Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Part 1: Closer Look at the UCC's God Is Still Speaking Ads

The United Church of Christ is putting itself on television again and thereby launching a new phase of its "God Is Still Speaking" (GISS) advertising campaign. What is the theology behind the campaign and its three commercials, "Steeple," "Bouncer," and "Ejector"? That's the subject of this 5-part series. These observations are taken from a paper I presented at the 2006 National Gathering of Faithful & Welcoming Churches and again at a 2007 regional meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society.

The slogan, "God is still speaking," says everything about the United Church of Christ. Today we'll consider how the phrase summarizes the denomination's self-understanding of its history.

Rev. Wilson Yates, former President of United Theological Seminary in Minnesota, offers a comprehensive description of the campaign’s foundational phrase, "God is still speaking," and explains how those words uniquely summarize the past and present theology of the United Church of Christ:
The formulation, brief and succinct, is foremost a creative forging of the images that give shape to an aspect of our understanding of God, at least once the statement is set within the context of the United Church of Christ…The words imply a past—if God is still speaking, we can assume God has spoken in the past, speaks in the present, and by implications that flow from both the verb and the comma, will speak in the future, for the future is indicated by the comma and is being created by the actions of the present. And the word speaking—i.e., stating, communicating, conversing, revealing, connecting—points to the active presence of God and to the possibility of dialogue between God and the human community.

But the statement is not simply a linguistic structure of an idea. It is a theological statement that is related to a context, the United Church of Christ. In one sense, the theological statement, "God is Still Speaking," is as authentically a part of the United Church of Christ as any theological idea we might call forth, for the United Church of Christ has throughout its history—from its biblical, Calvinist, Puritan, evangelical, African-American, and ethnic ancestry down to its present—had a dynamic sense of God as One who has spoken to us in the past, who speaks to us in the present and will speak to us in the future. Thus the statement reflects the received and current theology of the church.

Wilson Yates, "Imagination, Creativity, and Change" in New Conversations: Imagination, Creativity, and Change (United Church Press: Cleveland, OH, Winter 2004), pp. 11-12.
Rev. Wilson Yates makes an insightful case that in the "unique context of the United Church of Christ," the slogan, "God is still speaking" accurately summarizes our church’s history—or in Yates' words, "the received and current theology of the church." The UCC touts this record of historical faithfulness—Pilgrims seeking spiritual freedom, an early stance against slavery, first ordination of an African-American pastor, first woman pastor, and the ordination of the first openly gay minister.

After reflecting on Gracie Allen's quote, "Never place a period where God has placed a comma" and the slogan, "God is still speaking," GISS Director Ron Buford in a 2003 speech makes this connection: "Our history is full of evidence of many actions that were controversial in their day, but in the rear view mirror of history have proved and continued to prove that we have been right on target."

Indeed, the UCC has a long record of people who took steps of faith on various issues and causes before other religious groups. These UCC brethren were "ahead of the curve" because they listened and responded to the still-speaking voice of God in their day and age.

With that said, let's affirm the need to let history teach us. The rear view mirror is a crucial teacher in discerning whether or not the UCC—or anyone else for that matter—has been faithful to God. One can be convinced that he/she is faithfully hearing and obeying the still-speaking God in the present, but greater certainty necessarily requires the passage of time and reflection on the past.

More importantly, no one should assume that just because the UCC listened faithfully to the still-speaking God in the past, it will then—as a matter of course—be faithful in the future. In other words, just because we got the old issue of slavery right, that doesn’t mean we got today's issue of homosexuality right.

The phrase, "God is still speaking" may accurately bear witness to the UCC’s history, but it cannot prima facie validate that history as correct. God may speak, but we humans may not get the message or act on it faithfully.

When it comes to the legitimacy of homosexuality, we each have our convictions. And yet, the issue in the modern church is not yet forty years old. No one should act as if the matter is settled. Let everyone on all sides be warned against arrogance and absolute certitude (1 Corinthians 13:11-12).

1 comment:

chuck said...

Are you using LRAD and implants and microwaves for this Voice of God that seems to be a good fund raising idea as people like to have a personal relationship with god and the technology is well known to Pat and Oral.