Ken's Theological Influences
I grew up in the Episcopal church of the 1950's in Detroit, when Detroit was the bustling, growing, Motor City place to be. I absorbed the Apostles' & Nicene Creeds-Ten Commandments-Lord's Prayer catechism of that church. During the sermons I read through the Thirty Nine Articles with a sense of complete confusion as to their meaning or relevance to my life. The articles were for the most part answering questions I wasn't asking.
In early adolescence I switched gears theologically, under the influence of Ayn Rand whose novel, The Fountainhead, led me to a declared atheism, which lasted through high school.
Fresh out of high school, newly married and a father-too-young, I had long conversations with Brian Martin, a friend from high school days. He was part of what was simply called the Northwest Fellowship, an expression of the growing "Jesus movement" in Detroit. The primary teacher of that group of young people was Haskell Stone, a Jewish believer who came from an Orthodox Jewish family. Haskell had a unique take on faith because of his Jewish identity. He didn't fit easily into the existing theological or ecclesiastical categories. He was also one of the best teachers of the Bible I have ever heard or ever will.
Haskell Stone went to Fuller Theological Seminary where he studied under George Eldon Ladd. Ladd was influenced by Oscar Cullmann, who emphasized the importance of the kingdom of God as the central theme of Scripture tying together the Old and New Testaments, culminating in the teaching and ministry of Jesus in the gospels.
My earliest adult Christianity, in other words, was delivered and received with the assumption that the gospels were the primary teaching document of the church. Paul was to be read in light of Jesus, the final word, not Jesus in light of Paul.
Haskell Stone worked closely with Dick Bieber, pastor of Messiah Lutheran Church in Southwest Detroit. Dick was shaped by the writings of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Karl Barth, Oswald Chambers, and of course, the ever-present C.S. Lewis. Bieber was also influenced (quietly) by the neo-Pentecostal movement. (It was Dick who prayed with my comatose father in an intensive care unit, when my father woke up to say hello to Dick.) Dick's primary theological theme was discipleship--radical discipleship to Jesus. Like Bonhoeffer, he spoke often about the dangers of "cheap grace." A Christian was first and foremost a disciple of Jesus called to "pick up his cross daily" to follow wherever Jesus might lead.
Moving to Ann Arbor to attend the University of Michigan, I came into contact with a Pentecostal grad student from South India, named Joseph Arthungal. Joseph and Lilly took my wife Nancy and me under their wing and loved on us. We needed it, alone with each other and our newborn in a new town. Joseph came from the Ceylon Pentecostal Mission--a form of indigenous Indian Pentecostalism that was strict, to say the least. (The pastors of the Ceylon Pentecostal Mission lived "as brother and sister," that is celibate, with their wives!) I took Joseph's theology with a grain of salt, but was powerfully influenced by his love of Scripture, his concern to share the gospel with others, and his Eastern devotion to prayer. Joseph introduced me to the biography of Sadhu Sundar Sing, a Hindu Sikh who became a holy man following Jesus of Nazareth.
After a few years in Ann Arbor, Nancy and I became involved with an ecumenical charismatic community that was one of the early centers of the worldwide Catholic Charismatic Renewal. Most of the members of this charismatic community were Roman Catholic or mainline Protestants (Lutheran, Presbyterian, Episcopalian, etc.) with a smattering of Eastern Orthodox and Coptic Christians. Like many of the charismatic movements of the 1970's this group went overboard in many areas, but has long since regained it's bearings. Lay leaders like Ralph Martin and Stephen Clark were trained in philosophy, well read in catholic theology, and willing to learn from Pentecostals and Evangelicals to shape the catholic charismatic renewal. It was a kind of semi-monastic lay community of nearly 1500 adults who maintained their connection to established churches.
The church that eventually became our home church, Vineyard Church of Ann Arbor was started by Mark Kinzer, high school friend and fellow Jesus freak who was profoundly influenced by Haskell Stone, being like Haskell, a Jewish believer in Jesus. I quickly became a kind of co-founding leader of this informal fellowship, along with Mark Kinzer and Prentice Tipton who has since become a Roman Catholic priest. Kinzer is now a leader in Messianic Judaism. (Yes, we're hoping one day to go to a bar together where we might tell the bartender a joke about the priest, the rabbi, and the minister.)
