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Preface to Seasons of the Christian Life Collection

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The seasons of the Christian life are of many kinds. The round of the liturgical year is obviously one. I am a lectionary preacher and so follow the liturgical seasons closely. Sermons for Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, the Transfiguration, Lent, Palm Sunday, Holy Tuesday, Good Friday, the Easter Vigil, Easter, and Pentecost are to be found here, each addressing its respective liturgical theme explicitly. But I am also a preacher in Marsh Chapel at Boston University, and so my work is oriented around the seasons of the academic calendar. The sermons here begin with a summer baptism homily and then move into welcoming students and their families in September, Homecoming later in the fall, and so forth. Since all preaching is contextual, I should say that the academic year of these sermons also began with the baseball season in which the Boston Red Sox broke the Bambino’s curse, defeated the Yankees for the American League pennant in four straight games after being three games down, and went on to win the World Series for the first time since Methuselah took his children to watch from the bleachers.

Perhaps the most significant sense of “season” in these sermons, however, is the political. These sermons, in chronological order here, began in the fall before the 2004 presidential election in which George W. Bush defeated Boston’s favorite son, John Kerry. More than just a local favorite, Mr. Kerry represented the liberal aspirations of a great many citizens of Massachusetts, the bluest of the blue states according to most accounts. Many people in Boston saw the election as a test of American morality, one that we failed. After the election, when some pollsters had claimed that 80% of the American people who regularly attend church or synagogue voted for Mr. Bush, several of my congregants came to me to ask whether they should stop coming to church. Did Christianity really mean acquiescing in the militaristic, arrogant, greedy, and mendacious posture they attributed to Mr. Bush? Did the Evangelical Right define Christianity?

I resolved then that my preaching had to intensify the effort to articulate a kind of Christianity other than that offered by the Evangelical Right with which Mr. Bush had identified himself. My aim has been not only to articulate a Christianity of humility, peacemaking, and the cultivation of gentle souls, but to do so in increasingly explicit opposition to the preaching from the Right.

To do so was not at all emotionally congenial, for I am a liberal of the sort who lives out tolerance and wants to embrace everyone claiming to be a Christian within the Christian fold. I have spent many years in the United Methodist Church working to defuse tensions between Right and Left, especially within institutions of theological education. Although preachers from the Right have had no compunction speaking out in forceful terms against more liberal Christianity on issues of personal and social morality, desirable patterns of the Christian life, and fundamental theological issues, preachers from the Left have been reluctant to reciprocate. Hence, we seem to have no position of our own, no claim to Christian history and authority. At the University, outside the School of Theology and the Chapel, people generally identify Christianity to me with Mr. Bush’s evangelicalism. The same thing is true of people I meet in community groups, in casual meetings while traveling, even at the gym where everyone knows me as “the Reverend.”

Who is to say that a different vision of Christianity exists, one with a richer heritage and less connection with the defense of a particular narrow culture? Who is to say that Christianity really stands for what it alleges — love, peace, justice, and all those wimpy virtues preached in the Beatitudes--in the face of the public presentation of the Evangelical Right, which so often is hatred of what it takes to be impure, war against what it takes to be evil, and the justification of defending what we have because we deserve it? I understand that this is not the way the saints on the Evangelical Right think of themselves, but it is how they are seen from the liberal perspective that contextualizes their politics. The personal answer to my question, is that it is up to me and liberal colleagues to preach this alternative vision of Christianity with sharp articulation.

Although I have come strongly to believe that the conservative theology of the Evangelical Right is destructive of the Christian life and that the way forward with the gospel in our time is through the development of a more liberal, ecumenical, and multicultural tradition, I say upfront that the conservative approach has a biblical warrant. If one looks, say, at the book of Daniel, the authentic letters of Paul (excluding Ephesians, Colossians, and the pastorals), and the Book of Revelation, it is possible to see the background framing of Christianity to be a narrative account of a war between God and the devil, between the forces of good and those of evil. Both Jewish and Christian apocalypticisms of the centuries before and after Christ were influenced by the Persian dualism between good and evil divinities. Some statements attributed to Jesus in the gospels can be read into this narrative frame. The emphasis on narrative as the primary form of Christian understanding has been powerful, due to the influence of Karl Barth. The amazing popularity of the “Left Behind” series of books, a representation of classical narrative Dispensationalism (to use the fancy theological jargon) illustrates the appeal of narrative, indeed, battle-narrative thinking. Politicians appeal to this battle-narrative version of Christianity when they rail against “evil empires” and nations constituting an “axis of evil.” When the hugely criminal bombings of 9/11 called for a response, which obviously should have been an international police action to root out organized terrorism, the Christian right responded instead to calls to “war” because of its commitment to the battle-narrative of us against evil. Terrorists, of course, just duck and move elsewhere when war machines come their way. So our government had to find some countries instead against which to make war. The Taliban government of Afghanistan rather approved of 9/11, although it did not fund or execute the tragic bombings. It no more could have handed over Osama bin Laden when our government demanded it than the current American-supported Afghan government can do so with all our troops in place. The Iraqi government of Saddam Hussein was not the best of the Middle-Eastern dictatorships, but it had no connection with the 9/11 terrorists despite the attempt of our government to claim so after its other justifications for attacking and occupying it collapsed. If you think you are in a war, then you have to find somebody to war against. That is, among other mistakes, a theological one.

