Wednesday, April 23, 2014

The Word is Dead; Long Live the Word

by Charity Erickson

So, Richard Foster and I are fighting.

He doesn’t know this, but we have a long running feud; it has been contentious and bitter and totally one-sided. Ever since everyone and their grandpas started talking about Foster’s Celebration of Discipline, I have been developing a deep-seated resentment against this lovely man and his holy brilliance. “Discipline.” It’s a word I just can’t get over, much less celebrate.

For one already struggling with the old evangelical hero complex, in which I feel the urge to always have to do more, always more, always better, I can’t read Foster without hearing it as something else I’m supposed to add to my already too-long list.  And the idea of exerting even more effort in the celebration of something so severe as discipline is dreadful, an extra weight to be hung from an already-too-heavy yoke.

And when there's just so much that's seemingly required, it's overwhelming.  My response is to fight against it, or more likely, to just give up. Perhaps I am merely too attached to the lavish comforts of food, drink, and sleep, but it’s much more my style to exercise the spiritual practice of radical self-care, with its promises of holy napping and hearty celebration of chocolate (at least that’s how I do it).

All that said, I decided to put away the bad blood between Brother Richard and myself, and attend his presentation at last week’s Festival of Faith and Writing in Grand Rapids, Michigan. The title of his session sounded mysterious and terribly interesting: “The Humiliation of the Word in our Day.” What could that possibly mean?

And as he began to speak, waxing rhapsodic about the weight and the beauty of words, I shed a tear. The power of creation and Christ are bound up in the Word and words themselves--amen, hallelujah!--also, there is something eminently moving about how that man wears a ponytail. “The Word is precious,” he said. “A word poorly spoken demeans us.”
Respect to my nemesis. That’s some good stuff.

I was so on board. But then discussion turned to how, in our day, the “humiliation” of the written and spoken word is achieved. And while I will take away and hold close what Richard Foster said about the value of words, I feel it behooves me to respectfully disagree with what came after.

As I understand it, he finds the proliferation of words through mass media and digital formats to be enacting a kind of inflation in the value of words, causing even a word well spoken to lose its currency. Not only were formats like Twitter and blogs taken to task for being generally mediocre platforms for meaningful communication (too fast, too easy), visual media was characterized as passive and mindless distraction from the stuff of real value--the written word. Television and film were cast merely as means for “checking out” of reality.

The problem with thinking about new media as a distortion or desecration of the true, written word is that it shows disregard for the fact that all things must be read, not just words. Paintings, faces, numbers, noises, the posture of the body in embrace, a precious Polaroid, clever, cutting hashtags, and even ClipArt. (Is that still a thing? Clearly I’m the last person who should be defending technology.) The language of literature is not the only thing we read. Whenever we take information in and work to make sense of it, this is communication, this is “word,” and all creation cries out.

But how can we understand without one to instruct us? This is the real problem. Not the democratization of media--as if such a thing were possible, even online--the real problem with the polyphony of voices populating the electronic ether is that often we fail to understand them, and too often we don’t want to admit that we don’t know how to read them with discernment. We struggle to process information, evaluate sources, and understand the purpose and potential behind this innovation; it’s a library whose card catalogue is written in secret code. But it’s a code we must decipher; we must learn how to find Dickens amongst the penny-dreadfuls. We must learn how to separate the gold from the dross.

It is not the word but rather we who are humiliated when we are forced to grapple with our own illiteracy, even as children are navigating this cryptic library with such ease. And when I say “we,” I mean those those of us who have had the privilege of being equipped with strategies for reading at a high level--we’ve been educated in the Western canon, an education that has not prepared us to deal with the rebirth of the word in the digital medium. We have our own secret code, but it will not get us passage through the strange, new words set before us.

And I recognize I am preaching to the choir (or more likely, the very hip worship team); most of you who have found your way to this site are not internet noobs. But there are two things I want to say in conclusion: first, when people denigrate new media as mere diversion, don’t settle for that judgment; but also, don’t simply write them off as out-of-touch. So: Richard Foster, you’re okay, brother. Again, this is a new literacy issue; he and others of the same mind might make this judgment in completely good faith because they are simply unaware of the kind and quality of media that can be found outside of established institutions, how to find it, and how to use it.

