Category Archives: Theology

Book Review: The Promise of Despair by Andrew Root

Quite the title, isn’t it? Yes, The Promise of Despair: The Way of the Cross as the Way of the Church by Andrew Root has quite the suggestive title, but that is part of the point. This is a book about death, in both a literal and symbolic sense. Death is not limited to people physically dying, but is also present when we lose a job, are debilitated by illness, or a slave to addiction. Death lurks all around us. Root contends that the church usually tries to avoid death, but that a true church can only be found in the midst of death, by facing it and owning up to it because we worship a God who also can be found in death, facing it, and not turning and looking the other way: “Christian faith is a faith that has as its central event the cross, the reality of death” (xxvii).

In a way, this book is a kind of practical theodicy. It does not so much answer the question Why is there evil, pain and suffering in the world? as much as it tries to answer What does the church do about evil, pain and suffering in the world? For Root the source of pain and suffering is the “monster” of death, and he carries this personification of death as a monster throughout the whole book.

The book is divided into two parts. The first sets the groundwork regarding our current cultural situation, an environment where we must deal with things like the death of meaning, authority, and identity. Although postmodernism seems like a topic that is starting to become overhyped, Root gives one of the most succinct and philosophically robust accounts of the current postmodern landscape. The first part of the book functions well as a primer on postmodernism. Friedrich Nietzsche, Jean Baudrillard, and Anthony Giddens are some of the philosophers who weigh heavily in these discussion.

On of the best chapters in the book, especially for youth ministry, is the final chapter in Part One that deals with the death of identity. In this chapter Root explains how identity used to be formed by work and love: what one did for a living and one’s family. Today, he says, identity is defined by consumption and intimacy. It is no longer what we do or produce that form us, but what we have and consume. Root defines intimacy as “feelings of closeness” (60) as opposed to love, which is a commitment. In youth ministry, where we are dealing with adolescents constructing their own identities, this chapter has much for us to ponder.

Part Two outlines the reasons why the church must face the reality of death and enter into it as a central practice. He draws from Luther’s theology of the cross, arguing that the God of the Bible is encountered in Jesus Christ on the cross: “The church is the community that seeks to live from the new order–not from life to death, but from death to life” (88). When the church faces death, the church faces reality. The church must be with people in death because we are a people who hope in a future when death will be no more; we are a people moving from death to life. This hope that the church can offer to those in the midst of death is not to be confused with optimism:

The problem with an optimistic church is that it spends all its energy on creating optimistic artificial light, seeking to pull people who know so well the darkness into faux light. An optimistic church seeks to cover the darkness. But the church of the cross seeks to make its life in what is, in darkness, hoping for the day when darkness is no longer covered but is overcome completely by the dawn of God’s future. (147)

It should be noted that Root is not speaking about death in the popular sense of “dying to self.” Instead, he is speaking more about passages like Galatians 6:2: “Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.” In fact, he uses the word sacramental to suggest that God is particularly present in a special way, conveying his grace, when we encounter someone else in their despair. If this is the case, then the church should not shy away from ministering to those facing the monster of death in their lives.

Though this book is a weighty book simply because of the subject matter, it is a fairly concise and accessible book (160 pages or so). And while I think that Root might be a bit repetitive at times, this is such a unique book that there is no where else to go for a treatment of this subject. For Christians and church leaders trying to lead lives and churches where we deal with people’s lives in reality (and not in an idealized state), this book is a must-read.

For another review, see Jake Bouma’s review of the book in the American Theological Inquiry .

Disclaimer: This book was provided as a review copy free of charge from the publisher.

The Best Podcast: Homebrewed Christianity

If you are a theology nerd, like me, there is no better podcast out there right now than Homebrewed Christianity. It’s awesome for all the right reasons:

  • Killer Guests. Each week they interview a guest, usually someone who has recently released a book (but not always). Their past guests have included: Andrew Root, N.T. Wright (yes, I said that correctly), Richard Rohr, Harvey Cox, Philip Clayton, Walter Brueggemann, Terence Fretheim, John Cobb, John Dominic Crossan, John Caputo, and many more. And even the people you haven’t heard of that they dig up are usually spectacular.
  • Quality interviews. The interviews are usually above-average quality, asking insightful and interesting questions that don’t just allow the authors to rehash their books all over again.
  • It’s done by two average guys with a Skype account. This is one of the coolest things, in my opinion. Tripp Fuller is a youth minister and PhD student, and Chad Crawford works for a nonprofit organization. And yet they get these great scholars and theologians to do these interviews with them. It is a sign of the times–the little guys are outdoing the big organizations and corporations.
  • They realize they are two average guys with a Skype account and don’t take themselves too seriously. I love listening to the introductions of every episode because of the banter between Tripp and Chad. You get the feeling they would be cool to hang out with.

