fbpx

Pete Enns & The Bible for Normal People

Interview with John Franke: God is On a Mission and So Can You

In this episode of The Bible for Normal People Podcast, Pete and Jared talk with theologian John Franke about missional theology as they explore the following questions:

  • What does it mean for God to be missional?
  • What are some key components of missional theology?
  • What is God’s mission in the world?
  • What is salvation in the framing of missional theology?
  • Are there limits to plurality?
  • How has Greek philosophy influenced western understandings of theology?
  • Does the church have a larger problem with racism than the outside world?
  • How is evangelism defined in missional theology?
  • What’s the difference between evangelism and colonization?
  • What are the implications for defining what God’s mission is?
  • Should our goal be to make everyone see God that same way we do?
  • Why does the church need the world?

Tweetables

Pithy, shareable, less-than-280-character statements from John Franke you can share. 

  • “Mission is an attribute of God.” @jfranke
  • “Creation is an outworking of the expansive nature of God’s love, where God seeks to create that which is not God, namely, everything else.” @jfranke
  • “Difference is part of God’s life. So, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit have a unity, but that’s a unity or a oneness that is not the product of sameness.” @jfranke
  • “Plurality and diversity is a lot more woven into the fabric of the universe than traditional notions of science.” @jfranke
  • “We’ve developed hierarchies in the structure of Christianity and then the church has gone and imposed those in the world in its traditional ways of thinking about mission.” @jfranke
  • “How do we reimagine practices that are more faithful to God’s mission?” @jfranke
  • “Promoting peace amongst the religions of the world is an evangelistic practice because the mission of God is about shalom and peace on earth, and there will not be peace on earth unless there is peace amongst the religions.” @jfranke

Mentioned in This Episode

Powered by RedCircle

Read the transcript

[Introduction]

0:00

Pete: You’re listening to The Bible for Normal People. The only God-ordained podcast on the internet. I’m Pete Enns.

Jared: And I’m Jared Byas.

[Jaunty intro music]

Jared: Welcome, everyone, to this episode of The Bible for Normal People; you’re in for a treat. Today’s episode is called “God is On a Mission and So Can You,” and we’re talking to John Franke, a friend of ours, who serves full time as theologian in residence with Second Presbyterian Church out in Indianapolis.

Pete: Yeah, and you know, he is a friend of ours. I’ve known John for probably about 20 years now and one of our many connections is baseball, but I always just have a lot of respect. I look forward to hearing John articulate concepts because he’s just really succinct. He’s thought about stuff a lot and this is about missional theology, which is, it seems like a buzz word or something, but it’s a thing. Right, Jared?

Jared: Mm hmm. Yeah.

Pete: It’s out there. People are like, missional, of course John’s gonna explain what that means. But it doesn’t mean being a missionary, it means something very, very different.

Jared: Right.

Pete: Right.

Jared: Well, and before we jump into it, just a technological note is –

Pete: Yes.

Jared: In our area, we had quite the storm. We had tornados and it was the aftermath of a recent hurricane, and so our studio was flooded out. So, if it sounds like we’re in a tall ceilinged echo-y room, it’s because we are.

Pete: We are.

Jared: And you know what? Deal with it.

Pete: Mm hmm. Some might say this was God’s punishment against us.

Jared: This is true. Which is ironic –

Pete: Of course, thousands of people are affected, but it’s mainly about us.

Jared: It’s ironic, because we are the only God-ordained podcast on the internet, and yet, you know.

Pete: True, but that’s all the more reason that we’re held to a higher standard.

Jared: This is true.

Pete: We must have some sin in our life?

Jared: It’s true. There might be, I mean, there is for sure.

[Laughter]

Pete: I don’t know, I didn’t like to think there was, but maybe that’s a sin I guess, I don’t know. So…

Jared: Hubris.

Pete: Anyway, yeah. So, anyway –

[Laughter]

Yes! Yeah, we had a great conversation with John. So, and yeah, we hope you enjoy it. It was just a great summation of something that if you really let it sink in, it effects how you think about everything, that’s what’s exciting.

Jared: Yeah, very practical.

Pete: It’s a new way of thinking about pretty much everything, and we just scratched the surface but that’s okay. It’s a lot to think about.

Jared: All right, well, let’s get to this conversation.

[Music begins]

John: A national socialist Christianity, Nazi Christianity in Germany in the 1930’s and early 40’s, it’s not faithful Christianity. The Ku Klux Klan in its history has claimed to be a Christian organization; that is not a faithful expression of Christianity. Most people hear that and say, well, yeah, of course, I agree. The question becomes how do we make some of those more nuanced judgements?

[Music ends]

Pete: What does missional God mean? What does that mean? What’s a missional, that’s a dumb thing to say, John Franke, a missional God. What kind of heretical nonsense is that? Missional. What does that mean?

