What IS This Whole “Public Theology” Thing, Anyway?

Public theology is the intersection of faith and culture. Theology is combined with the public sphere to provide a way forward for believers who find themselves in daily contact with a variety of things which Scripture may address — or about which the Bible and church history may be totally silent. For example, what is the Christian take on caring for the environment? How do we think theologically about immigration? What should a Christian’s relationship with Facebook look like? Video games? Popular music? Dungeons & Dragons? (I’ve seen theological critiques of all these things.)

At the heart of public theology is a fundamental question: should the Christian faith speak into public matters, or should it remain an entirely private enterprise? In other words, should Christianity influence every aspect of a believer’s life or be something only discernible at home or in church? Theologians have argued both ways for a plethora of reasons. Many who espouse the private position cite the separation of church and state in the United States as a prime example of how all public life should be. The nonestablishment clause of the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment means the government cannot take sides in conflict of religions, nor can it support one religion over against another by making it the official religion of the state. In like fashion, say some, a private citizen should keep faith at home and not act in overtly Christian ways when interacting with the public realm. No public prayer, no Christian mores about specific issues, nothing. Moral absolutes (inasmuch as they exist from a secular humanist perspective) are the only permissible expression of ethos; Christian distinctives must be relegated to one’s behavior at home and during worship services. In this fashion, the church is kept free from pollution by the state’s overreaching influence, and the public realm is spared from the power of any religious majority (or minority).

On the flip side of things, other theologians believe there is a clear mandate to think theologically about culture and to act theologically in public matters. Scripture and dogma combine to provide a Christian worldview serving as a lens through which to view all of life. If faith is kept a private enterprise and never sees public application, the position argues, what use is it? Believing Christ’s ministry to be paradigmatic, Christians are called to a life of public behavior in uniquely Christian ways. Faith should influence the political process; the music, art, and literature produced; social justice and human rights; how one goes about one’s work; leisure time; conceptions of family; and everything else inherent in culture.

Beneath this lies H. Richard Niebuhr’s “Christ and Culture” types. In his work Christ and Culture (1951), Niebuhr outlines five ways of considering culture from a Christian perspective: Christ against Culture, Christ of Culture, Christ and Culture in Paradox, Christ above Culture, and Christ Transforming Culture. The Christ against Culture view sees the Savior as opposed to all human cultural achievements, and so the Christian must live in a completely separate, isolated community bounded by the Christian ethos. (Think Amish and Mennonite communities.) In direct contrast to this is the Christ of Culture view, wherein Jesus is established as the highest form of humanity. All human achievements are therefore expressions of faith; culture is “baptized” into something holy regardless of actual content.

The final three types hold Christianity and culture in tension. Christ and Culture in Paradox creates sharp distinctions between the sacred and the secular. Anything secular is against Christ, but the elements of culture promoting Christian beliefs are holy, and the two remain in a dualistic battle until the end of the world. Christ above Culture views the world through a hierarchical lens, with Christian morality at the apex, followed by reason and natural law. Culture has some inherent worth, and Christian institutions can exist in an otherwise secular society, but culture itself will never be fully moral.

Christ Transforming Culture, the final view, was Niebuhr’s own position (and mine as well). Human achievement and cultures are still the kingdom of the world, but God seeks to reconcile all things to Himself. His people then use Christian principles to critique society and work within it to bring it into line with Scripture and Christian ethics.

Public theology (in my view) adopts this transformative perspective. We engage in interactions with culture in order to bring it into alignment with the will of God as revealed in Scripture and theology throughout the history of the Church. As new cultural elements arise (such as social media, military drones, fascism, Reaganomics, etc.), the Church scrutinizes them and holds them to Christian standards. The resulting diagnosis and “treatment plans” become public theology.

The field of public theology (and the field of ethics) will continue to expand as time progresses and new cultural artifacts are created and new positions adopted. At its base must always be the unchanging, immutable Gospel of Jesus Christ. The Christian rooted in a relationship with God and guided by the Holy Spirit will always seek to redeem culture and treat it in Christian ways, and she/he will look forward to the end of the age when God reconciles all things to Himself. Until then, public theology provides a way forward for believers, and the Church will explore the public life’s connections with matters of faith.