They are pretty big proponents of process theology and have a disproportionate number of process theologians on their show, but I think that’s okay. I’ve learned a lot about process theology by listening to their show that I haven’t heard elsewhere. Even if you don’t agree with it, you can learn about it.

So, if you don’t already listen to the show, I think you should. They have 81 episodes thus far, so there is plenty of material to get you started. Go listen to a few and I think you’ll be hooked.

Sophisticated Youth Ministry and a Theology of Mission Trips

A youth minister, a theologian, and a tech guru log onto Twitter…

So began a theological debate last week about mission trips carried on in 140 character increments amongst Andy Root, Adam McLane, and myself. It all started when Andy posted this little snippet of theological provocation:

the point of mission trips is to invite kids to witness in their feeble acts to the promise of God’s action to make all things new.

Adam’s response was:

Maybe in an idealistic world. But in the practical world of YM, there are many different reasons/justifications for missions.

And my contribution to the topic was:

I don’t think it’s idealistic. Our mission trip theme last year was (God’s coming) “shalom” and we talked about exactly that.

The way I read it, we were approaching mission trips from three different perspectives:

  • A theologian
  • A person who interacts with tons of different churches, youth ministers and youth groups
  • A person who primarily works and ministers within a specific local context

Adam wasn’t necessarily disagree with either Andy or myself, but saying that, for the most part, “most youth groups don’t think theologically about much.” He also said that “Most youth groups aren’t as sophisticated as yours. There are a lot of youth groups on trips.” That Adam used the word “sophisticated” to describe our youth ministry was quite surprising. I would expect that if anyone ever came to observe or research the way we do youth ministry at our church they would be significantly underwhelmed. To me our youth ministry isn’t sophisticated, at all. In fact, it’s pretty simple. No bells, no whistles, no lights, no fog machines, no in-house videos. That stuff sounds sophisticated to me. I don’t have the time or creative energy to mess with that stuff.

I do try to ground everything that we do theologically, but to me that isn’t sophisticated. Theology can’t be sophisticated because it permeates everything we do, whether we acknowledge it or not. So, whether a youth minister is a seminary grad who reads obscure theology journals on weekends or is a volunteer who has only been theologically trained through Sunday school classes the net result of our ministry is the same: theology–what we believe about God–is communicated through our practice. But we need to help people interpret our practice since we are “hermeneutical animals.

That’s where theology comes in. Rather than going on a mission trip to “help people,” we are witnessing to the hope that the Christian community confesses in a God who will one way restore all things unto himself and make all things new and whole. Any group can go and help people. There’s nothing distinctly Christian in helping people; it’s just pragmatic. But a pragmatic approach falls short: people will be hungry again tomorrow, houses will continue to deteriorate and need further repair, another hurricane will come and do damage again. Practically speaking, mission trips make no sense because they are lessons in futility. The work is never finished, there is often more to do, and many times the people don’t deserve our help. However, the point is not to practically help, but it witness to our hope in God. So, even though drug addicts are laying in a bed of their own making, we still feed them because we too are unworthy of the grace given to us in Jesus Christ. And even though that house will need to be repainted again in another 20 years, we paint the house because we are witnessing to the day when God will make all things new and there will be no more pain, nor more decay, no more deterioration.

It’s really not that sophisticated. Christians believe in heaven and Christians believe in forgiveness by grace alone through faith, so I interpreted the practice of mission trips through those lenses. That’s all it means to do youth ministry with some sort of theological foundation. All we have to do is to interpret our practice through simple lenses like that in order to help our communities understand the point of why we do what we do. Left to themselves, they will interpret practice through the lens of cultural norms. Our job as leaders in the church must be to take those actions and reclaim them for the purpose of forming people in faith.

I think that Adam was right in saying that some people don’t think very theologically about youth ministry because it is too sophisticated. But why?

Is it really that sophisticated? Where have we gone wrong in our churches to make people think that they are incapable of thinking theologically (when in reality is is impossible to avoid)? Can theology be reclaimed by laypeople in churches? Can volunteers lead theologically robust mission experiences? How can we help them do that?

The Weakness of Eucharistic Theology

Greed, in other words, prohibits faith. But the inverse is also true. For it is in the Christian celebration of the Eucharist that we have the prismatic act that makes possible our recognition that God has given us everything we need.

