Wineskins Archive

December 21, 2013

Book Excerpt: The Feast (Jul-Aug 2009)

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Introduction: Spiritual Anorexia

excerpt from The Feast by Joshua Graves
July – August, 2009

ChristiaNation?“The myth of a return to the golden age is more pagan than Christian. Christ did not leave his disciples with a promise to lead them back to the Garden of Eden. He sent them to Galilee . . . to the world of humble tasks, trials, sickness, sorrows which he had encountered in his ministry, and to the hopes, struggles, and expectations of common folk.”
—Lucien Legrand, The Bible on Culture

“A writer, whose name I’ve since forgotten, once wrote that the two great religions in America are optimism and denial.”
—Kathleen Norris, The Cloister Walk

The laundry list of sins I’ve committed—at times in the name of Jesus—is long enough to cover the streets of my suburban neighborhood: pride, greed, lust, indifference, racism, laziness, elitism, legalism, and cowardice only cover the surface. Without confession, I would be out to sea with no lifeboat, drowning in my isolation. G. K. Chesterton was once asked by a prominent London newspaper what was wrong with the world. He responded simply by writing a short letter:

Dear Editor,
What’s wrong with the world, you ask?
I am.
Cordially Yours,
G. K. Chesterton

The Feast by Joshua GravesConfession is the beginning of authentic discipleship. 1 Confession creates the space for God to do God’s mysterious work of grace in our lives. “When we speak of our virtues we are competitors,” writes Karl Barth. “When we confess our sins we become brothers.”2 In confession, God lifts the two hundred pound gorilla of guilt, freeing us to dance fluidly in God’s big world. Confession allows a broken minister to stand before his church; a guilty child to stand before her father with a contrite heart. Confession also tears down the walls that divide black and white, rich and poor, Republican and Democrat, Christian and Muslim, theist and atheist. Division has become too common- place in social, political, and religious spheres. Confession might be the remedy for which we all long.

I’m broken and live out of my shortcomings. I am the problem. I am guilty of hypocrisy, double-mindedness, and apathy. With the grace of God, I now want to be part of the solution.

* * * * * * *

Confession means telling the truth. Humility and transparency count an awful lot in Jesus’ economy. Since Jesus values truth-tell- ing, we must tell the truth about the state of Christianity in the West. As I’ve pointed out in regard to my own life, the soul of American Christianity is malnourished. We are in constant need of having our imaginations raised from slumber. Feasting together on the words and stories of Scripture is the way this happens. If I’m correct that America’s religious soul is starving, starvation is the symptom and not the problem. The problem is that many of us lack a diet of the Gospel in our lives. We fill our hearts and minds with the junk food of social pop-psychology and shallow entertainment. Our souls atrophy because we do not feast on the teachings of God’s story. The following chapters provide a few recipes.

The atrophy of Christian spirituality is ironic, of course, because the Judeo-Christian Scriptures are packed with “feasting” language and imagery. The prophet Jeremiah declares, “When your words came, I ate them; they were my joy and my heart’s delight” (15:16). God commands Ezekiel to eat the book he’s been given (Ezek 2:8ff). Jesus tells the crowd that real spiritual life is reserved for those who are willing to eat his flesh and drink his blood (Jn. 6). John the Apostle is instructed to eat the little scroll which will “turn your stomach sour but in your mouth will be sweet as honey” (Rev 10:9-10). Eugene Peterson inspired me to dig deeper into this image in Eat This Book:

Christians feed on Scripture. Holy Scripture nurtures the holy community as food nurtures the human body. Christians don’t simply learn or study or use Scripture; we assimilate it, take it into our lives in such a way that it gets metabolized into acts of love, cups of cold water, missions into all the world, healing and evangelism and justice in Jesus’ name, hands raised in adoration of the Father, feet washed in company with the Son.3 Digesting the teachings of Scripture is one way Christians can actually embody the good news of God in our chaotic world. In my own consumption of the Scriptures, I often see God as priest to the outcast and prophet to the religious. As I write this I live in the inoculated suburbs of Detroit. Scripture has proven to be a powerful remedy for indifference and apathy, prompting me to go into all the world as I try to heal, evangelize, practice justice, and raise hands in adoration to God, the Father.

* * * * * * *

As a collective whole the church has fallen short of this lofty vision, for more humans died violent deaths in the twentieth century, the alleged height of Christendom, than in all previous centu- ries combined. Genocide in Cambodia, Iraq, Bosnia, Darfur, Northern Uganda, Rwanda, Kosovo, and Srebrenica, along with the devastations of WWI, WWII, and the Holocaust, crushed the optimism that characterized the West at the onset of the twentieth century. By 1930, due to war and an unprecedented economic turmoil now known as the Great Depression, the spirit of progress began to give way to a spirit of disillusionment.

