Postmodern Tribalism [Where to from Here?]

The zeitgeist of our current age eschews any kind of classicism or racism or elitism. In many ways, this is a good thing. Even 35 years ago a wise author noted that even the president of the United States carries his own baggage.* We are as self-reliant as we are radically individualistic. The 21st century world, at least in the West, has also become pluralistic to the point of postmodern tribalism. To cite an example of this, consider the new working definition of fame that has carefully crept into our now-digital consciousness: it’s someone who has a “following.” Maybe it’s Instagram or Twitter followers and the accompanying re-tweets and likes. Maybe it’s hits on YouTube. However fame is measured, it has certainly changed from its older definition once familiar to a culture in which Walter Cronkite was the primary teller of “facts.” Now, fame is distributed in smaller doses but to greater numbers of people. 

Alongside this monumental change in our perception of fame comes the distinct recasting of how success is perceived. Success has been redefined and reshaped in light of the new meaning of fame. Because of our communication platforms, everything is accessible all the time. And this has forced us out of the realm of absolutes and deeply into the realm of the relative: postmodern tribalism.

What I mean by the postmodern tribalism is that society is trending toward a thundering change in human existence: all ethics are essentially relative to our tribe. If our tribe happens to support freedom in gun ownership, we put that particular bumper sticker on our SUV and vote accordingly. If it’s concern for LGBT rights, we find our support and identity there. If it’s violent fundamentalist religious practice, there are organizations that are ready to radicalize and to equip toward acts of violence conditioned by particularized beliefs. If it’s Pokémon or Call of Duty that is so greatly adored, there is a supportive community to be found, whether locally or online. In our city there is a group of moms who only use baby carriers; no strollers allowed. It seems they’re feeling united.

For the record, I’m a big fan of carrying babies; it seems to really help them see the world.

Anyway, as I consider the various tribes that interact in my corner of the world, West Michigan in the Midwestern United States, I observe how we interact with tribes in other cities, not to mention tribes around the world. What or who could possibly unite such diverse tribes as the ones we see around us?

Our society cannot agree on a working definition of marriage, even if it’s worked into our law codes. We cannot determine who deserves health care and how to effectively establish economic justice. Each tribe, progressive or conservative, homo or hetero, guns or no-guns, seems to possess answers for everything.

Though I may have concerns regarding all these examples, these associations are not the places where I find my primary identity. For me, the tribe with which I most closely associate is the tribe of Jesus followers. We are Christians: Catholics and Protestants, Presbyterians and Quakers, each of us nuance slightly differently our understanding of God’s work. And what is his work? It’s sending Jesus, the Son of God, in the power of the Holy Spirit, to redeem humanity. But we’re all one big tribe, held together by the union that we all share in Jesus the Christ.** We’re all called out of darkness and into the light of Christ.***

For members of the Christian tribe, our help is in the name of the Lord, both immediately and ultimately. And this message goes out to all who do not yet associate in any way with the Jesus of Scripture. Members of the Christian tribe insist that God invites all people to know him through Jesus, and, in so doing, to be transformed. Members of the Christian tribe insist that we have all strayed from God’s goals from us and, to use the appropriate word, we have sinned. Members of the Christian tribe insist that God has sought to forgive us from our sin through the ministry of Jesus, and that being forgiven leads us to greater acts of forgiveness.****

In an age when nearly every tribe’s message can be so overwhelmingly different, this is a message to which I will cling. For me, it’s in many ways an interior journey, but the interior journey is made concrete in relationships and in the way I treat the poor and in how I use money and in my family’s priorities: in all these areas, we’re going to follow Jesus.

*Cornelius Plantinga, A Place to Stand, 1979.

**Bible, New Testament, Eph. 3:14-19

***Bible, New Testament, 1 John 2

****For an example, click here.

Top 10 Things I Learned in Seminary [#1] [Final Post in Series!]

Theology has teeth.

This is what I’ve learned throughout seminary. Here’s why.

Having graduating seminary, I have continued reading books within the world of theology. But I have also ventured into new territory. Recently I finished Annie Dillard’s classic Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. Before that, I devoured Eric Metaxas’s eponymous 2010 biography of Bonhoeffer.