John: So, the idea of missional God actually goes back to the missionary conferences that started in Edinburgh in 1910, and as those developed one of the fundamental notions that ecumenical Christianity came to agree on, and ecumenical is just a big word for global Christianity, and one of their conclusions was that the mission of the church is rooted in the mission of God, or another way to say it, mission, church has a mission because God has a mission. And so, as they leaned into that idea, one of the conclusions that they came up with, which has been pretty widely accepted in this kind of ecumenical discourse, is that God is a missionary by God’s very nature. That is, you could say it this way, mission is an attribute of God.

Pete: Okay, that’s interesting. You don’t hear that a lot in systematic theology textbooks.

Jared: So, does that, whenever we talk about missional anything, when we use missional as an adjective, is it grounded in this understanding that God is missional?

John: Yeah, well, it should be.

Jared: So, it’s kind of the foundational part of this.

John: I would argue that it should be and the folks, you know, Darrell Guder and others who did the Missional Church book in 1998, they would argue that. I think part of the problem with the term is it, you know, mission is such an interesting term, and everybody wants to be missional, that people have grabbed onto it without imbuing it with its appropriate theological framing.

Pete: Right, right.

John: Hence, we were talking at the very beginning, people say, “well, I’m a nice person. That’s missional.”

Pete: [Laughter]

John: Well, that may be true, but the idea of missional theology is rooted in something that this conversation came to believe is true about God.

4:48

Jared: So, what is some of that framework that would be, if people are interested in this idea of saying part of God’s nature is mission, that sounds intriguing, but they don’t want to overstep and they want to step back and look at that framework, what are they looking at? What are some of the key components of that?

John: Well, yeah. Let me say a couple of things and then maybe lean into that a bit. I think one of the first things is, and I think this is, to me, one of the most fascinating elements that if it’s true, that mission is an attribute of God, that means the mission of God will never end even after the traditional notion of the consummation of all things, which I think, for a lot of people, just provides a whole new framing. So, I’ll often ask people, okay, think about mission after God’s dealt with sin and disruption and human rebellion. So, in the traditional Christian theology, right, we hit that moment where things are consummated and now the will of God is done on earth as it is in heaven, and mission still goes on. So then, what is, what does mission look like in that context? I think that that is a helpful way to get people’s imaginations stirring that mission is beyond evangelism or doing, you know, doing things that alleviate suffering and that sort of thing. Which I think are important, but we often reduce mission to just those things and people will often say, “and when there’s the consummation, whatever that ends up looking like, that’s the end of mission.” But if God’s a missionary by God’s very nature from all eternity past and into the future, then mission never ends.

Pete: Okay, so, what is that mission?

John: Okay. So, that’s a part of what my book is about. I’d say fundamentally a couple of things, the most important element, and I go into this at some length in the book. Sorry, I don’t know if I’m supposed to mention that. But the most fundamental elements –

Pete: We’ll allow it. We’ll charge you though, but we’re going to get part of the royalties. Okay, go ahead.

John: Yeah, there you go.

Pete: [Laughter]

John: But God is love. And so, the most fundamental element of the mission of God is the love that God has experienced in trinity; Father, Son, and Holy Spirit to use the traditional language. What I would say is that God has always been in an interactive relationship involved in the giving, receiving, and sharing of love. And that has, that will go on into eternity that creation is an outworking of the expansive nature of God’s love, where God seeks to create that which is not God, namely, everything else, human beings, etc. And the goal is to draw that created order to participate in that very fellowship that God has been engaged in and will continue to be engaged in. And so, living into that, participating in that is to participate in the mission of God. Now, from my perspective, that mission now as it’s expressed in the temporal context, takes on an element that’s outworking, an outworking of that love in the face of human rebellion against that, where instead of doing what God intended, we have established oppressive societies where people try to get ahead at the expense of the other, the dominant suppress and oppress large portions of society. And God, the expression of God’s mission now in the face of that rebellion with the goal of drawing humanity to participate in God’s love, we get the biblical term “salvation.”

Pete: Uh huh.

John: But salvation in this framing is not simply about individuals escaping the sinful nature of earth and that sort of thing, but it’s about beginning now to live into that which we have been intended for from the beginning, to live into the love of God and that gets expressed temporally by redeeming the world.

Pete: Mm hmm. Yeah, so, I guess what I’m hearing you say, and I don’t want to put words in your mouth, but love is the most fundamental of God’s attributes. I hate using the word attribute and love in the same sentence, it sounds very clinical, but that’s just the way theologians talk.

John: Yeah.

9:47

Pete: But it’s the most fundamental attribute of God, and mission is sort of an expression of God’s love.

John: Yes.

Pete: As opposed to, and not to pick a fight, but as opposed to saying, like, God’s sovereignty is the most fundamental attribute –

John: Right.

Pete: And something like mission is an outworking of God’s sovereignty.

John: Right.

Pete: But you’re not saying that, right? You’re saying love is fundamental and mission is an expression of that.

John: Yes.

Pete: Okay.

