Stephen Rankin

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Name: Stephen Rankin
Date registered: September 27, 2012
URL: http://stephenrankin.com

Latest posts

  1. Rankin File: Developing Players, Developing Disciples — August 15, 2014
  2. Rankin File: Developing Players, Developing Disciples — August 15, 2014
  3. Rankin File: A “Mainliner’s” View of Mark Driscoll’s Demise — August 8, 2014
  4. Rankin File: Another Example of a Gap in Higher Education — August 6, 2014
  5. Rankin File: The Moral Dilemma for United Methodist Schools — July 17, 2014

Most commented posts

  1. Rankin File: Pressure Points on the Itinerancy — 1 comment
  2. Rankin File: What We Tolerate, What We Don’t — 1 comment

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Aug 15 2014

Rankin File: Developing Players, Developing Disciples

Original post at http://stephenrankin.com/developing-players-developing-disciples/


People who care about their craft borrow ideas and resources wherever they can find them in order to get better at what they do. Having worked in college for almost twenty years, I’m obviously very interested in student development. I grew up loving sports and I, like many others, find inspiration and occasional good advice in that area. It happened again about a week ago.

Recently, Bill Snyder, head football coach for Kansas State University made headlines with his comments about college football “selling out.” He voiced his opinion in the wake of the NCAA’s voting to permit the new super division of the biggest football schools. Snyder has been talking about this matter for a while – the big money associated with TV contracts, the palatial stadiums, the obscene amounts of money made on merchandising. He even fretted about how roomy his office is compared to the cramped quarters of many faculty offices.

In all the hoopla and hype over college sports, who, ironically, gets lost? The players. They’re students. And it really does seem to bother Coach Snyder.

It would be easy to dismiss this talk as hypocritical chatter by a big-time coach. After all, K-State has followed suit, sunk a bunch of money into their athletic facilities, and appear to be trying to keep up with the football Joneses (no offense to the Joneses). This is a challenge many NCAA schools face. If you want to play that game, you’ve got to find ways to stay in the game. But in this case, there’s more to the story and, strangely enough, it inspires me to work hard at student development in campus ministry.

(Full disclosure: I am an alumnus of Kansas State University who likes to follow Coach Snyder and the ‘Cats. I’m a purple bigot.)

If you follow college sports, you know that every year pundits rank the recruiting classes of football programs. Already for 2015 you can find them. The top five classes? Alabama, Texas A&M, Clemson, South Carolina, Florida State. If you follow year to year, you know that the same eight or ten teams are almost always at the top of the list. And they’re in the hunt for the national championship every year. One gets the sense, therefore, that recruiting the top-ranked players is necessary to have perennial top-ranked teams.

What criteria are used in ranking players? Speed, strength and agility tests relative to playing position render critical information for coaches. Their high school record (how many tackles, touchdown passes, yards gained, interceptions, games won, etc.) count heavily; their high school coaches’ strong recommendations and promoting also matter. You can see how a player stacks up to other players at a given position by the number of stars next to his name. If you recruit a bunch of top-ranked players, then voila(!) you have a top-ranked recruiting class.

While the Alabamas and Oklahomas always have elite recruiting classes, where does K-State’s class typically rank? They don’t even crack the top 50. This just doesn’t seem to matter to Coach Snyder. Yet, by the end of the season, his team has put together another incredible run, winding up ranked at least in the top 25 and usually considerably higher.

To put the matter in rather bald terms, K-State takes lower ranked, lesser known players every year and turns them into super achievers. Clearly, Coach Snyder and his crew know how to develop players. K-State fans, don’t hate me for saying it: I would not trade what Bill Snyder’s program does for players for all the national championships in the world.

One can always feel suspicious about the difference between image and reality, but it really does look to me like Coach Snyder and his staff are much more interested in the players as people, in the non-tangibles, like teachability, character and commitment rather than freakish talent. Of course, these guys have talent, but, for whatever reason, they either don’t have the gaudy numbers or attract a lot of attention. Think about this: 3 of the team’s captains for this upcoming season started as walk-ons. (They’re also all Kansas natives.) I think this is truly an amazing story and in the blinding glitz of big time college football, it goes largely unnoticed to fans and prognosticators. While the rest of us are all agog about some five-star recruit, Coach Snyder and his staff are working their unsung “youngsters” into yet another great team.