My college chaplain, Ron Kopiko, always said that we say what we believe but we do what we value. If one is interested in finding someone who genuinely did what they valued, look no further than the unassuming Dietrich Bonhoeffer.


Born early in the 20th century, he grew in wisdom and stature and favor with God and men just as a then-obscure Austrian man grew in hate and anger and favor not with God but with a few nationalistic henchmen. As Adolph Hitler carefully assumed control in a debt-laden and politically compromised Germany, Bonhoeffer pursued his vocation in pastoral ministry and professorship.

Before it dawned on most of the elites in Germany, Bonhoeffer sensed Hitler had the worst of intentions. Wooing over the clergy in Germany who were willing to pay a high tax for a very fragile peace, Hitler did his best to spiritually legitimate his actions by subverting Christian beliefs. Attempting to obscure the reality that Jesus himself was Jewish, the Hitler-subservient Reich Church of Germany tossed out essentially the entire Old Testament. It simply didn’t fit with their current goals of destroying lives and calling on the German people to denigrate and destroy the Jewish people. Jewish theology, to them, had no place in their version of “Christian” practice.

True, many leaders in the church bowed to Hitler’s increasingly uncompromising demands. But there were many brave clergy who said no to Hitler. Risking income, status in the community, and their lives, Bonhoeffer carefully coordinated a resistance plan to Hitler’s grab for spiritual power. He leveraged his influence in various international church councils while petitioning his fellow German believers to practice a bolder faith. Bonhoeffer helped sift out the true disciples, the true Christians whose faith meant coordinate action.

Eventually, Bonhoeffer realized Hitler was politically unstoppable. The way he had managed to leverage nationalistic fervor through propaganda made any kind of resistance futile. Begrudgingly and with great fear for his soul, he became a part of a plan to assassinate Hitler. This was for the sake of the Jews, the disabled, the homosexuals, and all other people groups Hitler sought to exterminate, but it was to him a duty to God.

Bonhoeffer’s beliefs were strong enough that he risked everything–even his standing before God, the way he saw it–to live out his discipleship after Jesus.

There are few people who, like Bonhoeffer, have taken Jesus literally when he said, “take up your cross and follow me[1].” He was imprisoned for several years and eventually hanged on April 9th, 1945. Bonhoeffer’s no to Hitler meant a yes to the call of Jesus Christ.

May we, as Christians living in the 21st century, search for ways to take up our own crosses. Theology is not abstract or distant or irrelevant; at its core, our theology informs how we act in the world. And whether or not we talk about theological things, we say what we believe then do what we value.

Bonhoeffer valued Jesus.

That’s the start. Then comes the taking-up-our-cross part.


[1]Bible, New Testament, Matthew 16:24.

Top 10 Things I Learned in Seminary [#2]

This is one of the most important discoveries of my entire seminary journey. After studying the difficult aspects of Christian faith and practice-the peripheral-the core components of faith burn way brighter.

To me, seminary was a time to lean into the most difficult questions of all.

School for pastors should include some of this, right? One would imagine that Christian leaders, with all their various abilities and giftings and sense of call, would still struggle with particular questions.

It’s true.

Instead of offering a straight-up theodicy I’ll say a few words on God, then tell a couple stories. The stories really do communicate the best.

But first, a few words on God.

Early in the Bible, we learn that God has created all things. Genesis 1-2, the accounts of creation, are poetic. But they are also brazenly polemic! They speak strongly against any other God but Yahweh, the God of Israel. With forceful language, these two chapters subvert other gods who were held in high esteem by neighboring peoples, and exalt the God of Israel, the true God.

And the place of people within the order is very high. And yet, God gave people free will. Humanity had the ability to decide how to act. So, ultimately, humans allowed evil to enter their world. Bad news, everyone; it’s our fault. And we can either blame our ancient ancestors or blame God.

The Scream by Edvard Munch

Or, we can blame ourselves. Then, from the depths, we can cry out to God and observe his multifaceted plan for transformation. We can look to the hope he gives us in the history of the world, recorded in the pages of Scripture, and seek Jesus Christ, the Son of God, by the power of the Holy Spirit he left his for his church.

Ok. On to the story.

