Faith & Social Justice: In the spirit of Richard Overton and the 17th C. Levellers

Spiritual/Theological Memoirs–and Theological Biographies

I love to read spiritual or theological memoirs.  This type of literature has been around almost since the beginning of Christianity (although found in some other faiths, too).  One of the great classics is St. Augustine’s Confessions which also includes his theological concept of time.  Others include St. John of the Cross’ Dark Night of the Soul, The Life of St. Teresa of Avila by Herself, John Woolman’s Journal, George Fox’s Journal, and so many others.  The Baptist tinkerer-turned-preacher, John Bunyan, wrote two, Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners and the allegorical Pilgrim’s Progress. 

 I got hooked on spiritual/theological memoirs in college.  I was attending a conservative evangelical college (now university) in South Florida and I didn’t really fit in–my style of faith and spirituality (not to mention my politics) went against the stream of the cookie-cutter conservatism that was the official ideology. (I really should have transferred to another college.)  The major target was “liberalism.” I was a political liberal, but not a theological one. One day I came across Harry Emerson Fosdick’s The Living of These Days. I loved it.  Don’t get me wrong: I didn’t just adopt Fosdick’s theology as my own.  That’s not the value of spiritual or theological memoirs.  They help you get past the stereotypes and see the other’s struggles and God’s presence in the person’s life.  You get to wrestle with their questions and your own and find your own answers. So, I have found help in theological memoirs from many places in the theological spectrum, including those far more conservative and far more liberal than I am.  Here are a few of the contemporary spiritual/theological memoirs that I have found especially fascinating.  Please, tell me your list.

  • Harry Emerson Fosdick, The Living of These Days. Harper, 1967.
  • F. F. Bruce, In Retrospect:  Remembrance of Things Past. (Posthumous Edition). Baker Book House, 1980, 1993. I read the posthumous edition right after finishing my dissertation–as a break. Wow. Bruce is so chock full of pastoral wisdom that I wish was more widely shared by his fellow evangelicals.
  • Ray S. Anderson, Soul of God:  A Memoir.  Wipf and Stock, 2004.
  • Frederick Beuchner, The Sacred Journey:  A Memoir of Early Days.  Harper, 1991.
  • Frederick Beuchner, Telling Secrets:  A Memoir. Harper, 1992.
  • Frederick Beuchner, Now and Then: A Memoir of Vocation.  Harper, 1993.
  • James H. Cone, My Soul Looks Back.  Abingdon Press, 1982. 
  • Lesslie Newbingin, Unfinished Agenda:  An Updated Autobiography.  Wipf and Stock, 2009.  This Anglican missionary bishop has had one of the largest impacts on the shape of Christian missions and interfaith dialogue. A truly amazing life.
  • Carter Heyward, A Priest Forever:  One Woman’s Controversial Ordination in the Episcopal Church.  Pilgrim Press, 1999. Originally published in 1976, two years after the ordination, with a new forward by Heyward, now an out lesbian and a famous theologian, and an afterward by one of the other 11 women ordained that day in 1974.
  • Lewis B. Smedes, My God and I:  A Spiritual Memoir.  Eerdmans, 2003.
  • Samuel D. Proctor, My Moral Odyssey Judson Press, 1989.  A major memoir from one of the most important African-American pastors and educators in post-WWII America, a one time president of the Peace Corps, president of two historic black colleges, and of Rutgers University.  I have ordered his second volume, finished just before his untimely death, The Substance of Things Hoped For:  A Memoir of African-American Faith (Judson Press, 1999).
  • Hans Kung, My Struggle for Freedom:  Memoirs. Eerdmans, 2003.  Just finished this. Very powerful.
  • Hans Kung, Disputed Truth:  Memoirs II. Eerdmans, 2005.  Looking forward to this, which is on order.
  • Jurgen Moltmann, A Broad Place:  An Autobiography.  Fortress Press, 2009.  Halfway done.  One of my biggest theological influences. 
  • Cornel West, Brother West:  Living and Loving Out Loud:  A Memoir.  Smiley Books, 2009.  On order. Cornel West is one of my favorite Christian public philosophers.
  • William Stringfellow, A Simplicity of Faith:  My Experience in Mourning.  Wipf and Stock, 2005.  In some ways all of Stringfellow’s writings were autobiographical, but this is expressly a memoir from this brilliant lawyer and Episcopal lay theologian who was a guide for many in the ’60s and ’70s.
  • Henlee H. Barnette, A Pilgrimage of Faith: My Story.  Mercer University Press, 2006.  Yes, Barnette was my teacher, but this incredibly moving memoir would touch many others who never knew this gentle saint who died only weeks before its publication.  One of the best saints Southern Baptists ever produced–and the kind of life the current SBC CANNOT produce without changing what the SBC has become.
  • Dorothy Day, The Long Loneliness.  Harper & Row, 1970.  Repr. HarperOne, 1996. The deeply honest story of the conversion of the founder of the Catholic Worker movement.
  • John M. Perkins, Let Justice Roll Down.  1976. Repr., Wipf and Stock, 2006.  The memoir of one of the most amazing African-American Christians. His brother shot down in his arms by a racist white sheriff in the Civil Rights era, Rev. Perkins never stopped believing in the humanity of white people and the triumph of gospel grace. Founder of Voice of Calvary ministries in Mississippi, which combines evangelism with community development–a pioneer in faith-based (no government aid) anti-poverty efforts.
  • Virginia Ramey Mollenkott, Speech, Silence, Action:  The Cycle of Faith. Abingdon Press, 1980.

