Thursday, December 04, 2008

Faith Works 12-6-08
Jeff Gill

A Baby and The Scandal of Particularity

When I was in high school, the movie “Oh, God” was out in theaters and my church youth group went to see it. The trip had the result no doubt hoped for by our advisors, with a long and specific conversation about theology happening at Mickey D’s that we didn’t know was theology.

In our conversation, we kept coming back to a conversation where the character played by John Denver (yes, that John Denver), a grocery store manager in Tarzana, CA is asking questions of God, played by George Burns (he did God before Morgan Freeman cornered that market).

Our mild-mannered manager asks if Jesus was God’s son. George played the moment with a moment of serious gravity, looking and sounding quite sad and sincere. “Yes, Jesus was my son.”

Pause. Then, gravely, “Buddha was my son. The man who said, 'There's no room at the inn'--he was my son, too. Let’s move on.”

The characters went on with other questions (“What about Judgement Day?” God: “I’m not looking forward to it.”), but our group didn’t. We were wrestling with it right on through our fries long after the movie had ended and we were waiting for parents to come pick us up, and some of us wrestle with it still.

Leslie Newbigin was a Christian thinker and leader through the 20th century, whose writing on Christian mission is very powerfully active in the “missional church” movement today. Newbigin is one of those rare figures as appreciated in evangelical circles as in liberal seminaries, but a real sticking point for some on the theological left is what Newbigin called “the scandal of particularity.”

Bishop Newbigin’s point was that the universality of Christ was made all the more effective by the particularity of who Jesus was; he argued passionately to Western culture after his years in leadership in South India that “the scandal of particularity” was a uniquely western problem, where our secularizing desire to see Jesus as “one of” God’s children eroded the impact of how Jesus came as embodied “Good News” for all. The particular and the universal had, for Newbigin, a very direct connection, while general categories lead us to the selective and the approved.

So for Lesslie, the idea that God’s love had a unique embodiment in a particular child in a certain village at a precise point in time was absolutely necessary to making the case that God’s saving love was offered to absolutely everyone – even those who came before that moment, let alone long after.

Which is why, when I look at a manger scene, I think of Lesslie Newbigin and Francis of Assisi more than I do George Burns or Avery Corman (the fine author who wrote the script for “Oh, God”). To make Jesus one of the many “sons of God” starts us down the road of who is, who isn’t, and who can’t even be considered as one of the One.

To proclaim the child born in Bethlehem as the “Prince of Peace,” to sing “Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus,” means not that I’m emphasizing who isn’t included in the grandeur and sweep of God’s grace, but that this baby born in a stable, laid down to sleep in a feeding trough, is a reliable sign for not only the religious and observant, but for the lost and seeking, the struggling and starving.

For the Licking County Food Pantry Network, St. John’s United Church of Christ on the south edge of Newark on National Drive is sponsoring a “Festival for the Christ Child” tomorrow afternoon, Dec. 7, in their sanctuary. It’s a concert, made up of a number of acts from around the county, with prelude music from 1 to 1:30 and the formal program starting at 1:30 pm, and your scribe is honored to serve as the emcee. Tickets can be reserved in advance at 323-2407, or you can buy them at the door for $10. All proceeds go to the area food pantries, who need to be a sign of hope in a dark time themselves. St. John’s is well known for their “Bethlehem Marketplace,” which is held every other year, and they didn’t want to wait until next year to make a particular, specific stand on behalf of our community’s hungry.

However you choose to proclaim the Christ Child in your life, spending a little time and money at this gathering can be a real gift to someone for Christmas. You may never know who that particular person you helped is, but they will know that their whole community has not forgotten them.

And what might grow from that one particular act of kindness, a point of grace?

Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and supply preacher around central Ohio; share your particular joys or concerns with him at

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