Second, Christian educators--including internet writers, for writers are educators, after all--have a responsibility to think deeply about new media and how we can open this realm to those unfamiliar to it. We must consider how we can teach the necessary techniques that can lead others to engage it in meaningful ways, and how we can produce the kind of work that makes thoughtful engagement worth the time it takes. The word will not be humiliated in our day as long as we are not content with churning out content; there is new life here, in our digitized selves, waiting for us to give it breath.

So let us not close our eyes, ears, or laptops to the Word, wherever it may be found. Words are intercessors, hanging in the space between bodies and Spirit, and sometimes even the internet groans with longing that keystrokes cannot express. But let us not stay silent; if we shut our screens, perhaps the rocks will cry out. 

Charity Erickson and her husband live and work together in the north woods of Minnesota. Check out her blog for more of her writing and follow her on Twitter @CharityJill.

You can follow On Pop Theology on Twitter @OnPopTheology or like us on Facebook at If you'd like to support what we do, you can donate via the button on the right of the screen.

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Thursday, April 17, 2014

The Case Against "I Believe"

by Lyndsey Graves 

We believe in one God, 
The Father, the Almighty, 
Maker of heaven and earth, 
Of all that is, seen and unseen.

“I think it would be terrible to have to lie in church like that.” A classmate shared an anecdote about a friend who wasn’t sure he could agree with everything in the Nicene Creed, and I felt confused. Does this guy really think that everyone in the room believes everything in the Nicene Creed?

We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, 
The only Son of God, 
Eternally begotten of the Father,
God from God, Light from Light, 

True God from true God, 
Begotten, not made, 
Of one Being with the Father.
Through him all things were made.
For us and for our salvation 

He came down from heaven: 
By the power of the Holy Spirit 
He became incarnate from the Virgin Mary, 
And was made man.
For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate; 

He suffered death and was buried.

I, for one, am expecting a pretty mundane Holy Week; I’m not really feeling very holy. I’ve complained to everyone I know about my Lent fast, which I’m pretty sure is not its point, and besides that, I’m just too busy for Holy Week. I know you’re not supposed to say that, but I’m also too busy to guilt myself into fixing it or whatever, so it is what it is. Maybe this means I don’t really believe in Jesus; in fact, I’m pretty sure it does. I’m pretty sure if I believed, I’d do whatever it took to spend as much time as possible at least for this one week contemplating and celebrating these momentous events. But I’m probably not going to.

Go ahead and whisper that maybe I’ve gotten a little lukewarm if you wish. I don’t think I have. I know what I’ve gotten, actually - I’ve gotten burned out. After moving across the country to work at a church and then going to seminary, I’m quite done playing Christian, completely over doing things because I’ve decided that I “should,” and especially sick of what “I believe.” Various ones of my beliefs have been deconstructed block by block; some have been demolished in an instant. Others are buried and mourned; pushed, pulled, shoved and yanked, all without actually budging; nudged and finessed and nuanced into crystalline precision; and over-defended to within an inch of their opponents’ lives. My beliefs have been treated as if they were of utmost importance in the name of “orthodoxy” and “critical thinking” and lots of things about “context” and “epistemology.”

On the third day he rose again 
In accordance with the Scriptures; 
He ascended into heaven 
And is seated at the right hand of the Father.
He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, 

And his kingdom will have no end.

I’m not going to say that beliefs aren’t important. Our beliefs, stated and unstated, do change our actions; our theologies do affect our relationships to God. But my beliefs aren’t nearly as important as some teachers and pastors and denominational officials make them out to be. As one of my housemates said, “Some days you decide that Jesus didn’t actually do any miracles or rise from the dead. And you go on living your life for a day or two, and then things are fine again.”

We’re told, “You are going to be A Religious Leader. You must determine What You Believe.” We wrinkle our foreheads and Critically Think. We start to align ourselves with certain writers or systems and against certain enemies. But it all rings a little bit false.

We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life, 
Who proceeds from the Father and the Son.
With the Father and the Son he is worshiped and glorified.
He has spoken through the Prophets.

People sometimes believe things based on what they’ve decided intellectually. But mostly, they believe whatever everyone else believes, because that’s the thing that the culture treats as reality. I know lots of churches say their creed this way – Credo. I believe. But there’s rarely any such thing as, “I believe.” There is mostly just “We do. We assume. We expect. We disbelieve. We censor. We remember. We are.”

We believe.

