of memory and story

Below is a short piece that I’m putting in our church newsletter. Enjoy. 

When does a church die? When does faith slink away to its grave? When is a religion reduced to a cultural trinket, a slowly fading pattern of entrenched habits and gatherings? The answer and antidote to such troubling questions, I think, has to do with memory and with story.

If I ask a friend, “Who are you?” and encourage a full reply, I will inevitably be invited into a rendition of her story, learning about where she is from, the people who have shaped her life, and the experiences by which her identity has been formed. Identity-who we are-emerges from memory, the re-presentation of our story in the present. When someone among us begins to lose his memory, the community around him remembers with him, and eventually even remembers for him, just who he is. Memory is shared; it is a function of a whole community just as much as it is a faculty of the individual. And so, the story we tell as a nation, as a city, as a church, is what binds us together in common understanding and shows each of us our place within the whole. Our common story enables us to communicate with one another. In fact, when we argue, it is often because we disagree about where some event or character fits into the story that we already share.

So when does faith die? Faith is diminished to a hollow shell when the Christian story is no longer the story in which we understand our lives. When going-to-church is only one more event in the story of loyal citizenship, success in business, or just “being a good person,” then God’s story is subordinated to another tale-it becomes a sub-plot in our memory. When the story of creation, redemption, and hope for resurrection is no longer the framework in which I buy groceries, greet the neighbor, and brush my teeth, then my identity is shaped by some other story-I have mis-remembered who I am. Loving our enemies, becoming servants of the least, and opening our homes to those who seek hospitality, are actions that only make sense within the story of the God who opens his life to the world and joins in the plight of the hopeless. Every other story finds a prudential limit for our generosity, a threshold of acceptable risk for our love.

Is this “religious” story a political and economic story as well? Most certainly! Loving every neighbor as ourselves (because we love God with all our hearts) is the first and most important political act. It is the only real foundation for politics at all! The story of our faith in-forms us that God is at work in Jesus Christ reconciling the whole world to himself through the Spirit-the whole of it, from barstools to bulldozers! Once we remember ourselves within that story, enmity melts as an illusion in the face of love, forgiveness for grievous wrongs becomes “natural,” and even death itself loses its sting.

The Church, First Lutheran Church, is the community where God’s story embraces each of our individual stories. It is the place where we gather to purposefully remember the good news together through liturgy and over doughnuts, amidst the howling of many competing narratives that would lead us off into distraction and discord. The story of the God-made-man, whose Spirit still haunts the world, holds the power to narrate our lives and our community toward healing and peace-if only we do the sometimes difficult work of remembering aloud who we are within the new story we’ve been given by our baptism into Christ’s death and resurrection.

the ‘makeshift and incoherent life’ of tinkerers

Over lunch (triple-decker peanut butter and jelly, to be precise), I ran across a paragraph that reminded me of an ongoing conversation with a good friend:  

“The central image the Wuthnow uses to describe twenty- and thirty- somethings, when it comes to life generally and religion specifically, is ‘tinkering.’ They are, he says, ‘a generation of tinkerers.’ These are a people who pragmatically piece together a jumble of disconnected and sometimes contradictory bits of belief and practice as they—supposedly autonomous individuals—see fit. Tinkering, Wuthnow argues, is a style or habit or strategy driven ultimately by the many economic and cultural uncertainties that characterize American society in recent decades. Tinkerers are resourceful and adaptable but also often live makeshift and less than fully coherent lives.” [1]

Tinkering already assumes the disjunction of trust and truth. Trust is an impossibility in the tinkering life because truth is always something that I (a tinkerer) possess or assemble myself, truth is always contained within my own experience, and therefore there is no room for trust. If trust becomes a truth, it is appropriated as a subjective feeling of dependence, rather than as submission or obedience. Tinkering is a way to remain self-contained, self-controlled, and self-directed. Like every Babel, it tends toward confusion and fragmentation—and leaves every tinkerer alone.

This is the spiritual expression of the American Dream, the entrepreneurial spirit, and the capitalist manifesto—work hard and don’t let anyone tell you what to choose. You can make it!

This deep in history, there seems to be something of the tinkerer in every theologian, but the best theologians self-consciously work within a tradition. Christian theology is born out of the depths of prayer, not out of a sense that it would be nice to have a habit of praying, or that praying might make me a deeper and more sensitive person. This means that Christian theology already presupposes trust as its resting point, the precarious stance from which the whole gospel is proclaimed.

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[1] Christian Smith, “An Unbooming Business: Review of After the Baby Boomers by Robert Wuthnow [Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007]” First Things, no. 179 (Jan 2008): 50.

my new task :: working in tradition

I’ve given myself a new task.

I have come to the conclusion that my writing is actually Socratic. That might sound like self-aggrandizement. It’s not.

When I go to write. I usually set all my outlines, plans, and notes out in front of me, lay my hands on the keyboard, and then simply expect the latent brilliance that hides deeps inside me to come to the surface and display itself on the screen. When it takes a little while to emerge (as it occasionally does), I poke myself with a few questions, sure that a little gadfly-prodding will cause the aforementioned brilliance to produce itself in profligate measure. When that fails, I’ll read through my notes, come across someone else’s good idea, type it verbatim, and hope that this is the droplet which will then unleash the torrent of genius onto the page.

Seriously… I can do this for hours.

The final result is as Socratic as the method. In the end, all I’m sure of is how much I don’t know, how little wisdom is in me—on occasion that leads to bouts of depression…

So, I’m headed back to my roots, turning over a new leaf. From here on out, I’m committed to writing like a good Lutheran.

Here is how I imagine the process to work. I will start by confessing that I am depraved and incapable of writing a blooming thing. Get all the despair out on the table from the beginning. Curse the devil a few times in the process for good measure. If writing happens, it is surely grace through faith, and not anything that I’ve been able to produce on my own merits. Any good I write is the work of God in me, and not my own. In the freedom of writing like the sinner I am, I can labor away, lightened of the responsibility to exude brilliance from within.

This had better work. If my thesis takes any longer, I’m going to enter the late stages of Lutheran writing—and see if a cold pint or two helps…