Tuesday, June 28, 2011

“Retired Pastor Ruminates” is moving and changing its name

I'm not moving, but my blog is, and I'm giving it a makeover.

First of all, I am changing the name.  Several friends and colleagues have lately challenged me on whether there actually is such a thing as a retired pastor, and if there is, am I one of them?

I have give this some thought, and have decided that they are right.  Although I no longer serve a congregation I still have a ministry to offer the church in my thinking and writing and conversations. I am not a retired pastor.  It has taken nearly seven years for me to come to this conclusion, but it feels like the correct one.

I must admit I have some nostalgia for Retired Pastor Ruminates, and especially for its loyal followers, who Pastor Karl Duetzmann once nicknamed “Rumination Nation.” I hope you will all come over to the new site.

So the new name is tentatively When I Survey . . .  ruminations, reviews, recipes and rants.  I'll live with the new name for awhile and see how it works out.

The second change is the format.  Everything that was on RPR will be on the new site, but I think you will find it has a cleaner look and things will be easier to find.  I am changing from Blogger to WordPress. My friend Jason Goroncy from New Zealand helped me move everything over last week when he was visiting.

So the changes are mostly superficial.  Whatever I call the blog I will still be ruminating on a variety of topics near and dear to my heart.  And I plan to put all my recipes up on the new site from now on (and you can still find them all in one place at Rick's Recipes).

As always this will be free site with no ads.  So come on over and check out When I Survey . . .

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Ruminations on hermeneutics for adult Christian education

When I wrote my A Course in Basic Christianity (which I thought of as remedial catechesis for adults) in 1994 I outlined a set of criteria and assumptions behind my method.  The final assumption dealt with hermeneutics. In reading it now I see how much I was influenced by Karl Barth, Hans Frei and Brevard Childs. It is my hope that these thoughts will be useful to pastors and teachers leading adult education. Here is an excerpt:

“The communal language of the church is irreducible and must be taken on its own terms.  The whole project has been guided by a set of hermeneutical assumptions that inform the way Scripture in particular and theological language in general are treated.   In some respects these assumptions run counter to the assumptions that have guided the modern academic study of Scripture and theology.

Modern approaches to the Bible have been dominated by the historical–critical method.  These were the methods in which I was trained in college and seminary and they continue to yield genuine insights into the truth of the texts.  Nevertheless, I came early in my ministry to regard them as “good servants but bad masters” and I have gravitated toward a hermeneutic that takes the finished text much more seriously.

In a comparable way modern theologians have often accepted the ideologically driven “hermeneutics of suspicion” as the basis for their approach to Christian language.  Again, I have been well–exposed to these approaches and take with appreciation their genuine insights into both the human situation and the history of the formation of sacred texts.  Nevertheless, I find them all seriously flawed as the basis for either constructive theology or hermeneutics and have looked elsewhere for the proper interpretive tools to do my work.

My decades of experience teaching adults in the mainline church have taught me that they are eager to get various interpretive tools in hand to keep the texts as objects of scrutiny.  They want background in history, archaeology, or other sciences to tell them “what the text meant.”  These tools can be helpful and necessary, but can also get between the interpreter and the text.  To know that the Red Sea in  Exodus “is really” the Sea of Reeds which sometimes dries up before an East wind, or that “the eye of a needle” may refer to an ancient narrow gate in Jerusalem is to miss the point of the biblical narrative.  Likewise, various points of view from psychology, political theory, the experience of ethnic groups and women, and the like, have all been put forth as necessary preconditions to understanding texts and Christian discourse.

This course has tried as much as possible to reject such claims to some independent viewpoint.  These may enter the conversation but cannot preempt the meaning of Christian language or rule its plain or literal sense out of bounds by some other authority.

I have come to believe that the church's communal language in creed, doctrine and liturgy, and especially Scripture, from which the others are derived, is irreducible and must be taken on its own terms.  Frei was describing Karl Barth's position when he said:
There can be no systematic ‘pre–understanding,’ no single, specific, consistently used conceptual scheme, no independent or semi–independent anthropology, hermeneutic, ontology or whatever, in terms of which Christian language and Christian claims must be cast to be meaningful  (Hans Frei, Types of Theology, 1992, p 156). 
Which is to say that in the end it is the texts that judge us rather than the other way around.  I am convinced that  A Course in Basic Christianity can be used profitably by people with a variety of backgrounds, theologies, and points of view.  All it asks is that the subject matter of Christian faith be taken seriously.”