What’s important is that we are reminding one another what, in our moments of greatest fidelity to tradition, underlies the things we do, assume, expect, disbelieve. I don’t have to believe all of it before I can proclaim to my community what we believe. Nor do I even have to say it before I can belong to that “We.”

We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church.
We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.

For long months of the darkest night of my still-young soul, I went to church and did nothing but stand. I dragged myself in as the sun set and watched the songs go by, feeling as lonely as ever, with a sort of numb wish to think the songs were true. Some days I silently raged through others’ prayers, prayers they clearly felt so deeply - What does this have to do with me? I used to pray like that. But you just wait till God leaves you, and then we’ll see how you pray. And then I would stand for the creed, say only the words, “We believe,” and cry helpless tears through the list of the things I didn’t believe. And in the midst of it all, the people of Emmanuel Fellowship bore me through that dark night on the raft of their imperfectly-faithful words, the repetition of the creed.

We look for the resurrection of the dead, 
And the life of the world to come.

Let Holy Week be for the doubter. Let Holy Week be for the lukewarm. Let Holy Week be for the burned-out, the sinner, the child, the angry, the bewildered, the bitter, the confused, and the liars. Say what you can; or say what someone else believes; or let the rest of us say it for you.

This is what we believe.

This is what we hope.


Lyndsey lives in Boston, MA where she is pursuing her Master's in Theological Studies at Boston University. She enjoys Community, Mad Men and Beauty and the Beast and her spirit animal is a sloth. She would like to know if this is some kind of interactive theater art piece. You can follow her on Twitter @lyndseygraves and you can find more of her writing at her blog To Be Honest. 

You can follow On Pop Theology on Twitter @OnPopTheology or like us on Facebook at If you'd like to support what we do, you can donate via the button on the right of the screen.

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Monday, April 14, 2014

On Pop Theology Podcast: Episode 57 - An Interview w/ Richard Beck

by Ben Howard

This week on the podcast I talk with blogger, author, and psychologist Richard Beck. They discuss the Church of Christ, the nature of psychology and theology, the label "progressive" and the importance of human experience. We'll also discuss Beck's new book The Slavery of Death, Eastern Orthodox theology and the concept of kenosis.

You can find Richard's books on Amazon and find more of his writing at Experimental Theology.

You can download the podcast by clicking here. Or you can subscribe to the podcast by searching "On Pop Theology" in the iTunes music store. If you like the show, please rate and review us on iTunes. It's the only way to prove to my mom that I have friends.

Finally, if you'd like to stream the podcast, you can do that here: 



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Friday, April 11, 2014

Go, Diego, Go (Away!)

by David Creech

Go, Diego, Go! is ruining the world.

Now, it may just be that I am cranky, having had to suffer eight years of the fatuous cartoon. Eight years of horribly forced animal sounds. Eight years of “Say it louder!” and “Everybody scream!” (Have the writers never been in a room with 2-4 year olds? They need no encouragement!) Eight years of painfully dumb questions that allow us to pretend that our children have learned something by the end of each show. After watching roughly three million incredibly educational episodes, my children can answer the following profoundly inane questions:

Does a sloth live in an igloo or a tree?
Can a bicycle float down a water slide?
To dive in the water, does a humpback whale use a diving board or arch its back?
Does a red eyed tree frog have red eyes or purple eyes?

Look out Mensa, here come America’s youth. (Yes, these are actual questions from the show. 1) Though I tried, I couldn’t make up that kind of stupid, so 2) I had to do some research late last night.)

But you know what? Our kids are learning something from the show. And that thing they are learning is deeply troubling on a number of levels.

Each episode follows the same hackneyed storyline: Some animal is in trouble. That animal is helpless and defenseless until Diego, Alicia, and Baby Jaguar fly to their rescue. The natural abilities and instincts of the animal are ignored as the animal rescuers swoop into action. Without the patronage of these benevolent saviors, those poor, helpless creatures would be S.O.L. Yes, in America we like to nurture our savior complex from a very early age.

And this is incredibly problematic if we truly want to address the great ills of our world.

Here’s the issue: this kind of thinking leads us to devalue others and ignore their individuality as we view ourselves as heroes, the ones with wisdom, skill, power, and generosity. We’re the good and noble philanthropists. This is what it looks like: there is a person living in poverty. We take a picture of her (‘she’ because women and girls are impacted disproportionately by poverty). We put it out there for all to see, a call to action, a reminder that “something must be done.” And suddenly, that girl becomes to us nothing more than her poverty. She has a myriad of capabilities—intellect, ingenuity, persistence, hope. But all we choose to see is her need. (For more on this, see this post on poverty porn).