Of course, many important Christian leaders are far too shy or modest to write personal memoirs or autobiographies.  Sometimes outside biographers have shed important light or have created a classic that is almost as helpful as the author’s own writings–a major example is Peter Brown’s biography on St. Augustine, which is a major companion to Augustine’s own Confessions. Another is Roland Bainton’s unforgettable biography of Martin Luther, Here I Stand!   The kind of biographer that is especially helpful to people of faith is sympathetic with the object of the biography (one doubts seriously that Brown could have written so helpful a biography of Augustine’s nemesis, Pelagius!), but has enough critical distance to show the warts and feet of clay. Hagiography, uncritical “lives of the saints,” that make the subject seem like plastic statues, are really not helpful, but nor are vicious attacks.  Here are a few theological biographies I have found especially helpful:

  • Eberhard Busch, Karl Barth: His Life from Letters and Autobiographical Texts.  Eerdmans, 1975.  Repr. Wipf and Stock, 2005.
  • Eberhard Bethge, Dietrich Bonhoeffer:  A Biography.  Eerdmans, 1970.  Revised and Supplemented, Fortress Press, 2000.
  • David Garrow, Bearing the Cross:  Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Civil Rights Movement.  Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2004.
  • William D. Miller, Dorothy Day:  A Biography.  Harper & Row, 1982.
  • Mark Theissen Nation, John Howard Yoder: Mennonite Patience, Evangelical Witness, Catholic Convictions.  Cascadia, 2000. A revision of the author’s dissertation at Fuller Theological Seminary, the opening chapter is the most complete biography available to date of JHY, whose writings are still being published posthumously.
  • John Allen, Desmond Tutu: Rabble-Rouser for Peace: The Authorized Biography.  The Free Press, 2006.  Authorized biographies can be “tame,” but they also usually have greater access to private sources.  This is the best biography we have to date of Tutu.
  • Christopher Evans, The Kingdom is Always but Coming:  A Life of Walter Rauschenbusch.  Eerdmans, 2004.  This is a great supplement to the earlier work by Paul M. Minus, Walter Rauschenbusch: American Reformer.  Macmillan, 1988.
  • Daniel P. Fuller, Give the Winds a Mighty Voice: The Story of Charles E. Fuller.  Fuller Seminary Press, 2004. Reprint of an earlier edition by Eerdmans.  This is an intimate but fair biography of the radio evangelist who founded Fuller Theological Seminary by his son, Daniel–who changed its original shape and reshaped it to the “progressive evangelical seminary” it has become.
  • R. Alan Culpepper, Eternity as Sunrise: The Life of Hugo H. Culpepper.  Mercer University Press, 2002.  In similar fashion, New Testament scholar (and founding dean of Mercer University’s McAfee School of Theology), Alan Culpepper has written a sympathetic-but-fair biography of the amazing life of his father, Hugo. Hugo Culpepper, NT scholar and missionary to the Philippines, captured by the Japanese during WWII and held for 4 years, and later professor of Greek and Missiology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.
  • Geoffrey Wainwright, Lesslie Newbingin: A Theological Life.  Eerdmans, 2000.  An excellent complement to Newbingin’s own memoir.

