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By Steve Jungkeit, Broad Street Ministry


Views from the Underground


To begin, here are some words from a little book on the contemplative life called Everything Belongs, by Richard Rohr:

How do you make attractive that which is not?
How do you sell emptiness, vulnerability, and nonsuccess?
How do you talk about descent when everything is about ascent?
How can you possibly market letting-go in a capitalist culture?
How do you present Jesus to a Promethean mind?ˇ
How do you talk about dying to a church trying to appear perfect?
This is NOT going to work
(admitting this might be my first step)

Before proceeding further I need to offer my own confession: I number myself among the disillusioned ones, those for whom the dominant modes of Christianity and understandings of God have largely ceased to speak. Though I spend my days reading theology, and though I show up for church most Sundays, I often fail to hear anything resembling good news in those settings. I've witnessed the way theologians have used their considerable skills in logic to build impregnable mental fortresses, devoid of passion, where they never need to feel any of the fear and trembling of ambiguity ever again. I've witnessed the conformist aspect of the church, on both the right and the left, where an all powerful and sovereign God claims he loves us (no need to use gender inclusive language here!), and yet has a very specific moral program he would like us to adhere to if we are really to know that love. I've seen the way the moral demands of that sovereign God have rendered people bland automatons, bright-eyed, well manicured, cheerful, polite and pleasantly deodorized, afraid to allow their deepest questions or their most painful or uncomfortable feelings to show through. And perhaps most importantly of late, I have witnessed along with everybody else the truly terrible aspects of religious expression, including Christian expression, where Christianity becomes a nationalist ideology that helps to justify foreign violence abroad and an individualistic culture of ownership at home.

And yet for all that I remain strangely attracted to the figure of Jesus, and to the rather ironic kingdom he proclaimed. I continue to be attracted to the communities of people who tell and retell all the stories about Jesus, and his predecessors, the prophets, and his apostolic successors. In their best moments, these stories contain a vision of freedom (a word that we need to wrest away from George W. Bush), of individuals impassioned by an irrupting event, of a God who loves without demanding adherence to a program, of a God who is content to allow us to be kind of a mess, without needing to sanitize us. In short, in all those old stories I think I hear a freeing word from a God who has issued an invitation to live outside the norms prescribed by a consumer culture. I think I hear the word of one who frees us to get in touch with the world at its deepest and most profound levels, where words can barely reach, where laughter and spontaneity and joy and sex and irreverence and profanity mix with deep wells of sorrow and anger, fear and confusion. I think we'll have to affirm that it's in those places in particular, places that some cultural theorists call "limit experiences," where we'll discover the strange revelation of God.

And so I've been wondering for some years now what it would mean to take this vision of a fragile and vulnerable God seriously, together with the strange freedom that I think I sense lingering in the stories of Jesus and the prophets. I've been wondering, long before this gathering was planned, how such a vision might be communicated, how such a Word might be proclaimed.

Here is what I've come up with: first, we'd have to break away from the idea that it's a principle or an idea or a religious truth or a system of ethics that we're communicating. If we are to proclaim this word we'll have to trust in something as flimsy as an event. We'll have to trust that once upon a time something irrupted in our own lives with force enough to compel us to proclaim this strange good news about a God of freedom. We'll have to resist hiding behind the good name of philosophy or apologetics when we talk about this event. The best Reformed theology I know is insistent on this point truth is a person, a moment, one that we name Jesus Christ, not a proposition to be proved. So we'll have to stake our claim on the fragility of a subjective moment, without nervously rushing into the arms of proof texts or philosophical arguments. We'll have to make our proclamation personal.

I think we'd also do well to borrow from some recent literary theory on the nature of testimonies. We'll have to understand that when we proclaim the crucified and risen one named Jesus, we're testifying to a wound that was opened some two thousand years ago. It's that wound, that rupture, that gave Christianity its original force. Recall that Paul was knocked off his horse and blinded shortly after he witnessed the traumatic stoning of Stephen. Recall that when Stephen was stoned, he was bearing witness to the crucified one. Recall as well that all the Hebrew prophets were testifying to disasters of one sort or another, urging their culture to look at places within themselves and within their worlds that they would sooner forget. I think our understanding of proclamation will have to have something of the same character, testifying to the wounds that we have sensed within ourselves and the wounds we have witnessed in the worlds we inhabit. And that means we'll have to be vigilant about critiquing the gospel of success and prosperity, for that is a systematic way of occluding and repressing the wounds that attempt to speak through us.

Here's another thing: maybe we'll have to borrow from Kierkegaard, who knew the use of irony and indirect communication in preaching the gospel. His finest theological and philosophical treatises are playful events, in which he introduces various characters and voices into the texts that force upon readers the question: "what do you think about all this? If you don't have an author (i.e. authority) telling you what's true and what's not, what's to be believed and what's not, if what you've got is a cacophony of voices and truths competing for adherence in the text, then where will you yourself land on all these questions?" So maybe our job as ‘proclaimers’ of the Word in Christian worship is akin to that. Maybe we'll have to swear off thinking ourselves authorities about religious and spiritual matters, and find clever and humorous ways of eliciting the truth from those we come into contact with.

Another way of saying it is that the sorts of things we're trying to proclaim can't just be stated outright. It's like gazing at stars on a clear night your view is better if you catch a glimpse from your peripheral vision. It's the same with Christian proclamation I think it's best if we do it on the sly, in ways that seek to elicit a response from our hearers, rather than simply saying outright what's what. It's no accident, after all, that Jesus proclaimed his kingdom using parables and subversive irony. That's why our notion of what counts as proclamation, including what can be done in a sermon, is nearly limitless. Music, sculpture, painting, narrative, especially narrative, film all these are useful means of bearing witness to the event that we've witnessed in Jesus. That most of our churches shy away from these media, limiting themselves to moral instruction or some such thing, testifies to the paucity of their understanding of proclamation.

Additionally, it seems to me that a church located in the arts district of a major city—like the Broad Street Ministry—could find ways of incorporating into itself not only the highbrow arts, but middle and lowbrow arts as well. Our ministry (BSM) should find ways of incorporating into its aesthetic sense urban kitsch and camp, cowboy bands and hip hop acts. It might hire a local artist to do its mailings or bulletins. It might form its own house band that would play on Sundays but then also around town from time to time. I don't know. I guess what I'm suggesting is that the use of irony and indirect communication throws the door open to all sorts of interesting methods of proclamation, which in turn suggests the importance of having an aesthetic vision as well as a theological one.

I think these are all ways of addressing the questions from Richard Rohr that I began with. There are ways of embracing risk and passion, of allowing the church to speak in ways that aren't determined by the marketplace. There are ways of emphasizing descent as opposed to successful ascent, ways of testifying to the myriad ways in which we're haunted by the wounds of the world. They're ways of taking seriously the fact that because of the Incarnation, we're given the freedom to discern the presence of God in every aspect of life and culture, no matter how tawdry or apparently despicable. In the end, what I mean to suggest is that there is virtually no limit to what might be done with proclamation, and the presence of the Word of God in our midst is license to think freely and creatively about how to bear witness to what we have encountered in Jesus Christ.

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