The Eucharist not only is the proclamation of abundance, but it is the enactment of abundance. In the Eucharist we discover that we cannot use Christ up. In the Eucharist we discover that the more the body and blood of Christ is shared, the more there is to be shared.

The Eucharist, therefore, is the way the Christian Church learns to understand why generosity rather than greed can and must shape our economic relations.

So ends this article by Stanley Hauerwas on greed and the economic crisis. This isn’t really a critique of Hauerwas’ article, but on the apparent weakness of Eucharistic theology in general. Assuming you come from a faith tradition where the Lord’s Supper is understood as a sacrament, whereby something actually happens, rather than an ordinance, which is more along the lines of a memorial act of symbolism, why is it that the Eucharist appears to be so powerless?

I have seen multiple articles, whole books even, which advocate for a Eucharistic theology as an answer to various problems in the world. I’ve even preached a sermon or taught a lesson or two with such emphases. There is supposed theological power in the Eucharist. Hauerwas says that it is through the Eucharist that we are taught about generosity, not through sermons or Bible studies. Can taking communion every Sunday make us more generous people?

It doesn’t appear so. Plenty of other examples of the apparent failure of Eucharistic theology to form Christians could be cited as well.

So, my questions are:

  • Are these theologians off their rocker? Are they making communion into something it isn’t?
  • If not, why isn’t there more power in the Eucharist? Or is it there and we just aren’t noticing it?
  • Or are we missing the interpretive element in our teaching and sermons? Do we need to exegete our practices more for our congregations?

What do you think? Can the Eucharist be a bedrock for mining theological insights for Christian formation?

Theology & Youth Ministry Project: Want to help?

Over the past four years of youth ministry I have stayed away from most published curriculum. In most cases, I have tended to take books that I think are provocative, theologically sound and worthwhile and use them to structure my lessons. So, when I taught on Colossians I used Colossians Remixed: Subverting the Empire by Brian Walsh and Sylvia Keesmaat, or when I taught on the Psalms I used A Long Obedience in the Same Direction: Discipleship in an Instant Society by Eugene Peterson. I use the books for their scriptural and theological insights and add in the necessary illustrations, object lessons, discussion questions, and activities to try and make a decent lesson out of it all.

I was thinking: Wouldn’t it be great to have a fairly comprehensive list of topics and corresponding books that could be used as a foundational text for teaching? That way, if your group was going to examine Revelation or spiritual disciplines or evangelism there was a list you could go to in order to find a quality book on the subject.

For this to happen, we would need to do it in two phases: first of all, a comprehensive list of topics, which would include different books or sections of the Bible, needs to be compiled. If you have a scope and sequence type chart that you use for planning your ministry over the long term, would you consider sharing it with me? A few of these put together and we could get a pretty exhaustive list of topics.

Then I would need help figuring out which books are the best for being foundational texts for the various topics. I would think a few parameters would apply:

  • You need to have actually read the book. If you have actually used it as a foundational teaching text, even better.
  • It needs to be understood by a typical layperson. If you have an adult volunteer teaching or helping create curriculum, they should be able to read it without an M.Div.
  • It needs to be short enough to make it possible for someone to actually read it and use it for teaching. If you are planning a study on the resurrection, it is likely that reading N.T. Wright’s The Resurrection of the Son of God (700 pages) is a bit ambitious. For example, when I was teaching on the Psalms, Eugene Peterson’s book covered one Psalm in each chapter that was around 10-15 pages long. Each week I read a chapter and crafted my lesson. It was a manageable amount of reading, taking no longer than 30 minutes at a leisurely pace.
  • It needs to be a good book. One that made you think and one that will make those you are teaching think. Now, I know that with different theological persuasions the definition of a good book is fluid, but I think we could make it work. Heck, maybe we could have categories of books for the different theological streams.

What do you think? Would a list like this be helpful? Would you see yourself using it? Or do you think it’s too much work? Or is it not on the right level for teaching teens?

Let me know. If there is enough interest, then maybe I’ll take on this project (probably in some wiki-style form).

Rooted: A Theology Conference for Student Ministry

It seems like there have been a bunch of new youth ministry conferences popping up recently, and I wanted to alert you to another one you may not have heard about: Rooted. Anything that bills itself as a “theology conference for student ministry” is worth looking into a bit deeper. I think we have needed some really theologically grounded get-togethers for a while now. Perhaps Rooted will fill part of that void.

