Tag Archives: narrative criticism

Anabaptist Theology & Black Power: Christ the Center #Anablacktivism

The Emancipatory Pedagogy and Presence of The Logos

CONTENT NOTE: John Howard Yoder. see  tw: perhaps all theologians should come with trigger warnings

As I said in the introduction of this series, I am writing these posts this week as not only an #Anablacktivism / #Anablacktivist manifesto, but also as a clear rejection of the current popular stream of thought by Emergent Anabaptist leaders.  At the same time, I am making a departure from my own past dialectical reading of Black Liberation theology and Peace Theologies.  Rather than accept the narrative that these two are irreconcilably opposed to each other and that one of them thus must either be rejected or both held in tension, I have chosen the way of dialogue.  I must give credit to my friend Drew Hart for helping me to see the possibilities of this conversation.

Tyler Tully has discerned three historic Anabaptist distinctived: a Jesus-Centered interpretation of the whole Bible, a free confessing church of creative disciples, and Christians embodying the peaceable moral agency. The current essay will focus on Christ as the Center in Anabaptist and Black Liberation theology.

Nowadays when one reads the profiles of post-Christendom, millenial Christians as well as talk to them IRL, there’s a certain cynicism about the direction our culture is headed.  The story they tell is one of exile, that the U.S. American church is going into exile as punishment for its failure to win the White national culture wars.  For some, this God’s wrath.  For others, its a natural consequence of Christians adopting the politics of Emperor Constantine, where power, empire, and violence are carried under a Cross-decorated banner.

 

No one quite represents the model of the latter’s think than the late John Howard Yoder, a student of Karl Barth at Basel.  From the opening pages of The Politics of Jesus, Yoder changed the landscape of theological ethics by bringing us back to Jesus.

“The peculiar place of Jesus in the mood and mind of many young ‘rebels’ is a sore spot in the recent intergenerational tension of Western post-Christendom, and on of the inner-contradictions of our age’s claim to have left Christendom behind. It may be a meaningless coincidence that some young men wear their hair and their feet like the Good Shepherd of the Standard Press Sunday school posters; but there is certainly no randomness to their claim Jesus was, like themselves, a social critic and an agitator, a drop-out from the social climb, and the spokesman of a counter-culture.”

– TPOJ, page 1.

There are a few things I want to point out about this opening paragraph. When believers place Christ Jesus in his rightful place, the throne, the Center of our Thinking Being, and Doing, that act coincidentally places us in our place, disparate, on the margins, de-centered.  Particularly as Gentile Christians we enter the biblical narrative as the Outsider, the Alien, and the Enemy.  Already in the opening pages of TPOJ, Yoder has identified himself as a white Western male in a post-Christendom context.  Without this acknowledgement up from about his identity and place in the story of the Church, Radical Reformation and Black Liberation theologians would fail to see both the benefits and pitfalls of Yoder’s theology.  The unlimited reign of Yeshua the Messiah both operates as the subject of our theological conversation (confession) as well as the boundary that limits our task (awe).  

The purpose of Yoder’s writing was to  seek “to read the Gospel narrative with the constantly present question, ‘Is there here a social ethic?’  I shall in other words, be testing the hypothesis that runs counter to the prevalent assumptions: the hypothesis that the ministry and the claims of Jesus are best understood as presenting to hearers and readers  not the avoidance of political options, but one particular social-political-ethical option.”- TPOJ, page 11.  And there we have it.  Central to the message of the Anabaptists in the emergent church and beyond is that Jesus’ rabbinical teachings are superior to our own politics and context.  As members of the Body of Christ who wish to maintain faithfulness to the Son of God, this is staying with the tradition of the early church martyrs, and subsequently the Radical Reformation, and dare I add, the witnesses who gave their lives during the Civil Rights movement.

As part of the third edition of this work, Yoder goes on to further explain why the lack of discussion of the “historical” Jesus (page 15).  The skepticism of historical-critical method is right, for as others have reminded us ferverently sometimes the historical Jesus is shaped in our image.  Whether Jesus is a sage or a political revolutionary, historical critics disagree over what to make of what this 2nd century Pharisee actually taught. Enough has been said about the problems of the historical Jesus.  What I want to bring to the forefront, that will allow Liberation Theology to enter the conversation, is to problematize the notion of the neutral, objective “narrative Jesus.”  The rise of narrative theology and hermeneutics begins with a literary reading of Scripture.  The danger in narrative/ literary readings of the Bible, as Sugi pointed out years ago (see my Sugi On Narrative Criticism) is that it can lead to a quest for an idyllic past, and ahistorical, unrealistic visions of days gone by.

The idyllic past which I am referring to is the notion of a “Christendom” at all.  I am calling the idea of a “post-Christian” culture into question because, according to prophets such as David Walker and Sojourner Truth and Frederick Douglass, this nation was never “CHRISTIAN” to begin with.  From the perspective of the margins, the U.S. has always practiced a Constantinian false version of religion, a history of bloodshed, white supremacy, and settler colonialism.  Relying simply on narrative theology and the teachings of Jesus is insufficient.  Telling God’s story (awe) is only one part of the theological task. The other part is praxis (confession).  Along with the Gospel narratives, we must also understand the historical locus of the Spirit of Jesus by first identifying the history and positioning of Jesus’ body.

Enter James Cone, the “Father” of modern Black Liberation Theology.  For Cone and LIberation Theologians, there is no division between the Historical Jesus and the Narrative Messiah.

“Without some continuity between the historical Jesus and the kerygmatic Christ, the Christian gospel becomes nothing but the subjective reflections of the early Christian community.  And if that is what Christianity is all about, we not only separate it from history, but we also allow every community the possibility of interpreting the kerygma according to its own existential situation.  Although the situation is important, it is not the gospel.  The gospel speaks to the situation.”- A Black Theology of Liberation, page 119

In agreement with the Council of Ephesus in the 5th century C.E., James Cone rejects both the Nestorianism of Evangelicalism and The Jesus Seminar as well as the Docetism of postliberal and narrative theologies.  In Christianity, there is not to be this neat separation between the Creed Christ and the Historical Jesus.  This severance leads to a disembodied theology more palatable with imperial, war-mongering, white supremacist religiosity.  

In the Gospels, Jesus taught that his presence will be forever and always with the least of these. He is the homeless person we do not provide shelter to.  He is the hungry person on food stamps we refuse to nurture.  He is the prisoner we avoid visiting in our criminal injustice system, with its prison-industrial complex.  “Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me” (Matthew 25:45).  Black Power theologically understood is compatible with Anabaptist theology because of its Jesus-centeredness.  Cone contended, “Being black in America has very little to do with skin color.  To be black means that your heart, your soul, your mind, and your body are where the dispossessed are” (Black Theology and Black Power,page 151).

 Now while critics feel that Cone’s work is exclusively for African Americans, this is simply not the case.  While he chooses to use examples from black history, one could easily include stories of the radical Quakers who in the colonial times opposed the enslavement of Africans.  The Radical Reformation tradition reminds us to place Jesus’ teaching as central to the Christian life, and in so doing, Jesus did teach us where he would be.  Liberation theologians rightly point to the communities of the oppressed as having the presence of Jesus, so that we can able to follow his teachings.  #Anablacktivism is a both/and synthesis of Liberation Theology and the Radical Reformation, stressing both Jesus’ presence as well as his words and deeds. By standing in awe in our worship and confessing Jesus with our praxis, resistance to Constantinian religiosity must always include resisting white supremacy and empire.  This is what it means to have a Spirit-filled life and a Christ-centered view of Scripture. 

This is the second part of 4 for  my contribution to the MennoNerds Synchroblog : MennoNerds on Anabaptist Convictions“As MennoNerds, we all have found certain distinctives of Anabaptism to be central in our expression of faith.  This article is part of a MennoNerds Synchro-Blog in the month of May on Anabaptism. For the list of distinctives go here. For the list of articles, go here

Postmodern Scholastics And Their Theologies Of Glory

A lot of scholars in the theological academy are under the presumption that their theologies are neat and squeaky clean, that the categories that they rely on, the labels such as “heretic” and “orthodox,” “pantheist” and “biblical,’ whatever the case may be. I think that they are sadly mistaken. Much like the current state of Hollywood where producers have no original stories to offer, theologians today fear radical breaks with tradition out of fear of being made outcasts. If scholasticism was and is the continuous time-honored intellectual pursuit of Christians working to reconcile special revelation (Christ + Scripture) and the prevailing philosophies of their/our days, then ultimately, these efforts should be considered projects informed by Gentile hubris. Systematic theologies’, especially of the classical variety are not as stable have we have been lead to believe, especially when confronted with the story of Exodus and Exile from the First Testament. Wanna claim that God is ineffable? Sure, go ahead! But we as Gentiles can only do so from a Gentile perspective. Moses, the judges and prophets were friends of God, and as such they had personal conversations with the personal deity YHWH. Once we Gentiles are able to finally recognize Jesus is The Center of our knowledge, and not Gentile arrogance, then, and only then are we able to speak of the Creator God of Israel.

One primary example I would like to give as an example of Gentile arrogance (as much as us Gentile Protestants love to talk about humility, right?), is the case of the Reformer Martin Luther. Martin Luther begins with a Theology of the Cross, the Crucifixion of YHWH’s Son on his mind, being in solidarity with the peasants (my reading of the 95 Theses). Luther’s Reformation sparks the Protestant Reformation, the Catholic Reformation, and the Radical Reformation. However, in his pursuit to win over persons (most likely on the fence) of his position, Luther decides to hold to a few “mediating positions, such as ‘con-substantiation.” It is this idol of the middle ground that continues to be a problem for would be Christian revolutionaries. The “middle ground” is this folk-loric place where change-agents through out history “compromise” in order to look RESPECTABLE. In other words, acceptance becomes the prevailing value rather than revolutionary change. A number of theologians (from all denominations) today I feel are stuck in the mode of the Scholastics prior to the Reformation, where everything they write is to preserve the traditions of the Cornelius Van Til’s, Martin Heidegger’s and Paul Tillich’s.

I am sure you can name more, but for brevity’s sake, I would venture to say that the way of the “Middle Way” inevitably leads to an affirmation of the status quo. Always has. Always will. This is why this so-called “Radical Center” is always going to be at odds with Theologies of the Cross. You see, because the apostles saw Jesus’ death as being OUTSIDE the camp (much like the Scapegoat in Leviticus), theologies of the cross will always be out on the margins. Becoming mainstream, respectable, or powerful is the direct anti-thesis to theologia crucis. There is nothing respectable about the Cross, only wretched ugliness. There is nothing that speaks to power-over/dominating others at the Cross; there is only the power of meekness and love for the powerless. There is nothing mainline or mainstream about the cross; only rejection and abandonment.

Zizek, Genre, and Narrative Biblical Interpretation

Slavoj Žižek
Professor John Milbank

I don’t want to do anything complex here, but I want to attempt to make an argument based on particularity.

There is a current trend in Biblical studies and theology, where STORY/narrative is emphasized, and that’s fine, since we have found the blind spots of historical criticism. But let us just no throw out the baby with the bath water as the cliche goes. I am beginning to think that where narrative and history collide is in the history of genres. We cannot have a story without a genre,, I don’t think, otherwise, we are just re-affirming our embedded theologies or our own personal autobiographies into the text.

I arrived at these thoughts through my second reading of The Monstrosity of Christ: Paradox or Dialectic?, a book by Slajov Zizek and John Milbank. I find myself oddly enough agreeing alot more with Zizek, but really wanting to root for Milbank but I can’t bring myself to it. Anyhow, in Zizek’s first essay in this work, he repeatedly goes to novels that are detective mysteries, yet, he does not admit openly his preference, in this particular essay, for them. No, I am not saying Zizek is hiding behind “The Man of Universal Reason”; don’t be silly. What I am saying is that we need to start taking seriously the histories of genre, not only in the biblical text, but also those books we include in our little canons.

Scripture is a nice example of how genres are blended, so, like many postcolonial thinkers, I believe that there is no such thing as a “pure” form of one genre or another. That’s what makes science fiction all the more appealing to me, that it can change with each generation, and become more hybrid, like the appearance of more Western-themed science fiction works, or horror that is blended with romance (ala The Vampire Diaries).

Just as Christian theological reflection is rooted in the life of a man who lived his life out in time, in a specific place and history, stories, because of genre are also historically determined.

We just have to learn to admit it.

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