Difficult Dialogue in Distressing Days

This post originally appeared at Conciliar Post.

Another week, another round of things for people to vehemently and caustically disagree about. Whether it’s politics, economics, social issues, or religious news, we can’t seem to disagree with one another fast enough. We’ll pick up a cause and champion it for a time, only to have something else catch our attention and demand our outspoken criticism or support. Why can’t we seem to see eye to eye?

Obviously, worldview divergences stand at the heart of some disagreement. You and I (and everyone else) see the world in differing ways, which leads us to come to different conclusions or explanations for the various crises occurring in our time.

But I wonder if there’s a deeper issue at work too. An anonymous quote came across my newsfeed the other day, one that I think summarizes our current predicament well:

“Being taught to avoid talking about politics and religion has led to a lack of understanding about politics and religion. What we should have been taught was how to have a civil conversation about a difficult topic.”

We’ve been taught to avoid having difficult conversations for so long that we’ve actually forgotten how to have those conversations (or never knew how to have them in the first place). We fight and quarrel amongst ourselves so readily because we don’t have the ability to have productively difficult conversations with one another. Now, I’m not the first person to point this out. Indeed, one of the major reasons that Conciliar Post was founded was to provide a space for thoughtful, faithful people to have difficult discussions. Promoting “meaningful dialogue across traditions” is what we’re all about.

But this leaves open the question of how. How do we have meaningful dialogue in today’s world? How can we make sense of our world while challenging other people in loving ways? I want to offer eight suggestions:

  1. Listen in order to understand. Instead of hearing what someone else has to say for the primary purpose of defeating their position, we must learn to listen to others in order to understand what they are actually trying to communicate. Only then can we productively explain our own viewpoint.1
  2. Listen to people with whom you disagree. Pay attention to people who think differently than you.2 Read their books. Listen to their podcasts. Subscribe to their blogs. Follow them on social media. Take them seriously. Don’t offer strawmen—engage what real people really have to say.
  3. Reflect. This might be the hardest thing to do in our social media age. Everyone wants news and reactions immediately. Immediately. Eschew the fixation on immediacy (and the posturing that comes along with it) and take a moment to reflect on what is actually going on before making a judgment about it. As human beings, we’re mostly terrible at making complex snap judgments. Take a moment to think before you engage.
  4. Verify your facts. I take it back—this is the hardest thing to do in our social media age. It’s so easy to share something that gets our blood boiling without ever pausing to see if that information is true. Last week, in the wake of the horrible violence in El Paso, Dayton, and other places, my social media feeds filled with people spouting statistics about gun violence (from both sides of the aisle, mind you). Almost no one provided any sort of verification. Sure, saying that there has been more than one mass shooting in America per day sounds enticing and horrible—but is it true? No one wants to be disseminating fake news, so make sure that you’re verifying your facts.
  5. Commit to civility. Make the decision not to debase people, engage in ad hominem attacks, interact disrespectfully, or otherwise use the relative anonymity of the internet to say horrible things about other people. Just don’t. Seek a more excellent way and communicate with other people respectfully. And on that note….
  6. Have face-to-face conversations. Don’t just interact with other people online—have face-to-face conversations with people. Get out of your bubble. Grab coffee with someone. Have people over for dinner (have your neighbors over for dinner!). Have conversations with people with whom you agree—and with whom you disagree.
  7. Do something. Don’t just share a post on social media and think that you’ve meaningfully contributed to the resolution of a problem. Do something about it. Hashtag activism that doesn’t lead to actual action is nothing short of hypocrisy. Now, you obviously can’t fix every problem; but you can do something about some issue or issues. So do it. Get involved.
  8. Pray. In my less charitable moments, I wonder how many of us say things like “you’re in my thoughts and prayers” and then never give the person or situation another meaningful thought—let alone pray for what’s going on. Don’t get me wrong; I understand and appreciate the sentiment. But as followers of the risen Jesus, our prayers must not be meaningless platitudes. We must actually throw ourselves before God in prayer. You think abortion is evil? You think mass shootings need to end? You’re not pleased with a government official? When was the last time you prayed about those things? Are you consistently bringing them before God? The people of God must bring their concerns to Him in prayer, not just in platitudes.

Will these practices and approaches solve all the world’s problems? No. Only the Second Coming of our Lord will do that.3 But committing ourselves to having productively difficult conversations in these ways will help us make better sense of our world—and enable us to serve as faithful and fruitful lights within it.

