Monday, April 27, 2015

Harmon reviews Kinnamon in Christian Century

 

The May 13, 2015 issue of the Christian Century (vol. 132, no. 10) includes my review of Michael Kinnamon's book Can a Renewal Movement Be Renewed? Questions for the Future of Ecumenism (Eerdmans, 2014). The review appears on p. 39 of the print edition; an electronic version of the review is currently available on the Christian Century web site. Here's an excerpt from the beginning of the review:

Lament over the current “ecumenical winter” and analysis of the factors that have contributed to it have become commonplace in recent ecumenical literature. As he considers the future of ecumenism in Can a Renewal Movement Be Renewed? Michael Kinnamon gives four reasons for why the ecumenical movement stands in need of renewal: “loss of commitment among church leaders to the goal of Christian unity,” “divisions and other signs of weakness within the ecumenically supportive churches,” “an increasing split between two sets of ecumenical priorities,” and “diminishment of key instruments of the ecumenical movement, including councils of churches”....(read the full review at Christian Century)

Forthcoming/recent books on Baptist studies from Baylor University Press

Over the past few months, Baylor University Press has released several notable books on themes in Baptist studies. Now another is scheduled for a September 2015 release: Evangelical Christian Baptists of Georgia: The History and Transformation of a Free Church Tradition by Malkhaz Songulashvili, whose leadership of the Evangelical Baptist Church of Georgia has been noted in previous Ecclesial Theology posts.

This will follow some significant titles in Baptist studies published by BUP in the second half of 2014:

Baptists and the Community of Saints: A Theology of Covenanted Disciples by Paul S. Fiddes, Brian Haymes, and Richard Kidd

Decoding Roger Williams: The Lost Essay of Rhode Island's Founding Father by Linford Fisher, J. Stanley Lemons, and Lucas Mason-Brown

Contesting Catholicity: Theology for Other Baptists by Curtis W. Freeman

The Collected Works of James Wm. McClendon, Jr., edited by Ryan Andrew Newson and Andrew C. Wright, Volume 1 and Volume 2

Earlier in 2012, BUP re-issued the Systematic Theology of James Wm. McClendon, Jr. (originally published by Abingdon Press) with a new introduction by Curtis W. Freeman: Ethics: Systematic Theology, Volume 1; Doctrine: Systematic Theology, Volume 2; and Witness: Systematic Theology, Volume 3.

I'm looking forward to passing along information about another forthcoming BUP release in Baptist studies here at Ecclesial Theology in the near future. Stay tuned!


Sunday, April 19, 2015

The Spirituality of the Johannine Jesus: Christ's Body as Embodied Fellowship

This past weekend I lead a breakout session on "The Spirituality of the Johannine Jesus: Christ's Body as Embodied Fellowship" for the annual General Assembly of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship of South Carolina, held at First Baptist Church in York, South Carolina April 17-18. (The theme for this year's CBF of SC General Assembly was "A Place at the Table.) I've had several inquiries about my presentation from people who were unable to attend, so I've made the handout for the session available online (click on hyperlinked breakout session title).

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Savoring the 'sacrament of the present moment,' with a little help from The Decemberists

The Decemberists perform "The Mariner's Revenge Song"
at The Fillmore in Charlotte, NC, April 9, 2015 (photo by Steve Harmon)
Baptist News Global has published my post "Savoring 'the sacrament of the present moment,' with a little help from The Decemberists" on its Perspectives opinion site. An excerpt from the beginning of the post follows:

Christian thinking about the world we live in and God’s goals for it wrestles with a tension. What God envisions for the world is already being made manifest in the Easter reality of Jesus’ resurrection from the dead and in the body of his church that strives to incarnate this reality in the world. But this reality does not yet fully embrace this world, as even a glance at it confirms.

In the art form of popular music, the Irish rock band U2 renders this tension well. By faith we believe that through Christ what ought to be is already here. But it’s plain to see that the world around us is not yet that, so we still haven’t found what we’re looking for.

That’s not any easy tension to maintain. An over-emphasis on the “already” of the Christian life—what theologians call an “overly-realized eschatology”—can blind us to its “not-yetness,” the unfinished nature of God’s work with us, with the church, with the world. But an over-emphasis on the present “not-yetness” of the world can blind us to the things that ought to be that are already all around us—what 18th-century French Jesuit spiritual writer Jean Pierre de Caussade called “the sacrament of the present moment.”