John: Yes, love is. And so, for instance, you know, people will sometimes, when I talk about this they’ll say, “well wait a minute! Isn’t holiness right up there with love?” Well, I’m not saying that holiness isn’t an element or an attribute of God, but the holiness of God, which I’d see primarily in biblical terms, and you guys can challenge me if you want to, but I see primarily as an attribute of separateness, not primarily of some kind of moral purity.

Pete: Mm hmm.

John: But it’s an attribute of separateness. God is holy in that God is separate from the created order. I think that’s true, but that only comes into relief after there’s a creative order.

Pete: Mm hmm.

John: So, if I think of a time before creation, and I’d still be willing to talk like that, I know some people don’t, then there was a time when there’s only the relationship that God has in trinity and it’s love that is the most, is what’s most characteristic of that relationship.

Pete: So, holiness, yeah, so holiness is like, again, subordinate to a created order and a separateness which is derivative of love?

John: Correct. That’s what I would say.

Pete: Okay. Yeah, right. Yeah.

John: Mission is the outworking of that. One other thing I’d say that, you know, so I mentioned trinity where the giving, receiving, and sharing of love is characteristic of God’s life from all eternity. The other thing I would say is that difference is part, this gets to the manifold witness, difference is part of God’s life. So, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit have a unity, but that’s a unity or a oneness that is not the product of sameness.

Pete: Mm hmm.

John: There are three persons in the trinity, if you use the classical language, and if I can say it this way, the three respect the difference of the other. So otherness, difference is part of the triune life and so I would add that therefore the love of God is in trinity, and therefore also in the expression of God’s loving mission to the world is not an assimilating love where one tries to engage the other by making it the same.

Pete: Mm hmm.

John: And so, I think that the life of God is, I don’t want to say paradigmatic, but I’ll use that term for the kind of plurality and diversity that God has intended from the very beginning as an expression of the expansive love of God.

Jared: So, maybe to put it another way then, the trinity shows us that our diversity in terms, very practically speaking, our diversity in terms of the beliefs that we have about God, our theologies, is not a problem to overcome. Meaning, the goal isn’t to get everyone to come around the campfire and end up all believing the same thing about God, but given our differentness, our own experiences and cultures and personalities and body types and all of that kind of diversity, it’s only through that prism that we can get to a fuller understanding of God. We need the diversity, not something to overcome, but to celebrate in itself.

John: Yeah, exactly. Justo González has talked about this, that in one sense, if we think in the traditional paradigm, the world needs the church, right? Because the church has been entrusted with this good news, but it’s also just as true that the church needs the world because it’s only in the fullness of the diversity in the world as it’s engaged with the good news of the Gospel that the church comes to appreciate and understand the fullness of that Gospel.

Pete: Hmm.

John: So, you know, I really like that because it says there’s always, there are always more facets of the good news of God’s love and God’s mission in the world to be appreciated. You can never, you can never achieve that, you know, from one perspective, one tradition, one person. Which is why I think this, the tendency in western theology to think of theology as a universal, you know, the one right way, the one right system of doctrine, really, is disastrous within the face of the missional God.

Pete: Yeah, and it hasn’t worked.

14:46

John: Right.  

Pete: Right. I mean, so, if there’s any proof for, you know, I guess this plurality, I guess, you know, a plurality of truth that’s, that can sort of account for a plurality of God. I mean, it’s just, it’s the fact that the church doesn’t agree on stuff and it never has. I mean, it agrees on stuff. But even when people say, John, the church agrees on the essentials. Well, they actually don’t. The church disagrees on what some people call essentials, you know, so. Well, that’s cool.

John: You know, I think one of the most interesting things about that, a really well known and important evangelical missiologist, Andrew Walls, has argued in his book The Missionary Movement in Christian History that in one sense there really isn’t a historical Christian bit. I mean, you can boil it down and say, well Jesus is important to everybody and the Bible is important –

Pete: Yeah, which Jesus?

John: Yeah.

Pete: Yeah.

John: Jesus is Lord, but which one?

Pete: Yeah.

John: You really have diversity and difference from the very get go, and I would say that you even see that in scripture.

Pete: Yeah, right.

John: So, it’s a later, it’s a later move that I would connect with the Roman empire or the Romanization of Christianity that says, hey, this isn’t very efficient or very practical for the religion of the empire, so we want, we want to kind of press this into a mold and get after people that don’t play ball and unfortunately, those intuitions have come to dominate the church with disastrous effect.

Jared: Okay, so I want to back up, speaking of disaster. I want to back up because you mentioned a phrase that I think might catch people off guard and I think it’s worth unpacking. You talked about the plurality, I think maybe Pete mentioned it actually, the plurality of truth. And I know that’s a stick point for people. So, when we talk about, “we need this diversity, we’re not trying to go for one thing,” that can smack of kind of a relativism of saying “what do you mean there’s not one truth? I thought, like, what are we striving for then if not to get to the one true right way of understanding God?” And if we’re just supposed to let go and say, “oh, okay, well, there is this diversity.” How does that not devolve into just relativism and say, “well, hey, you know, you need my theology just as much as I need yours and that’s where we end the conversation.”