(From the Teacher's Guide, A Course in Basic Christianity)

(Photos, from top:  Karl Barth, Brevard Childs, Hans Frei)

Monday, May 23, 2011

Reflections on The New Century Hymnal

Reflections on The New Century Hymnal
Richard L. Floyd

(Note:  In 1995 the United Church of Christ had just published The New Century Hymnal, which was the first denominational hymnal to take a radical approach to the issue of “inclusive language.” The hymnal was from the first very controversial, and objections to it were raised on both poetic and theological grounds.

In Eastertide of 1996 Confessing Christ sponsored a symposium at the Congregational Church in Boylston, Massachusetts to raise some of the theological issues raised by the language changes in the hymnal. Members of the Hymnal Committee were invited to come and speak, as were people from Confessing Christ.

I was on a panel responding to some of the speakers. I had prepared some remarks, but they have never appeared in print, and I just found them in a computer file while cleaning out an old computer. It is an old battle now, but at the time it was pretty contentious and it was interesting for me now to see what I had to say at the time.)

I’d like to thank Herb Davis and Confessing Christ for inviting me to give some remarks today about my response to The New Century Hymnal.   My friend Ted Trost, who is a historian at Harvard, has reminded me that the German Reformed Church (one of our UCC predecessor bodies) fought bitterly over the language of the liturgy for over a generation and somehow stayed together. Some of you have indicated that you think the UCC is being split over The New Century Hymnal, but I hope that it isn't so.  I would hope the United Church of Christ can have this extended conversation about the language appropriate for the church to express it faith without ad hominen attacks, “telling the truth in love” for the up-building of the church.

We all know that this subject can evoke strong feelings, and that many in our time have decided certain practices are tests of faithfulness. We need to have this conversation without “unchurching” each other.  I am sorry that my friend and former colleague Ansley Throckmorton feels that she was called a heretic earlier today. I didn't hear Dr. (Richard) Christensen call anyone a heretic.

What I did hear him say is that that certain ways of talking about the faith have been judged by the church over the centuries to be false or inadequate to express the truth of the Christian faith. This is a descriptive and critical task without which no church can long survive and still be in continuity with the one, catholic and apostolic church.

To use but one example that Dr. Christianson mentioned: to substitute “God” for “Father” in the baptismal formula or in a hymn, as The New Century Hymnal sometimes does, is to express a subordination of the other two persons of the Trinity, for if the first person is God, it would follow that the second and third persons are not God. It is texts we ought to be scrutinizing, not people.  And it is heresies that ought to concern us, not heretics (although to even imagine a conversation about what constitutes heresy in the UCC is to invite a giggle.)

I need to say at the outset that there is much to like about The New Century Hymnal.  It contains over 600 hymns, a complete Psalter and both a scripture index and an index keyed to the Revised Common Lectionary.  The editors have found lots of fine new hymns and commissioned others.  They have returned many old favorites dropped from previous hymnals for being pietistic or otherwise theologically or musically deficient, such as the “Old Rugged Cross,” “In the Garden” and “Amazing Grace.”  They have cleaned up the “thees” and “thous” in old hymns and made the language about people gender-inclusive, removing phrases like “brotherhood of man” and “sons of God.”  All this needed doing and if that is all the hymnal committee and editorial panel had done I think the NCH would have been well received and widely used.

But the committee went very much farther in their agenda to remove words they deemed “offensive” and it is the way that they revised the hymn texts that have made this hymnal so controversial.  The language of The New Century Hymnal is, as promised, “new.”  In the new hymns this can be refreshing, but with well-known favorites, the ones the faithful have in their memory banks, it can be jarring.