What about you: what practices and approaches help you productively dialogue with other people?


Notes

1 Relatedly, much of our media intentionally perverts this idea. Dramatic films or shows are often all about perceived (rather than real) problems that could easily be solved through conversation. Even our sports news is now filled with dramatic talking heads whose sole purpose seems to be shouting at one another rather than having an actual conversation with another person.

2 This doesn’t mean that you have to listen to everyone of course. But finding a couple of well-respected voices from “the other side” is an excellent discipline. Robert P. George and Cornel West are a fantastic example of this.

3 A fact that, it seems, Christians must do a better job of remembering in the public square when we promote this or that cause as the thing that will turn society around. As Jesus reminds us in John 16:33, in this world there will be trials and tribulations.

Acts of Baptism

This post originally appeared at Conciliar Post.

As anyone even somewhat familiar with Christianity knows, various Christian denominations have different, specific approaches to baptism—that all important rite involving water and the Holy Spirit.

Depending on its theological commitments, a church may expect the person being baptized to be an adult (or, at least old enough to make a conscious decision to be baptized), to be fully immersed in water (rather than sprinkled or poured upon), to be triple immersed (rather than once), to have undergone rigorous catechesis prior to baptism, to manifest miraculous spiritual gifts (before or after), or to fulfill any number of other practices. It really depends on the church. I once spoke to someone who seemed to believe that the only true way to be baptized was to be triple immersed while wearing a white gown in the cool running water of the river near their church.

In principle, Christians taking Jesus’ command to baptize seriously should be celebrated; in practice, however, our obsession with making sure that everyone is baptized our way—the right way—poses some problems.

Some Problems with Right Way Obsession

In the first place, there is the problem of rebaptism. Many people enter a new church having already been baptized. Or at least, under the impression that they were already baptized. That is, until someone convinces them their previous baptism was invalid and they should be baptized the right way. While there are probably some circumstances where a serious discussion about rebaptism may be permissible, making rebaptism commonplace seems to oppose the very unity that the Apostle Paul calls the Church to in Ephesians 4:1-6.

I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call— one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all. [Emphasis added]

Second, a focus on making sure that everyone has been baptized the right way potentially corrupts what baptism is. Romans 6:1-4 closely identifies the effects of baptism with the salvific work of Jesus’ death and resurrection. Orthodox Christians of all denominations confess that salvation comes through this work of Jesus and is granted to humanity by God’s grace. To then turn around and assume, as certain denominations do, that baptism must be undertaken in a highly specific manner undercuts that message of grace. It’s like saying, “Yes, Jesus graciously offers you life, but only if you do the right (baptismal) works to get there.”

Finally, a focus on making sure everyone has been baptized the right way tends to be utterly confusing for congregants. This is particularly true for those who are new to faith, on the fringes of belief, or in the process of changing churches. In some contexts, the emphasis on being baptized the right way can even lead people to question their relationship with God—or to doubt someone else’s relationship with God. Beyond the differences in how different denominations baptize, such confusion can lead people to question the value of baptism itself.

Right Way versus Big Tent

Although nothing apart from the Second Coming is likely to get Christians on the same page when it comes to baptismal practice, I think there is an approach to baptism that is scriptural and can help cut through some of the problems fostered by a right way approach to baptism. I call this perspective the big tent approach to Christian baptism.

The big tent approach to baptism recognizes the internal diversity of baptismal practices recorded within scripture and recognizes as valid differing contemporary baptismal practices when they conform to the diversity of these scriptural models. This approach fits best in a big tent approach to Christianity more generally; but it is also tenable in ecclesiastical contexts that work with the diversity of contemporary Christian instruction and practice.1 Indeed, many denominations already practice this kind of big tent thinking when it comes to baptism.

Acts of Baptism

The book of Acts serves as the best example of the big tent approach. Luke records about ten distinct narratives of baptism in Acts2 and, although there are clear theological parameters governing these baptisms, no two are precisely alike. Consider that:

  • Some baptisms occur “in the name of Jesus Christ” (8.5-13; 10.44-48; 19.1-5), others appear to be “in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit” (8.36-38), and still others are silent on the matter of “in whom” people are baptized.
  • At least one baptism narrative is preceded by repentance of sin (2.37-41), another seems to make confession of faith central (8.36-38), another baptismal narrative is preceded by speaking tongues (10.44-48), and still others focus on the importance of belief (8.5-13; 16.13-15; 16.27-34).
  • Some water baptisms precede the baptism of the Holy Spirit (19.1-5), other times the Holy Spirit is poured out before water (9.17-19; 10.44-48), and many times water baptism is not explicitly connected to the baptism of the Spirit.
  • Finally, some passages record individual baptisms (8.36-38) while others use household language (10.44-48; 16.13-15; 16.27-34; 18.5-8) that, if nothing else, set the stage for infant baptism.