So, working in a culture consumed by dollars from TV contracts, merchandising, by fan obsessions and fickleness in which we lose track of the fact that the Johnny Manziels of the world are fantastic talents, but still little more than boys in highly trained bodies, the Bill Snyders and the K-States of the world are doing it old school, out of the glare of shallow and short attention spans – developing people while developing players.

Of course, coaching a college football team is almost nothing like campus ministry, but this example inspires me. It makes me want to work hard; to give full attention to every student who sits in my office or otherwise crosses my path. Football is a game. Discipleship is life. I should be as committed to developing students as any coach is to developing players.

The post Developing Players, Developing Disciples appeared first on Rankin File.

Permanent link to this article: http://methoblog.com/3_0/2014/08/developing-players-developing-disciples-2/

Aug 15 2014

Rankin File: Developing Players, Developing Disciples

Original post at http://stephenrankin.com/2056/


People who care about their craft borrow ideas and resources wherever they can find them in order to get better at what they do.  Having worked in college for almost twenty years, I’m obviously very interested in student development.  I grew up loving sports and I, like many others, find inspiration and occasional good advice in that area.  It happened again about a week ago.

Recently, Bill Snyder, head football coach for Kansas State University made headlines with his comments about college football “selling out.” He voiced his opinion in the wake of the NCAA’s voting to permit the new super division of the biggest football schools.  Snyder has been talking about this matter for a while – the big money associated with TV contracts, the palatial stadiums, the obscene amounts of money made on merchandising. He even fretted about how roomy his office is compared to the cramped quarters of many faculty offices.

In all the hoopla and hype over college sports, who, ironically, gets lost?  The players.  They’re students.  And it really does seem to bother Coach Snyder.

It would be easy to dismiss this talk as hypocritical chatter by a big-time coach. After all, K-State has followed suit, sunk a bunch of money into their athletic facilities, and appear to be trying to keep up with the football Joneses (no offense to the Joneses).  This is a challenge many NCAA schools face.  If you want to play that game, you’ve got to find ways to stay in the game.  But in this case, there’s more to the story and, strangely enough, it inspires me to work hard at student development in campus ministry.

(Full disclosure: I am an alumnus of Kansas State University who likes to follow Coach Snyder and the ‘Cats.  I’m a purple bigot.)

If you follow college sports, you know that every year pundits rank the recruiting classes of football programs.  Already for 2015 you can find them. The top five classes?  Alabama, Texas A&M, Clemson, South Carolina, Florida State.  If you follow year to year, you know that the same eight or ten teams are almost always at the top of the list.  And they’re in the hunt for the national championship every year.  One gets the sense, therefore, that recruiting the top-ranked players is necessary to have perennial top-ranked teams.

What criteria are used in ranking players?  Speed, strength and agility tests relative to playing position render critical information for coaches.  Their high school record (how many tackles, touchdown passes, yards gained, interceptions, games won, etc.) count heavily; their high school coaches’ strong recommendations and promoting also matter.  You can see how a player stacks up to other players at a given position by the number of stars next to his name.  If you recruit a bunch of top-ranked players, then voila(!) you have a top-ranked recruiting class.

While the Alabamas and Oklahomas always have elite recruiting classes, where does K-State’s class typically rank?  They don’t even crack the top 50.  This just doesn’t seem to matter to Coach Snyder.  Yet, by the end of the season, his team has put together another incredible run, winding up ranked at least in the top 25 and usually considerably higher.

To put the matter in rather bald terms, K-State takes lower ranked, lesser known players every year and turns them into super achievers.  Clearly, Coach Snyder and his crew know how to develop players.  K-State fans, don’t hate me for saying it: I would not trade what Bill Snyder’s program does for players for all the national championships in the world.