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Table Talk

I’ve been thinking quite a bit lately about the common table. When we think about gathering around a table, most of us remember family meals. (If you don’t, then you probably at least have a mental image of the stereotypical idealized 1950s Leave It to Beaver sort of family dinnertime.) Perhaps another dominant association of the table, at least in Christian circles, is the Eucharist (a.ka. the Lord’s Supper, a.ka. Holy Communion). But regardless of specific functions, I think we can all agree the table is a gathering place, somewhere we go to be with other people, people whom we love.

What greater way of expressing community, solidarity, and love is there besides sharing a meal? Think about it. What do families do at holidays? They eat together. Brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, relatives and kin who haven’t seen each other for years sit at the table and eat. And what is probably the single most common date? Dinner (sometimes with a movie to follow). There’s something about food and table that brings people together.

Part of it is simply the opportunity to slow down. Some of us rush meals, seeing them as an annoying necessity to keep us fueled until the next pit stop. We wolf down whatever we can get our hands on wherever we are, including the car, the sidewalk, and our desks. Such hurried, furtive mastications fall far short of being a true meal, regardless of calorie count or nutritional value. A true meal, eaten with other people, doesn’t have such time constraints. The stressors awaiting us after we push in our chairs disappear, if only for a few stolen moments. When we tuck in to the table, we slow down, savoring each moment — and each bite.

When we slow down like that, something amazing happens: we encounter other people. Really. Our focus shifts from the cares of the workaday world to those at the table with us. A common meal means common conversation. We check in with one another, asking questions about work, about relationships, about family, about hopes and dreams and fears and setbacks. People become real at the table, whether it’s a family feast at Thanksgiving or a private luncheon after a funeral. Friends go to lunch to discuss problems — or comic books. Couples are free to ignore the rest of the world and look into each other’s souls, daring just for a few minutes to be intimate and drop all pretenses. And none of this could happen without the table.

Apart from this, a table can also be a means of conveying status. The head of the family sits at the head of the table. A bigger table means bigger coffers, and those seated farthest from the host are all too cognizant of their perceived inferiority. King Arthur’s round table symbolized the equality and fraternity of his knights. Roundtable forums even today are meant to show the same egalitarianism, and they become places where every person and every opinion is considered equally valid.

None of these table-y insights are particularly new. We know from the Bible and other ancient authorities that the table has long been filling all of these roles. This is part of what makes the fact of Jesus eating with sinners and tax collectors so scandalous. To sit with them at table was to mark them as equals. It was to say he loved them, considered them friends and family. To share a table was to tear down social boundaries and false senses of self-worth and self-importance. To eat with the Son of God was to recognize the playing field was level, and everyone had a chance at a relationship with the divine.

The best part? We receive the same invitation as those called by Christ in Scripture.

I’ve already mentioned the Eucharist being a common image of table fellowship in Christianity. I’ll even say it’s the dominant image of the table in Christianity. We even order our corporate in two parts: Service of the Word and Service of the Table. Different denominations — indeed, different congregations — celebrate the Table differently. Some require a formal liturgy led by a clergyperson to consecrate the bread and wine (or Welch’s), and some ask only a simple prayer offered by any believer. Some will allow only the baptized to the Table, and others open the Table to anyone who might come to faith by the grace offered in the Supper. One church might believe the elements to become true flesh and true blood; another might believe Christ is spiritually present in the bread and wine; and still another may say it’s all symbolic and no grace is conferred in the Communion.

Regardless of one’s eucharistic theology, we all share the same fundamental principle: Jesus calls us to the feast. He wants us to unite around the Table to unite around him. When we come to the Table, we recognize we are equals. We reach out to those around us and see, perhaps for the first time or perhaps for the millionth time, we are all friends, family. We see our worth in the eyes of God, and we see His grace and love towards us. And when we leave the table, we leave with a renewed sense of the divine, for surely we have spoken with our God.

It’s possible, I suppose, our own perceptions of the table and all its connotations and associations stem from the Eucharist Table. It’s also possible the reverse is true, and we love the Table because of our love of the table. No matter which way it works, however, we gather together, as the hymn says, to ask the Lord’s blessing at each of our tables. We have conversation, community, love, and grace in a unique way — a way impossible aside from the table.