The first story comes from my final Old Testament class. We had been moving through the Pentateuch [the first five books of the Bible, Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy] and noticed these monumental acts of God. The biggest, without a doubt, was the Exodus.

The Exodus was God’s act of delivering his people, Israel, from the superpower of the day-Egypt. Egypt is still fairly powerful, but not like the second millennium BCE! The only real competitor was Babylon to the far east.

After all the talk about dates, miracles, and the moral authority of God, things got personal. I probed and questioned. One other student and I really got after our professor about miracles. We wanted to hear about his own experiences with miracles.

It all started with a question. I now feel a little embarrassed about it. I asked, after pressing him on a bunch of questions, “care to share?”

Share he did.

Our professor shared the story of moving to Grand Rapids, Michigan, from the East Coast. Amidst the busyness of moving, they had not the time to fully establish their son in the network of doctors in West Michigan. See, their son had a genetic condition that causes severe internal difficulties. One such difficulty lay within the young boy’s intestines. On one of his first evenings in Michigan, our professor’s son experienced an intussusception. This meant that a part of his intestine was folding in on itself.

As the boy sat, racked with severe abdominal pain, our professor and his wife paused to consider their options. They could go to the emergency room, where none of the doctors knew their son’s medical history. They could attempt to contact their physicians back east, but it was late in the evening. They planned to take him to the emergency room, but first they cried out to God for mercy.

A few minutes later, they gathered their things and prepared to leave. God, as it appeared, did not answer them this time.

Then, their son came to them from the living room. “I’m tired,” he explained. “I’m going to bed.”

Astonished, they asked him if he was feeling alright. “I’m fine, just tired,” he went on to explain, then climbed the stairs and headed to sleep.

Turns out God did listen to their prayer, and that he did act, and that he did show himself fully capable. Sure, maybe it was a fluke. Maybe the prayer had nothing to do with the healing. Maybe. But I doubt it. I guess about 3 of every 4 American doctors believe in miracles. They’re the ones who have witnessed such things, the ones with decades of training and experience, the ones on the forefront of medicine.

As I sat listening in class, I felt very small. I felt faithless. I felt as if I’d challenged and failed. I felt as if I’d been put in my place.

In my smallness of question-asking and challenging, I had become distracted from the largeness of God, even in my own life and my own experiences.

And today or in 50 years I may not understand the intricacies of exactly how the historical events of Scripture have been recorded. I may have a few doubts, concerns, and questions that hold out in the recesses of my mind regarding the formation of the Bible. But I don’t doubt the basics anymore: God is good. Jesus lived, ministered, died, and was raised to life, then ascended. He’ll return. Scripture speaks to the reality of God. These things are true.

Much of my seminary journey took me to the fringes of faith. My studies took me to tough places, and my classmates and I were burdened with difficult questions. But all the unknowing that takes place at the fringes pointed us back to the core dimensions of faith.

And, for us, the core now burns brighter.


Top 10 Things I Learned in Seminary [#5]

Weakness is strength.

Doesn’t sound right, does it?

We live in a culture that exalts power. We may dream of influential positions in global corporations or long for a bigger voice in our local community. We Americans, of all people, delight in the possibilities that exist in the individual.

At the beginning of the 20th century, rags-to-riches novels impressed on the culture a sense of dramatic optimism. Suddenly it seemed as if anyone with the will power could rise through the ranks in commerce or industry and command armies of workers.

As history tells, this is not the case for everyone. Opportunity exists to gain power and influence, but acquiring it is difficult.

Within all this, God sees weakness differently. He sees it as strength.

If one reads any of the New Testament accounts of the death of Jesus, it is apparent that he was not exalted by his own power. Instead, God the Father gave him strength through the Spirit. John 16:5-16 describes the closeness of the three. Verse 15 reads: “All that belongs to the Father is mine. That is why I said the Spirit will take from what is mine and make it known to you.”

After three days, God glorifies Jesus, raising him from the dead. The first book after the four Gospel accounts is Acts, and at the very beginning of this book Jesus is witnessed ascending into heaven.

Weakness is strength.

Just like Jesus, we are strong when we are weak. When we lean into the grace of God, we find ourselves giving him glory.