Also in the art form of popular music, a song from the new album by Portland, Oregon folk-rock band The Decemberists renders well what it means to savor the sacrament of the present moment in the midst of all the things in the world that ought not to be....(read the full post at Baptist News Global Perspectives)

Saturday, April 4, 2015

More musings on Holy Saturday

A previous Ecclesial Theology post committed to writing some musings on a Holy Saturday in 2013. Here are some more.

With Christ on Holy Saturday we enter God's rest in the boundary between the work of creative suffering and the new creation it brings about. Christian theology has not fully explored the connections between Holy Saturday in Holy Week and Sabbath in the Jewish week that are latent in Christian liturgy. The week of creative work, the travail of creative suffering, culminates in Good Friday. On the Sabbath, Christ enters the rest that is death; the Christian tradition has developed the connection between rest and death liturgically in the office of Compline ("The Lord Almighty grant us a peaceful night and a perfect end," or in an older version, "The Lord Almighty grant us a peaceful night and a perfect death"). The resurrection on the first day of the week is then the new creation, but first is the rest of death from the work of creative suffering that brings about the new creation of resurrected life. Today is the day of suspended in-betweenness. With Christ, it can be experienced as entrance into God's own rest. And just as both the cross of Good Friday and the resurrection of Easter Sunday function as ongoing paradigms of the Christian life, so may the rest of Holy Saturday.

Friday, March 27, 2015

Sanctified Seeing (Baptist News Global)


Baptist News Global has included a link to the text of my Gardner-Webb University School of Divinity chapel homily "Sanctified Seeing" (posted originally here at Ecclesial Theology) as curated content for its "Perspectives" page. The homily is based on the Daily Office Lectionary readings for Tuesday in the Fifth Week of Lent (Jeremiah 25:8017, Romans 10:1-13, John 9) and draws illustratively on the life of Archbishop Oscar Romero, whose martyrdom on March 24, 1980 was commemorated Tuesday.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Sanctified Seeing (Jer 25:8-17, Rom 10:1-13, John 9)

[The following is the text of a homily I preached earlier this afternoon in a School of Divinity chapel service at Gardner-Webb University in Boiling Springs, North Carolina]


John 9 is all about seeing and the inability to see. That’s a Captain Obvious kind of observation, but the author of the Fourth Gospel makes sure we don’t miss the point. The text hits us upside the head with it. In those 41 verses there are 38 references to sight and the lack thereof—10 to the eyes, and an evenly matched 14 mentions of blindness and 14 uses of language for seeing and sight. Our Gospel lesson is saturated with blindness and seeing not just because it’s the story of Jesus’ healing of a man born blind. As you no doubt already know well from Dr. McConnell’s classes, whenever the Gospels tell a story about Jesus performing a miracle, it’s not just a story about Jesus performing a miracle. Jesus is teaching us something through what he does, and the Gospel writers try to help us learn what Jesus wants to teach us. John 9 is the story of how Jesus gives sight to a particular blind man, but it’s also the story of how Jesus makes us able to see. For apart from Jesus’ gift of sanctified seeing, we’re just as blind as the Pharisees who said, “we see”—which, by the way, is our clue in the text that we’re not doing unwarranted allegorizing to read this as a text about us. If we read it this way, we’re grasping something central to the whole Gospel of John: we learn from John’s prologue that this Gospel is all about seeing the glory of the one who is the light of all people, the true light which enlightens everyone. Jesus enlightened the man born blind; have we been so enlightened? Do we see with sanctified sight?

Kheresa and I recently got to witness the wonder of opthalmological intervention when we took our eight-year-old son Timothy to be fitted with his first pair of eyeglasses. As soon as he put them on, Timothy started offering excited commentary on what he could now see with clarity: the “Exit” sign at the eye clinic; road signs and billboards; food labels at the grocery store. And I share this with Kheresa’s permission: “Wow, Mom! I can really see your wrinkles now!” (He would have noticed mine if he’d looked at me right then.)

