Theology is a Scary Word

Guest Post by Rev. Joe Kim

In a few short months, I will have finished half of my seminary education. I will be halfway to my M.Div. degree, halfway to no more papers, midterms and finals. I will be halfway done with paying tuition and halfway closer to getting a full-time job in ministry. It seems that this would be as good of a time as any to pause for some reflection…

This week, an email was sent out to the student body announcing the finalization of the Spring Course Schedules and Course Information. I opened my student records to see what distribution requirements I would need in order to graduate.

Biblical Studies: check.
Practical Theology: check.
History: check.
Theology: still a long ways to go.

I’ve already taken classes that have interested me, such as East Asian Christianity from 1500-1800, American Religion and American Literature, Sermons of the Civil Rights Movement and Justice and Social Ethics in the Old Testament. Now, there’s theology left.

Theology is a scary word.

It makes me think of books that are too big to read, ideas that are too big to grasp, papers that are too rushed to articulate clearly, people who are too old to be relevant. It’s no wonder to me that the church is losing its relevance, when what we are taught are stories and thoughts of old, with no application to the present, and no foresight into the future.

It appears to me that we seminarians pride ourselves on the intellectual knowledge gained in the classroom; what have we have read, how much we can recite, when can we be published. All the while, we are told over and over again that the Church is dying, and that the Church needs us–young people.

Is there a disconnect in the messaging? When can what I learn be applied to what I am sure I am called to do?

One of my professors said to us that organized religion lost Jesus. He paused, repeated the statement, then looked at us seated around the table and said, “You seminarians are organized religion!”

I pray it not be so.

Photo Credit: Image used under Creative Commons from Andrew Eason. Cropped from original.

The Last Churchperson

Guest Post by Rev. April Casperson

I’ve always been a huge fan of science fiction and similarly speculative works. There’s nothing more intriguing than reading about, or watching a film focused on, a reality that is somehow different than the one we live in. The creative deviations to the reality we know that can often be found in science fiction challenges us to think in brand new ways.

I recently finished The Last Policeman trilogy by Ben Winters. Amazon recognized the first novel as one of its Best Books in July 2012, and it had been on my to-read list for quite some time. When I finally picked it up, I told myself that I’d put it down if it didn’t grab my attention. I was hooked after just a few pages.

The Crystal Cathedral Double-Down

Religions News Service recently ran an article on the restoration and rebranding of the Crystal Cathedral as the “Christ Cathedral” for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Orange. If you head over to that article you can watch a promotional video explaining the church’s vision for the revamped campus they purchased for $50+ million. The campus’ extensive restoration is expected to be completed in 2016.

The idea of faith communities purchasing and repurposing property for ministry is hardly a new thing. Still, the audacious nature of the project seems at odds with the popular leadership of Pope Francis. Cathedrals, in and of themselves, are an interesting concept in the way they’ve historically coupled religious and political power. The potential symbolism of the project for a thriving diocese seeking to reassert itself is hard to miss.

A remark made in the promotional video by Mark Dios, the landscape architect hired for the project, caught my ear.

“So we’ve really thought about how you make a space feel sacred. And how do you do that for the Cathedral? That as you arrive, all of a sudden you are in this moment of awe and you feel the presence of God.”

A few years back, I spent a delayed honeymoon with my wife in Italy. For days we explored Rome and visited as many of the various churches and Cathedrals as we could. So many of these buildings are exemplars of ingenuitive architecture and home to some truly incredible works of art. They are indeed impressive and do fill one with awe.

But I must confess that I was troubled as much as I was moved. Was the awe I felt an authentic experience of God or something more terrestrial? Does it matter how many of those projects were funded by abusive practices that took advantage of the piety of the faithful? If their grandeur inspires good works and generosity, at what point does any bad karma get paid down?

Of course, critiques about frivolous spending might be launched at most any religious building project. Perhaps the building of such edifices, and the awe they inspire within us, reflect something deep and primitive about our spiritual longings–some need for a corporeal locus of worship we can’t quite evolve beyond.

Still, this truth about us is painful when the cost of such beauty isn’t matched by a vitality of ministry to those in need. Let us pray that the Diocese of Orange continues to develop and grow their ministries for those who have not a single roof over their heads to take for granted, let alone one made of crystal.

Photo Credit: Image used under Creative Commons from Alejandro C.

Six Ways Forward for the Church

I’m pretty tired of talking about Mark Driscoll.

Rachel Held Evans appears to be tiring of him as well. There was a lot to love about her latest post but I wonder if he is even worth mentioning anymore. Perhaps she needed to at least mention her muse.

