Joel Watts is a United Methodist layperson (and future Deacon), author, and Ph.D candidate. He has in rather short time become a recognized voice in the Methodist blogosphere at his blog Unsettled Christianity. I have fellowshipped with Joel on a couple of occasions at AAR/SBL. He agreed to this interview to offer his thoughts on the importance of theological reflection, the current situation in the United Methodist Church, and a few other issues.
ARB: Joel, tells us a little about yourself?
JW: I'm a happily married West Virginian, with three beautiful children. I am a graduate from United Theological Seminary and an author of two books, while editing/contributing to another. I'm a blogger and a United Methodist Christian. Some people really like me…
ARB: As a religious scholar, what do you hope to contribute to the theological reflection of the church?
JW: …a balance of generous orthodoxy.
When I first came to the UMC, I came with vestiges of fundamentalism, a fundamentalism that opposed "non-biblical" precepts (like the Trinity). I was told, simply, by our senior pastor that the UMC does not require you to think a certain way, only to think.
I maintain this, even while venturing further into orthodoxy (a creedal faith). I think the UMC is in a unique position to appeal to the worldviews that resist change, either extremely conservative or extremely liberal. When we approach our systems as unchangeable because we know for a fact we are right, we fall into a dangerous trap of self-justification. Rather, I would like to contribute, via my experience, a hope in something beyond ourselves and our personal experiences.
We live in a time when faith in long-standing institutions is at an all time low. That is, in many ways, a good thing. However, we are throwing out the baby with the bath water. We chide institutional churches, without understanding that without a canon (an instrument of measurement) each person is allowed to determine for him or herself what is right. This leads to a plethora of cults and sects. And the fact is, not everything, not everyone, is right. As a friend has said, we have moved from free grace to the absolute freedom of will in our UMC-- and, I’ll add, we are paying the heavy tax of freedom so-called.
I believe orthodoxy is the best vision of Christianity and has withstood the test of time. I want to contribute a return to this institution.
ARB: As a United Methodist, what do you believe are the biggest strengths of our church? What about the weaknesses?
JW: Our biggest strengths are the generous orthodoxy enshrined in our Book of Discipline, itself a strength (if we allow it to be). The idea of "Catholic and Reformed" is often applied to the Anglican Church. As heirs to Anglicanism and Pietism, one of our strengths is the notion of catholicity (the Great Tradition) and scriptural holiness, one of the better aspects of evangelicalism. If I were hopeful, I would say that the UMC is "Catholic and Evangelical," if evangelical meant that Scripture was our primary rule of doctrine and life and the center of our worship space.
I love the itinerant system (strength) but it needs to be imposed better (weakness).
Our weakness is that we have, it seems, allowed too much change in the understanding of grace. We have overused this word to mean that each can do what they consider right in their own eyes. We have no accountability-- not simply to each other, but to those who went before and to those who come after. The Book of Discipline has become a chided guide because there is no one willing to "go against grace" to enforce it. Our biggest weakness is the fact we simply no longer know what it means to be a Christian with authority.
ARB: There has been much talk about matters of sexuality in our denomination and whether or not we will split or find away to continue together. What are your thoughts on this and do you think we will avoid schism? Why or why not?
JW: If we avoid schism, it will be because the Judicial Council overrules attempts at allowing for it. At this point, I am of the opinion that a "fringe separation" may be in order. By this, I mean allowing those who will not support the Book of Discipline to depart with their property and some aid to their pensions. This doesn't mean that those who want to see the BoD changed, as I do, but only those who will work to prevent the BoD from working.
I support inclusion, but I have found more room for dialogue with those who do not than with those who do. We see self-titled progressives attacking anyone who does not agree with them, even to the point of incendiary language wherein people's narratives are stolen and abused. Further, I have found more on the right (those against inclusion) who are open to compromise than those on the left. The "progressives" would rather burn down the denomination than compromise, and because of that, I have come to the conclusion that a (limited) lifting of the trust clause may in fact be helpful to progress us truly forward.
I would rather talk about mergers, than schism. I would like to see us start to pull closer together-- perhaps with Anglicans. The Personal Ordinariate of St. Peter gives me hope. I would like to see some mergers between Wesleyans. I mean, we have a lot of denominations that trace their lineage back to Fr. John. We don't need another one-- but we could do with a few less.
ARB: What books have you published and what are they about? What are your future projects?
JW: I have authored Mimetic Criticism and the Gospel of Mark as well as Praying in God’s Theater, Meditations on the Book of Revelation. The first is about reading Mark through the hidden transcript I believe is buried in there. It explores Mark’s literary sources and offers some explanation as to what I mean. The best way I can describe it, is that for Mark, Jesus didn't just do, but Jesus is still doing. "This is only the beginning of the Gospel (Mark 1.1)… now go and see (Mark 16.8)."
Praying in God’s Theater is a labor of love, really. It takes the Book of Revelation and turns it into a series of prayers. I've added what I believe the text means, somewhat, and how to use it today as well
I have co-edited a book which includes several issues from me regarding my transition from fundamentalism to faith.
My wife and I are currently completely two books for Energion. They will focus on Advent and Lent and will include devotionals as well as projects for the family.
And then, I’m going to work on my dissertation, I promise.
ARB: What do you like to do in your free time? Do you have any hobbies?
JW: Free time? I have 3 kids and a dissertation and a blog and church. What is free time?
But, I do like to read, watch mindless movies, pick on Duke fans, and play towering games on my blessed iOS devices.
ARB: what do you believe is the most pressing issues for the church in the 21st century West and why?
JW: We need to define what Christianity is apart from Christendom. For mainlines, we need to rediscover evangelism. I think we pretty well got that social justice bit down, although for some it gets into activism and politics. Social Justice is what disciples do, not how to make disciples. The Gospel calls people to God and adds them to the Church who transforms them into disciples through sound teaching and holiness of life. Disciples then go an act socially just. We've left out the Gospel. We need to reclaim that bit about "go into all the world and teach them about Jesus and baptize them into the kingdom."
The Gospel is not feeding the poor, but feeding the souls of the poor (those without God). Once this is done, people will feed and cloth the poor. The Gospel is not about inclusion (unless you mean Gentile inclusion into the Covenant).
We have left the Gospel out of all of our equations.
Simply, Jesus has become a mascot and the Gospel the motto.
ARB: Is there anything else you would like to say?
JW: Nothing really except for this: Think. Think through what you are saying. Think about how it plays out. See if it is really God's intention, or your desire. Just think.
ARB: Joel, thanks for your time... and Go Duke!