Modern Christianity did not fare well because it failed to feast primarily on Jesus and Christian Scripture.

Many of the aforementioned atrocities took place in “Christian” nations or nations closely affiliated with the Christian religion (including Nazi Germany, which at the rise and reign of Hitler’s Third Reich, was overwhelmingly Lutheran). 4 Or, in the words of one poet: “After two thousand years of [Christian] mass / We’ve got as far as poison-gas.”5

The following statistic reinforces my claim that American/Western Christianity is in a state of decline: according to Alister McGrath, though almost two-thirds of all Christians lived in the West in 1900, two-thirds of all Christians in the world now live outside the West. Hence the phrases in popular parlance regarding the seismic shift in religion as we know it—the United States is now post-Christian and postmodern.

In the last fifty years, Christianity shifted to the far corners of the world: China, South America, and Africa. Scholars now note that there are more Anglicans in Africa, for instance, than in all of Great Britain.6

The largest Christian congregation in the U.K. is Kingsway International Church, started by two African leaders, and Africa now boasts more Christians than the United States. Conservative estimates indicate that less than one half of one percent of China is Christian, though as one spiritual guide points out, “one half of one percent of infinity is a lot of people.”

My own religious tribe, Churches of Christ from the American Restoration Movement, has been slowly declining for the last three decades. 7 This trend mirrors what’s happening in most of Western Christianity, which—with the exception of two major segments of Protestant faith, Pentecostalism and Independent/Community Churches—is in a season of stagnation and severe deterioration.

Yet just as so many are losing the faith that has been a source of comfort and direction in ages past, more chaos marks the twenty-first century global landscape. The devastation of America’s 9-11, the Indian Ocean tsunami, tragic earthquakes in Pakistan and Kashmir, the horror of Hurricane Katrina, and the latest surge of wars in the Middle East should cause Christians to ask two important questions: “Is God present and working in the face of such pressing evil?” and “How can Christianity be ‘good news’ for those who do not ‘believe’?” These two questions undergird this entire book. I’m convicted that Christianity’s real genius and power rests in its ability to bring healing, justice, and equality to all people. The real test of Christian theology is the result it brings for those who do not subscribe to the Christian faith.

* * * * * * *

The Feast engages the discussion of what Christianity, as a spiritual movement rather than an institutional religion, can sound and look like in a pluralistic society like the one emerging in the United States. Christians and spiritual seekers must continue to examine the food being consumed. That is, we need a heavy dish of self-reflection. In an interview I conducted with well-known Christian thinker and author Brian McLaren, I asked what he meant by his conviction that Christianity was a way of life more than a set of beliefs. McLaren responded:

I was interviewing Dr. Peter Senge, who does not portray himself as a Christian. . . . I was interviewing him by satellite. “Dr Senge, what would you like to say to to a group of Christian pastors?”

“Well, I was in a bookstore the other day and I asked the bookstore manager what the most popular books were. He said the most popular books right now were books on eastern religions. So, I want to know why that is the case in America?”

I turned the question back on him and said, “Dr. Senge, why do you think this is the case?”

“I think it’s because Christianity currently presents itself as a system of beliefs and Buddhism presents itself as a way of life.”

Now, that one sentence was the one sentence we’d all come to hear. It was a powerful moment. For many of us, we can’t imagine Christianity as anything other than a system of beliefs. We use phrases like a “Christian worldview”—we’ve never questioned what we mean. And what we mean is a kind of intellectual system that has an answer to every question and a solution to every issue. Well, if you believe that is what the Christian faith is, then it shouldn’t surprise you when Christians are viewed as arrogant, narrow-minded and judgmental. We’ve set up the whole system to give us the ability to give quick answers. But this idea of a way of life has to do with how we are formed as human beings and how we live our daily lives, and how we see our very being transformed and changed. That, to me, is what Dr. Senge was doing . . . he was calling us back to Jesus because that’s what his followers were first called, followers of The Way.8

I share Brian’s passion here. It’s why I want to help you re-imagine Christianity as a way of life. It’s why this book, in this order, is about: God, discipleship, justice, forgiveness, true beauty, unexpected prophets, hospitality, water, food, money, and spiritual disciplines.

* * * * * * *

Imagination, in its fullest sense, should enlarge, enliven, and transform—all of us. We face a crisis, in part, because Christians today have lost the ability to imagine the world any differently than it is. When I was young, I spent hours each day in the driveway playing basketball with my twin brother. We had crazy wonderful imaginations. We imagined ourselves already as heroes and superstars. We saw ourselves as more than thirteen-year-olds with pimples and changing voices.