Paul, one of the most committed early followers of Jesus, explains how this works in a letter, 2 Corinthians 12. God explains to Paul that, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”

When Paul attempted to do things in his own strength, it did not bring God honor. It probably didn’t bring Paul that much honor either. Instead, glorifying himself likely just made other people irritated. The same principle goes for all of us.

God is interested in doing incredible things [just look at the miracles of Jesus and of the Old Testament that preceded him!]. God also wants people to know him.

Let’s put this into contemporary context. It’s meaningful when people serve other people. Right? It’s so cool to see businesses and churches and individuals serving the common good. Now here’s where the weakness/strength paradigm is vital. For the person or church or business who does something meaningful, that can inflate the ego. Very easily can doing good cause us to think we’re ok.

But when we do good through weakness, there is only one option for others to believe: God is at work.

The natural world understands this concept. Annie Dillard talks about this in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. The fecundity of nature, she says, is indomitable. A farmer somewhere thought squash were especially powerful, and he used a scale to test how much pressure these seemingly insignificant and feeble vegetables could exert. They pushed the scales to the thousands of pounds as they slowly grew, cell by cell, fueled by the growth of God. Weakness is strength.

In the human world, when someone is unexpectedly kind, it’s striking. When someone really seems to have the right to be vengeful and maintains tranquility, it’s noticeable. When a family loses one of their own to violence then responds with forgiveness, it speaks. It spoke in October 2006 in the wake of the Lancaster County shootings. A man brutally killed 10 young girls in a one room Amish school. The response from the Amish, even amidst their mourning, was forgiveness. Leaning into the strength of God, they never said it was ok or justifiable, but they forgave. Ironically, the man who killed the girls couldn’t forgive someone for having killed his own daughter.

God’s world is different. In God’s world, weakness is strength.

Top 10 Things I Learned in Seminary [#6]

Having graduated from Grand Rapids Theological Seminary early this month, this is the next of my seminary reflections. This is the fourth post, and one of the meatier ones.


As broad as the various expressions of Christian faith are, God is broader.

I used to wonder why it was that so many Christian denominations exist. I thought to myself and to others, “are we not divided against ourselves?”

Well, I suppose in some ways there is some division. The church is filled with redeemed rebels, people who God is gently leading toward right living. No doubt, there latent tension between followers of Jesus.

But this is what I learned at my interdenominational seminary: God is really big.

The map below illustrates well the diversity of faith in the United States.

The concept of God’s vastness may sound simple. And in a sense, it is.

The more I have learned about the enormity of our expanding universe and the tiny, intricate complexities of cells and atoms, the more I have begun to understand that God is really, really big. During the earliest days of God making himself known to humanity, people quickly realized this.

Ancient scribes tried their best to record everything they understood about God and write it all down. Have you ever read the Pentateuch? Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy are not exactly light reading! There are some literary snags, some difficulties, some overlaps, some confusion to be sure. But at the heart of the Pentateuch we see God’s strong covenant to redeem and restore humankind through a people group, Israel.

Various tribes did their best to respond to God over long periods of time, falling away and coming back. The prophetic class called the people of Israel to repentance, over and over again pleading on God’s behalf and on their behalf to be faithful to their calling. Kings rose and fell, with only a few truly loving and serving God with their whole hearts.

So it is, it seems, within the Christian church.

Over the twenty centuries since Jesus, the Son of God, revealed himself in the Ancient Near East, the church has sought to follow his directives. Evangelism, spiritual formation, and the slow building of the church has ensued since the days of Jesus’s physical presence, and the church leans readily into an eternal future where heaven eventually meets earth. The people who have responded to Jesus seek his grace for forgiveness and also his justice to roll down.

But amidst all of this, people groups have conflated their beliefs with the tenets of Christianity. Sometimes this wasn’t a bad thing at all. Paul, a Jew, and many of the other early Jewish followers of Jesus, continued many of their cultural practices: food laws, circumcision, sacred ritual habits. These things continued, and for the most part it was a question of how to integrate new believers into the church. The church’s conclusion was that newcomers did not have to adopt Jewish practices to follow Jesus. Many Jews held on to their practices, which was totally ok. Surely some slowly let go.