Clearly Acts records significant diversity of baptismal practice in the early church. Why then are contemporary Christians so committed to picking-and-choosing a handful of these examples (or other New Testament references to baptism) and interpreting them as the right way to baptize? A big tent approach better reflects the diversity of practice within the New Testament itself—as well as Christ’s prayer for unity among His followers.

Conclusion

The New Testament consistently portrays baptism as an essential3 part of what it means to follow Jesus—as a matter of obedience to the command of Jesus (Matt. 28.18-20), as a sign of entrance into God’s new covenantal family (Gal. 3.27; Col. 2.12; 1 Cor. 12.13), and as a seemingly salvific act of God’s grace (1 Pet. 3.21; see also Mark 16.16). What the New Testament does not portray as essential is the precise method of baptism; to the contrary, a variety of specific practices seem to be affirmed. Accordingly, Christians should baptize new believers in a manner consistent with New Testament models and recognize as valid baptisms by other Christians that fit these big tent parameters.

God’s work through baptism is a gracious gift, one we should continue to celebrate, practice, and reflect upon. In the spirit of Christian unity, however, we should adopt a big tent approach to recognizing the validity of baptism at the hands of others. For scripture itself suggests that we make our acts of baptism a little less about us and a little more about the God who is at work in His people.


Notes

1 For instance, the increasingly common practice by many denominations to recognize the seminary degrees, communion practices, or theological perspectives of other denominations.

2 Depending on how you subdivide narratives.

3 Here, of course, we must draw the distinction between essential and required. If we take Jesus’ words to the thief on the cross seriously, then we cannot expect that no one who has not been baptized belongs to the family of God. Still, exceptional theology should not undermine normative theology. Accordingly, it’s appropriate to confirm the long-standing practice that every person who is able who follows Jesus should be baptized.

A Brief History of Communion: Origins

Christians of all sorts partake of some form of communion. Known by different names—the Lord’s Supper, Eucharist, Holy Communion, Breaking of Bread, Mass—and taken at different frequencies—daily, weekly, monthly, quarterly—this practice involving bread and wine stands as a testament to both Christian unity as well as divisions. What do contemporary Christians believe about the Lord’s Supper? To begin answering this question, we must first look at the history of communion, beginning today with what the early Church said about the practice and meaning of the Lord’s Supper. Continue reading

Exodus from Bondage?

lukeResponse to “Exodus from Bondage: Luke 9:31 and Acts 12:1-24” by Susan Garrett

In her article “Exodus from Bondage: Luke 9:31 and Acts 12:1-24,” Susan Garrett argues that Luke employed a soteriology of exodus, wherein Jesus (and to a lesser extent, through thematic recapitulation, Peter) stood as true Israel and freed his people from bondage to Satan. Central for this paper is the collective memory of Israel, which Garrett suggests regularly drew upon the Exodus paradigm as a source of historical renewal for Israel. Picking up on these themes, Luke cast Jesus’s journey to Jerusalem as the faithful journey of Moses to the Promised Land. Culminating in his passion and resurrection, Jesus leads the better exodus and leads the people of Israel from bondage to Satan. Whereas ancient Israel sought to inherit the land, Luke indicates that only through the formation of the Christian community in Jerusalem—the Christ-follower inheritance of the land—may God’s promise to Abraham truly be fulfilled. Continue reading

Were the Gospel Writers Eyewitnesses? Luke

This post is part of an ongoing series examining whether or not the writers of the canonical gospels were eyewitnesses to the life of Jesus.

Gospel of LukeIt should be noted that Luke’s gospel immediately indicates that the author is likely NOT an eyewitness of the events that are recorded afterward. The introduction to the account reads, “Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the things that have been accomplished among us, just as those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word have delivered them to us, it seemed good to me also, having followed all things closely for some time past, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, that you may have certainty concerning the things you have been taught.”[1] Luke assures Theophilus that while he himself is not an eyewitness of the events of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, he has done his research as a historian to demonstrate the veracity of the story that he is telling. Continue reading

The Marcion Problem: Canon and Literature Formation (Part I)

This post is part of an ongoing series examining Marcion of Sinope and his influence of the formation of the New Testament canon.