John: That’s a good question and I appreciate because it gets asked all the time. I would say a couple of things, first of all, I don’t want to give up on the notion of truth, so, I will sometimes say the one truth is characterized by plurality, so I think that becomes an important element. You know, how do you sort out, I mean, you’d have to do a longer conversation to get at all the details of overcoming relativism, so I’d say a couple things. One, affirming plurality doesn’t mean you have to say that everything goes, you know.

Jared: Just because a lot of things go, doesn’t mean everything goes.

John: Yeah, exactly.

Pete: “Yeah, but how do you know?”

John: So, a friend of mine said to me one time, here’s an analogy. He said how many numbers are there of any type, how many numbers are there between six and ten? Well, there’s an infinite number, right? But one of them is not eleven.

Pete: Mm hmm.

John: And I think, you know, it’s a way of getting at just because we’re saying that there’s this grand plurality, doesn’t mean that there aren’t wrong ways of pursuing that or approaches to, approaches to that question that aren’t wrong. So, I’ll, you know, people say, “well give me some examples.” A national socialist Christianity, Nazi Christianity in Germany in the 1930’s and early 40’s, it’s not faithful Christianity. The Ku Klux Klan in its history has claimed to be a Christian organization; that is not a faithful expression of Christianity. I used examples like that because most people hear that and say, well, yeah, of course, I agree. The question becomes how do we make some of those more nuanced judgements? I think there are ways to pursue that, but it, you know, it takes time –

19:12

Pete: Well, wait now John. Pursuing that is the task of theology, right? So, I mean that’s my answers if they say, “how do you know?” I just say, welcome to Christianity. Well, welcome to the world of thought. It’s working that out that people, they do that together and to try to answer some of those questions and even if, you know, we’re not going to come down to that sort of like, concrete absolute truth in a half an hour of discussion, it just, it keeps going. Which I think, it connects with what you said before about the plurality of God and I would throw in a word too that I’m sure you’re comfortable with, the mystery of God, which is infinitely knowable. That doesn’t mean God is anything, but God is, knowledge of God is not something that we can exhaust, so this is welcome to… If you’re an engineer then you’re very frustrated in the world of theology, right? Because the math doesn’t always add up, it’s more of an exploration and maybe we just have to be used to that.

John: Yeah, although it’s interesting, is it Carlo Rovelli Seven Brief Lessons on Physics?

Pete: You’ve got me.

John: You know, you read that little book, so I’m not a physicist, but it turns out that plurality and diversity is a lot more woven into the fabric of the universe than traditional notions of science, you know, not that serious scientists are worried with, but the common population. Oh here’s engineers, there’s one right way to look at this, you know, that’s one of the fascinating things about, you know, things we’re learning in physics and that book, I mean, I just found that to be such an eye opener in this whole conversation, that if we’re trying to get in touch with some conception of reality, it turns out that in disciple after disciple, not just in theology, diversity, plurality, multiplicity are pretty normative.

Jared: Well yeah, I’d like to talk about the perfectionist notion of truth, which I think is kind of a product of Christianity, and it’s basically a way to set up, well, if you can’t be certain of it, and it’s sort of a way to prop up Christianity. Of course, the problem is that it doesn’t hold up, but I think we fall prey to that perfectionist sense. Like, if we can’t have it 100% certain, then it’s not knowledge at all, which, it kind of goes in the face of the scientific process and how we think about truth, which is much more probabilistic than maybe we were taught? But it is how science works, and most of the things we know comes from a relative sense of we trust this process to give us accurate results and that’s what we mean by knowing it. And so, to have this, like, it just seems unrealistic to have this idea of certainty and when we grasp at it, we’re grasping for something that’s just not humanly possible.

John: Yeah. I mean, I think that that’s, I think that’s right. I probably would put the fault at the, I would put the issue at the feet of the Greeks and much of, you know, the way earliest Christianity really embraces Hellenism and that gets, that’s part of the connection to the Roman empire and I think that becomes normative. I will often say I simply do not believe in this notion of perfection. I don’t believe it exists, right? In the way we’ve traditionally thought of it. You know, the, you know, when I was taught in theology, you know, God can’t change. God can’t change, God doesn’t, you know, we might talk anthropomorphically, you know, in human terms about God getting angry or God being happy or pleased. But we know that can’t really happen because once you’ve achieved that state of perfection –

Pete: Mm hmm.

John: One move, you know, the slightest deviation from that one way or the other and you’ve lost it. You know, you’re not there anymore, and so if God has that kind of perfection, God can’t have that change. Well, that’s just, that’s a product of Greek philosophy that, you know, I just don’t buy it and I don’t think it’s biblical.

Jared: Stay tuned for more Bible for Normal People.