Please, Gentle Readers, share your favorite spiritual memoirs and theological biographies.


October 4, 2009 Posted by | autobiography, biography, books, testimony, theology | 2 Comments

Testimony From a Gay Evangelical Christian

I found this testimony from a gay evangelical Christian to be very moving.  Moving testimony does not settle all issues in complex ethical questions, of course.  It is no substitute for biblical, theological,  and ethical reflection. (My own meager attempts in this direction can be found here. )  But I think we short-circuit the process of ethical discernment when we do not add in such testimony.  It not only matters if and how we read Scripture, but with whom we read Scripture.  I propose that we who are heterosexual Christians should read Scripture with the testimony of gay Christians in mind.

April 8, 2009 Posted by | GLBT issues, testimony | 9 Comments

Invitation to Guest Series: Recovering Neglected Theologians

Okay, theology bloggers.  I hereby invite entries for a series of guest posts on Recovering Neglected Theologians.  What theologian (perhaps especially from your own denomination or theological tradition) has lapsed into obscurity–or is in danger of such–and deserves to be more widely read and appreciated–and why? Each entry should be submitted to my email. I will go to several theo-blogs and biblio-blogs and invite people to participate, but don’t wait for an invitation if you are interested.

For the purposes of this series, we can define “theologian” rather broadly: Not just academics who teach/have taught systematic theology (dogmatics, constructive theology), but also pastor theologians if they have a body of publications and have been influential beyond their local congregation.  Biblical scholars count if they attempt biblical theology instead of only writing as historians or philologists or archeologists or literary critics.  Likewise, with church historians who write as historical theologians (e.g. Jaraslov Pelikan, Geoffrey Bromiley, Justo Gonzalez, Timothy George, etc.) instead of simply as antiquarians or social historians.

I strongly believe in interfaith dialogue, but for this series, I am not interested in submissions about non-Christian theologians. This is to be an in-house discussion among Christians, although interested outside observers are always welcome.

Each entry should name the neglected theologian, describe their work and context in 2-4 brief paragraphs, and say why you think said person should be rediscovered by the Church universal or even by those in her or his own tradition who are now neglicting her or him.  I have in mind primarily figures from 19th C. onward (the modern and “postmodern” eras), but will take entries from the 2nd C. onward throughout the history of the Church and in any cultural or denominational context.

This was inspired by Ben Myers’ series a few years ago, “For the Love of God,” and by some recent reading I’ve been doing. I hope entries will be lively, humorous, and upbeat–the intention is not to put down others as we build up our neglected favorites.  Even the most influential theologians (e.g., the Cappadocians or John of Damascus in the Eastern Churches, Augustine, Thomas, Calvin, Wesley, Barth, etc. in the West) go through periods of neglect–and sometimes periods of revival. The “revivals” can take a “fundamentalist” form (for lack of a better term) in which one tries to simply demand that the church today believe every word of said bygone saint or creative retrievals in which certain features of said theologian’s work are highlighted and reexamined in light of new challenges in new contexts. It will come as no surprise that I think the latter is more fruitful.

I hope this will be fun and profitable. If I participate myself, it will be after others have taken the lead–giving readers a break from my voice all the time on this blog.

UPDATE: Please, do NOT use the comments section to ask me about certain theologians. Just submit an entry to my email. Try for 1,500 to 2000 words as a rough length.  It’s not up to ME to judge if so-and-so neglected theologian is worthy of recovery. YOU who submit entries will make that judgment–and give an argument for why they need to be recovered to readers of Levellers–and your own blogs if you reprint them. Clear?