An alternative reading of the Christian life, and of the Bible, is to subsume narrative elements within a larger background of the complex relationship between human beings and God. The wisdom literature of the Bible, such as the teachings of Jesus in the gospels through parables and sermons, the books of Ephesians, Colossians, James, Job, Ecclesiastes, Proverbs, Jonah, and most of the Psalms are about this complex and sometimes problematic relationship. The legal material in Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, Ezra, and Nehemiah lays out patterns for how people, or at least Jews, are to live before God. The historical materials in Genesis, Exodus, Joshua, Judges, Ruth, and the Books of Samuel, Kings, and Chronicles, and Acts all read most plainly as stories of a people’s developing relationship to God, not as incidents in a cosmic battle between God and Satan. The prophets, too, are primarily concerned about fidelity and infidelity in the relation between God and Israel, particularly in matters of justice, and what these things mean for Israel’s fortunes in history; even the apocalyptic passages in Isaiah 24–27 pit God’s consuming destruction against human misdeeds, not cosmic Satanic forces. Although there are many narratives in this material, the narratives are mainly about people and their relations with God and one another, not about a cosmic drama. Liberal theologians, who read the Bible and the Christian setting as a matter of the relationship between God and human beings, thus emphasize the virtues of relationship, primarily love, justice, peace, mercy, forgiveness, humility, and other wimpy character traits. These traits look wimpy, of course, only to those who think virtuosity in the Christian life is booting backsides for Jesus.

Both conservative evangelical and more liberal preachers read the same Bible, of course, and play different though related roles in the same large and sprawling Christian movement. Preachers of the Right know about the Sermon on the Mount, but embed it in the battle-narrative in which Christ will come again to claim his own and stomp out the opposition. Preachers of the Left know about the apocalyptic imagery, especially in the New Testament, but construe that as literary intensifications of matters more directly described as elements of the relationship between God and people. Theologians who think of God primarily in terms of a cosmic battle-narrative with evil necessarily construe God as finite, in order to play roles in the narrative. Theologians who think of God primarily as the Creator in relation to human creatures accept the arguments of philosophical theologians from the earliest times that God is infinite. All finite things are created, and the Creator is not finite. This means, however, that all our references to God are symbolic, rarely if ever literally true. Good theology, and hence good preaching, knows how to use symbols without drawing the wrong inferences. For instance, we can call God the rock of our salvation without inferring that geology is the proper study of God. What are the limits of calling God “Lord” or “King,” suggesting a political relationship? Imagining God in a cosmic battle with evil might have symbolic value in certain carefully circumscribed contexts, as does thinking of God in other anthropomorphic ways. Yet good preaching needs to clue people in to the limits of their symbols, and the conditions for their appropriate use. Most of these sermons deal explicitly with issues of how to read the Bible and understand basic Christian symbols. The theory of theological interpretation embodied in them, and sometimes explained directly, is clearly an alternative to the interpretation theories commonly employed by the religious Right (in Christianity, Judaism, and Islam).[1]

Some years ago Abingdon Press published a book of my sermons entitled The God Who Beckons: Theology in the Form of Sermons.[2] The subtitle is important. Sermons do have theological content, and it is my desire here to articulate a theology that offers an alternative to the public theology of so much Christianity these days. The sermons themselves, of course, make their own claims to represent the history, authority, and current cutting edge of Christianity. They follow up on the sermons in Preaching the Gospel Without Easy Answers, and I have to say that these sermons also do not present easy answers.[3] But then, the questions are not easy either, and they are very important.

  1. Readers who want an explanation of my interpretation theory in a full treatise can consult my The Truth of Broken Symbols (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1996; those who want a full theological illustration of the theory should look at my Symbols of Jesus: A Christology of Symbolic Engagement (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2001).  ↩

  2. The God Who Beckons: Theology in the Form of Sermons (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1999).  ↩

  3. Preaching the Gospel Without Easy Answers (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2005). I owe the last part of that title, “Without Easy Answers,” to my editor at Abingdon Press, Robert Ratcliff.  ↩

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