[Music begins]

[Producer’s group endorsement]

[Music ends]

24:19

Pete: And some people would say, John, that it’s, I mean, many people have said that. I mean, Tom Ward says this, Jon Levenson says this, the two people that I’ve interacted with recently that you can’t really love if you have that kind of a god because there’s no risk involved and love means risk and like, a perfectionistic god who is not moved, what kind of a quote “relationship” can that being have with anybody else and it seems a bit, like, you really, that’s not a good god to have and you know, I think, you know, people, Christians are unaware of exactly what you’re saying, how much of what we take for granted as like, good standard theology is really not biblical in a sense of like, the Hebrew tradition. But it’s something that’s brought to Judaism before the time of Jesus a couple hundred years or so before to deal with a new culture and how do we do our tradition, our Jewish tradition, our Hebrew tradition in light of this changing context. And the New Testament is very much flowing in that stream, and so when we talk about things like God is omniscient and omnipotent and all that, whatever that means, that’s, that comes out of that Greek thought that you’re talking about, the Greco-Roman thought, it’s not a Hebrew thought. So, you know we, and realizing that might help people say listen, maybe it’s okay to think a little bit differently about some of this stuff and maybe not carry our assumptions along with us all the time.

John: Yeah, and so let me use that to think differently as a jumping off point to kind of the next, what I consider the bigger part of the missional theology project is in light of the way God is, I would argue that we have to pretty significantly reconceive how we think about the mission of the church, particularly around what I would regard as the core practices and tasks of the church, namely discipleship, evangelism and worship. So how do we need to rethink? I would say that the church is called to be a sign, an instrument, and a foretaste of God’s kingdom and so, we bear witness to that as participating in the mission of God. And I would connect the sign, the church as the sign of the kingdom with the task of discipleship to be the people God’s called us to be. The task of the church to be an instrument of the kingdom with the church’s identification as the body of Christ, people who engage the world around us with the intention of participating with God to bring about a different society, which is where the issues of white supremacy and patriarchy and we’ve gotta challenge these things, right? We’ve got to work to bring about a new reality. And then third, in worship is the connection with the church’s calling to be a foretaste of the kingdom. And it seems to me, in light of the kinds of shifts that we’re talking about, those tasks have to be reimagined pretty considerably in light of this different understanding of the nature of God and the mission of God. And I think that getting back to where we started, one of the critiques of the missionary councils is that they were very strong on saying the mission of the church has to be rooted in the mission of God, but they were less strong on identifying just what the mission of God is that, and therefore, how the church participates in that. And so, part of what I want to do is offer a way of thinking about God’s mission that invites us to rethink these standard practices, these core practices of discipleship, evangelism, and worship so that they’re more consistent with the mission of God and part of the plurality that we’ve been taught.

Pete: And the example that you’re giving of white supremacy, for example, or patriarchy, that gets back, I think to what you said earlier of how the church and the world, they sort of fit together, you know. The world needs the church, but the church needs the world as well because sometimes the world points things out –

John: Yes!

Pete: That are a problem. The church has to sort of play catch-up and say, oh yeah, that’s all wrong. We sort of always thought that, but now we’re going to maybe think more concretely about what to do about it.

John: Right, so, it’s a great example. My church right now, we’re working through a book and Robert Jones book, White Too Long just dropped, I think last week, and one of the arguments across the spectrum in those who are wrestling with white supremacy is this kind of stunning reality that racism is more embedded in the church than it is even, than it is in so-called secular society.

Pete: Mmm.

29:31

John: And, you know, you’ve got folks like Kameron Carter, who’s now at Indiana University, and Willie Jennings who’s at Yale, who’ve been arguing that the racism is embedded in Christianity, like, it is a particular problem that Christianity is in large measure, responsible for. And so that it turns out, even though you wouldn’t think it would be the case, that racism is harder to get at and deal with in the church even than it is in the larger society, and it’s not easy to deal with it there either. But the white, the supremacy of Christianity, the way that we’ve taken the message of Jesus and said, okay, here’s what that means. It means you’d better bow down and worship this guy or you’re in trouble. And I look at the Gospels and I think, that doesn’t look like what Jesus is about to me.

Pete: Mm hmm.

John: So, we make this move that I would say is connected with the Romanization of Christianity, of the supremacy of Christianity, we’ve developed hierarchies in the structure of Christianity and then the church has gone and imposed those in the world in its traditional ways of thinking about mission and I think what I think missional theology is saying is we have to go back and reexamine the mission of God, the Gospel, the structures of Christianity, the core practices, and what does mission mean? And it doesn’t mean this kind of attempt to dominate other people groups and impose on them a particular way of thinking about Christianity or the world.

Pete: Mm hmm.

John: So, Andrew Walls, back to him again, I’ve been reading some of his work so it’s in my head. I mean, one of his comments is, and again, of leading evangelical missiologists arguing that it is always wrong for a group of Christians to impose on another group of people structures, ideas, ways of life that are foreign to that group of people. To do that is colonizing and that’s contrary to the way of Jesus. And yet, so many of our assumptions about discipleship, evangelism, worship, are rooted in that kind of mindset.

