Will the Real Brethren Please Stand Up?

Posted: January 23, 2012 in Church of the Brethren, Hermeneutics
Tags: , , , , , , ,
3rd quarter of 16th century

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I’ve been thinking lately about the strange diversity which exists among the many Brethren congregations. Conversations have often surrounded the core identity and shared practices of this community. And yet at any given time a person could visit four different congregations and that person would experience four very different expressions of western Christianity all under the nomenclature of Brethren. Even in these various expressions of Brethrenism, there are still shared core practices. Theoretically these practices should form the community in such a way as to shape a common identity among them. However, in each of these four expressions there seems to have been developed four different theological and hermeneutical lenses. Interestingly these four (or perhaps more) distinct congregations (types) are representative of the larger church. One might go as far as to say that they serve as a fair representation or cross section (if there are any questions as to the validity of this one need only refer to Carl Bowman’s recent interpretation of the survey material). Admittedly one might consider the overall membership of the church and discover that while these distinctions do exist, the population of each group is far from equal.

It is  in light of this that I wish to pose the question as to whether it is possible to remain bound to the same story (narrative tradition) while veering so far from the core narrative convictions expressed and communicated through said tradition. In the recent past I have posed the question as to how the core practices of the tradition affect the communal identity of the church in a time when the application and significance of these practices seems to be waning. Not long ago I attended a council meeting of a local congregation in which the congregation engaged the question as to whether the church should offer the bread and cup apart from the traditional practice of the Lord’s Supper. I was fascinated as I observed the ensuing argument and counter argument with each side citing scripture (all this done in a loving way). What I find equally as astounding is that this same congregation is one which has moved away from the traditional conviction of nonresistance and especially the more recent re-interpretation of the peace witness. Immediately I began asking, (myself silently) “how can this be?” Upon asking the question I recognized my own false assumption, which I have previously argued against, namely, that the core conviction and practice of the Brethren identity was and is the peace stance.

If what I have argued previously is correct as to the peace position not being the sole core source of the Brethren identity, then what is it that we share in common? The most obvious answer is the “Jesus” of the New Testament. Let me make a couple of initial points here. First, as a former professor of mine used to say that as soon as one sees the word “obvious” one should begin looking for a weasel, because the answer is not what it seems. As to this point I must admit that I intentionally limited the answer to “Jesus” for specific reasons. This is not to say I deny any theological claims about the person of Jesus, but that the wider Brethren community does not agree upon all those claims. This leads to the second point. Even as I have limited the answer to Jesus, I have done so because at the very core of brethren belief and practice is a desire to follow the teachings of Jesus. It is here (I believe) where the issues become evident. I am growing more and more convinced that the central issue is hermeneutical in nature. For the past several years it has been going around in different circles that the central issue with distinctions among the brethren are a result in the varied beliefs regarding biblical authority. While this may be true to some extent, the causal factors of the distinctive nature of the Brethren community are more complicated than one simple disagreement. I believe that the distinctions are a result of diverse presuppositions which have emerged more out of cultural contexts and influences primarily shaped by the status quo (the particular cultural contexts and their influences, whether they be larger or sub cultures) than ones drawn from the multidimensional shaping effects of the divine metanarrative (God’s grand story) and its accompanying practices which announce the emerging kingdom of God within the present and future reality.

What this means is that whether the community has been shaped by the national religion in which it has developed a belief that syncretizes Christian faith with nationalism resulting in a faith that equates patriotism with faithful Christian living or a community that bears the effects of syncretizing modernity’s story with God’s metanarrative, they share the same results. While one community places flags in the front of the sanctuary and preaches national politics from the pulpit, the other expresses a cynical faith and theology (one that seeks to demythologize the Christian faith in the attempt to make it fit with the modern psyche) shaped by the stories which seek to undermine the proclamatory message of the resurrected Messiah. Simultaneously, another congregation may be expressing a faith that demonstrates the marks of post-modernity’s story in which it equates all faiths as equally true life shaping stories. So where does the answer lie? I am convinced that the answer lies within the cultural and contextual factors that lead to the various presuppositions. Thus the affecting cultures and closely held presuppositions must necessarily be identified and scrutinized. Perhaps that’s where I’ll go next.