Maybe that’s why Our Lord came in the form of a carpenter.

Next Up: What is this whole “public theology” thing, anyway?

Public Faith Begins with the Gospel

To get things started here on the blog, I’ve decided to post an old sermon manuscript. Being a Christian in public begins with becoming a Christian; to that end, allow me to present an overview of the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

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Our God is a God of order. It is written that He orders our steps; He has plans for our lives; He can turn chaos into structure, whether that chaos comes in the form of a storm on the sea or it arises from a life that has taken one wrong turn too many. And so when God gave His only son to the world, He did so with purpose. The Word wasn’t made flesh simply to impart the ineffable wisdom of the Almighty to His children; no, the life of Christ was a deliberate act that finds its true purpose in the dual symbols of the cross and the empty tomb.

As Jesus approached the end of his life, he entered the city of Jerusalem one last time. He rode into the city on a donkey – an odd sight, especially for a king. But as we’re reminded, our Lord came in the form of a servant, a slave. This wasn’t an earthly king who came to subdue and dominate people. No, he came to overthrow tyrants and liberate people from bondage. He enters Jerusalem as a humble servant so that he can later set the captive free from service to sin and death.

Even though he had proclaimed this message during his entire adult ministry, Jesus was largely left alone by the religious elite of his day – the scribes, Pharisees, and Sadducees – until he came to Jerusalem this final time. There, discovering the moneychangers in the Temple, he made a whip of cords and drove them out. Instead of letting the Jewish people into the Temple to give their sacrifices to the priests for burnt offerings, the Temple establishment created an elaborate miniature economy. The faithful would come to the Temple, exchange their secular, unclean money for Jewish Temple currency which would let them buy animals for the sacrifice. Jesus took a hard look at this and decided in his heart of hearts that, no, this will not do. And so in righteous anger he turned over tables, flailed the moneychangers, and called them one of the worst names imaginable: thieves. From this point onward, the life of Christ was forfeit. The religious authorities would tolerate no such behavior in their holy Temple. They wouldn’t suffer those they considered to be madmen and demoniacs to upset the applecart and accuse them of a gross lack of piety. And so the conspiracy began.

It was a conspiracy aided on the inside. While Jesus continued teaching in the Temple, in the midst of his “enemies,” one of his own, one of his inner circle, one of the Twelve decided that it was time for things to change. Judas Iscariot, for reasons unknown, went over to “the dark side.” John’s Gospel says that it was because the devil entered into him. Others make no mention of his motives. And some modern readers and commentators paint him in a more positive light. What if Judas, being a good Jew, simply wanted the promised Messiah to be the way the rabbis and other interpreters of Torah said he would be? As I’ve already said, it was odd for a king to ride into town on a donkey. It doesn’t exactly scream “noble steed fit for royalty.” But the donkey fit the life and the style of Jesus. He was an itinerant preacher and teacher. He was a rabbi who chose his followers, not from the educated elite, but from the common workers. He wasn’t a warrior, and the only sword he ever brought to bear was the edge that separated believers from unbelievers.

Judas was expecting none of that. The promised Messiah was to be a king and a warrior like his forefather David. A great strategist and tactician, he would lead a revolt that would finally see the Jewish people back in their homeland free of oppressors and overlords. He would ride into Jerusalem on a white charger and rescue his people. THAT was the man Judas was expecting – and that was the Messiah Judas never got. And so people now speculate if, instead of outright betrayal, Judas was simply trying to force Christ’s hand. If Jesus wouldn’t announce of his own free will that he was the Anointed One of Israel, then Judas would make him confess it out of necessity. In order to do the job of the Messiah, he had to go public: the people had to know who he was and rally around him.

But regardless of his motives, Judas agreed to give his master over to the Temple elite for the sum of thirty pieces of silver. Before that bargain was struck, however, the Twelve gathered for the last time as the Twelve. Their Master, our Lord, celebrated Passover in an upper room in Jerusalem. At the conclusion of a meal eaten after he had washed his disciples’ feet, Jesus took bread, broke it, and blessed it. Giving each person a piece, he said, “This is my body which is broken for you.” After he blessed the last glass of wine, he similarly gave it to them, saying, “This is my blood poured out for the new covenant. As often as you drink it, remember me.”