We feel the urge to help her. We have no idea about her context or the ways in which our own manners of doing and being contribute to her marginalization. How we ourselves may play a role in causing her vulnerability. Instead, our savior complex kicks in and we come riding to the rescue, a knight on a white horse. Surely this person can do nothing on her own. Her only hope is me… her great Western hero.

Now, we all know that this is a lie. We know that human beings are so much more than their material circumstances; they are created in the image of God. And as such, they are creators alongside God; they have agency. This means that they bring important gifts to the table, that we must listen to them and trust that they know their circumstance better than you or I ever could. They do not need a great Western hope. They need us to get out of the way so they can flourish. What better approaches look like it is a topic for another post; for now, suffice it to say we often hinder their flourishing, even when we have the best of intent.

Now, maybe I have been too hard on Diego and his friends. The show is multicultural with nonwhite heroes. The work they do is, at a certain level, good. I mean, who wants to poo-poo rescuing cute little animals? And collaborating on a rescue mission sure beats marching off to wage violence against one’s enemies. But if the message is consumed by a Western culture accustomed to viewing itself as the great bastion of morality and heroism, we need more, especially from shows that are engaged in forming the next generation’s foundational values.

So there you have it, an overly technical deconstruction of Go, Diego, Go. Now you know the sound a PhD makes when he has three children between two and eleven. Say it louder! Everybody scream! 

David Creech is Assistant Professor of Religion at Concordia College in Moorhead, Minnesota. Before taking his teaching post up on the frozen tundra he worked for four years doing anti-hunger education and mobilization with ELCA World Hunger. When he is not herding cats (i.e., spending quality time with his three kids) he posts profound thoughts on Twitter @dyingsparrows.

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Thursday, April 10, 2014

Dear Theology

by Lane Severson

Dear Theology,

I don't know what happened. I never thought I'd be writing this letter. But here I am, in the lobby of an enormous Hyatt resort in Orlando, Florida at a business conference, and I have to tell you that it is over.

Let's be honest, I think we both saw this coming. I was always trying to get you to do things you weren't comfortable with and you always ended up nagging me about things I just didn't care about. It wasn't fair to either of us.

We used to have a beautiful relationship back when I called myself a fledgling theologue and read everything you had to offer. And those three years together in graduate school were so passionate. But maybe it was too much too fast. I don't know.

After graduation we planned to keep studying together but I got a job. At first that was great. We both resented the job. It had come between us and gave us a mutual enemy. I kept meeting you in secret just to spite "The Man." (Remember when we planned to learn Latin together? We were so stupid.) The thing is, I had already stopped loving you then. I didn't love my work yet, not the way I do now, but I had started to resent you for the cruel, aloof way you carried yourself. You had so many important things to say but you never wanted to talk about my real life. That was too boring. Even when we went all ethical, you couldn't spend more than a few minutes on friendship, family, or work. And that's my whole life.

So you should have known when I didn't call that I was reading Batman comics and Rumi poetry. I can't explain why, but they connected with me in ways that you didn't anymore. I felt bad about us. But what could I do? I honestly couldn't take another discussion about any of your damnable "ologies."

Now, when friends ask how you are, I try to change the conversation. I had become a proxy between you and a lot of friends. But now, when they wonder what you would say about something, I just feel sick to my stomach. I want to shout, "Who cares? That poopy head doesn't care about anything."

That's the kicker isn't it? The empathy. Anytime you got some empathy you got all stupid-drunk hippy-dippy about the world and lost your substance. It was kindness without wisdom. And I couldn't handle that either.

You'll probably think this means I'm leaving "the faith." You are actually that vain. You would equate yourself with the faith. I'm shaking my head in disbelief as I write this. No I'm not leaving the faith, you pompous ass. I'm worshiping, training my children, celebrating Eucharist, and praying. But I'm leaving all the abstract meaningless questions to you. You can keep them. 

I'll be doing the work that God gave me and raising the children he blessed me with. And when I want to read something, it will have to do with either them or Batman.

Goodbye, Theology. I won't miss you. 

Lane Severson blogs at On Pop Theology and Out of Ur. He likes charismatic liturgy and listening to Kanye West or Jay Z with his wife and five children. Lane can be found at or on Twitter @_lxnx.