I was Larry Bird taking the fade-away game-winning jump-shot at the buzzer: “The crowd goes crazy as Josh Graves has just won the state championship for L’Anse Creuse North High School!” My brother was the great point guard, John Stockton, who makes the game-clinching steal, the winning basket. This precise scenario actually occurred when we were in seventh grade, in a real game, and he chose to take the game-winning shot while the play was designed for me! (Jason would want you to know here that he’s the one who made the shot, and now that we’re grown up, his brother needs to get over it.) When we’re young, we’re told to trust our imaginations. We’re encouraged to explore and expand our imaginations, even if that means we end up on the moon! “The sky’s the limit,” they tell us. Until they introduce the all-too-real theory of gravity.

Something happens to us as we grow older. We begin to believe that we can’t trust our imaginations after all. We’re told that certain figures in our early childhood—Santa, our imaginary friends—aren’t in fact real. We’re told that responsible boys and girls don’t practice their jump-shots into the wee hours of the night. Responsible boys and girls memorize algebraic equations and French predicates. The feast of which you are about to partake dares you to see the world with fresh eyes. Just as Jesus’ friends on the road to Emmaus recognized him in the “breaking of the bread” following Easter Sunday, we home come into Christ’s presence when this food is broken, offered, and consumed.

Knowing that Christ is here, let’s open our eyes.

Christianity in the West is malnourished—in need of a feast. I am part of the problem. You are part of the problem. We, together, are invited to a table to hear and digest the stories of our faith once again. This time, reading not to defend our previously held doctrines, but reading with humility and faith that God is doing a new thing among us. Reading to help us become part of God’s movement. When we feast upon the stories and life of Jesus, we are able to walk to a different cadence, for the childhood maxim of our mothers is correct: we are what we eat. When we eat and digest the words of Jesus, we will find ourselves energized to appreciate, engage, and serve God’s world. Taste and see that the Lord is good, that God is moving and working in our world today!

Introduction: Spiritual Anorexia

1 See Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together: The Classic Exploration of Faith in Community (New York: HarperOne, 2003), which is the twentieth-century standard for practical theology and the shared-life experience.

2 Quoted in Michael Frost and Alan Hirsch’s The Shaping of Thing to Come: Innovation and Mission for the 21st-Century Church (Boston: Hendrickson, 2003), 101.

3 Eugene Peterson, Eat this Book: A Conversation in the Art of Spiritual Reading (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2007), 18. Of course, Peterson is not the first or only person to use this metaphor. Barbara Brown Taylor’s books, Feasting on the Word (2008), Seeds of Heaven (2004), and Bread of Angels (1997) also employ this understanding of the biblical text.

4 See the documentary entitled Theologians Under Hitler: Could it Happen Again? by Steven D. Martin, Vital Visuals, 2005.

5 Thomas Hardy, “Christmas 1924,” Thomas Hardy: The Complete Poems (New York: Palgrave, 2002), 914.

6 See Philip Jenkins outstanding trilogy on the emerging shape of global Christianity: The New Faces of Christianity: Believing the Bible in the Global South (New York: Oxford Press, 2006); The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity (New York: Oxford Press, 2007); and God’s Continent: Christianity, Islam, and Europe’s Religious Crisis (New York: Oxford Press, 2007). Also, Brian D. McLaren’s Everything Must Change: Jesus, Global Crises, and a Revolution of Hope (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2007) is one of the more constructive blueprints for the church’s local and global mission in our pluralistic society.

7 Stan Grenberg (Executive Director of Kairos Church Planting Network) writes: “Since about 1985 Churches of Christ in America have been on a growth plateau—same number of churches (about 13,000), same number of members (1,300,000). Consider this though. In 1985 the US population was 238 million people. Today it is near 306 million people. That is roughly a 30% increase. That means for the past twenty-three years while we stayed at our 1985 size our impact on the people around us decreased by 30%.”

8 “An Interview with Brian McLaren,” New Wineskins (2008). You can read or listen to the entire interview online at asp?SID=2&fi_key=149&co_key=1579.

The Feast is scheduled to be available the week of August 31 through Family Christian Bookstores (in store purchases are highly appreciated). LifeWay, Books-A-Million and some other regional stores will carry the book along with traditional avenues (Amazon, Barnes & Noble, ZOE Life Store). These other carriers will have the book at some point during the next few months.New Wineskins

Joshua GravesJoshua Graves is the preaching and teaching minister for the Otter Creek Church of Christ in Nashville, Tennessee. Previously, he served as a minister the Rochester Church of Christ in Rochester Hills, MI and adjunct professor of religion for Rochester College. Josh did graduate studies at Abilene Christian University and Lipscomb University (M.Div.) He’s co-written the Study Guide for Mere Discipleship (Brazos Press) with noted author Lee Camp. He is married to Kara, the real theologian in the family. You can learn more about The Feast and Josh at [].

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