What do we see when Jesus helps us see? We see what Jesus sees; we see who Jesus sees. Jesus is always noticing those whom others ignore. In connection with verse 1 of our text, one of my favorite theological commentators on Scripture, Frederick Dale Bruner, observes: “One gets the distinct impression from the Gospels that it is people most hurting in any setting whom Jesus most quickly notices.” In this setting Jesus sees a blind beggar, just as in other settings he sees Gentiles and women and children and the poor and the hungry and the sick, and all sorts of outcasts. Jesus sees the marginalized and the oppressed, and Jesus seeks their liberation. Someone else who saw the marginalized and the oppressed and sought their liberation was Oscar Romero, Archbishop of San Salvador, whose martyrdom thirty-five years ago today the church commemorates. We commemorate the saints because we need the lived Christian lives of people like Archbishop Romero to help us learn how to live out the biblical story. When we read Jesus urging us, “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful,” mercy isn’t merely an abstract virtue for us. We have an inkling how we might perform the biblical virtue of mercy because we’ve seen it embodied concretely by the saints, some of whom have shown mercy directly to us. And so when we read about Jesus seeing the blind beggar and other marginalized and oppressed persons and seeking their liberation, we can imagine what it might look like to do that because others in the church have done it before us. Oscar Romero helps us envision the sanctified seeing Jesus helps us have.

Romero didn’t always see the marginalized and oppressed as the particular focus of Jesus’ seeing. In the early 1970s Romero was an auxiliary bishop, and one of his duties was editing the diocesan newspaper. He was deeply suspicious of the liberation theology that motivated the social justice activism of Jesuit priests in El Salvador. He used his newspaper editorials to denounce what he saw then as the dangerously subversive activities of politicized priests. When Romero became bishop of the rural diocese of Santiago de Maria, he was still blind. He was blind to the Salvadoran government’s violent repression. He was blind to the government’s support of the interests of the few rich—the “1 percent”—and its oppression of the poor majority in El Salvador. At that point Romero publicly supported the policies of the government and denied its complicity in the torture and “disappearing” and murder of its citizens. But his eyes soon began to be opened. On June 21, 1975, National Guardsmen shot and hacked to death six men who lived in a small village in Romero’s diocese. They were lay catechists in the church, working to evangelize and disciple their fellow campesinos, the “peasant farmers.” In the wake of this atrocity Romero started to see, but his eyes weren’t yet fully open. Like the blind man at Bethsaida Jesus heals in Mark 8, Jesus has to work on Romero some more. It happens in stages, not all at once. On July 30 of that year, the military opened fire on protestors against the regime’s occupation of their university. Forty unarmed students were killed. Romero began bit by bit to confront more and more directly what he’d previously defended. At the same time, he began to study seriously the documents issued by the Conference of Latin American Bishops at Medellin in 1968. He studied the social teaching of the Second Vatican Council that undergirded the teaching of the bishops at Medellin. He read Pope Paul VI’s encyclical On Evangelization in the Modern World. He discovered that the bishops of the Catholic Church, and even the pope himself, affirmed the very social teachings Romero had earlier opposed as subversive. (This is, by the way, a good argument for the importance of continuing theological education beyond seminary!) Rightly understood, orthodox incarnational theology is actually pretty subversive stuff—subversive of the powers that be in the present order of things.

When Romero became archbishop of San Salvador in February 1977, the aristocracy and government and the “religious right” of El Salvador saw him as the “conservative” candidate for the office, the one who would maintain the status quo ecclesially and politically. They couldn’t have been more wrong. Jesus had already been opening Romero’s eyes to see how things really were. Only three weeks after his installation as Archbishop, Romero’s friend Father Rutilio Grande was murdered by the military along with a 72-year-old man and a 16-year-old boy. Romero’s boldly prophetic response shocked the powers that be. It led to the military taking a stance against the progressive elements of the Church, Romero among them, that was nothing less than a policy of persecution. In the midst of it Romero’s homilies and other public communications made clear his new guiding convictions: God is on the side of the oppressed poor; the mission of the church is to join God on the side of the oppressed poor; Christ is incarnate in the suffering poor; Christ is being crucified in the persecution of the church of the suffering poor. Romero’s sight was now sanctified—Jesus had helped him see what Jesus sees and who Jesus sees.

