Moodie on the Structure of Inequality in Short Term Missions

People, at least Northerners on mission or service trips arriving at far-flung destinations, desire connection. They want to do more than send money or write letters… They want to see, to feel, to experience. They want to act on their concern, their caring. They want to help, but, as McAlister describes, they also want very much to feel. Their desire is precisely to overcome difference and distance. What they want might be described as a yearning for authenticity. But what would reaching those desires actually mean? What would knowing the other consist of? This desire is predicated on the existence of difference. On an us and them, or self and other, binary. To overcome this distance is to obliterate desire, to rub out the reason for taking the trips. In mission and service trips particularly, yearning is inevitably structured on inequality. The hope to fulfill this desire to feel and know exists in direct tension with the need for the distance… These are mostly good things, at least they seem to me to be, even if they do not fix the larger, long-term problems. But as they inevitably reproduce inequality, do they block bigger changes? I do not know. The thing is, the “encounter” demands that the gap between north and south never be filled. The gap is necessary.

Ellen Moodie, “Inequality and Intimacy between Sister Communities in El Salvador and the United States,” Missiology 41 (2), 2013: 146-162.

I don’t call you servants any longer, because servants don’t know what their master is doing. Instead, I call you friends, because everything I heard from my Father I have made known to you.

John 15:15

Smith: The iPhone Liturgy

To become habituated to an iPhone is to implicitly treat the world as “available” to me and at my disposal — to constitute the world as “at hand” for me, to be selected, scaled scanned, tapped, and enjoyed… We perhaps nonetheless unconsciously begin to expect the world to conform to our wishes as our iPhone does. Or I implicitly begin to expect that I am the center of my own environments, and that what surrounds me exists for me.

James K. A. Smith, Imagining the Kingdom, 143.

Ron Swanson, C. S. Lewis, and Manufactured Desire

Just stringing some random thoughts together on desire…

You can get a large audience together for a strip-tease act – that is, to watch a girl undress on the stage. Now suppose you come to a country where you could fill a theatre simply by bringing a covered plate on to the stage and then slowly lifting the cover so as to let every one see, just before the lights went out, that it contained a mutton chop or a bit of BACON, would you not think that in that country something had gone wrong with the appetite for food?

…One critic said that if he found a country in which such strip-tease acts with food were popular, he would conclude that the people of that country were starving… If the evidence showed that a good deal was being eaten, then of course we would have to abandon the hypothesis of starvation and try to think of another one… Everyone knows that the sexual appetite, like our other appetites, grows by indulgence. Starving men may think much about food, but so do gluttons; the gorged, as well as the famished, like titillations.

C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, 96-97.

Of course, religious people and their spiritual advisors would be quick to admit that it is important that we direct our desires to God. But how can we do this when we are bombarded by so many other influences, which seek to shape us unconsciously? In a situation where the success of the economy depends on the production of the desire to consume more and more, we have less and less control over our desires, and it would be illusory to think that we can intentionally direct them. Note that no one is exempt here: all of us are subject to the formation of desire by forces that are becoming more and more aggressive, due to an economic phenomenon called the “falling rate of profit.” As profits keep falling in long downwards spirals,’ the struggle for influence over people’s desire must necessarily become more and more pervasive…

What is commonly called “consumerism” describes, thus, not a situation of freedom where people can do as they please, but a lack of freedom that is twofold: not only is desire produced in us and for us, but when we are in a position to pursue our desires without impediment, we are even less free because we are really following someone else’s script.

Joerg Rieger. No Rising Tide: Theology, Economics, and the Future (Kindle Locations 1537-1542, 1775-1777).

***Disclaimer: I am a huge fan of Ron Swanson and I also enjoy bacon.

We are Not Alone: Heschel’s God of Pathos

In his chapter on “The Theology of Pathos,” Abraham Heschel describes God’s “passionate summons” to the world which “basically defines the prophetic consciousness of God.”[1] Heshcel names this “dynamic relation between God and [humanity]” as pathos; it is the prophetic kind of “knowledge of God” attained not “by syllogism, analysis, or induction” but by fellowship with God, “by living together.”[2] God’s pathos is God’s intimate involvement in the history of creation whereby God is actually affected by and responds to the events and happenings of the world.

God freely decides to participate in human history because “the predicament of [humanity] is a predicament of God Who has a stake in the human situation.”[3] The pathos of God changes everything; history can no longer be seen as some autonomous drama moved and shaped by the independent actions of “free” human persons because humanity is not alone. The One in whose image humanity is created has chosen to make it “a consort, a partner, a factor in the life of God.”[4]

God’s pathos, the “living care” of creation, is the fundamental “dynamic modality” of all living things – not alienation from God due to sin or brokenness.[5] God’s pathos reveals how God’s loving desire for just, personal, reciprocal relationships between, among, within, and throughout God’s creation and Godself makes possible a “living encounter between God and [God’s] people.”[6]

As I read this chapter, I felt God tearing away my deeply embedded images of God as the “Wholly Other”: the One who is remote, uninvolved, and unconcerned. I was surprised to discover that my theology still contained Deistic tendencies which could not prepare me to truly know the God Heschel portrays as One who acts so powerfully in human history in order to create intimate relationships of love and justice with and among all people, myself included. As my embedded theology crumbled, I felt the peace of God’s abiding presence and a sense of wonder and awe in a God who can be so ultimate, almighty, and awesome, yet still able to come so close. The pathos of God captured me in a new and more complete way; God is more real now than ever before.