One can always feel suspicious about the difference between image and reality, but it really does look to me like Coach Snyder and his staff are much more interested in the players as people, in the non-tangibles, like teachability, character and commitment rather than freakish talent.  Of course, these guys have talent, but, for whatever reason, they either don’t have the gaudy numbers or attract a lot of attention.  Think about this: 3 of the team’s captains for this upcoming season started as walk-ons.  (They’re also all Kansas natives.)  I think this is truly an amazing story and in the blinding glitz of big time college football, it goes largely unnoticed to fans and prognosticators.  While the rest of us are all agog about some five-star recruit, Coach Snyder and his staff are working their unsung “youngsters” into yet another great team.

So, working in a culture consumed by dollars from TV contracts, merchandising, by fan obsessions and fickleness in which we lose track of the fact that the Johnny Manziels of the world are fantastic talents, but still little more than boys in highly trained bodies, the Bill Snyders and the K-States of the world are doing it old school, out of the glare of shallow and short attention spans – developing people while developing players.

Of course, coaching a college football team is almost nothing like campus ministry, but this example inspires me.  It makes me want to work hard; to give full attention to every student who sits in my office or otherwise crosses my path.  Football is a game.  Discipleship is life.  I should be as committed to developing students as any coach is to developing players.

 

 

 

The post Developing Players, Developing Disciples appeared first on Rankin File.

Permanent link to this article: http://methoblog.com/3_0/2014/08/developing-players-developing-disciples/

Aug 08 2014

Rankin File: A “Mainliner’s” View of Mark Driscoll’s Demise

Original post at http://stephenrankin.com/mark-driscolls-demise/


I’m going to try to stick to a very narrow point in this post and I ask the reader to do the same.  There are other things that could be said about the breaking Mark Driscoll story.  I’ll leave it to other people to say them.

I just read that Driscoll and Mars Hill Church were removed from the Acts 29 Network, an organization that he helped to start and for which he served (a few years ago) as President.  (Read here: http://blog.seattlepi.com/seattlepolitics/2014/08/08/evangelism-network-to-mark-driscoll-step-down-and-seek-help/#25601101=0)

It seems to me from reading the letter of dismissal that:

1.  For a number of years, colleagues in the network have tried to help Driscoll see the harm he was doing with his brand of “leadership.”  It appears that they finally came to the conclusion that no other way of handling this situation could be found.

2.  They emphasize that this act of discipline was the most loving route they could take, following their understanding of the necessary biblical protocol.  I have to admit, I think they used the word “loving” a time or two too often, as if they were also trying to fend off criticism.  It did seem a little like they “protested too much” their love.  That said, I appreciate, respect and admire their action.

3.  I wish it could have been done more out of the public eye, but in our crazy culture, with people as high profile as Driscoll, there’s no way for this matter not to become a news item.  Given the nature of the controversy, for the blogosphere (yes, I realize the irony), this story is like red meat to carnivorous critics of evangelical Christianity.

4.  To the self-identified progressives in our beloved United Methodist church, the ones who like to crow about evangelical hypocrisy: Mark Driscoll is getting his comeuppance and I beg you not to enjoy it via your blogs and Facebook statuses.  I’m not talking about all progressives, not by a long shot.  I’m talking about the gloaters.

I’ve been spending a lot of time with the Sermon on the Mount the past few months.  More than the “Judge not…” teaching, the whole tenor of the Sermon reflects the call for Christians to be generous and forgiving toward one another.  The quality of our relationships is a major means of showing that we are the salt of the earth, the light of the world.  I obviously don’t have a relationship with Driscoll, but this matter reminds all of us how we are to treat one another.

Please don’t read me as saying we have to make nice.  Anybody who knows me knows that I don’t care a fig for false reconciliation and avoiding controversy at all costs.  We must speak the truth as we see it and we must engage contentious topics.  Good relationships have plenty of conflict and disagreement.  What makes the relationships good is that people love each other through the difficulty and stay in community, that is, until they finally conclude – together – that they must part company.  Peaceable people can and sometimes do come to this conclusion, even when they are utterly committed to living at peace with all so far as it depends on them.  (No, I’m not advocating for denominational division.)