Here’s how the conference is described on its website:

Many conferences focus on the “how to” of student ministry; Rooted focuses on the substance: the message of the crucified Christ. What we do is driven by what we believe, or, in other words, our theology informs our methodology. Formulas work in chemistry, but when it comes to the many variables of life, formulas have a hard time keeping up. That’s why ministry done in one place does not always work in another. So, while many conferences focus on how to do different aspects of ministry, this conference follows one singular train of thought: the Gospel.

Be advised, there are no “big name” theologians presenting at this conference. The speakers appear to have solid credentials, but I am simply unfamiliar with all of them, so I can’t make any judgment one way or another (if anyone has any experience with any of the speakers, leave a comment below). But I think that’s okay. We need to hear from new people. We’ve all ready books by Root and Brueggemann and Hauerwas. We kind of know what they are going to say when they get up to speak. As long as the speakers are quality thinkers with fair insight into youth ministry, then I’m okay with that. There are lots of great thinkers out there that no one has ever heard of. Don’t let that deter you from going. If nothing else, you will be going with a bunch of youth ministry and theology geeks. How cool will that be?

Unfortunately, I don’t think I will be able to attend. I really would like to, because the conference sounds interesting, but all of my spare money for continuing education (not to mention quite a bit out of my pocket) is being spent on finishing my M.A. If you end up going, please report back what you think. I’m sure it will be a quality event.

Are there other conferences like this flying under the radar that more people should know about?

The Resurrection, Eschatology, and Youth Ministry

How do we deal with the resurrection of Jesus within our youth ministries? Of course, we talk about Jesus’ resurrection quite a bit (hopefully). But what does that mean? Do we get to experience resurrection now? Do we get to experience resurrection only in the future? Or do we somehow get glimpses and tastes of resurrection throughout our life? In chapter six of his book Relationships Unfiltered Andrew Root reminds us that we cannot speak of resurrection without also keeping in mind that it is an eschatological event–it is something that we look forward to in the future, something that we hope for.

If you’d like to hear some further thoughts on this topic, I will be on Andrew Root’s liveBlog today at 3:30 PM CST. It’s a quick fifteen minute show that you can listen to it live, or you can listen to an archive of the show later on the show site or through iTunes.

Rewriting the Lord's Prayer?

I came across this the other day and wanted to see what kind of response it got. I’ll save my comments for later. For now, how about this rendition of the Lord’s Prayer:

Our Mother who is within us
we celebrate your many names.
Your wisdom come.
Your will be done,
unfolding from the depths within us.
Each day you give us all that we need.
You remind us of our limits
and we let go.
You support us in our power
and we act with courage.
For you are the dwelling place within us
the empowerment around us
and the celebration among us
now and for ever. Amen.
What do you think?

Book Review: Relationships Unfiltered by Andrew Root

Relationships Unfiltered: Help for Youth Workers, Volunteers, and Parents on Creating Authentic Relationships by Andrew Root is a condensed and popularized version of his groundbreaking first book Revisiting Relational Youth Ministry: From a Strategy of Influence to a Theology of Incarnation (read my review here). Just a look at the subtitles reveals the shift in emphasis in this second book. While Revisiting Relational Youth Ministry billed itself as a way for youth workers to develop a theology of incarnation, Relationships Unfiltered is touted as a practical book that will provide help for volunteers and parents to develop relationships with teenagers. For those who were fans of the first book, you may be worried that this second book is full of fluff and doesn’t have as much theological prowess as that original work.

You will likely be surprised. Although the book is obviously shorter than Revisiting Relational Youth Ministry (148 pages versus 221 pages, and the new book even has larger font ), the new book is still primarily a theological examination of relational youth ministry. Root has used more popular language and used a more casual tone, but the basic thesis and argument of this new book is identical to the first (which is why I am not really addressing the thesis of the book in this review; read my review of Revisiting Relational Youth Ministry for a summary of his thesis in both books). Just as his first book forged a new genre in the niche of youth ministry literature by deeply probing a single theological topic, this book may be the first popular level youth ministry book that seeks to ground its argument in theology. Most youth ministry books for laypeople do not contain as much theology as this one.

In my mind, this is the book that every small group leader and mentor needs to read. I have said before, and this book confirms it, that although youth ministry is not easy, it is not complicated, either. In fact, it is fairly simple. It has to do with loving Jesus and loving teenagers. What Root does in this book is tell us what it looks like to love teenagers: focus on the who instead of the how. Root says that the first questions for youth leaders is not How do we get kids to church? or How can we influence kids to be better Christians, but the first questions should always begin with who: Who is this teenager in my small group? Who are the marginalized in our community? Who is Jesus Christ in the lives of these students? Root says that How? questions do not properly attend to the humanity of the individual and instead focus on method. Root argues persuasively against this by grounding his approach in the theology of the incarnation.