Jared: Well, let’s pick on one of those, because I think what you’re talking about, you laid out these three things of discipleship, evangelism, and worship, and I’m going to pick on evangelism here. Connect the dots. You said we have to rethink how do some of these things, and the words that you’re using around evangelism would not have connected to me and my tradition growing up: white supremacy, patriarchy, systemic violence. These kinds of things would not have been associated with evangelism. So, how do we what do you mean by evangelism within this missional framework then?

John: Well, basically, so evangelism is the proclamation and the working out of the good news, right? That’s where it comes from. And so, how do we, how do we reimagine practices that are more faithful to God’s mission? So, I like to tell the story of when I move from a seminary position to working in a church, a PCUSA church, the mainline Presbyterian. The one that I was in before where I’m at now, at Second Pres in Indianapolis, the first time I talked about evangelism, a lovely woman from the congregation who became a friend of mine said, “John, I don’t know if anybody told you this, but we’re Presbyterians. We don’t do that.” And, you know, it was a good laugh and I was able to point to the Book of Order, which is our constitution and say actually, here it says we are supposed to do that. But I said, “I suppose what you mean is that the ways you’ve seen that practiced, you find so problematic that you just think, ‘hey, we, I don’t want to be connected with that.’” I said, “I wouldn’t disagree with that. Our challenge, then, is to reimagine this in new ways that are more faithful to God’s mission.” So, I give you one quick example on the negative side and then we can, you know, maybe explore some of the positives. So, a friend of mine who is now sadly passed away named Richard Twiss, is a Native American member of the Lakota Tribe and he’s written a book called Rescuing the Gospel from the Cowboys. So, very appropriate, and he discussed, he says, quite simply, for the Native Americans, for Native Americans, the Gospel and Christianity has not been very good news. What we were told in evangelism and mission is that all things, he says, “everything had passed away and all things had become white.”

34:32

And the white Jesus, the white Jesus, yeah, the white Jesus became the one that we Native American’s had to conform to and everything in our culture was demonized. Our culture, our ways of thinking, our wisdom, our traditions, and we were told we had to conform to the white Jesus, and that was evangelism. And it was colonizing, and it was disastrous, devastating for, you know, the people whose land this was, you know, who now struggle to eke out a bare existence in many cases. Well, yeah, that kind of evangelism is, you know, it’s anything but a proclamation of the good news. So, the question would become how do we reimagine this practice that we see in scripture in the way of Jesus that really is good news, that really talks about a way of engaging with the diversity of cultures, ethnicities, in a way that brings us together? So, for instance, I would say this promoting peace amongst the religions of the world is an evangelistic practice because the mission of God is about shalom and peace on earth, and there will not be peace on earth unless there is peace amongst the religions. And so, you know, now I know I’m sure that’s a can of worms for a lot of people, but I think that’s, we have to get back to what is God concerned about? And you know, if you look in Ephesians, I think its chapters 2 and 3, it’s a whole thing about God’s divine peace plan to bring peace on earth. There it’s framed between Jew and Gentile, but, you know, for the writer of Ephesians, that’s pretty much the whole world.

Pete: Yeah, and breaking down the walls of hostility, right? Yeah, right.

John: Exactly.

Pete: Yeah. So, it’s a matter of taking that theme, so to speak, which is maybe somewhat restricted by today’s standards and the 1st century between Jew and Gentile like in our world that’s becoming ever smaller, you know, for a whole lot of reasons we’re all aware of. I hate using the word application, but I will, the application of that principle is going to look different. You know, for example, by respecting other faiths as an act of evangelism might not be the way someone would’ve put it a century ago or maybe a millennium ago or two millennia ago, but  for us in our world, that might be the way to evangelize even if others might not have thought of it that way. In other words, the face of evangelism can change over time.

John: Yes. And a concept we haven’t talked about in depth, but is shot through this whole conversation is contextuality, right? So, its, you always have to assess situations which are different. You know, we’re all in different contexts and settings and we may need to do things differently in different places. So in the book, that third chapter, I spend time talking about basically the local nature of theology. Yeah, Bible study and exegesis are important, but the first and the starting point are the questions and the, the questions that we engage in Christian community with the world around us. What are the concerns, what are the challenges? Where are the places that we need to promote, you know, shalom? So, my shorthand for the kingdom of God is a world where everyone has enough, and no one needs to be afraid. So, what does that look like? And, you know, asking those questions and then getting to work on addressing those issues where there is need and poverty and fear. The good news of the Gospel is the alleviate of those things for all people.

Jared: So, I think I want to name though, that there is an assumption that, maybe you can talk about how you got there, which is a whole, it is opening up a can of worms, so maybe it’s just worth a shorthand explanation. But I think one of the primary differences I’m hearing in the way you talk about evangelism and worship and discipleship is it’s a very this-worldly enterprise, which would be very different than, you know, my tradition growing up where the thing, when you say what is God’s mission? We would’ve answered God’s mission is to save everyone’s soul so that they can go to heaven and get off this filthy planet. And so, I think that’s a fundamental difference, even just when we talk of the mission of God, where you start from in terms of what is God’s mission, that really has far reaching implications for everything else that you’re going to do as a Christian.