Evans names 6 ways Christian (sub)culture can be changed to minimize the possibility of another abusive leader. Frankly, many of these have value and application well beyond the evangelical world she largely speaks to.

  1. We must educate Christians about abuse, bullying, and misuse of power in church settings.
  2. We must value and preserve accountability.
  3. We must take misogyny and homophobia seriously.
  4. We must measure “success” by fruit of the Spirit, not numbers.
  5. We must protect people over reputations.
  6. We must treat our pastors and church leaders as human beings—flawed, complex, and beloved by God.

In particular, number 4 caught my eye as it is as much a sin of small, struggling churches as it is of large, apparently vital ones. While shrinking numbers could signify a failure of leadership or a problematic disconnect with the community, success could just as easily signify cultural accommodation or appeasement as much as it might a real healthy ministry.

Instead of analyzing our numbers in a vacuum, we need to examine growth (and decline) to see if each truly stems from a commitment to core Gospel values. Of course, we can fight over what those should be but hopefully the sane amongst us will recognize that any serious conversation can’t take numerical success as the sole marker of faithfulness.

After all, Jesus didn’t have a lot of solid followers on Good Friday.

You can read Rachel’s post here…

Image Credit: Photo by Maki Garcia Evans.


The Cardinals on the Wrong Side of History, again?

Guest Post by Rev. Joe Kim

I love people. I love sports. It’s sad when some people in sports don’t love other people in sports.

Check out this article by Ishmael H. Sistrunk on the St. Louis Cardinals. There are eerie similarities from 1947 and 2014. Which side of history will you be on? Which side of history will the church be on?

Sistrunk writes:

Over and over Cardinals fans respond angrily to peaceful protesters, suggesting that they do not belong here. The piercing prejudice and irony to those remarks fall upon deaf ears. They claim protests should not disrupt America’s pastime, but wear jerseys altered to read “I am Darren Wilson.”

It’s not just Cardinals fans who are disgusted by those demanding justice for Brown, Kajieme Powell, Vonderrit Myers and others during sacred sports and entertainment events. The staggering amount of vicious, blatantly racist comments left on The St. Louis American’s video of the protest at the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra has made me truly question my faith in humanity.

Click here to read Sistrunk’s full post.

Photo Credit: Image used under Creative Commons from pdsphil via Wikimedia.

U2: Band or Church?

The New Yorker ran an interesting piece by Joshua Rothman called “The Church of U2” shortly after the somewhat controversial release of their recent “free” album. The article explores the not-so-subtle spirituality of the band which is still sometimes missed by fans and those who prefer that musicians wear their Christianity on both sleeves. Rothman attempts to explain this by explaining their developmental context:

Much of the confusion around U2’s faith stems from the fact that they’ve never been an “officially” Christian rock band. The ambiguity goes back to the band’s origins, in the Dublin of the late seventies, during the Troubles. In a country divided along sectarian lines, little about organized religion was attractive.

And then in the next paragraph:

Their break with organized religion was probably inevitable. But it was still traumatic, which is perhaps why almost every U2 album contains a song about their decision to belong to a band rather than a church.

It’s a good piece and worth the read for those who appreciate the band or for those who are curious about how art can be influenced by faith without being overwrought.  I found the turn of phrase in this second quote to be interesting. I wonder if U2 didn’t actually decide to authentically be church by being a band, instead of pretending or going through the motions.

Read the original piece here…

Photo Credit: Image used under Creative Commons from Dorli Photography.


What to do when the pieces no longer fit… Need a hint? It rhymes with glove.

Our family enjoys the challenge of a good jigsaw puzzle. The little ones have puzzles with large pieces that can be completed in a time span complementary to their limited attentions. When schedules allows, my wife and I will work through puzzles significantly more complex. While we chose this as a hobby to reduce stress, it’s amazing how frustrating this activity can be.

It has often been noted that human beings have an exceptional ability to recognize patterns. This skill is key to our survival as a species and essential to our progress in scientific innovation and inquiry. The unique ways our brains work to create connections is deeply related to our drive to understand the world and to derive meaning from our experiences. This skill is also critically important for solving the jigsaw puzzles we find on tables and those we encounter as we live out our days.

If you have ever wrestled with a 1000+ piece puzzle, you will have encountered the false-positive – that piece that totally fits in a place it doesn’t actually belong. This phenomenon is an example of apophenia; a human tendency to see patterns that aren’t really there. When these instances of apophenia are recognized as significant, they are called pareidolia (Greek for false image). In both cases, more data is usually the way we discern our error, make corrections, and move on.