[1] Abraham J. Heschel, The Prophets, 289.

[2] Ibid., 288.

[3] Ibid., 291.

[4] Ibid., 292.

[5] Ibid., 289, 296.

[6] Ibid., 296.

Imagining the Kingdom with James K. A. Smith

After hITKcoverolding my breath for 3 months until the spring semester was over, I’ve finally started reading James K. A. Smith’s Imagining the Kingdom: How Worship Works. It’s the 2nd installment of his “Cultural Liturgies” project and follows what could be the best book I’ve read in several years: Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation. You can find my extremely brief summary of that book right hereYou can find a great review of Imagining the Kingdom over at the Englewood Review of Books.

What does Smith have in store with this book?

The focus of this second volume is to home in on these themes, further exploring the shape of a liturgical anthropology in order to articulate a Christian philosophy of action that (1) recognizes the nonconscious, pretheoretical “drivers” of our action and behavior, centered in what I call the imagination; (2) accounts for the bodily formation of our habituated orientation to the world; and thus (3) appreciates the centrality of story as rooted in this “bodily basis of meaning” and as a kind of pretheoretical compass that guides and generates human action (p13-14).

Hmmm… that sounds nice and all, but what exactly does it mean?

In short, the way to the heart is through the body, and the way into the body is through story (p14).

Ahhh… much better! Smith wants to help us understand what really causes us to do what we do. This is important because the life of Christian discipleship is not a “spectator sport.” It’s full contact and, as John Wimber would say, “Everybody gets to play.” We are all actors, agents, the movers and the shakers. We are a sent people who are caught up in the missio Dei – the mission of the Triune God (p3-8).

Smith is particularly interested in how we are shaped by “secular liturgies” (like going to the mall) and the role of Christian worship as a practice that re-shapes or re-forms us over against all the ways we are formed by the practices all around us. In addition, Smith is concerned about re-framing the paradigm of Christian education, universities in particular, from an “information” model to a “formation” model. Basically, Christian education and Christian worship are preparing us for the same thing: our participation in the mission of God (p3-8). But, how does this formation happen?

Smith’s response to this question has me uber-excited about finishing this book:

And this is how worship works: Christian formation is a conversion of the imagination effected by the Spirit, who recruits our most fundamental desires by a kind of narrative enchantment – by inviting us narrative animals into a story that seeps into our bones and becomes the orienting background of our being-in-the-world. Our incarnating God continues to meet us where we are: as imaginative creatures of habit. So we are invited into the life of the Triune God by being invited to inhabit concrete rituals and practices that are “habitations of the Spirit.” As the Son is incarnate – the Word made flesh meeting we who are flesh – so the Spirit meets us in tangible, embodied practices that are conduits of the Spirit’s transformative power. The Spirit marshals our embodiment in order to rehabituate us to the kingdom of God. The material practices of Christian worship are not exercises in spiritual self-management but rather the creational means that our gracious God deigns to inhabit for our sanctification (p14-15).

I can dig it.

Smith on What Victoria’s Secret Knows Better than the Church

I suggest that, on one level, Victoria’s Secret is right just where the church has been wrong. More specifically, I think we should recognize and admit that the marketing industry – which promises an erotically charged transcendence through media that connects to our heart and imagination – is operating with a better, more creational, more incarnational, more holistic anthropology than much of the (evangelical) church. In other words, I think we must admit that the marketing industry is able to capture, form, and direct our desires precisely because it has rightly discerned that we are embodied desiring creatures whose being-in-the-world is governed by the imagination. Marketers have figured out the way to our heart because they “get it”: they rightly understand that, at root, we are erotic creatures – creatures who are oriented primarily by love and passion and desire…

As Augustine famously put it, “You have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.” This is not a matter of intellect; Augustine doesn’t focus on the fact that we don’t “know” God. The problem here isn’t ignorance or skepticism. At issue is a kind of in-the-bones angst and restlessness that finds its resolution in “rest” – when our precognitive desire settles, finally, on its proper end (the end for which it was made), rather than being constantly frustrated by objects of desire that don’t return our love (idols).

James K. A. Smith, Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation, pg. 76,77.


The Fast Jesus Chooses


I’ve come across some other blog posts/videos on Lent and fasting that are superb supplements to what I was trying to say in this post. Thought I would share those so you can enjoy them as well.

