SMS. There's one great thing about IRC and SMS--they're not face-to-face, which means that the usual rules about stimulus/response don't apply.

It's not uncommon for newbies to IRC to join a channel, attempt to start a conversation, get no immediate answer, then leave in a huff. It's also not uncommon for the other people in the channel at that point to quip, "thanks for your patience" or more cruel variations on that theme. SMS is somewhat like this--some people will send "a text" and then, if there's no reply message within 60 seconds, will get impatient, dial the number and let it ring.

But that's not the way it's supposed to work--the delay is a good thing. You'll notice this the first time you try to help someone with an issue that takes serious thought, actual design. Have you ever been confronted with a problem face to face, and your mind just goes blank because the person is right there in front of you? You hem and haw and say, "just gimme a minute to think" and then feel more guilty with each passing second you don't have a good answer. Then you think of the right answer 2 minutes after they leave. Design doesn't survive society.

On IRC, you don't have to do that. Why? Because if someone asks a question in an IRC channel, not everyone has to respond. You only respond if you a) are interested, b) have time, c) think you can help, and d) are actually reading the message. One of the things you have to get used to on IRC is that, even if you're talking with a single person, even if you type their name and expect their computer to play a little "TA DAAAA" sound, they might be in the back yard. They might be in the can. They might be in Cancun. You don't know. SMS is similar, because the target of your message might also be in Cancun or the can. Or maybe their phone died. Or their beloved pet. You don't know. In these media, it's rude to be too pushy, to expect a timely response to your stimulus.

Prayer is like IRC. God may not get back to you. He's probably not in the can (although if I were he, I'd be in Cancun). But maybe, just maybe, your situation takes some serious thought. God is the ultimate designer, and that takes time. I know, I know, you think God just is--he doesn't think, he doesn't learn, doesn't plan, doesn't change his plans, a dreamless, hopeless, amorphous blob of spirit. He certainly learns from his mistakes--we've still got rainbows that testify to that. Maybe we see fewer big-bang miracles these days because he just got better at working with less. Maybe the miracles were necessary because, lacking experience, he didn't have time to think of anything better. Maybe now his design relies more on Christians as a fundamental operational component than he himself saying, "poof! what do you need? poof! what do you need? poof! what do you need?"

But maybe it's not an issue of time. Maybe he's just not interested. Maybe he doesn't think he can help. A common sequence on IRC:

[19:04] *** now talking in #heaven
[19:04] *** topic is covenant 2.0 final is out. Download now.
[19:04] peety: Hello
[19:04] peety: does anyone know how to build rockets?
[19:07] Lifehacker: peety, don't ask to ask, just ask.
[19:07] peety: ok
[19:08] peety: I built a rocket but it doesn't work
[19:08] peety: it goes "poof" but doesn't move very far
[19:29] peety: ok, nm, I forgot the aluminum
[19:29] peety: my bad
[19:30] *** peety quit

Maybe you're asking God to fix something you should be fixing yourself. Maybe prayer is just as helpful when it formalizes your gooey parallel thought process into a serial message. It forces you to simplify and see the forest instead of the trees. If so, may I recommend praying out loud? Heck, I'll go one better. Lots of communication is better with pictures. So try a prayer-diagram.

Some things are best done face to face. Someday we'll have that again. It's OK to groan for that. But until then, get used to asynchronous communion.

Permalink 07/26/08 12:44:06 pm, by fumanchu Email , 797 words, Categories: Misc , Leave a comment »

What if God has ears?

I hate prayer. Like most things I hate, it's because the reality is so far from my ideal. In my ideal world, the word "prayer" wouldn't exist; it'd be replaced by the word "talkingtogod".

"Palal" is the first word translated to "pray". Funny how it doesn't appear until Genesis 20, around 1900 BC (and may have been authored a few centuries later). If we say the expulsion from Eden was around 4000 BC, that's a long time with no "prayer". It's not used much even after that--2 or 3 passages per OT book until we get to Samuel and Kings. Also funny how it means "intercede" in every context--someone is interceding between 2 other parties. 1 Sam 2 says, "If one man sins against another, God will pray for him..." Could it be that talkingtogod isn't always prayer?

There's another word sometimes translated as "pray": "naw". But it's certainly not exclusive to talkingtogod. It's often translated "please" or "now".

In Genesis 3 we read: "Then the LORD God called to the man, and said to him, 'Where are you?'" God spoke to Adam, and Adam answered. With his mouth. Not just in Eden, either. Cain says, with his mouth, "am I my brother's keeper?" Then it seems nobody but God speaks until Noah, whose only words are "cursed be Canaan" and "blessed be the LORD". Melchizedek blesses God, and Abram replies, "I have sworn to the LORD God Most High, that I will not take a thread [from you]".

And then Abram talks to God. Often. Not "goes in his closet and prays" or "in his heart". Out loud. And God answers. Seeing a pattern? So the question of the day is, what if God can't hear you unless you pray out loud? It's not that far-fetched. God created sounds waves--maybe he uses them. Oh, I forgot--you all think God is a blind and deaf watchmaker. Does your spirit use your body to interact with creation? Maybe God's does too.

That is an amazingly tempting concept. It would, in a single blow:

  1. Let you immediately know who's a practicing Christian or Jew and who's not. No more lukewarm.
  2. Get rid of all those professional godtalkers. No more, "Reverend Poobah, would you please say a prayer for us?" Totally unnecessary, since the Rev. Poobah would just start talkingtogod when he felt like it. At most, you'd say, "hey, rev, can you intercede for us? we're too scared." So at least you'd know that too.
  3. Abolish the whole "public speaking" stigma from prayer. Most people don't pray openly in church because they're afraid of speaking in public. Carnegie is useful, but if every Christian had to open their mouth every time they wanted to talktogod, maybe the practice would eliminate the mystery and fear.
  4. Focus prayer. There's something about actually moving muscles that makes things real. There's definitely something about a tangible sense of the Other--how many times have you held a conversation in your head that was nothing like the real thing? In your head, you get to wander all over the ideation landscape without any attenuation. With your mouth, you actually have to put your ideas into communicable representations.

Now here's an interesting passage: 1 Samuel 1:

1:12 Now it came about, as she continued praying before
     the LORD, that Eli was watching her mouth.
1:13 As for Hannah, she was speaking in her heart, only
     her lips were moving, but her voice was not heard.
     So Eli thought she was drunk.

It's the first Biblical reference I can see with silent talkingtogod. This is a hilarious passage in so many ways. I'm tempted to interpret that as, "this practice was so uncommon, Eli misinterpreted it." We don't have nearly enough documentation to make that claim, but it's tempting anyway.

Reality check: would Jesus' disciples have had to ask him how to pray if he prayed out loud? And if he didn't, why not?

Permalink 07/25/08 12:01:40 pm, by fumanchu Email , 667 words, Categories: Misc , Leave a comment »

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