39:50

John: Yes, that’s exactly right. I think that, that is maybe the most fundamental shift in the kinds of theologies that are out there. In fact, the first question you get, where do you see the focal point? Is it the next world or this world? And, you know, depending on how somebody answers that question, then you can almost guess the trajectories that they’re going to take. And it just seems to me in the Hebrew Bible and in the New Testament that the focus is on this earth and this world. I think there are consequences for the future in how we engage that, but yeah, the focus is here and now that the will of God would be done here on earth as it is in heaven.

Pete: Mm hmm. Yeah, that is, that’s, for, that can be a fundamental reorientation for some. Right? And that, I mean, again, welcome to the world of theology and Christianity, it’s all about people think differently about some of this stuff, so. Yeah, so, I mean, John, this is, I mean, I don’t want to overstate, but I just sort of a little break here, but I think an important thing coming out of this as I see it and for our listeners, is when they hear the term missional theology, don’t think, oh, it’s like missionary training or something like that. It is actually a way of conceiving of the nature of the Christian faith that tries to be faithful to a whole bunch of things. You know, whether it’s the Bible or a context or, yeah, just whatever. I mean, I don’t want to go on and on babbling about that, but it’s, there’s much more to this term missional theology than just another thing, sort of another theological addition to the cafeteria that we have, but it’s actually trying to get to the heart of things and to reframe things, and that’s very inclusive too, because you’re mentioning, you know, indigenous theology and we’ve talked about white supremacy and patriarchy, it’s just these things are folded very nicely into this sort of overarching vision for the Christian faith. So, it’s something that’s worth really, I think, digging our hands and teeth into to try to figure out. Yeah.

John: Well, I think that’s right. So, the biggest problem with the terminology is that it’s been, in many cases, I’m not going to say all, but in the majority of cases and in much of the work that I’ve seen that employs the term, it’s not terribly theological. Mission is thrown around, missional is thrown around, but part of what trying to work at, along with others, I mean, there have been great, great voices. I’m sort of a second-generation missional theologian. I’m trying to push that conversation a little further, but the thing that Darrell Guder and George Hunsberger, who have been particularly important to me, and I dedicated my book to them, is that this has to be a theological framing and if we just, if it just becomes this sort of pragmatic, here’s another way to grow your church, another version of church growth theology, then it’s gonna pass away and, but if we dig down theologically, I think it has great potential to form the church for a more faithful witness in the world.

Pete: Okay. So, I have one final question. Who’s the best missional theologian?

John: Oh, that’s, that’s, that’s tough I mean –

Pete: No, no, this is a very easy answer John.

John: Okay, Jesus? I don’t know. Paul?

[Laughter]

Pete: Exactly. No, Jesus! I tell my students if I ask a question like that, the answer is either Jesus or Satan.

[Laughter]

John: I should’ve known that because I was just on a call yesterday and somebody reminded us that when you get a question like that in a Christian context, the answer is always Jesus.

Pete: Right. I’m just testing you.

Jared: [Laughter]

John: Yeah, but it would help me, it would help me a little more if Jesus had ever written anything.

[Laughter]

Pete: Yeah, right! But he was smart enough not to do that.

Jared: I mean you said some provocative things, so we just had to test to make sure you were still a Christian.

John: Yes.

Pete: Yeah, exactly. Still in the fold here, so, ya know.

Jared: Well, you know, Pete kind of teed it up really well by saying, you know, this is something we should sink our teeth into a little bit more. So, what are some places, you know, you’ve talked about your book a little bit. Do you have a new book coming out? Like, what are some places people can learn more about this if they would want to?

44:33

John: Yeah, so I do have a book coming out set to release on October 27th this year called Missional Theology: An Introduction, so it’s not a really cool title, but I’m just trying to lay out the basics so people can get started thinking about it. Sort of the book that triggered it, so much of this conversation in North America, was a book edited by Darrell Guder and others called Missional Church, so that’s a good book. I suppose one other that I would mention is David Bosch’s book Transforming Mission, which was an older book, but those would be some key starting places. I’m very sympathetic also to Darrell Guder’s suggestion, Darrell Guder was a professor of missional theology at Princeton Seminary for many years and is now Emeritus. He said that he believes Karl Barth is the first truly missional theologian, and I’ve got some, a lot of sympathy for that.

Pete: So, not Jesus?

John: Well, yeah. I mean, yeah.

Pete: I’m just stuck, I’m sorry. I’m a biblical guy, it always goes back to the Bible somehow, so.

John: Jesus was the one who started it all. Well, I can’t really say that cause Abraham and Israel, but yeah, Jesus is big.

Pete: Hmm, okay.

John: You know, Jesus is important.

Pete: Yeah, he’s up there, he’s up there.