August 1, 2008 Posted by | church history, testimony, theology, tradition | 12 Comments

How I Became a Conscientious Objector

I’ve been weeding through old (paper) files as I have been boxing things for our move this week. I came across the text of this testimony and realized that I had never told the full story on this blog. So, I’ll post it here and then I can recycle the paper copy–one less thing to move.  “Testimony,” first-person, lay-centered witness, is a central part of Baptist liturgy–whether one is speaking of the “low church” liturgies of most Baptists or the more formal services of the Charleston tradition. I gave this testimony at my current church, Jeff Street Baptist Community at Liberty, during our year long discernment process (2002-3) in becoming a self-declared “peace church.”


Some people seem to be naturally peaceful, almost born nonviolent.  I am NOT one of those people, as anyone who knows me realizes all too well.  Back during the bad-ol’-days when I was still caught up in the civil war of the Southern Baptist Convention (1979-1994), even though I was both adamantly opposed to Fundamentalism and didn’t consider myself theologically “liberal,” I still refused to be called a “Moderate” (the preferred term of those who lost the SBC battle).  I don’t think I believe ANYTHING “moderately.”  Whatever I believe, I believe passionately.  I am by nature an assertive, even aggressive, personality.   Challenge me to a debate on any subject I care about and I’ll go 12 rounds, toe-to-toe. (And notice the boxing metaphor–not exactly sweetness and light. ) I no longer play sports as much as I used to (nor as much as my middle-aged, overweight body says I NEED to), but when I play, I play to win.  I don’t mean I am a bad sport. I play by the rules and, if I lose, try to do so graciously–but first I try to wipe the floor with my opponent.  Moreover, when I was growing up, my family moved often and so I was picked on as the new kid–and got in several fights.  As a Christian, I am embarrassed to admit it, but I liked fighting.  So, how did I ever become a pacifist and conscientious objector?  It’s all the fault of the U.S. Army.  True.  The U.S. Army made me a pacifist!

Okay, maybe some more explanation is needed.  I come from a military family.  Now, I don’t mean  one of those old, rich, officer families where every male in the family goes to a military high school, straight to West Point or Annapolis (i.e., the U.S. Army Academy or the U.S. Naval Academy) then becomes a career military officer, votes the straight Republican ticket and wines and dines all the big defense contractors.  Nothing like that.  Both sides of my family have been working class for generations.  My parents started college the same year I did–and that’s the only reason I am not the first in my family to attend college.  And most of my family were “left of center” politically.  But, on the theory that, in a democracy, the only people who really had a right to criticize the nation where those who had put their lives on the line for that nation, both sides of my family encouraged a “hitch” or term of military service.  The males were almost automatically expected to serve right out of high school, but many female members of my family have military service also.  My maternal grandfather served in the Pacific during WWII and my paternal grandfather fought in Europe during WWII.  My father, opposed to the Vietnam War, joined the Navy so that he could serve his country without going to Vietnam.  Later, my mother joined the Naval Reserves.  I now have 2 brothers-in-law who are active-duty Naval NCOs and 2 sisters who are Naval reservists.  THAT’s what I mean by saying I come from a military family.  So, how did I ever become a pacifist and CO?  Again, blame the U.S. Army.

I graduated high school at 17 (1979) and decided to follow the family tradition of a term of military service without much reflection about the matter.  However, the all-volunteer military was new, so I decided to join whichever branch would give me the most money for college–and that was the Army.

I entered the U.S. Army in 1980, having become a Christian less than a year earlier.  I was fairly naive.  I thought of U.S. military folk as “reluctant warriors” who fought only when the civilian politicians screwed up and couldn’t make peace and who fought with strict rules, like modern day knights of the Round Table.  Now, for anyone who had grown up during the Vietnam War era, as I had, this was a silly idea.  But, for reasons that now escape me, I thought that we Americans had learned our lesson from the “dirty little war” in Southeast Asia and that atrocities like the Mail Lai massacre  were behind us and we would return to the strict adherence to Just War standards that I believed had been the usual U.S. military conduct.

My disillusionment began in Basic Training.  I was struck first by the institutionalized racism.  Please, don’t misunderstand me.  In some ways, the U. S. military has done more to desegregate and to promote based on skills alone than any other sector of American society.  The branches of the military put U.S. churches to shame in this area.  11 a. m. Sunday is still the most segregated hour in America–but not in the military.  Go to any U.S. Army post (or Air Force, Navy, Marine or Coast Guard base) and attend a worship service at the non-denominational base chapel.  That service will be FAR more racially integrated than anything I’ve seen in civilian life–even in my current congregation which does better than most.

In other ways, the military does better racially, too: I saw more African-Americans in position of authority (especially NCOs, but also commissioned officers) than in civilian life and, even though the sexism of the military is legendary, I saw more high ranking women in the military than in civilian corporations.  So, even though I have heard of the white supremacy groups hidden in the U.S. military, I saw little or no overt or institutional racism toward African-Americans.

But other groups were a different matter.  During Basic Training, we were forced to sing marching songs that dehumanized Asians and Arabs. The anti-Asian songs and chants seemed left over from the Vietnam War and the Korean War.  The anti-Arab songs (yes, even in 1980) clearly anticipated a future war in the Middle East.  As a Christian whose mother had drilled into me daily that ALL people were made in God’s image and ALL were people for whom Christ died, this bothered me no end. But that “targetted racism” began opening my eyes.  I knew immediately that it was a deliberate propaganda ploy, a psychological attack that wanted us to see certain groups that  the government might  consider “the enemy” as less-than-human. That way, we would have less trouble killing them if ordered to do so.  I was horrified.  I even got in a little trouble for refusing to sing the racist marching songs.

Then, still in Basic, there was our training for “ABC,”–atomic, biological, and chemical warfare.  We were being taught how to keep fighting in areas where biological or chemical weapons had been used.  This might seem reasonable, but the instructors let slip that WE still had such stockpiled weapons–even though I knew that the U.S. had signed treaties against both chemical and biological weapons.  Just having them violated treaties.  I made the mistake of mentioning this and received more punishment duty. 

Then there was the absurdity of planning ways to keep fighting after a nuclear weapons “exchange” between the U.S. and USSR.  It hit me–these people are crazy.  Some of the military brass WANT to use nukes (hence the push for smaller, “more usable” nukes now) because they hate having “toys” that they are forbidden to use.  The possession of nuclear weapons was always presented to the U.S. public as a necessary deterrent to Soviet use of the same–but I realized that many military leaders did not think of them this way.  They had plans to use nukes.  And, remember, this was 1980, when U.S. Pres. Ronald Reagan began openly speaking of starting and winning “small” nuclear wars against the Soviets.  I began to lose sleep.

But there were two big catalysts that really changed me.  One came from a friend from my home church.  Even though he was not a pacifist, he believed that I had been called to the ministry (before I had a clue) and, family tradition or no, considered this interruption by military service to be an act of running away from God’s call on my life.  So, he wrote me a letter saying so and challenged me to memorize the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5-7) during Basic Training.  Well, I took him up on it.  So, here I was every day learning to use weapons of death, hand-to-hand combat, etc. and, every night before lights out, reading the Sermon on the Mount with its commands to love enemies, forgive others, interrupt worship to make peace, etc.  I began to have doubts, but I compartmentalized them, as the psychologists say.

   After Basic Training and another school (AIT in Army jargon, “Advanced Individual Training”), I was assigned to a post in Heidelberg, Germany as a clerk.  (I loved my time in Heidelberg and used my passes to tour some of Europe by train with buddies.) In that harmless role, I managed to temporarily shelve my doubts about the compatibility of military service and my (still fairly new) Christian faith.  But this was now 1981 and Reagan was creating a HUGE new arms race and making ever more wartalk to the Soviets. (I didn’t know it, then, but he had also started a secret proxy war in Nicaragua!)  Reagan pushed NATO countries to accept new short range and medium range nuclear weapons on their soil to counter Soviet ICBMs (InterContinental Ballistic Missiles).  These were incredibly dangerous and destabilizing because they could reach Moscow too fast for Moscow to check out false alarms on radar–they would have to launch immediately to be able to counterstrike.  Throughout Europe civilians protested and pushed to get these weapons removed–this grew into the huge European peace movement of the 1980s. I saw it begin in Heidelberg. 

I was attending a small Baptist congregation in Heidelberg instead of the post chapel.  I talked with German Christians about these missiles and they uniformly saw them as threatening their lives. (Reagan talked about how the U.S. could survive a nuclear war with the USSR, but we would, regrettably, wipe out human life in Europe for a thousand years.  Absolute madness.) This brought back all my doubts from basic training. Then I heard the pastor (a pacifist) preach on the duty for Christians to be peacemakers (as I sat in church in my dress uniform) and quote from Martin Luther King, Jr.

  That night, I knew that I could no longer reconcile my faith with military service. I was in the wrong occupation for a Christian.  So, I applied to become a Conscientious Objector and get discharged.  Thankfully, the National Interreligious Service Board for Conscientious Objectors (NISBCO–now called the Center for Conscience and War) sent me an attorney.  I returned to civilian life and to a family and church that neither understood nor agreed with my actions.

It was a hard time.  I was helped by reading Mennonite theologian John Howard Yoder’s The Politics of Jesus, which gave my new pacifism a firm biblical and theological basis.  I have since worn out 3 copies of that book.  I also read more of Dr. King’s writings.  These were the only guides I had to gospel nonviolence before seminary. 

During college, I encountered Latin American liberation theology and went on 2 short-term trips to Nicaragua with Witness for Peace (’83 and ’84), learning an organized, nonviolent response to the U.S. support for the Contra terrorists.  On the second trip, most of my colleagues were members of the Fellowship of Reconciliation, so on returning to the U.S., I joined the F.O.R.  So, by the time I started seminary in ’86, I had solidified my identity as a Christian pacifist. I argued the position in class, joined the Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America, and continued to be involved in movements for peace and justice as I studied theology.

I still have a temper. I’m still a very aggressive personality.  I am not by nature very peaceful and have to work on that with spiritual disciplines.  I raise my voice too often and am too impatient with others and myself.  But I am a pacifist:  I no longer believe that any killing, for any reason, is morally justified.  I refuse to own handguns or allow war toys in my home.  I have resisted the current war and I have tried to spread the practices of Just Peacemaking.

I do not, however, regret my time in the military.  It taught me discipline I would otherwise not have and showed me some of the world I might otherwise not have seen.  And, more than that, I am not sure that I would have ever been forced to think as long and hard about the issues of war and peacemaking and Christian faith as I have if I had not tried to be a soldier. (This is not a recommendation of this path for others.) So, thanks be to God for the U.S. Army:  the Holy Spirit used it to make a Christian pacifist and conscientious objector of me. Amen.

October 21, 2007 Posted by | pacifism, testimony, theology | 11 Comments

Encountering Tradition

I have mentioned that Ben Myers has been hosting a series of guest posts called “Encounters with Tradition” over at his Faith and Theology blog. The series is by and about Christians who have moved from one tradition to another. Well my contribution, “Becoming a Global Baptist,” is now up.  To see all the entries to date, click here.

June 28, 2007 Posted by | Baptists, Christianity, testimony, tradition | Comments Off on Encountering Tradition

This I Believe: How About You?

In 1949, CBS and Edward R. Murrow started a series of conversations with famous and ordinary U.S. citizens over core convictions and values called “This I Believe.” Early this year, National Public Radio revived this series and the national conversation. I participated and so can you. Go to the website This I Believe and enter a 300-to 500 word essay on an essential belief. The best are read on the radio. Many have been collected in a book. Mine and several others from Louisville, KY have been reprinted in LEO: Louisville Eccentric Observer, our weekly alternative newspaper.

Obviously, in 300-500 words, one is not describing EVERYTHING one believes, not even everything important. Pick a particular conviction and write on it from a particular angle. I wrote on rejecting war and embracing nonviolence, briefly connecting it to my Christian faith, and contemporary global events. I noted that whereas the events of the last 6 years since 9/11 may have weakened this conviction in others, it has reinforced my belief that the way of violence has no future.

October 12, 2006 Posted by | faith, testimony | 1 Comment

On Being a Christian (with apologies to Hans Küng)

This is not, strictly speaking, a theology blog like some of those on my links, Faith & Theology, Chrisendom, Euangelion, etc. This blog is intended more as religiously inspired social commentary. It could be considered an exercise in liberation-style political theology, I suppose.

At any rate, conceiving of the blog as having a particular focus, I have tried to avoid topics other than those I consider part of the blog’s purpose–although, I have tried to break monotony with humor, family photos, news about my church, bio sketches of mentors and heroes, and book reviews, especially of books I think important to the Radical Reformation heritage of (Ana)baptists. My feeling has been that if people want to discuss other things, there are plenty of blogs available.

Despite that, however, I find myself needing to prove my bona fides. An annoying twerp I have banned from this site has been telling many, many people that I am not “born again,” and that I try to have Christian discipleship without regeneration and other lies–thus prejudicing potential evangelical readers against me. I resent heavily needing to set the record straight, but ignoring this whisper campaign has not worked.

So, here goes: I was raised in a United Methodist home of a type that would once have been called “evangelical liberal,” but those two words are almost never placed together anymore. The majority of my family is still UMC, but my brother’s family is Pentecostal (Assemblies of God), and there are also Presbyterians, Church of Christ, and Roman Catholics in my extended family. As a teen I went through a period of adolescent rebellion that included skepticism and considering myself an agnostic: Ironically, I ceased to go to church just as my father, following a second-career call to ministry, was ordained a United Methodist deacon and was continuing education toward ordination as an elder. (I know my father was embarrassed, but he wisely gave me space and both he and my mother prayed for me–talking to God about me when it was impossible to talk to me about God as my mother later put it.)

At 18, helped by Black Baptist, Methodist, & Pentacostal friends, I was “born again.” (My debts to African-American Christianity and the Black Church remain HUGE.) I do not like the way this term is used by many in American evangelicalism to refer either to a subjective experience or to some kind of contract with God that makes discipleship optional. That is not the way the phrase functions in the Gospel of John where it is better translated, “born from above.” Nevertheless, though I am tempted when asked about when I was “saved,” to reply in Barthian style, “on Golgotha,” there is a subjective experience that accompanies the objective work of God-in-Christ. And, in my case, that conversion experience was extremely powerful.

However, I had already enlisted in the U.S. army when I experienced saving grace and therefore had no chance to be formed in a Christian community that would mold me in Christian character before I departed for basic training. Fortunately, a high school friend who was opposed to my joining the army challenged me to memorize the Sermon on the Mount during basic training. So, I spent my days learning to be a soldier and my “spare time” memorizing the largest block of Jesus’ teachings in the Gospels, including the beatitude on peacemakers and the commands to love enemies, etc. It caused much cognitive dissonance.

About a year after enlisting I found myself stationed in Heidelberg, Germany–or West Germany as it was then. Since I was trying (with very mixed results ) to learn German, I stopped going to the chapel on post and started attending the small Baptist church in Heidelberg which, at the time, had both a German service and an English service with the same sermon. I attended both trying to get better at my German. This was at the beginning of the huge European peace movement of the ’80s and the pastor preached often on Christian peacemaking. I remember him quoting Martin Luther King, Jr. often. (Strange that I had to go to Germany to learn to take seriously the words of my own countryman.) I became convinced that Christians must be peacemakers, not warriors. I was baptized and applied for conscientious objector status and a discharge–which, after much grief, was granted. I became a Baptist and a C.O. at the same time–and this was like a second conversion for me.

Enough testimony. Salvation is a large biblical concept that is too often reduced in American evangelical circles to either a one-time event or to “fire insurance.” But there is a past, present, and future to salvation: I have been saved; I am being saved; I shall be saved.

Moreover, in both Old and New Testaments, God’s redeeming work in the world is mainly concerned with creating a people and calling them out to mission: WE are being saved together. It is in THIS sense (and this sense only) that the ancient word is right: extra ecclesiam nulla salus—outside the church is no salvation. By grace, God enables us to participate in God’s redeeming work in the world. Discipleship, following after Jesus, is the very shape of the Christian life–not an option that born again individuals can choose or reject.

The church is both the foretaste and the primary agent of the Kingdom or Rule of God which has broken into history and is coming in fullness at the Eschaton. That Rule of God come into history, not some disembodied existence in “heaven,” is the goal of Christian faith, as Byron has been arguing over at Nothing New Under the Son.

I have touched on far more than can be explained in one post. This entry opens up a huge range of topics–one reason why I have avoided it previously. Yet, that avoidance gave the false impression that I am ashamed of the gospel or of God’s converting work in my life. I hope this sets the record straight.

October 10, 2006 Posted by | Christianity, faith, testimony | 7 Comments