These were strange words. Why would they have to remember him when he was still with them? What was this new covenant? His body was broken? His blood was poured out? Even though Jesus had earlier rebuked Peter trying to stop him from giving up his life for us, this was still a dark saying. Why would he have to die? Yes, he had earlier said he came to seek and save the lost, but what did that have to do with his dying? Many questions arose at that last supper, and it would be days before they could be answered.

Yet this was his purpose in coming. He came to undergo exactly what was to happen next. This is not to say that he was fully prepared by the Last Supper. No, when he instituted the Eucharist, he still had some praying to do. He took the Eleven – for Judas had left to make his dread bargain – and went into the garden of Gethsemane at the Mount of Olives, and he prayed. He prayed desperately, crying and sweating blood in his fervor. “Lord, let this cup pass from me.” The Bitter Cup of his passion and crucifixion was a hard draught to drink, even for someone who was fully God as well as fully human. And yet the close of this prayer was “Nevertheless, Your will, not mine.”

If Christ could be obedient in knowingly and willfully going to a cruel death, why can’t we be obedient in the little day-to-day things? God may tell us, “Go speak to that person. They need comfort,” or maybe He says, “He doesn’t know me. Tell him the Good News,” or perhaps it’s something like, “Can’t you just trust Me to provide for you?” And our response – instead of a simple “Yes, Lord,” is something along the lines of, “Have you lost Your Divine, Omniscient Mind? I can’t do that. I won’t do that. You can find someone else.” Our momentary comfort seems to be of higher priority than the souls and emotional well-being of God’s other children. And yet Jesus Christ, out of divine love and obedience, endured a torturous passion, as much for them as for us.

After his betrayal by Judas and arrest, Jesus was tossed around to the various authorities of his day. First to the Sanhedrin and chief priests, the ruling religious figures. Next to the political entities, the ones with the real authority to end his life. Through all of this, Jesus never offered a word in his defense – but the few words he did utter were misconstrued as blasphemy. In response to being asked who he was, all he could utter was “I am who I am.” To Western, English-speaking ears, it seems an innocent-enough statement. To the Jews of Palestine, however, this was him declaring himself to be God, YHWH, Elohim – the one whose name is “I AM THAT I AM.”

Blasphemy.

The astounded Jews were incensed, and this is why it was decreed that he must die. Not because he was a criminal or a murderer or had done anything to violate any civil law. His only “crime” was being completely honest – about why he came, about the true path to righteousness, and about who he was.

Honesty can often bring problems all its own. We live in a post-Christendom, postmodern world. I’m not entirely sure how the flip came about from where we once were, but our culture has shifted dramatically. No one is allowed to have views of truth that come only in shades of black and white. Everything is relative, including truth. So instead of being recognized as honesty and truth, messages of any nature – but especially the Gospel – are written off as being absolutist or exclusivist. My truth doesn’t have a grip on or hold sway over anyone but myself. God’s truth, by extension, is relevant and true only for those who choose to believe it. And if you choose not to, then our culture of relativism says that’s OK; there are plenty of other equally valid (and thus equally invalid) truths floating around out there.

It’s easy in that kind of environment to stop standing up for the truth. To let it slip idly by while we preserve our good graces with others instead of showing holy love by speaking truth into their lives. And there is a delicate balance of grace and truth when we speak to others. Truth without grace condemns; grace without truth does nothing. We are called to speak truth in grace; to do anything less is to allow people to continue in their relativistic ways and traverse a very real, very absolute pathway into hell. We must not be afraid to speak truth.

Jesus certainly wasn’t. He – like all martyrs who followed him – spoke truth at the cost of his own life. The truth about who he was sent him from Jewish authorities to the rulers of his world. Pontius Pilate could find no fault in him whatsoever. He washed his hands of the situation and released the prisoner Barabbas for whom the crowd cheered and called. Pilate then delivered Christ over to be crucified.