For small churches with only a handful (or even less!) of teenagers, this book is good news! If Root is right, that means that the small church of 50 people with 2-3 teenagers is equipped to do youth ministry just as well as a larger church with full-time staff and buckets of volunteers. Success is not grounded in results, but in the relationships that can be built between loving adults and the teenagers in their midst. Surely any and all churches are able to pay attention to and value whatever teens are among them.

All that being said, this book is quite difficult for me to review. As someone who read, and enjoyed, Revisiting Relational Youth Ministry, it is hard for me to project how this book will be received by its intended audience, especially volunteers and parents. Some may find it impractical and still very dense theologically for their taste. Root repeatedly talks about the “mystery” of “the other” and “sharing in another’s humanity” all over the place and without a whole lot of explanation, especially early in the book. My fear is that people unfamiliar with such language will see it as superfluous or confusing, while in actuality is really drives his whole thesis. Perhaps more explanation of terminology like this earlier in the book would help the layperson unexposed to such language.

The real test for me will be how my volunteers respond to this book. When that happens, I will likely report back. Until then, I think this book is worth the risk. Buy it for your volunteers, parents, and mentors. Even if the book is a bit confusing, it will push them to think theologically about their method of doing youth ministry and likely challenge conventional wisdom. There are even discussion questions at the end of each chapter to guide groups as they reconsider their approach to ministry. Any time you get people talking theology, that is a good thing. And if this book does anything well, it is talking theology.

I would welcome your comments if you have read this book or if you have given it to volunteers or parents. What feedback have you received? If you have reviewed the book on your blog, feel free to post a link in the comments section.

Health Care and a Theology of Death

Perhaps it is healthier to be prepared for death and die younger than it is to be afraid of death and constantly try to delay the inevitable.

I’ve been trying to keep up with the health care debate since it is a pretty big issue, and there’s been one tactic that has me a bit worried. It seems that both sides are obsessed with extending a person’s lifespan:

  • Democrats, including President Obama, cite the average lifespan of Americans compared to other nations, saying that we need to make changes in order to live longer.
  • Republicans are using the term “death panels” to describe end-of-life counseling, with the assumption that any sort of end-of-life counseling that leads someone to decide to decline any sort of care and die at a younger age would be a bad thing.

We desperately need a theology of death. So, please take this theologically, not politically.

Health care should be about more than extending life; it needs as its goal to increase the quality of life. “My Old Lady” is one of my favorite episodes of the TV show Scrubs because it deals so well with the topic of death, especially with the “old lady” character. I’ve put Part 2 of that episode below, because it deals with the most pertinent part of the show (you can also view Part 1 and Part 3).

Money quote from this episode (occurs at 1:21 in the above clip):

J.D. (Doctor): “So, that’s basically it. Your kidneys aren’t responding to the medication anymore. I’m afraid we’re gonna have to start you on dialysis.”

Mrs. Tanner: “Oh, I’m not a big fan of dialysis.”

J.D.: “Yeah, unfortunately we don’t really have a choice.”

Mrs. Tanner: “Well, actually, I do have a choice.”

J.D looks confused.

J.D.’s In-head Narration: Certain things you never expect to come out of a person’s mouth.

Mrs. Tanner: “I think I’m ready to die.”

Now, I’m not advocating that people should die just to save money on health care costs. But I am saying that people’s lives should not always be extended at all costs. Yes, the individual person is the one who ultimately needs to be making that decision, but we as a culture do need to help people be prepared for death. Perhaps it is healthier to be prepared for death and die younger than it is to be afraid of death and constantly try to delay the inevitable.

Both sides need to own up to the fact that death is a part of life. Neither side needs to be scaring people by using death to persuade others that their form of health care will keep people alive longer.

The church should be in the death business because we worship a God who is in the resurrection business.

What if part of the health care debate is getting people ready to die? Yet again, we see a point where churches can step in and offer our culture the proper perspective rather than turning over our responsibility to one political party or another. The church should be in the death business because we worship a God who is in the resurrection business. May we help our country develop a proper theology of death and reorient the health care debate.

[For further thoughts, go here to listen to Stanley Hauerwas on medicine, death, and the Christian community. Also, if you were looking for a practical solution, sorry, I don't have one. Instead, go see Adam McLane's idea for fixing health care.]