5.  And now my main point: whatever you think about the theology, practices or culture of the Acts 29 Network, you must take off your hat off to these leaders who acted to dismiss Driscoll.  Leaders of big organizations have big egos.  (This is true of United Methodist leaders, too.)  They are powerful people.  It takes guts to do what they have done.  I can imagine the consternation, yes, the shame, of being associated with a leader who has demonstrated – temporarily, we hope – not only a lack of integrity but a wanton cruelty and egoism.  I commend them for taking these steps.  They clearly don’t need my commendation and I have no idea what has happened behind closed doors in the lead-up to today’s action, but I take my hat off to them.

By contrast, I don’t feel so good about my own denomination.  Too be sure, I’ve been enough “on the inside” to know that bishops have to make similar tough decisions.  I’ve served on the Board of Ordained Ministry and have been involved in disciplining clergy, even voting to remove a few.  The main difference between the Driscoll case and my small scale experience is simply profile and publicity.  I’m trying to say we United Methodists have had our fair share of difficult situations and I’ve seen us handle them as courageously and as compassionately as possible.

But recently, on a big canvas, with national leaders whose misguided zeal has brought shame upon The United Methodist Church, we have not done so well.  I have in mind those leaders who – believing they know better than the rest of us how to handle things – simply follow their own designs.  Maybe you see their actions as necessary in an unjust world.  We can disagree about that point and have our disagreements in Christlike love.

But we also need to pay attention to how we United Methodists look to the public eye.  It’s very easy for us to see the speck in some other organization’s eye and not see the log in ours.

Jesus has a lot to say about hypocrisy and most of it is aimed at religious leaders.  I hope we’re listening.

 

The post A “Mainliner’s” View of Mark Driscoll’s Demise appeared first on Rankin File.

Permanent link to this article: http://methoblog.com/3_0/2014/08/a-mainliners-view-of-mark-driscolls-demise/

Aug 06 2014

Rankin File: Another Example of a Gap in Higher Education

Original post at http://stephenrankin.com/another-example-gap-higher-education/


David Bentley Hart, in The Experience of God, makes this important observation: “To bracket form and finality out of one’s investigations as far as reason allows is a matter of method, but to deny their reality altogether is a matter of metaphysics.”  (p. 70)  “Form and finality” refer to ultimate causes and purposes; in philosophical terms, the stuff of metaphysics.  Research methods don’t try to address metaphysical questions.  But as you know, sometimes people claim modern research as the reason not only to avoid metaphysical topics, but, as Hart says, “to deny their reality altogether.” This problem still exists big time in higher education and it has preoccupied me for twenty years.

The other day I tweeted that what we call student development in the academy, we call discipleship in the church.  I’ve also said to those willing to endure my fulminations that pedagogy (the technical term for the practice of teaching and learning) just is discipleship.  The academy shapes people.  In a thousand diverse ways it teaches us what to care about, what is worthy of our attention, what matters.  It teaches us also what not to care about.

I’ve been looking recently at literature on student development in higher education.  We know that college students undergo much change, but change is not synonymous with development.  To develop means that we have a clear sense of the goal toward which purposeful change takes us.  Unfortunately, we largely assume that “the college experience” takes student toward the goal, because the right goal is whatever the student wants it to be.  Exceedingly rarely do you find discussion about the value of such goals, which is to say, discussions about what really matters.  We talk a lot about the means, little about the ends.  The end(s) we leave to students.  Sort of.

(Except in one zone: confessional Christian schools.  I don’t work in one of those schools, so I’ll not say more, but we in the mainline could learn a lesson here.)

Student development theory has emerged from the works of researchers like Jean Piaget, Erik Erikson, Lawrence Kohlberg, Carol Gilligan, William Perry, and Robert Kegan, to name a few. (In the field of faith development and spirituality, we would add James Fowler, Sharon Daloz Parks and James Loder.)  These names are mostly associated with psychology.   How have these folks come by their understanding of human development?  By devising good research methods.  By clinical controls.  By observation.  By testing and testing again.  By thousands and thousands of conversations with people and drawing testable conclusions.  As good scientists, for the most part, they avoid the “form and finality” question.