Jared: He just keeps trying to put you in a corner.

[Laughter]

John: Yeah, that’s okay. I love Jesus!

Jared: Where can, is there any place online that people can either connect with you or have this conversation more fully rather than, I mean, I would say in addition to maybe picking up your book or others that you’ve mentioned?

John: Yeah, I mean we have The Gospel and Our Culture Network. Our website is https://gocn.org/, I think, although it’s a bit dated. So, we’re hoping to get some more activity there. You know, I’d say, it’s tricky, right? Part of me wants to say Google missional and that sort of thing, and yet so much of what I find when I do that –

Pete: Mm hmm.

John: I don’t think is terribly helpful.

Jared: Mm hmm.

Pete: Yeah. Are you on Twitter or Facebook?

John: I’m on Facebook, but mostly, as anybody who knows me will tell you, I mostly just post about sports.

Pete: That’s good enough. That’s good enough.

John: I’m not a big, I mean, I think it’s great for people who do it. I haven’t been a real enthusiastic about these kind of theological conversations on Facebook.

Pete: Oh, never. No.

Jared: Yeah, they usually turn out real well. Especially with your family members.

John: Yeah, exactly.

Pete: [Laughter]

John: I’d say check out The Bible for Normal People podcast, I’m showing up there now.

Jared: Oh, that’s good. That’s what we were fishing for. We can end now, thanks so much John. Thank you, see you later.

John: My pleasure, yeah. Happy to do it.

Jared: [Laughter]

John: Send your check to me in Indiana.

Jared: [Laughter]

That’s right.

Pete: Yeah.

Jared: You were supposed to say that after we got off the air.

John: I’m sorry, you can edit it out.

Jared: All right, thanks John, so much.

John: Great to be with you.

[Music begins]

Pete: All right folks, thanks again for listening to another episode of the podcast, be sure to check out John’s book, Missional Theology: An Introduction. It’s all laid out there in five nice sections, and I think it’s all you ever want to know about missional theology and hopefully that’s a lot you want to know about missional theology.

Jared: That’s right.

Pete: It’s a game changer, I think.

Jared: Also, if you haven’t already, check out https://www.patreon.com/thebiblefornormalpeople , where you know, we really are more than a podcast these days. We have a lot of courses available, we have a lot of videos, so pretty much covering most of the topics that you might have questions about.

Pete: We’re starting a casino now.

Jared: Starting a casino?

Pete: Yeah, we’re really branching out here folks.

Jared: That’s good. Yeah, I hope we aren’t held to that.

Pete: No, that came to a vision… Jared had in a dream…

Jared: It’s a natural extension of what we do, I mean, if you think about it.

Pete: Gambling with people’s lives, is that it? Okay.

Jared: All right, well, check it out: https://www.patreon.com/thebiblefornormalpeople. A quick reminder that we will have the smart and talented Cynthia Shafer-Elliot, Ph.D. in Biblical Studies, but even cooler, current member of an excavation team in Israel, specialist in archeology and everyday life in Bible times, teaching a course for us called “Everyday Life in Ancient Israel.” If you’ve ever wondered what it was like to live in Ancient Israel, what was a household like, what kind of religion did actual people practice, and how does that affect how we read our Bible, then this would be the course for you. Normally, we have our courses for around $99, but we understand that a lot of people are feeling uncertain about things right now, and we don’t want anyone turned down for a lack of funds, so this course is pay what you can, pay what you want. No amount is too small, but of course, we appreciate your support so we can keep offering the best in biblical scholarship to everyday people. The course will be live every Tuesday night in October from 8:30 – 10:00PM Eastern, but no need to be there live unless you want to be able to ask Cynthia questions there and have her respond in real time, which is a real treat. Otherwise though, each night will be available for download a few days later. So, to register, just head to https://peteenns.com/course/everyday/. Again, that’s https://peteenns.com/course/everyday/. We hope to see you there!

Pete: See ya.

49:30

[Outro]

Narrator: Thanks, as always, to our team: executive producer, Megan Cammack; audio engineer, Dave Gerhart; creative director, Tessa Stultz; marketing wizard, Reed Lively; transcriber and community champion, Stephanie Speight; and web developer, Nick Striegel. From Pete, Jared, and the entire Bible for Normal People team – thanks for listening.

[Music ends]

[End of recorded material]

Get smarter about the Bible and stuff.

Get insider updates + articles + podcast + more.

More Episodes...
the art of translating the bible with robert alter

Interview with Robert Alter: The Art of Translating the Bible

May 13, 2019

Robert Alter, Ph.D. has spent most of his life committed to studying the Bible and the last two decades creating an entirely new translation of the Old Testament. Pete and Jared talk about some of the insights he has gained from seeing the Bible as a literary masterpiece.

Tweetables

Pithy, shareable, less-than-280-character statements you can share. 

  • “Almost every sentence in the Bible is itself an embodiment of sophisticated style.” – Robert Alter

Mentioned in this episode: