The Disease of Building Theology in the Theoretical

This blog was first posted on Tony Campolo’s Red Letter Christian’s online publication on 5/6/12…

I love and am enlivened by intellectual stimulation, specifically in relation to the integration of theology and ethics.  In many ways, I feel that I am hardwired for this stuff. 

The other night my NieuCommunities’ tribe was taking an extended time to explore how we each individually connect with God; what are the times, places or activities where we are most connected and alive.  For some it was through contemplation, others through a variety of worship forms, while others through care giving and hospitality.  For me, intellectual exploration was one of the primary ways I connect with God.  My writing, teaching and graduate studies have not come out of a desire to attain a “deeper” faith, but rather out of a unique conviction that I must pursue these things out of faithfulness to the faith I ascribe to.  God has created me for this stuff and it is a significant way I hope to edify the Church global.

Now, while this is an important reality to acknowledge and foster as I come to better understand my wiring and its relation to my Kingdom contribution, I have to hold this reality in tension with some recent experiences and convictions that have come about as a result.

On one of my recent trips down to Tijuana, Mexico I was able to stay for a few days and enter into some of the rhythms of life in this context.  Because of the close proximity, shared economy and common relationships, we consider Tijuana part of the larger metropolitan area of San Diego.  Whether it is acknowledged or not, we function as one city.  With that said, the ways of life in Tijuana and San Diego run in sharp contrast with one another.  The material poverty in much of our neighboring Mexican population is stunning in comparison with the material excess in much of San Diego.  More stunning to me was the comparison between the Christian communities on each side of the border.  While much (certainly not all!) of the energy of Christians in the States goes to building bigger buildings, having better events and ascending the intellectual ladder, our friends in Mexico (certainly not all!) are seeking live out their faith in the everyday realities of the mundane.  They simply don’t have the time or energy to debate doctrine when they need to provide the next meal for their family. 

Just a few weeks ago I returned from spending an extended time in the West Bank among Muslim and Christian Palestinian friends (see above pic).  Not only did we experience life-giving hospitality, we received it from a people who have almost nothing (material) to give.  When we came into one of their homes, the father/husband said, “When you enter our home you are the resident and I am the guest.”  The Church of Palestine lives under the heavy yoke of occupation enduring extreme poverty, daily injustice and has seemingly little hope of a new reality for the generations to come.  But -- and this is a HUGE but -- the Spirit is alive among this community.  This is a band of Jesus’ followers who everyday have to choose to follow the Prince of Peace in their daily realities.  For them, following Jesus cannot simply be reduced to a belief system or a doctrinal statement.  No, following Jesus for them means choosing peace in the face of yet another incident of violence, it means choosing dignity amid imposed humiliation, it means expecting the arrival of “daily bread” when all their resources have run dry.  

Here is the bottom line: People in third world countries are more worried about living out their theology in the mundane than arguing theology in the theoretical. From my experience, a lived theology is much more true and compelling than a “thought about” theology.

This truth serves both as an inspirational and helpful critique of those of us in first world West. 

Developing theology in the theoretical is a unique luxury we have in the West.  If held in tension with the reality of our brothers and sisters living in 3rd world countries, it can be a great benefit to the Church global.  If only understood through our grid of success, achievement, value, intellectual assent or a desire to be on the “right” side of an argument, it can be a grave tragedy for the Church of the West and its relation to the Church global. 

Our intellectual excess is a reflection of our societal tendency towards excess and consumerism.   Yes, even our heart felt desires for intellectual assent in theology can be a sin of excess and consumerism.  It is a reality that is largely only an option in places where we have the time and resources for such practices. 

There are no debates between neo-Calvinists and neo-Anabaptists in the West Bank.  There is no talk of Mark Driscoll and Rob Bell.  There are no flashy programs and events.  Sure the Church has its issues in these places, but their differences are unearthed through shared life and practice rather than in lecture halls and blog rolls.

If done well, I think theological debate and discourse are good.  In fact, they are needed.

Intellectual stimulation is good.  For people like me it isn’t pursued with a desire to be unfaithful, it’s the exact opposite. 

So we have a great gift here in the West.  It is one we must cherish and develop, not for our benefit or reputation, but for the benefit of God’s global Kingdom.  We have a lot to learn from our brothers and sisters around the world and as one who has build much of my theology in the theoretical, I choose to stand first in line to repent and learn from these hero’s.

May we not only learn from our brothers and sisters in third world countries, may we allow their life and practice to inform the voice of the Church global as much our best books, sermons and lectures.  Because while we get carried away arguing our theology in the theoretical, they are busy living out their theology in the mundane of the everyday. 

Note: I am speaking to “general” contrasts between 1st world theology and 3rd world theology.  There are many exceptions and I am in no way discounting the brilliant intellectuals with a significant voice and influence who live in 3rd world countries.  They are a numerous, needed and growing presence.