When Jesus helps us see, he helps us see the new reality wrought by our baptism. The community for which John’s Gospel was written had already been practicing baptism for a good half-century by the time they read and heard this story from the Fourth Gospel. They likely would’ve connected the blind man’s washing in the pool of Siloam with baptism; they likely would’ve connected the name Siloam itself, which means “sent,” with the commission given in baptism to every follower of Christ, God’s “sent one.” The early church in its first few centuries customarily called baptism an “enlightenment.” Baptism immerses us into Christ and into the community of his body, and like the man who came up out of the pool of Siloam, we come up out of the waters of baptism seeing. We’re helped to see a new reality that negates the false realities propped up by the powers that be. We see the true reality in which “there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male or female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:28). Oscar Romero saw that new reality. He put it into practice by ending the custom of performing private baptisms for the children of the European-descended aristocracy, by which they segregated themselves from the families of the indigenous population. The 1989 film Romero starring Raul Julia dramatized the resulting conflict in one of its scenes. A woman from an aristocratic, government-connected family comes to Archbishop Romero and tells him, “It’s time to baptize my baby.” “It would be my privilege,” says Romero. “I would like to pick a date,” the woman says. Romero replies, “There are baptisms every Sunday, the choice is yours.” “I think the first Sunday in December would be fine,” she says. “That’s a good week,” says Romero, “not so crowded.” The woman stiffens and says, “I would like a private baptism.” Romero knows what’s coming and says apologetically, “We have so many to baptize now…we don’t have private ones anymore.” “Will you…you will make an exception, Monsignor?” “I am sorry,” he says. The woman snarls: “You expect me to baptize my baby with a bunch of Indians? You have deserted us!” She leaves, still very much blind.

When Jesus helps us see, he helps us see God’s salvation in a much more all-encompassing way. Influenced by American evangelicalism, when we hear today’s Epistle lesson we tend to associate certain things with the language of “being saved” that runs throughout the passage from Romans. But when Jesus helps us see, he helps us see that salvation is about so much more than “praying to receive Christ” and going to heaven at life’s end. Paul meant much more by that language. The man who came up out of the pool of Siloam seeing was embarking on a life that involved so much more than that, though we don’t know the rest of his story. Oscar Romero came to see that salvation meant so much more than his own ecclesiastical traditioning had inclined him to see. Jesus helped him see that the salvation of the soul for eternal life in heaven isn’t really salvation if it doesn’t also have to do with the embodied, the social, the political, the transformation of the present order of things into the reign of God. If we don’t see that as having to do with salvation, we’ve got some blind spots we need Jesus to work on.

When Jesus helps us see, he helps us see things we wish we didn’t see about the present order of things. By the second time the Pharisees interrogate the man who’d been blind, he’s beginning to see that they don’t really know what they claim to know and don’t really see what they say they see. He gives voice to that insight, and he finds himself expelled from the synagogue. In our Old Testament lesson, Jeremiah sees things he wishes he didn’t see about the empires of the world—about the fate of Judah and the fate of Babylon. In a lecture on “Prophecy and Art” at our sister school Logsdon Seminary at Hardin-Simmons University in Abilene, Texas, Hebrew Bible scholar Ellen Davis showed an image of a woodcut titled “The Prophet” by German expressionist artist Emil Nolde. She called attention to it to illustrate what she called “the prophetic discipline of bearing pain,” echoing what Abraham Heschel called “the pain of insight.” Nolde’s woodcut is a portrait of Jeremiah, depressed Jeremiah, with eyes sunken but wide-open in an expression of sheer terror at what he sees. It helps us imagine Jeremiah’s experience of what Davis called elsewhere in her lecture “the hell of the prophetic imagination.” Oscar Romero too took on “the prophetic discipline of bearing pain”; he too experienced “the pain of insight,” “the hell of the prophetic imagination.” He saw what the Salvadoran government was really doing to the Salvadoran people. He saw the complicity of the United States with the repression through providing financial and military assistance to the regime, which in the midst of the Cold War we blindly supported as a supposed deterrent to the spread of communism. He saw the systemic evil that blinded people to what was really happening. He saw the church’s failure to take a stand on the side of those God favored. Like Jeremiah, like the man Jesus helped to see not only physically but spiritually, so Oscar Romero bore the pain of prophetic insight—and so may we, when Jesus helps us see what he sees about the present order of things.

And thus when Jesus helps us see, he helps us see that being his disciple means carrying his cross. The formerly blind man in our text experiences a foreshadowing of Good Friday when he’s expelled from the synagogue. Following from Good Friday, the church’s martyrs like Oscar Romero and Rutilio Grande and the other Salvadoran martyrs have seen that being a disciple means taking up one’s own cross, suffering and even dying for the sake of others like Jesus did for us. Romero especially began to see that he should take up his cross in his preaching. As Archbishop his weekly Sunday homilies were broadcast by radio throughout El Salvador. He prepared to preach literally on his knees, praying before an open lectionary and open newspapers from the previous week. He would mention the names of the most recent victims of the government’s repression in each homiliy—Romero said, “to incarnate in the people the Word of God.” In one sermon he declared, “Above all I denounce the absolutization of wealth. This is the great evil of El Salvador: wealth—private property as an untouchable absolute.” His homily on March 23, 1980 included this section:

I should like to make a special appeal to the men of the army….Brothers! We are the same people! You are slaying your campesino brothers and sisters! When a human being orders you to kill, the law of God must prevail: “You shall not kill!” No soldier is obliged to obey an order in violation of the law of God….It is time you recovered your conscience, and obeyed your conscience instead of orders to commit sin. The Church is the defender of God’s rights, God’s law, human dignity, and the worth of persons. It cannot remain silent before such an abomination. We ask the government to consider seriously the fact that reforms are of no use when they are steeped in all this blood. In the name of God, then, and in the name of this suffering people, those whose screams and cries mount to heaven and daily grow louder, I beg you, I entreat you, I order you in the name of God: Stop the repression!”

The next day, Romero preached again, at a Monday evening Mass at a small hospital chapel. He finished his sermon and walked to the altar to celebrate the Eucharist. There he was fatally shot by an assassin from a death squad whose leaders were trained at the “School of the Americas” at Fort Benning, Georgia.

It wasn’t easy for Romero in particular to take up his cross in that way. Did you know that Oscar Romero suffered from Obsessive-Compulsive Personality Disorder? I wasn’t aware of that until last month, when I spoke at Creighton University. There I had a conversation with a member of the theology faculty who mentioned a colleague’s research on Romero’s struggle with OCPD and what that meant for his spiritual development. Now OCPD isn’t precisely the same thing as Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, OCD. There are others here who are paid to be able to explain the differences to you better than I can. As I understand it, a person with Obsessive-Compulsive Personality Disorder would among other things find it extremely difficult to take risks, especially to risk doing something that others might perceive as unconventional or wrong or—God forbid—a mistake. For Romero to risk what he did to challenge the status quo took an extraordinary leap of faith, of trusting in the rightness of what Jesus helped him see in the midst of so many others’ blindness. But that’s not so different from what most of us have to do to follow through on what Jesus helps us see. As Damian Zynda wrote in her book about Romero’s struggles with OCPD, “What Romero struggled with was not unlike the personality struggles [other] people live with….‘Romero was only a garden-variety neurotic, like most of us.’” Like the ordinary and earthy means Jesus used to give sight to the blind man—a little dirt, a little spit, and some water—Romero’s mundane struggles with the challenges and limitations of his personality became a means by which he experienced the presence and power of God and came gradually to see what Jesus helped him see. Jesus wants to do that with us. Will we let him?

Let us pray: “Almighty God, you called your servant Oscar Romero to be a voice for the voiceless poor, and to give his life as a seed of freedom and a sign of hope: Grant that, inspired by his sacrifice and the example of the martyrs of El Salvador, we may without fear or favor witness to your Word who abides, your Word who is Life, even Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom, with you and the Holy Spirit, be praise and glory now and for ever. Amen.”

Thursday, March 12, 2015

"A Free Church Magisterium?"--Ph.D. Colloquium Lecture

This evening I'm delivering a lecture titled "A Free Church Magisterium?" for the Ph.D. Colloquium Series at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, North Carolina, with responses from Curtis Freeman (Duke University Divinity School) and Nathan Finn (Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary). This lecture will offer a preview of some material that will appear as the seventh chapter (of ten) of my forthcoming book The Baptist Vision and the Ecumenical Future: Radically Biblical, Radically Catholic, Relentlessly Pilgrim, slated for publication by Baylor University Press in early 2016.

Friday, March 6, 2015

GWU's Dr. Steve Harmon Serves as Keynote Speaker at Vatican II Symposium (press release)

Gardner-Webb University has issued a story about my participation last month in Creighton University's symposium on the legacy of the Vatican II Decree on Ecumenism Unitatis Redintegratio. Read the linked press release:  http://www.gardner-webb.edu/newscenter/?p=9886

Saturday, February 28, 2015

Ecumenism Means You, Too quoted in Christianity Today

The March 2015 issue of Christianity Today includes Wesley Hill's article "Do-It-Yourself Church Unity: Healing the fractured body of Christ isn’t just for theologians to figure out," which includes a quotation from my book Ecumenism Means You, Too: Ordinary Christians and the Quest for Christ Unity (Eugene, Ore.: Cascade Books, 2010). (The online CT article linked here offers a partial preview, sans the portion with the quote, to non-subscribers.) Thanks to Hill for the shout-out and to Tony Tench of First Baptist Church Shelby, NC for calling my attention to it.