Eventually this home church grew and became one of four churches related to each other in an ecumenical covenant. They included a Roman Catholic non-territorial parish, a Lutheran congregation (now Missouri Synod) and a Presbyterian church (now part of the Evangelical Covenant Church.) Our church was called, "the Free Church Fellowship" as we were neither Catholic, Reformed, or Lutheran, identifying rather with the radical reformers of the Anabaptist tradition. We were more or less making it up as we went along. Again you see the theological lean toward greater emphasis on the gospels, a characteristic of the Anabaptist movement, centered as it was on the Sermon on the Mount as the Christian Manifesto.
During my years as a leader of "the Free Church Fellowship" I engaged in ecumenical dialog in the form of monthly study groups with the ordained clergy of the other churches involved in this ecumenical arrangement. We considered the various approaches to Scripture, tradition, sacraments, justification, sanctification, etc., in these various traditions. It was quite an education.
Because the Catholic charismatic renewal was such a powerful movement in the Catholic Church, I met several bishops, catholic theologians, and even a Cardinal or two. The personal preacher to Pope John Paul II, now Cardinal Cordes, prayed a special "ecumenical blessing" over me; I hope it took.
In time, as the ecumenical arrangement dissolved, Mark Kinzer went on to found Zera Avraham, a congregation within Messsianic Judaism, and I became the primary leader of the church, which eventually was adopted into the association of Vineyard churches, led at the time by John Wimber, now deceased. It was a kind of theological homecoming because Wimber was a popularizer of the theology of George Eldon Ladd. Wimber was an adjunct faculty at the Fuller Theological Seminary, where Ladd taught.
Since becoming involved in Vineyard, I have been shaped by the writings of Dallas Willard, Jonathan Edwards, and most importantly N.T. Wright, the Anglican Jesus scholar, whose work I view as in the trajectory of the theology of Ladd, with its emphasis on the kingdom of God and the centrality of the gospels as the primary teaching documents of the church.
Being an autodidact (with some graduate work at Ashland Theological Seminary, which I will never, alas, complete) I've been fairly free to roam where the Spirit and circumstance and my interests and relational connections have led me. This is why I'm a little outside of the American evangelical box, though I consider myself evangelical, properly understood. (But, like many evangelicals, I'd like to define that for myself!)
Beyond this, I have a kind of insatiable curiosity. I'm old enough to realize that the authorities aren't quite as together as they appear to be. I've been through enough of the spiritual discipline of disillusionment (a profound one in the late 1980 and early 1990's) to know that humility is the hardest of virtues and the most fleeting. I don't mind poking and prodding at things, believing the substantial and enduring things can take it.
I'm not a voracious reader, but I'm always reading something--usually a few books at a time. I enjoy reading science, because so few of my fellow evangelicals do and because I find it fascinating and invigorating. Facts are God's native language and I try to listen to them. All truth is God's truth and it's the one thing we shouldn't be frightened to learn, even it presents us with
previously undiscovered contradictions. Some of the best theology comes from wrestling with truths that don't seem to fit together. If we're not wrestling with truths that don't seem to jive, I suspect it's because we're not curious or honest enough.
I enjoy reading up on evolutionary biology. It's the primary narrative of modern science and it irks me that so many of my fellow evangelicals seem to be frightened by it and understand so little of it. It's challenged my faith, but only in the process of deepening it. Reading about the new physics--I know enough to know I don't understand it--and biology and environmental science and the rest has been one of the highlights of my faith in the past ten years. I'm currently working my way through some low level cognitive science. The nature of personhood and consciousness is the concern of the Trinitarian Christian and I want to be in on the action. I'm hoping to become better read in the field of human sexuality one of these days. I'm praying for a long life, because I love my wife and kids and there is so much to learn and so little time.
One last thing: it's often assumed that I'm well read in that new Christian genre called "emergent" or "emerging." It turns out that I'm not. I'm friends with Phyllis Tickle and love her writing, but she was at it long before the emergent genre hit the scene.