Why Everyday Is A Cause For Celebration

Last night I had a few moments out on our patio to just sit under the stars and reflect on the things that matter most.  I had put Ruby to sleep, Janny was out at a meeting with our Nieucommunities tribe and I was overwhelmed with gratitude for the life I have the honor of living each day.

As I sat and reflected I began to thank God for having a dream for my life and for all his people.  In the past week I have had the opportunity to share our heart with our family and friends at Salinas Valley Community Church, I have had the opportunity to write about stuff that I really care about and I have had the chance to live and dream among a community of Jesus followers that are committed to living life in the way of Jesus. 

Living in a society that is often consumed by what is ahead of us -- or what we need to do to achieve success -- I am stuck by the need to simply celebrate what God is already actively doing in and among his people.  In my travels I have consistently encountered people that are simply trying to survive to their next meal or next day.  There is so much pain and hurt in this world that God is ceaselessly pursuing with his dreams for reconciliation and restoration. 

Every once in a while it is important to simply stop and celebrate what God is doing in and through us.  Personally, I am thankful to more and more discern God’s heart for my life and begin to step into it.  There are so many distractions that can set us off track, but when we begin to taste and experience his dream for humanity, we must rejoice.

I rejoice. 

I have a beautiful family.  I’m using most every moment of everyday to pursue what I know I have been created for and I celebrate the opportunity I have to step into it. 

I don’t always faithfully step into this Dream God has for me, but largely I have been able to see and experience it.  I am thankful.

In a world where many don’t have the opportunity, time or capacity to dream and experiment, it would be a shame to squander these opportunities.  In fact, I think it would be unfaithful. 

May we more and more tap into the Dream God has for us, begin to faithfully step into it and celebrate what God is doing.  May we be a people that are marked by the hope of resurrection for the sake of extending that hope to the ends of the earth.  

Fatalities of Prejudice

(Pic: Our daughter Ruby with a Muslim family that recently fled Afghanistan as persecuted refugees)

Confession: I often fall victim to stereotype and blind prejudice against those outside of my cultural, religious or ethnic circle.

Our Daughter Ruby w/Afghan Family

I believe many of us have allowed the polarizing and hateful rhetoric of media/politics to inform us on who we believe to be friend or enemy. There are endless numbers of religious and political pundits who have destroyed any remnant of generative discourse in order to make a name or an extra buck.  This is a tragedy that has severe consequences for masses of people outside of our relatively small population.

I’m not saying there isn’t evil in the world.  I believe there is.  There are daily acts of violence across the globe, but we must not assume that such violence is promoted by whole demographics.

What I am saying is that who we label as “evil” often aren’t evil at all.  In fact, they are often those that embody the fruits of the Spirit in more tangible ways than anyone else.

A few examples of people groups who have been labeled by false stereotypes, which have led to oppressive prejudice:

“The Muslim Terrorist” – Just a few weeks ago I (as a professing Christian and stranger) sat in “their” West Bank homes and experienced hospitality that will stay with me forever.

“The Jewish-Israeli Extremist” – I shook “their” hands while standing in sacred Jewish sites as “they” articulated the necessity to build bridges of equality between Israel and Palestine.

“The Agenda Pushing Homosexual” – Some of my closest friends have been put in this category and the daily prejudice (especially from the Christian community) they absorb breaks my heart…and theirs.

“The Illegal Mexican Immigrant” – I play soccer with “them” every week.  I had lunch in “their” home just yesterday. (Good article on this topic: The Gospel of Immigration.)

Obviously, my experiences are not comprehensive as there are isolated individuals that affirm the assigned labels, but not only were these labels untrue, the assumptions inherent in these labels were untrue. When the language of “they” turns to “my friend,” everything changes. And I would argue it changes in the direction Jesus would have it.

In each case, I had to unlearn previously believed stereotypes and labels.  People’s identities are not to be defined by an assigned label, but by the identity given to each by God.

As followers of Jesus, there is no room for such distinctions.  Our vocation is to love and serve ALL humanity.  If our assumptions about someone don’t allow us to objectively hear someone’s story, then we are serving an agenda other than that of Jesus.

I don’t say this to be a jerk, I say this because we are missing out.  Such prejudice is not only fatal to the humanity of those we judge, it is fatal to the humanity of each of us.  Prejudice is insidious and it turns us into people we were not designed to be. We become less human.  When we adopt a posture of defense and demonization in exchange for a posture of invitation and Christ-likeness, we fail to live out our vocation as disciples of Jesus.

As Christians, we live in the present reality and future hope of Resurrection, which gives us the eyes to see the restorative plan of God in all of humanity. We can’t lose our kingdom imagination at the hands of blind prejudice.

What are ways we can shake off this toxic addiction to prejudice that steals life from “them” and “us?”

Go: Intentionally find ways to interact with those whom we demonize.  When “enemies” move from somewhere “over there” to fellow human citizens, we can begin to see more clearly.