(James Fowler’s Becoming Adult, Becoming Christian takes his theoretical work and reflects theologically on what development looks like for Christians.  In all my readings of Fowler, I see him taking special care to recognize when he is doing what.)

But over time a tradition of thought takes shape with implicit metaphysical assumptions.  This point is difficult to prove.  Researchers can bracket basic philosophical questions because their research interest is narrow (in a good, pragmatically needful sense).  They’re not asking “big questions” about the meaning of life.  They’re trying to figure out why a targeted sample of people engage in behavior X or assume attitude Y.  But over time, a tradition develops and in the process – given our still very powerful modernist, empiricist assumptions, some questions just don’t seem relevant, interesting or important.

To get to this point in student development theory does not mean that we don’t do metaphysics.  It just means that metaphysics went underground.  And we have the unexamined life, which, in the academy, has rendered a shriveled up view of human nature.

To illustrate this problem, let’s switch to a different time and place.  For personal reasons I have returned to the reflections of Evagrius Ponticus in The Praktikos and On Prayer.  Evagrius was a fourth century monk, a student of the Cappadocian Fathers.  These works are filled with keen insight and profound wisdom.

Where did Evagrius get his ideas?  Well, he listened to people.  He thought.  He prayed.  He pondered.  He listened some more.  In other words, he gained insight into human psychology on pretty much the same basis that modern researchers do, except that he obviously did not use modern research methods.  Evagrius learned about human nature from experiencing himself and other humans, just like modern researchers do.

Consider this reflection from Evagrius:

The spirit would not make progress nor go forth on that happy sojourn with the band of the incorporeal beings unless it should correct its interior.  This is so because anxiety arising from interior conflicts is calculated to turn back upon the things that it has left behind.” (Praktikos, #63)

One with the relevant background knowledge can see from Evagrius’ reference to the band of incorporeal beings an ancient, Platonic (or neo-Platonic) metaphysic.  No interest there for modern researchers.  Notice, more importantly, his observation about anxiety and human wellbeing.  This is of large significance to modern researchers and practitioners.  He names a major roadblock to human wellbeing, one that we could put in more modern existentialist and Freudian terms.  He made this comment roughly sixteen hundred years ago.

Evagrius was well aware of his metaphysical assumptions.  We in the academy often are not.  Who is the more aware?  Whom would we consider better educated?

We teach by what we talk about all the time; by what has our sustained focus (which is a way of saying, what has our hearts).  We also teach by what we never talk about, what we leave out of the research, the literature, the conversations, the classroom lectures.  And modern student development theory, it seems to me at this point, leaves out a huge portion of what makes humans human.  This is a terrible mistake.

Church related schools have a golden opportunity here.  We have the freedom in whatever way we deem appropriate, to engage students in precisely the questions that often don’t get asked.  Imagine, in a student development theory class, adding in some readings from people like Evagrius and grappling with his world view.  It would prompt us to think about ours.  We might turn to someone like Charles Taylor for help in understanding “social imaginaries.”  Now student development theory takes on a whole new dimension.  And we start to see students (and our work) differently.  We expand our awareness beyond formal psychological processes to substantive ways of understanding humans.

And that would be a very good thing.

 

 

 

The post Another Example of a Gap in Higher Education appeared first on Rankin File.

Permanent link to this article: http://methoblog.com/3_0/2014/08/another-example-of-a-gap-in-higher-education/

Jul 17 2014

Rankin File: The Moral Dilemma for United Methodist Schools

Original post at http://stephenrankin.com/going-beyond-institutional-definitions/


So far as I know, every United Methodist-affiliated college or university would either describe itself or agree with the description of “non-sectarian.”  It means that we do not require anyone to go to chapel, take a particular religion course, or impose the Christian faith in any way on anyone.  No litmus test or control conditions.  This approach is motivated, in large part, by the desire to welcome and nurture people of all faiths or no particular faith.