Fast forward to 1095. Western peoples, who had come to understand much of what Christianity meant, conflated their own feudal belief system with the religion of Jesus. The Apostles, who had gotten to know Jesus, would be thoroughly confused to meet European people calling themselves Christians. These Europeans conflated Christian principles of salvation and repentance with their tribalism, their honor culture, and their desire for conquest. To the chagrin of billions of Christians who would follow, this relatively tiny group of warriors and leaders forever caused confusion. But the church reformed and repented.

And so goes history. Just because someone takes up the exterior mantle “Christian” does not mean that person is walking in step with Jesus, empowered by the Holy Spirit, and close to God the Father. It means, quite simply, that they call themselves a Christian. The same goes for groups of “Christians.” Scripture teaches that God evaluates the heart [I Samuel 16:7, Jeremiah 17:10, and others]. God perceives the actions of people, and he alone judges.

Because God evaluates the heart, it can sometimes be difficult to know which groups of Christians are genuinely walking in step with Jesus. Jesus himself teaches his people not to judge. The term in Matthew 7:1 is krinete, a Greek term translated accurately as “judge.” Isn’t this the Bible’s most-quoted verse? Isn’t this why so many people say “don’t judge me”? Later in the chapter Jesus says something else. He says that his followers can recognize [epiginosko] people, bad or good, by the deeds they do, the “fruit” they bear. That is not to say Christians should judge [krinete] bad people; instead, we recognize when people are not to be followed.

Thus, the history of Christian faith becomes more complicated!

Richard Foster wrote a book called Streams of Living Water in which he talks about the variety of denominations within the Christian church. Masterfully, he explains the contributions of various worshiping traditions who have done their best to faithfully know, follow, and serve Jesus. But no one group, in my opinion, has arrived. Each group of Christ-followers must journey forward, revealing the largeness of God and imitating the world-transforming Son of God, Jesus.

God is really big. When we read about different groups of people trying to serve God-conservative, liberal, traditional-we are to recognize them by their fruits. Most Christian denominations that come to mind-Baptist, Lutheran, Mennonite, Catholic, Reformed-are examples of groups of people who have done their collective best to be sensitive to the teachings of Jesus and to respond accordingly.

As broad as the various expressions of Christian faith are, God is broader.

The Top 10 Things I Learned in Seminary

Having graduated from Grand Rapids Theological Seminary in May, here are a few of the things I’ve gained. I’ll be posting about one per day, out of order, over the next ten days. Some will be awesome. This one, #7 starts us off lightly.


The best stories rule the world; and the best story is the strangely compelling narrative of Jesus.


Try as I might to find meaningful stories to communicate the reality of God, the story God has given us is simply the most compelling story the world will ever hear. My favorite movie is Clint Eastwood’s 2008 masterpiece, Gran Torino. SPOILER ALERT: I’m about to give away the plot. If you haven’t seen the movie, go see it, and skip this post.

Anyway, I’ll make it simple. Eastwood plays Walt Kowalski, a crotchety retired Polish-American line-worker from Highland Park which is couched within the city limits of Detroit. He’s angry that all his white neighbors have moved away to the suburbs surrounding Detroit, angry that his kids are distant, angry that his priest [he’s Catholic] is young and inexperienced, angry that his wife passed away, angry that poor Hmong refugees now surround his neighborhood, angry that crime rates are up and that Detroit is struggling.

But something happens within Kowalski. I’d say it’s nothing but the power of God. Some may say it’s an old, angry gentleman who experiences an inner revolution. But I’d say it’s the life-transforming power of God.

He takes in a young neighbor, Thao, who had attempted to steal Kowalski’s prized car, an early ’70s Ford Gran Torino. At first it’s restitution, and Thao does odd jobs to make up for his attempted crime. But soon, Kowalski becomes a real mentor to Thao. Thao needs a father, and Kowalski coaches him on how to gather tools, hob-nob with the good-ol’-boys, fix things, and even gets him a construction job.

Gran Torino

Kowalski makes the mistake of roughing up some gang members who had been trying to recruit Thao into their drug-running enterprise. Soon, the gang retaliates and shoots up the Thao’ house and rapes his sister.

Outraged, Kowalski takes things into his own hands. His priest comes over to confront him, but even though he makes a serious confession, he hides his plan from the young minister.