Masculine images for God have been nearly eliminated, as have most personal pronouns for God and Jesus.  The word “Father,” considered patriarchal, is out. “Lord,” considered sexist and classist is out, except where it was returned to refer to Jesus (as demanded by a spontaneous floor vote at General Synod.) Hierarchical images are greatly reduced as are spatial metaphors for transcendence.  Images that might be offensive to some people of color or people with disabilities have been eliminated so that references to darkness are out, such as “Dark and cheerless is the morn unaccompanied by Thee” from Isaac Watts’ “Christ whose Glory Fills the Skies” (a hymn that sadly didn't make the cut for this reason, I would guess.)

The creators of this hymnal hoped that, in Chairman's James Crawford’s words, “the church will discover a language that stretches the dimensions of justice and helps reveal the unfathomable depths of the God of the biblical faith.” (Introduction to NCH)  Fair enough, but how has this been done?

When I think of the debate surrounding the hymnal I am reminded of the Prego Spaghetti Sauce commercial.  Do you remember it?  When the Italian-American brother comes into the kitchen and asks his brother what he is cooking?  “I’m cooking spaghetti sauce.”  “Does it have ripe tomatoes like mama’s?” “It's in there!”  To each question about ingredients the brother answers, “It’s in there.”

And The New Century Hymnal is like that.  High Christology?  It’s in there.  The pre-existence of Christ?  It’s in there.  The Trinity?  It’s in there.

So the problem is not the exclusion of the main features of our tradition.  No, the problem is that to avoid words deemed offensive the TNCH has put them into a kind of code, and the coded language will confuse and mystify the faithful and prove inadequate to nurture new generations of Christians into the way the church speaks about the things of our faith.

I am convinced that in many cases the language of TNCH does not adequately express biblical faith, and I fear that a congregation who uses the TNCH as the sole source of its hymnody for a generation is prone to suffer a theological deficiency, a condition not unknown to our churches already, and which is, in some cases, a terminal condition.  This is a terrible disappointment for those of us who have been working hard in local congregations to raise the bar of biblical and theological literacy.

I have several specific major objections to what TNCH has done theologically to hymn texts:
First of all, the decision to eliminate “Lord” for both the first and the second persons of the Trinity has dire consequences.  “Lord” is the typical way of referring to the God of Israel in the Old Testament, and it was the conviction by the early church that they could call Jesus “Lord” as well that led to their earliest confession of faith:  “Jesus is Lord” (Romans 10:9; 1 Corinthians 12:30).

The New Century Hymnal eliminates Lord in several ways.  It simply replaces it with “God” in some cases, such as in #479, a metrical paraphrase of Psalm 23 from the Scottish Psalter sung to Brother James' Air.  It is a good hymn (I have chosen it for tomorrow, which is Good Shepherd Sunday.)  But to sing “the Lord is my shepherd” is better in several ways than “God is my shepherd.”  It is true to the 23rd Psalm and it retains the nice Trinitarian ambiguity about whether we refer to the first or the second person (or for that matter the third, “the Lord and giver of life!”)  Christians have always heard and sung this psalm Christologically, but that is harder now that we have God as our shepherd, and if the pattern is repeated, as it is in TNCH, you invite a non-Trinitarian and non-Christological perception of deity, leading to a Unitarianism of the first person, which is, I am afraid a tendency of this hymnal, as it is in many of our churches.

My second objection to the method of the TNCH is what I call “the violation of authorial intent.”  To enlarge the palette of words and phrases that refer to God is a laudable aim.  Let a thousand hymn writers flourish! But TNCH has a heavy hand with old texts, bowdlerizing the poetry that authors created. It pains me to see, for example, the poems of Isaac Watts and the prayers of PT Forsyth (not to mention the Nicene Creed) given new renderings that say things the authors never said, or worse, sometimes the exact opposite of what they originally said.

My final objection is the elimination of personal pronouns from The New Century Hymnal. Not only is the repetitive use of “God” to avoid “him” awkward and distracting in hymns and liturgies, but the theological implications of a depersonalized deity run deep. How long will it take for a new generation of churchgoers, hearing and saying liturgies and singing hymns that never use a personal pronoun to begin conceiving of God as something like “The Force” in Star Wars?

I know a great deal of time and money went into the production of this hymnal, and many of the people involved are long-time friends and colleagues of mine.  I question neither their sincerity nor their faithfulness. But I do believe that the language guidelines they employed, while right-minded, were wrong-headed. Political ideology is the enemy of art (and in this case, liturgy.)