  1. Marla Abe says:

    The pictures on your page are definitely NOT Brethren. (:-)
    We have a common basis of wanting to follow Jesus in action, not just word. But yes, some of our studies have been hijacked by the mainline or conservative or liberal ways of interpretation. Or postmodern, of course.
    But to see Brethren arguing with the Bible in hand, that is one of the most beautiful sights, I think. It doesn’t happen often anymore. We have lost group interpretation, and respect for what we do understand and therefore must obey.

  2. Provocative post, Andrew. Thanks for raising what seems to be an evergreen discussion on Brethren identity and what even constitutes that word, “Brethren.”

    It seems to me that using James K.A. Smith’s cultural-liturgical strategy in “Desiring the Kingdom” might offer a fresh way of “reading” what’s going on these days in the cluster of groups descending from the Schwartzenau Brethren. Following MacIntyre and Christian Smith, Jamie’s contention is that human beings, rather than being primarily rational beings (the realm of presuppositions, beliefs, values, etc.), are rather affective, “desiring, imaginative animals,” and that “we are what we love.” In this view, rationality tends to follow what we’ve already performatively been “baptized” into and fallen in love with. (Love being shorthand for what we ultimately order our lives toward: the vision of the good life.)

    I think there’s something to this approach, which is more anthropological in its methodology, offering the opportunity for thick description/narratives when working with various groups within the church. How do various groups narrate WHY they hold various presuppositions and take various approaches to “doing church”? What cluster of practices are the various groups primarily embedded within, “sacred” or “secular,” “Brethren” or “catholic” or “evangelical,” “Boomer” or “X’er” or “Millenial”? How does socioeconomic class construct what practices various groups are even capable/eligible of engaging?

    Learning to see “sacred” and “secular” liturgies as being on even playing fields, competing for our bodies (including our brains), holds more power, in my assessment, than mere rational inquiry into presuppositions, as important as that task may be (and it is).

    Sorry if this takes the post too far afield…but thanks for provoking my wandering thoughts! (See, there I go being rational!)

  3. Yeah, Brian I think that Smith helps us here. Yet I think that MacIntyre has left us a bit of a lacuna- and thus Smith as well. In the swinging towards practices as formative, we have set aside the role of concepts/ideas in the formation of persons. So we end up with the same problem as Marx and Hegel- what has priority, ideas or material things.

    I like what liturgical theologians have to say here. It isn’t the practice or the words that matter, but the whole action. Or as Gordon Lathrop says it is the juxtaposition of things and words, movement and concepts that forms us.

    The obvious problem here is how we create new practices. Do we do so without attending to the concepts we have in mind, or do we just create them without guiding principles. At the same time, where do we get our concepts. A little chicken and egg thing going on here.

    In the helpful case that Andy highlights, it is that the interpretive concepts are too varying to actually have a unifying influence. This is where other narratives, or as my professor calls them Symbolic Universe or as Taylor says alternate Social Imaginaries, creep in and do the defining for us. So modern ideas, national and economic narratives subvert the Christian understandings.


    • Yeah, the chicken/egg argument seems unavoidable.

      It does seem too easy to say, “Let’s all start doing Love Feast again,” and expect that to affect a dramatic shift toward more unity in the body (though I certainly wouldn’t dismiss that, either). There does have to be a way to discern and provide an account for the vast array of interpretive frameworks at work within the body.

      It’s almost like there needs to be a via media between MacIntyre and Caputo…between the “new traditionalist” and “postmodern” approaches, because I see descriptive value in the latter and constructive potential in the former.

  4. […] Will the Real Brethren Please Stand Up? […]

  5. […] Will the Real Brethren Please Stand Up? […]

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