Listen: Hear their stories.  People aren’t near as irrational as we are told they are.  When we hear their stories, we experience the human side of issues that have been reduced to political or religious talking points.

New Eyes: We have to unlearn many of the stereotypes we have accepted as truth and turn (repent) to truths of equality and hope found in Jesus.  We have to train our eyes to see Jesus in everyone

I’m about to walk out door and cross the border into Tijuana, Mexico.  Due to a variety reasons, it has become one of the most violent cities in the world….but that DOES NOT mean that all or even the majority of Mexicans are violent.

I’m not promoting a social ignorance.  Instead, I’m proposing a return to the normative values and reality that were inaugurated in Jesus’ life, death and resurrection.

“Jesus, forgive me.  May I take on new kingdom eyes that are able to identify your Image in each of your children”

Reach out those you fear.

Touch the heart of complexity.

Imagine beyond what is seen.

Risk vulnerability one step at a time.

-Poem found in John Paul Lederach’s Moral Imagination-

What would our relationships look like if we saw people first as image bearers of God rather than bearers of a socially conferred label?

What our ways we need to repent of blind prejudice?  From whom do we need to seek forgiveness?  What are ways we can develop a kingdom imagination that sees Jesus in those we have chosen to write off as “evil?”


Theology of Reflection: part 1

I love Costa Rica. It could be the perfect chest high surf or the tropical rains or the endless wild fruits that you can pull from trees and eat as breakfast on the go.  It is all of those things (and much more!).  But in order to fully appreciate all those brilliant realities, one must embrace the most important reality that Costa Rica has to offer, “Pura Vida.”  Pura vida is Spanish for pure life.  It is not a tangible reality, it is mental state.  It is the mental state that gives all the other life-giving realities the context to come to life.

What is Pura Vida?

  • It is putting a sign on your business door that says, “Closed due to good surf.”
  • Waking up to coffee and reading, while the iguanas run around you looking for left overs
  • Having a BBQ with your neighbors simply because it is a good day to have a BBQ with your neighbors
  • Leaving the last 3 items on your “To Do” list for tomorrow, so you can catch the sunset with your wife

Sounds amazing, right?   Well, it is…unless you’re a product of a culture and personality with a whole different value system.

Jan and I were able to spend 5 weeks down there at the beginning of 2008 to take a sabbatical of sorts, while I worked on writing a book. I didn’t realize that this trip was going to be more about me de-toxing from an unsustainable lifestyle than it was a time of writing.

Honestly, this “Pura Vida” culture was really difficult to embrace.  It took me three weeks of frustration, stress and anxiety to finally release my unhealthy expectations and embrace a way of life that offered way more room for introspection, conversation and reflection.  Left unchecked, my life was being overrun by self induced chaos, unrealistic deadlines, a pursuit of a mythical definition of “success,” and on and on.

I was headed down a road of empty destruction.  One that lacked the space for rich relationships, personal reflection and a listening ear for God’s divine breath.

How did I get to this point?  Where did these lies of false success find their way into my confused value system?  What cultural paradigm had I bought into that could breed such a life of chaos?

Launching into a new year, it is important that I re-trace my steps of a few years ago and take some inventory of where I land today.  Interestingly, the Biblical Story and the voices of the Early Church Fathers cast a serious indictment on the life I was living, while offering a sustainable way forward.

More tomorrow.

“Don’t Act Like You’re Not Impressed.”

I love to impress people.  I mean, who doesn’t?  For example, just last night at our friends’ house the topic of Giants baseball and my long time fanhood jumped into our conversation.  I was asked how painful it has been to be a Giants fan for so long and I quickly responded by retelling the gut-wrenching story of the Mets’ Benny Agbayani hitting a 13th inning game winning homer against us in the 2000 playoffs.  My friends were impressed by such specific Giants’ knowledge (or maybe they just thought I was pathetic) and I was happy to oblige, especially now that those memories aren’t so painful having won a World Series.

A trusted counselor of mine once told me, “Jon, you probably write/teach about the importance of authenticity, but you need to do a better job modeling that in your own life.” Ouch…

On my best day, I write what God has put on my heart and I share it with conviction.  On my worst day, I write while asking the question, “What do people want to hear and how can I impress them?”  I don’t have the time, desire or calling to simply write what people want to hear.  Plus, that is just bad writing and doesn’t make for a compelling story.

Over the past three years, I have sensed an overwhelming conviction to tell the stories that often get dismissed, over looked or that are culturally taboo within our Western narrative.  Whether stories from the alley behind my apartment or stories from our travels in a war torn Middle East, I commit to tell them with honesty, conviction and creativity (more on this in my next post).

For now, help me live out the advice of my counselor by engaging in critical conversation and story that sheds light on God’s Kingdom, even if it rustles our feathers and makes us a bit uncomfortable.  Because if I’m authentic in telling these stories, we will be uncomfortable…and hopefully inspired towards action.

1 2 3 4 Scroll to top