As with Judas, history has tried to soften Pilate’s character a bit. Honestly, there’s more Scriptural precedent for this, in my opinion, than for making Iscariot into an over-anxious zealot. Pilate seems to have sincerely wanted to release Jesus, seeing no evidence that would condemn him to a tortuous death; and yet, ever the consummate politician, he still gave the people what they wanted – and what they wanted was nothing less than to see Jesus bleeding out upon a Roman execution stake.

They got what they wanted. Our Lord was crowned with thorns, scourged, beaten, spit upon, and mocked as the king he truly was. Finally, when it would seem that he could bear no more, he carried the means of his own death up a hill and was nailed to the cross. Even there his love poured out with his blood. Even as he died, true light shone into the darkness surrounding him. He spoke – perhaps whispering – in a voice wracked with pain and an anguish born of a love too deep for words: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” Those are truly the words of a scandalous love. This man looked down on his executioners through blood-stained eyes and loved them. He begged forgiveness for them, saying they acted out of ignorance instead of true malice or hatred.

A friend recently pointed out to me that these words are good news. The Gospel – the Good News – is that, at the foot of the cross, where we all stand equally as sinners, that’s always the first thing we hear. “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” Whenever we sin, whenever we fall short, whenever a child of darkness chooses to step into marvelous light and approaches the cross of Christ and pleads for mercy, Jesus, now seated at the right hand of the Father, looks upon the errant child and says, “Father, forgive them.” The love of God, mediated to us through the atoning work of Christ, is such that, even if we nail the Redeemer to two planks of wood, we are still forgiven.

And with that, Jesus died. Christians are perhaps unique in that we celebrate the death of our God. Had he not died, we wouldn’t have forgiveness. But since Jesus did die, he died for us to pay a debt we never could. And that is good news. At his death, the veil is the Temple was torn in two. No more was there a division between the common person and the holy glory of God. We have free access to our Creator and Father. And that is truly good news.

But the great news, brothers and sisters, is that the story doesn’t end there.

Joseph of Arimathaea and Nicodemus removed the body of Jesus from the cross, prepared it for burial, and placed it in Joseph’s new tomb. There the body was to await its final treatments and decay before the bones would be collected and placed into an ossuary for final “burial” in the wall of the tomb.

That is exactly what didn’t happen.

When Mary, the other Mary, and the other women went to the tomb to anoint the body with perfumes on the third day, the stone had been removed. Angels sat on top of the stone, shining in their glory. “Why do you look for the living among the dead?” they asked. “He isn’t here; he is risen, as he said.” Can you imagine what went through their collective mind as they heard that? Did someone take him? He is risen; what does that mean? Where could he be? What did the angels mean?

And then they saw someone they mistook for the gardener – until he spoke Mary’s name. This was the risen Lord! This was Jesus, fully alive and in full health! He had come back from the dead as he had promised, hallelujah! The women ran to the apostles and told them of the resurrection, thus becoming the first evangelists. Some of the Eleven believed; some didn’t. But their unbelief didn’t change the fact that the Lamb of God Who Takes Away the Sins of the World had indeed conquered death and the grave and returned in full glory to live and teach again.

VeggieTales put it this way: “Jesus died to give us life; he rose to give us hope.” But not just hope. He also rose to fulfill his promise to give us something else. My college motto was “Vita Abundantior” – Life More Abundant. The resurrection gives us the means to live a life that’s more than just the rote routine, the daily grind. Life more abundant is a life lived fully in the Gospel. It’s a life that recognizes the sacrifice that Jesus made for us. It’s a life that obediently takes that absolute truth and gives it to the world so that others may experience forgiveness and true life. A life more abundant is a life of holiness that wants nothing less than to see others come to know and live in holiness as well. That’s the calling of the Christian: to live a life that shows full knowledge of the crucifixion and resurrection and reflects the personal knowing of the crucified and resurrected one.

Sisters and brothers, let’s live that life. An obedient life, for Christ was obedient; a truthful, truth-speaking life, for God is truth; and an abundant life, for Christ died to set us free from the law of sin and death. This is the Gospel. The Good News. The Great News. The news that the church was built upon.

Amen.