But this institutional posture presents its own sets of challenges and one of the biggest is moral.  If we regard ourselves as affiliated, but very little or perhaps nothing of the church’s identity and mission influence how the school is run, then is it honest to call ourselves church affiliated?

I can make this question go away a little bit by reference to institutional requirements.  A school can point to its charter and founding by a Methodist conference or the fact that a certain number of trustees must be United Methodist.  I think these formal criteria are very important.  As indicators, they deserve more attention than they often get.   But this description tells us next to nothing about the kind of school a school is.  Very importantly, it does not tell us how the religious affiliation guides the actual experience of students.  And if ever there was an “at the end of the day” comment worthy of the cliche, this is it.  Surely, students at United Methodist related schools should be having an outstanding, exemplary educational experience.  What is the quality of experience that students at United Methodist affiliated schools have?  Is it any different than any other school?

What happens when we risk looking beyond institutional identity?  To attempt an answer, I turn to Romans 12:1-3.  One could start with any number of scripture references.  This one I read this morning during my prayer time and it hit me hard:

I appeal to you, therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your reasonable service.  Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God–what is good and acceptable and perfect.

As students of the Bible know, Romans 12 marks the pivot point, moving from God’s mighty acts in history to how the Body of Christ ought to live in the world–that is, as history unfolds.  It’s easy for us in the West to read these verses individualistically – if I offer myself as a living sacrifice, then I can know God’s will.  Cool.  I think that point is true, but Romans 12:1-3 aims at something else entirely and that something else demands our attention, including and especially those of us in church-related higher education.

Paul has just spent 11 chapters expounding on God’s works in history.  The canvas on which Paul paints is huge: all the world, Jew and Gentile alike, is held under sin’s sway, with devastating and very public consequences.  God has done something for the world in Christ Jesus that the world could not do for itself.  This amazing good news is for Jew and Gentile alike; in other words, it’s for all nations.  Then comes the heartbreak for Paul of the substance of Romans 9-11, how it came about that God’s people (and Paul’s) by and large refuse to accept Jesus as their long-awaited Messiah.  Well, Paul says, God has temporarily set aside their blessing in order to graft the wild olive branches (the Gentiles) into the main olive branch – Israel, whose story and mission are epitomized and brought to fruition in Jesus.

My goodness, is there a lot going on here and we can’t even begin to unpack it.  But take just one thought (and, for some of you, I recognize that I state the obvious).  Paul is doing history with a theological lens.  He has taken up large scale matters just like a good university historian might.  What is Paul doing, then, but what many in higher education seek to do?  Every college or university wants to contribute to knowledge and to help address large-scale challenges.  We do so by research (mostly at the university level), but also by educating students who then will “make their mark” on the world.

Paul shows quite compellingly how the church ought to be involved in such matters.  Considered in this way, the gifts of Romans 12 belong on a much larger scale than we normally see.  Imagine those gifts as for the church, but also for the world.  We discern the will of God in order to bring to bear all the blessings on the world that the Good News entails.

Isn’t this a description of what a good college education ought to do?  And here surfaces the ethical dilemma for church related schools.  If, at a religiously affiliated school we ape secular assumptions and consider “religion” a “private matter” only secondarily (or less) relevant to a college education, we actively if unwittingly misrepresent the Christian faith.  This is a problem, don’t you think?  We deny students the opportunity to see their career interests as participating in this glorious vision.

Waves and waves of implications come from this realization.  I can’t put them in this post, but I”m trying to gather them into something publishable.  Reading Romans 12 this morning brought to mind why every United Methodist college or university in the country should grapple anew with what it means to be affiliated.  It’s time to go beyond institutional matters to core missional concerns.  If not, why bother with denominational affiliation?

The post The Moral Dilemma for United Methodist Schools appeared first on Rankin File.