Gospel of LukeWe now turn to the Canon and Literature Formation school, which understands Marcion not only to have been formed the notion of a Christian canon, but also to have influenced the major redaction and writing of texts now found in the Christian New Testament. The first major proponent of this view was John Knox in his work Marcion and the New Testament. Knox affirmed Harnack’s argument that Marcion’s canon was the first distinctly Christian canon,[85] writing that only with the closing of a canon is a canon really formed and thus once Marcion had adopted his “Gospel and Apostle” model and closed his canon, he had made for the first time Christian writings scripture.[86] Knox also agreed with Von Campenhausen’s understanding of Marcion’s “Gospel and Apostle” distinctiveness.[87] But the Canon Formation School understood Marcion’s version of Luke to be a redacted version of our current Luke, Knox argued that Marcion edited a primitive form of Luke’s Gospel.[88] Concerning the relationship between the canonical Luke and Marcion’s Luke, Knox wrote that there would be “a primitive Gospel, containing approximately the same Markan and Matthean elements which our Luke contains and some of its peculiar materials, was somewhat shortened by Marcion or some predecessor and rather considerably enlarged by the writer of our Gospel, who was also the maker of Luke-Acts.”[89] Continue reading

Book Review: After Acts (Liftin)

After Acts (Liftin)Many readers of the New Testament are both fascinated and perplexed by the book of Acts, the earliest “history of Christianity” put to papyrus. Acts begins to tell the story of the church, following the miracles, lives, and journeys of Peter, the Jerusalem Church, and the Apostle Paul. But Acts also ends abruptly—with Paul under house arrest in Rome—and often raises a number of questions about the early Church. Thus, readers find themselves wondering, “What really happened after Acts?” In answer to this question, Bryan Liftin has written After Acts: Exploring the Lives and Legends of the Apostles (Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2015), a book dedicated to introducing and exploring the traditions of the Apostles following the end of “church history” in the New Testament canon. Continue reading

Book Review: Lukan Authorship of Hebrews (Allen)

Luke Authorship of HebrewsFew queries surrounding the New Testament are as well known as the question regarding the authorship of Hebrews. Since the early centuries of Christianity—indeed, long before the New Testament canon was finalized—inquisitive readers have investigated who wrote the Epistle to the Hebrews. Origen, Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian, Eusebius, Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, and Harnack (to name but a few) have theorized and argued about the identity of Hebrew’s author. No less a list than Paul, Barnabas, Apollos, Luke, Silas, Peter, Clement of Rome, Priscilla and Aqulia, Ariston, Philip, Jude, Epaphras, John the Apostle, Timothy, and Mary (the Mother of Jesus) has been suggested as to whom this figure might be. In recent decades, those studying Paul have increasingly problematized claims that the Apostle’s authored Hebrews, making it less likely that the long-assumed writer of Hebrews actually penned the work. And despite the copious number of theories concerning other potential authors of Hebrews, rather little has been offered by way of solid conclusions. To address this noteworthy issue, a couple of years ago came David L. Allen’s Lukan Authorship of Hebrews (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2010. 416 pgs). Continue reading

March Biblical Studies Carnival

Color March 2015 BSCWelcome to the March 2015 Biblical Studies Carnival!

In honor of March’s patron saint (Patrick) and in lieu of what would have been a terrible attempt at an April Fool’s Day joke, start off your morning by (re)visiting the classic “St. Patrick’s Bad Analogies of the Trinity.

Before delving into this month’s suggested articles, I would like to thank Phil Long for asking me to host this carnival. Looking forward to future Carnivals, Jeff Carter will be hosting April’s Carnival. The May Carnival will be hosted by Claude Mariottini, Professor of Old Testament at Northern Baptist Seminary. In June, Cambridge doctoral candidate William A. Ross will be moderating this forum. There are plenty of open Carnival spots for the rest of the year, so if you are interested in hosting, contact Phil Long.

Without further ado, then, check out this month’s selection of posts below (and be sure to look over the “News” section for some exciting ongoing/upcoming events in the world of Biblical Studies).

Continue reading