  1. Chris Smith on “Fasting Toward the Common Good”
  2. Jarod McKenna speaks about following Jesus on his desert walkabout (shown below)


Today is Ash Wednesday – the first day of Lent – when we begin our journey of self-examination and repentance as we prepare to follow Jesus to the cross. Here on the blog, we’ll be reflecting each week on a moment from the life of Jesus recorded in the Gospel of Luke. We hope you’ll join us as we read and meditate on Jesus’ life. Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments below. Let’s get started.

We begin with a passage that you’re probably familiar with: the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness. Take a moment to read Luke 4:1-13, whether you’ve heard it or not, before you continue…

Here we find Jesus being led by the Spirit into the wilderness for 40 days. The text says he fasted or “ate nothing.” This period of fasting is actually where the whole idea for Lent originates. During his wilderness fast, Jesus is visited by “the devil” and faced with temptations to satisfy his hunger, to assume power over all the “kingdoms of the world”, and to test God’s promises. He resists all three with a word from Scripture: man lives by the Word of God, who alone is King, worthy of all our worship, which leaves no room for our attempts to manipulate or control God. Before Jesus begins his ministry, he takes the time to confront the temptations of the human heart. Jesus faced these temptations boldly and with full confidence in God. He was successful in resisting them, in loving God with his whole being. We, on the other hand, have not had the same experience.

Fasting has a way of facilitating a confrontation with our own temptations. As we let go of things we “need” – food or otherwise – and wrestle with our urges to fulfill these needs, we get a clearer sense of what is really driving us, deep in the core of who we are. In the light of God’s gracious, loving presence we can examine these compulsions that propel us in all the wrong directions. We find that we are a rebellious people. As God sheds light on our darkness, we are given grace to confess our great need for God, who is our only hope and the fulfillment of all our longings. This will look different for all of us, but we all, in our own ways, are called to repent, to believe the Gospel: that Jesus the Christ is Lord. Fasting informs our repentance.

But there’s an even bigger picture for us to consider because our lives are connected to each other and to the life of our world. If we look back a few verses in Luke 3, we hear John the Baptist proclaiming in the wilderness: if you have two tunics, share with the one who has none; do the same for food; be fair to each other; don’t wield unjust authority over others; be content; practice everyday justice! John is fulfilling his calling from Luke 1:12 “to making ready for the Lord a people prepared.” Love one another; Jesus is on his way.

If we look ahead a few verses in Luke 4, we hear Jesus proclaiming the words of the prophet Isaiah as his own “mission statement”: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” Wow, what a mission! Jesus has come to restore all things, to liberate all people from the oppression of sin and all the destruction it causes both personally and socially, to say once and for all that God is Love.

On both sides of Jesus’ wilderness fasting and temptations, we hear a message proclaiming justice, freedom, peace, care, service, and love. When this context is considered, I think we can make a good guess of what was on Jesus’ mind as he was led into the wilderness to fast.  My guess is Isaiah 58:

Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin? Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly; your vindicator shall go before you, the glory of the Lord shall be your rearguard. Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer; you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am.

Jesus knew that fasting is not an end in and of itself. He wasn’t fasting just to check off some box for being the Messiah. Yes, fasting is good because it humbles us in the light of our sin and God’s mercy, but we have seriously missed the point if all we do is sit around and think about how holy we are for “giving something up for God.” The point is transformation, new creation, first repentance and then rebirth. We fast so that we can be in touch with all the ways we strap the bonds of injustice on ourselves and on others, with the ways we are both oppressed and oppressor, and with how the ways we fulfill our own needs lead to hunger, homelessness, and nakedness for others. As we read in Isaiah 58, the fast God has chosen leads to real healing, and justice, and salvation when God arrives and shouts “HERE I AM!”

I think Jesus knew the vast and far-reaching consequences of the seemingly small, insignificant temptations he was facing in the desert. Do we? Have we faced our own temptations to satisfy our every need? Are we aware of our temptations to seek power over others and make ourselves into idols? Do we recognize the ways we are tempted to test and manipulate God in service of our own ambition? This is the fast God chooses.

In the sermon two Sunday’s ago, we were reminded by Koheleth in Ecclesiastes 4 of the injustice and oppression still so present in our world. Billions, us included, live in alienation and loneliness as a result of the sin that is so tempting. This past Sunday we listened again to Koheleth, hoping for a way forward. His solution was profoundly simple, and yet so true: friendship. Justice begins in friendship and continues until all people feel the embrace of God’s love. If the fast God chooses leads us to justice, then it should lead us to friendship. After all, Jesus began his all-creation-renewing mission with 12 friends.

As we begin the journey of Lent, maybe we need to step back and consider our friendships. Who are the ones we call our friends? Have we loved them? Have we been a friend to them? Maybe this a time to pray for our friends. Maybe this is a time to consider how we’ve been tempted to ignore our friends. We are made for community, for friendships. May the God who is perfect friendship, perfect communion, perfect love, guide us as we walk the way of Jesus.