By this point, I’m expecting a shootout between Kowalski and the gangsters. No good outcome is really possible here, right? In the light from streetlamps, he storms in and yells at the gangsters from the sidewalk. Then, provocatively, he reaches his hand into his vest pocket. They light him up, cutting him down with automatics. As he bleeds out, the watcher learns Kowalski was unarmed the whole time; he was reaching for a lighter for his cigarette.

Instead of continuing violence, he absorbs it, laying down his life for his new and foreign neighbor, the neighbor who tried to steal his car.

Kowalski’s actions were powerful. But they were only powerful because they mirror the greatest action of all: Christ’s work on the cross. Jesus suffered and died, absorbing violence instead of continuing it. But where Kowalski did plenty of things to deserve anger–maybe not murder, but certainly anger and distrust–Jesus was a perfect sacrifice.

Kowalski discovered the deepest meaning of love: it’s laying your life down for your friend. And his story is compelling because it mirrors the greatest story-the story of Jesus.


God is a Parent.

I had a realization the other day. I was staring at our little 3-week-old, Silas and trying to get him to stare back at me and respond to me. Turns out, as you may know, that newborn babies don’t develop the ability to maintain eye contact until something like 6 or 8 weeks.


Thing is, between Kaile and me, we have been attending to every little detail of Silas’s life, every since he came out. He certainly doesn’t realize it yet, but we have been looking after his every need. We are probably not the best parents the world has seen, but we are at least present.

This experience is teaching me about how God sees us. No, we don’t always realize how much he wants to hear from us. No, we don’t always grasp that he is caring for us. But there he is. There he has been, all along. When we’re wondering how we are to find meaning and purpose and identity, or shelter and food and companionship, there he is. When we are tired of the daily commute, our boss, our dirty house, our yet-unaccomplished life goals, there he is.

Psalm 33:14-15+18-22 speaks on this:

“The Lord looks down from heaven; he sees all the children of man;

14 from where he sits enthroned he looks out

on all the inhabitants of the earth,

15 he who fashions the hearts of them all

and observes all their deeds.

18 Behold, the eye of the Lord is on those who fear him,

on those who hope in his steadfast love,

19 that he may deliver their soul from death

and keep them alive in famine.

20 Our soul waits for the Lord;

he is our help and our shield.

21 For our heart is glad in him,

because we trust in his holy name.

22 Let your steadfast love, O Lord, be upon us,

even as we hope in you.

Teaching with Imagination: Part 1

Animals and people are similar in so many ways. We see a chimpanzee at the zoo and immediately (though subconsciously) mentally list its similarities to the last baby we saw watching the chimp from a stroller. Both have a face, though the human’s is slightly softer. Both have hands, even opposable thumbs! However, as we synthesize similarities, we also analyze differences.

This task of making this delineation is equally simple at some level. The chimp likely will probably not excel in physics, though he can likely learn to play a video game. She won’t graduate from elementary school, but she may very well flourish as a hunter-gatherer in a tropical jungle. Animals are a part of the world, immersed in the same surroundings as their human zookeepers and zoo-supporting philanthropists. But they do not seek to change their world. Rather, they simply want to survive and reproduce.

Humans, on the other hand, make a choice. They must make the choice of how they will influence the world. Every human has agency – the ability to affect change. Though humans use their agency differently, each human possesses it to some degree.

No one would argue that education is an irreplaceable aspect of human participation in the world. Educations alerts individuals and communities to the world around them, helping to guide and direct young persons in their forthcoming autonomy, their long-anticipated independence from parents.

In education, however, young people are, at times, treated as vessels for holding information. Instead of sparking the imagination of youth and inviting their participation in the world, education often trains up young ones to know every state capital and the names of all the US presidents. Of course, there are many excellent educators in our world, and they certainly don’t simply deposit facts in students’ brains. But this does happen.

Paulo Freire, a Brazilian philosopher and educator, has juxtaposed two means for pedagogy. The first, deposit-making, consists of giving information, of filling the minds of students with information. The second, problem-posing, invites the agency of the individual to factor in to the pedagogical matrix. In other words, Freire believes critical intervention in the world is essential for
thorough and meaningful education.

In my next post I’ll take a closer look at how this pertains not only to education but also to preaching, politics, government, and other spheres.