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Tuesday, April 8, 2014

On Pop Theology Podcast: Episode 56 - Jesus Is Better Than You Imagined w/ Jonathan Merritt

by Ben Howard

In this week's episode Ben chats with Jonathan Merritt, author of the new book Jesus Is Better Than You Imagined. Their conversation will cover topics such as the effects of growing up as a preacher's kid, the nature of religious commentary, and the need for mysticism in the church. They'll also talk about the importance of honesty and vulnerability in writing as well as the time he took a ride on Mel Gibson's jet.

You can find Jonathan's book on Amazon and in bookstores everywhere. You can follow him on Twitter @jonathanmerritt and find more of his writing at

You can download the podcast by clicking here. Or you can subscribe to the podcast by searching "On Pop Theology" in the iTunes music store. If you like the show, please rate and review us on iTunes. It's the first step in our secret mission to take over the world.

Finally, if you'd like to stream the podcast, you can do that here: 


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Monday, April 7, 2014

Unicorns With Body Image Issues and The Best Things You'll Read All Week

by Ben Howard

Reads of the Week

1) The Blue Period: An Origin Story by Ta-Nehisi Coats

"I don't think a human gets to see all of this before dying. But I want to see as much of it as I can. And here is the key thing--it thrills me to see it. I love seeing it. I love knowing. The knowing is its own reward. The ability to frame the question is it's own gift--even if you can't quite name the answer."

2) Where I Stand by Jen Hatmaker

"We don’t get to abandon the theology of love toward people; the end does not justify the means. That is not Christ-like and it is certainly not biblical. As a faith community, it is time we relearn what “speaking the truth in love” means. Something that actually feels like love is a start. If the beginning and end of love is simply pointing out sin, then we are doomed."

3) Humanity - Spirit of the Poor Link Up by Aaron Smith

"I am more than someone with bipolar, more than my stance on gender equality, even more than my faith and devotion to Jesus. I am fully human, and my humanity is complex. I am more than what shows in crisis, in passion, and in devotion. I am all of these things, and more. I am what is revealed in the normal moments, in the moments just before I fall asleep, in the mornings before coffee. This humanity of mine shows it’s self at work, at church, in the kitchen, when I am giving my son a bath, at the doctor’s office, riding public transit. Everywhere I am, there is my humanity."

4) On Broken Pastors and Golden Calves by Seth Haines

"We’re all looking for a lock-tight faith, one that allows escape from the clutches of the strangling sins common to men. We want to believe in the ideal, that we’ve been crucified with Christ, therefore we no longer live, but the sinless, perfect Christ lives in us. But fumble though we may, grope as we must, white-knuckle as we can, we still struggle with living an actualized, in-dwelt life."

5) The Psalms as Liberation Theology by Richard Beck

"The thing that strikes you about the psalms when you read them straight through is how oppressed and beleaguered is the psalmist. Enemies, hecklers, back-stabbers, two-faced friends, violent oppressors and economic exploiters abound. This goes to the source of lament in the psalms. Rarely is the lament about, say, the death of a loved one. The lament is generally about oppression, about the victory of the oppressor."

Honorable Mention

You Are Allowed Your Process by Jamie Wright

Disunity in Reading the Same Bible by Nate Pyle

The Splenda Level of Friendship by Megan Gahan

Tweets of the Week

"Fun first date idea: Force a connection because you're afraid to be alone." - @mdob11

"If I die unexpectedly can everyone just do the right thing and pretend I was a way better person than I am?" - @AnnaKendrick47

"'Religious liberty has never been more under attack,' said Ted Cruz while zero lions ate him." - @indecision

On Pop Theology Week in Review

On Pop Theology Podcast: Episode 55 - Villainous Villainy

"This week on the show Ben, Sebastian and Jesse tackle the topic of villains."

Ten Thoughts About the Noah Movie from Someone Who Has Been Resolutely Not Paying Attention by Lyndsey Graves

"I have not been paying attention to anything about the new Noah movie. Here are my thoughts about it."

A Theology of Filthy Rags by Charity Erickson

"The other day my mother brought a green suitcase to my house, full of random crap from my old bedroom."

Time is a Trap by Ben Howard

"Time is, in a very real sense, a trap."

Song of the Week

"The Book of Live" by Peter Gabriel


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