Given the freedom our polity affords local congregations I am guessing that many of them will choose not to buy The New Century Hymnal, and I would advise them not to.  But it saddens me to have to say that, since a good opportunity for our denomination to have a hymnal that binds us together has been wasted.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Ruminations about the End of the World on May 21: Howard Camping and William Miller

The final return of Jesus Christ on the last day is an article of Christian belief, but the track record of those who have predicted the day is not good.  In fact, so far, they are batting .000.

And while the predictors were scouring their Bibles for clues they must have missed these texts:
“But concerning that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father only. . .  You also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect.”  (Matthew 24:36,44)
“But concerning that day or that hour, no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Be on guard, keep awake. For you do not know when the time will come.”  (Mark 13:32)
So now California evangelist Howard Camping is predicting that this Saturday will be the day.  Perhaps he would be well served by the example of William Miller as a cautionary tale.

Who was William Miller?  He is not remembered by many these days, but he was once the leader of a huge religious movement.  As a long-time resident of Pittsfield, Massachusetts I have seldom if ever heard his name come up when the famous sons and daughters of our city are listed.

But, yes, he was born here on February 15, 1782, and moved to Low Hampton, New York when he was four, which may be partly why he is not owned as one of our famous native sons. The other reason may well be because he failed in his big life project, for he is best known as the founder and leader of the Millerites, a millennial sect that predicted the end of the world and the Second Advent of Christ in the mid-nineteenth century.

Miller himself never set an exact day for the Second Advent, saying, “My principles in brief, are, that Jesus Christ will come again to this earth, cleanse, purify, and take possession of the same, with all the saints, sometime between March 21, 1843, and March 21, 1844.” When that time frame came and went, a new date was discerned, April 18, and when that date went by without incident Miller publicly said, “I confess my error, and acknowledge my disappointment; yet I still believe that the day of the Lord is near, even at the door.”

That same summer at a camp meeting in New Hampshire one of Miller’s followers, Samuel Snow, delivered a message that the real date had been determined to be October 22. Thousands prepared for this day and when it too came and went (in what became known as “the Great Disappointment”) the movement lost steam, although Miller himself continued to wait for the second coming until his death in 1849.

So now Howard Camping is predicting that this Saturday, May 21, will be the day, and again thousands believe him. But I am still going to mow my lawn and prepare my sermon for Sunday just in case he’s wrong.

Let me end with some “end of the world humor”:  

“If your contractor gets raptured, how would you know?”

And this one from my friend Andy Lang: “What do you call a person who sells hats and believes in the imminent end of the world?”

“A premillennialist millenarian Millerite milliner.”

Saturday, May 14, 2011

A book review of Elizabeth Strout's “Abide with Me”

Reading Elizabeth Strout’s Abide with Me reminded me how fiction can sometime capture the truth of things better than a factual account, just as a fine painting can sometimes be more truthful than a photograph of the same scene.

I heard Strout speak a few years ago at a Bangor Theological Seminary Convocation, and I knew her book was about a congregational minister in rural Maine, but I only just got around to reading it.  I'm glad I did.

The resonances for me to my own life are striking.  I am not Tyler Caskey, her protagonist, but I did begin my ministry in a couple of very small rural Maine towns that bear a notable resemblance to the fictional West Annett.  And I left those congregations to become the chaplain at Bangor Seminary, which is the model for Tyler’s alma mater, Brockmorton Theological Seminary (a whimsical reference I am sure to my late former colleague, iconic Bangor New Testament Professor Burton H. Throckmorton.)

Like Tyler I married a Massachusetts gal who came up to live with me in the parsonage to much speculation.  There are many differences to be sure:  I started my ministry in the mid 70’s and Tyler in the late 50’s, but things in small town Maine hadn’t changed all that much.

Stout deftly describes the “wheels within wheels” complexity behind the seemingly simple social life of a small Maine town.  The people of West Annett endure the soul-numbing endless winter, and they are unaware of how they have embraced their dearth of possibilities as a virtue.

Strout takes her time. You know from the first page that some bad things have happened to Tyler Caskey and the denizens of West Annett, but she is no hurry to tell you what they are.  Her storytelling is like peeling an onion, and that in itself captures the rhythm of these small towns, where nothing ever seems to happen on the surface when it is really as busy as an ant farm just below.