Permanent link to this article: http://methoblog.com/3_0/2014/07/the-moral-dilemma-for-united-methodist-schools/

Jul 14 2014

Rankin File: “Big Tent” Methodism

Original post at http://stephenrankin.com/challenge-big-tent-methodism/


Off and on since yesterday’s Sunday School class, I’ve been pondering a comment made to me after class.  I’ve heard it many times: “Methodists are big tent people.”  And so I muse…and fume.

I must tell a bit of the lead-up to “big tent,” which requires that I  speculate about the speaker’s intentions.  It was a very brief exchange, without opportunity to probe “What did you mean by that?”  So, I exploit the comment without any desire to misrepresent the speaker’s motive, though I know I risk committing that very sin.

Here’s the background story: during the summer two adult Sunday School classes come together to share a teacher.  With the one class, I have the regular gig and with the other I’ve guest-taught here and there.  I’ve been working on the Sermon on the Mount and the past two Sundays we’ve examined the run-up to the sermon by discussing how Matthew portrays Jesus in the opening chapters.  (I’m motivated by John Wesley’s admonition in his first discourse on the Sermon on the Mount that we need to grasp the nature of the One who speaks to us in the sermon.)  Last week we explored features of Jesus’ genealogy and started on the angelic conversation with Joseph, then delved into Isa. 7:14, “Behold, the young woman is with child…”  I explained that Matthew follows the LXX version in saying, “Behold, the virgin will conceive…” and we entered the contested matter of Jesus’ virgin conception.

A week later, at the beginning of yesterday’s class, my questioner asked about how I interpreted that text.  He used the word “mythology” several times in formulating his question and the class had a rousing discussion about how modern Christians best understand Matthew on this point and, by implication, what we can reasonably conclude in today’s modern world.  I tried, as briefly as possible, to explain the internal logic of the passage and how it wasn’t just about how a baby was made, but about the power of God.

Anybody who has been in such a discussion knows how they typically go.

After class, I asked this person if I had adequately spoken to his particular interest.  He said, “Yes,” then made the  surprising observation, “Our class doesn’t usually have teachers like you.”  After a couple more comments, he asked me, “Do you know who Schubert Ogden was?”  Of course, I knew.  Ogden was a force at Perkins School of Theology back in the day.  I asked, “Do you consider yourself a process theologian?”  He answered, “Not really, but I did take some of what Ogden wrote to formulate my own thinking.”

End of conversation and beginning of my musing…fuming.

I always appreciate people who make the effort that this man has made to think theologically.  However what could I have said that elicited this chain of comments?

I have a pretty good idea that “teachers like you” means something pretty close to “conservative.”  I don’t like this term and try not to use it for labeling theological orthodoxy – that is, the set of beliefs that the church has taught, summarized, for example by the Apostles Creed.  I have the strong impression that my conversation partner thinks orthodox-belief people are hopelessly stuck in the past, as if we hadn’t thought about or been exposed to modern explanations offered by brilliant scholars like Schubert Ogden.

And then his parting word: “Methodists are Big Tent people.”  Apparently one of us in the conversation is worried about “who fits” within Methodism.  Either he thinks that I think that he doesn’t fit because he does not affirm the virgin conception or he thinks that I don’t fit because no thinking (modern) person can actually affirm such a claim literally without being considered a little daft.  Well, it’s a good thing that Methodists are Big Tent people.

This conversation reminds me (again):

1.  Every church – to be a church –  must have a doctrinal core.  I would guess that if we could play out the logical trajectories of my conversation partner’s beliefs and mine, we would have to ask if the tent can stretch that far.

2.  Every church must have a means of discipling members relative to that core.  How many times have I heard someone say, “I really like being a Methodist because we get to use our minds.  We are free to think for ourselves (unlike the Baptists).”  How did we ever get to the point that a significant number of our members think that membership means pretty much anything they want it to mean?

3.  The exercise of power is inherent to every organization, especially the church.  When duly appointed leaders attempt to exercise church discipline, they are doing what they are obligated to do.  It’s not that they get their kicks pushing people around.

If the term “Big Tent” Methodism neutralizes any one of these three points, then we wind up with something not recognizable as a church.

 

 

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