Tyler himself is a loveable character, too earnest by half, with his love of Bonhoeffer, his tenderness toward is wounded young daughter, and his quiet faithfulness in his daily round. Strout knows her church, and she knows something of the grandeur and misery of the ministry, as the minister can move in a minute from reading the Cost of Discipleship to hearing tawdry local gossip or the sordid confession of a soured marriage.  Her cast of characters will bring a smile to many a rural parson:  the hostile husband reading the paper in the car in the church parking lot, the loyalist who routinely phones Tyler to warn him what's up,  several variants of antagonists, and the married woman with a crush on the minister as well as a bone to pick.

Strout observes her characters with clear eyes, and her depictions at times just miss being cruel. If you care for these flawed people at all it is because of something like grace, since they are not “good” people in the way that real people  generally are not.  Yet in the end, in keeping with its subject matter, this is a story of redemption.  Strout doesn’t clean up the messiness of life, but she knows that the holy rhythm that runs from Good Friday to Easter isn't confined to ancient Jerusalem.

I don’t want to give too much away.  Read Abide with Me.  It’s the kind of book that when you finish the last page and close the cover you are already missing the characters.

(Abide with Me by Elizabeth Strout, Random House, 2007.)

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Happy 163rd birthday, P. T. Forsyth!

It is not every week that one gets to celebrate the back-to-back birthdays of one's two favorite theologians, but this is the time.  Yesterday we raised a glass to Karl Barth's 125th birthday and today we raise a glass to P.T. Forsyth on his 163rd birthday.

Who was P. T. Forsyth?  Peter Taylor Forsyth was born in Aberdeen, Scotland on this day in 1848 to a family of modest circumstances, educated there through his university years, spent a semester studying in Germany, and became a Congregationalist minister serving in five successive congregations in England. At the turn of the 20th century he became principal of his denominational college in London and proceeded to produce 25 books and hundreds of articles until the time of his death in 1921.

Like Karl Barth his theology was hammered out on the anvil of weekly preaching and pastoring.  But he identified the inherent weakness of the human-centered “theology” that prevailed in his time (and dare I say ours)  two decades before Barth.

Not everything he wrote translates to our time, but his writings reflect his deep love for the Gospel and his prescient insights in what that Gospel might mean for all manner of human endeavors.  At the heart of his thought is the “work of Christ”, what God has done for us that we cannot do for ourselves in the atoning cross of Jesus Christ.  Understanding the love of God as “holy love” he called into question the flabby religious sentimentalism of his time in the name of the God who takes sin and evil seriously and has acted to overcome it.

Writing in the early 20th century, years before the two world wars and the holocaust, his was an isolated prophetic voice that we can now see in retrospect understood both the evil that humans can do and the vast love of God acting to redeem and save these same humans “not at their best, but at their worst.”

He is not a household name in the theological world, and he has had scant attention by the academy, but preachers of all stripes know and love his writings.  We give thanks to God for him and his labors on behalf of the church on this his birthday. 

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Happy 125th Birthday, Uncle Karl!

Today is Karl Barth's birthday.  The pastor of Safenwil, the drafter of the historic Barmen Declaration, and the author of the monumental Church Dogmatics was born this day in 1886, and died on December 10, 1968 (the same day as Thomas Merton).

Love him or hate him, if you take Christian theology seriously, you must read him and deal with him.  He first came to the world's attention with his incendiary commentary on Paul's Letter to the Romans (Romerbrief, second edition, 1922) which Karl Adams described as falling like “a bomb on the playground of the theologians.”  I personally consider Barth's Romans to be one of the most significant and incandescent Christian writings since the closing of the canon.

I have been a pastor for over thirty years and no sermon preparation was ever complete without checking the index to the Dogmatics to see what Uncle Karl had written about the text under consideration.  His exegetical rigor, his mastery of the breadth and depth of the tradition, his grasp of the issues confronting the interpreter, and his unflagging faith in the God whose love is revealed in Jesus Christ make him still a singular figure within the church and its thinkers.

So tonight I will raise a glass to Karl Barth, as I give thanks to God for him and his labors on behalf of the church.