Pittsburgh Theological Seminary

Bridging the Word and the World

7/20 2016

Reflections from an African-American Police Chaplain

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blacklivesmatter-bluelivesmatterWhile the world is concerned with the constant threat from terrorist groups, the United States is finding itself facing a terror of its own. The shootings of two young African-American men, one in Baton Rouge, La., and the other in a suburb of St. Paul, Minn., have ignited a tension between law enforcement and the African-American community. Recently in Dallas, five police officers were fatally shot while patrolling and protecting protestors. Just this past Sunday, three Baton Rouge officers were shot and killed. While all attention is being placed on the strained relationship between African-Americans and the police, let me just say that there has been enough in the news over the years to remind us that we are a violent nation, perhaps the most violent of all industrialized nations. The narratives these past couple weeks have been juxtaposed in a way that causes Americans to think there is a war between African-Americans and law enforcement. I find that highly incredible.

The African-American community has been treated unfairly by law enforcement since the days of slavery, in fact by America at-large. The protests since the deaths of Travon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Freddie Gray, and others are just the display of a constitutional right to assemble and freedom of speech. These protests are not as baseless as the attempts to inflame national sentiment against the concerns of African-Americans. We are angered by the recent events, but these situations are not new. While some want us to focus on healing relations and reconciliation between law enforcement and African-Americans, this can only take place after admission of wrong doing. But besides harassment from police, we are dealing with the trauma of so many young men shooting and killing each other in our communities. When I think about what is happening with my people, I am reminded of the words in Jeremiah 31:15 and repeated in Matthew 2:18, “A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children, she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.” And then within my spirit the words in Habakkuk 1:2 echo, “How long shall [we] cry for help and you will not listen, or cry to you ‘Violence!’ and you will not save?”

We are facing a pandemic of violence resulting from a number of factors which I won’t expound on at this time. However, I will choose to offer the reminder that racial tension in this country is still unresolved despite progress on some levels and in some areas in the social fabric. The Kellogg Foundation, building on the South African Truth and Reconciliation Process, has been building a model for dialogue. Some of the findings from its work indicate the following: (1) more people recognize that racism is a huge problem in our country, (2) there’s a huge gap between Whites and African-Americans in the understanding or perception of how race shapes opportunity. Despite the landmark decision of Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, a Harvard University study revealed that American schools were more segregated in 2000 than when bussing began in 1970.

And then there is the police. I wonder what it must be like to be an African-American police officer, representing two communities. I have participated in several services where officers were killed in the line of duty, three ambushed in Pittsburgh in 2009 by a White assailant. The pain and numbness I saw that day in the eyes of officers explains the fear they too have today given the current attacks. Wives and children have lost husbands and fathers who left for work never to return home. There is violence everywhere. This is not about Black or Blue; it’s about humanity and we would do ourselves a favor by erasing the lines separating otherness and stepping into the world of the other. That’s what Jesus did.

The Rev. Dr. John Welch is a 2002 graduate of Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. He earned his MDiv degree, served in parish ministry at Bidwell United Presbyterian Church in Pittsburgh, and is now the Seminary’s vice president for student services and community engagement and dean of students. Additionally, he has served as chief chaplain for the City of Pittsburgh Bureau of Police since 2008.


7/15 2016

Pokémon Go and the Search for God

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pokemon and godThe World through a Game

Our 11-year-old son was desperate to play Pokémon Go, trying to download the app on his iPod, learning only later he needed a smartphone.

Mother to the rescue: curious herself and eager to see him happy, she got the app on her phone. Before long, they found themselves at Arsenal Park in downtown Pittsburgh staring at the phone, clueless what to do next.

Since Arsenal Park is a Poké Stop, a small band of aficionados was also there, enjoying pizza on what must be called a pokébreak. Eager to help a couple neophytes, these gamers explained how this is an “augmented reality” game and how you capture the Pokémon by tapping them when the phone shakes, then flinging balls at these Pokémon superimposed on the world you see through the screen. At the park my wife and child managed to capture a Diglet and secure an egg with a Squirtle inside.

While writing that last line felt like using a foreign language, I can already see how this scene—my wife, son, and six gamers roaming around a park, watching it through their phones, waiting for a cartoon animal to appear as an overlay—is quite a good image of how we humans actually live our real lives and read our world: through filters.


Reading the World through Filters

Thomas Merton once suggested that only a handful of people see the world as it really is. I think he’s right. The rest of us see the world through the overlays, the filters we carry within us. Some of them were preinstalled before we were born—the filter called sin, for instance, which causes us to see the world falsely, as if we stand at its center.

Other filters we have downloaded along the way: the filters of ideology; the filters of our fantasies and fears, addictions and aversions; the filters of social constructions like race and social categories like class—all of which shape the way we perceive and misperceive reality.

When I see a colleague as a competitor, a student as a threat, or one of my children as an extension of myself, I am seeing them through a filter, not as they really are. And if I can’t see the world as it really is, then I certainly can’t do the thing most incumbent upon me, the one thing I was born to do: see the shimmer of God’s glory, God’s own presence, from within all that is.

The Second Century theologian Irenaeus is famous for saying, “The glory of God is the human being fully alive.” Rarely do we hear the second half of that quotation: “And the life of the human being is the vision of God.” The vision of God—exactly what our reality-distorting filters prevent us from seeing.


The Place of Spiritual Practices

Somewhere, someone right now is writing a sermon or a blog post suggesting Pokémon Go as an analogy for the human search for God: faith is like the screen we look through to see God.

I had a colleague who used to say that we must become “detectives of divinity,” but this is not at all what he meant, for until we have our reality-distorting filters of sin and ego and ideology deconstructed, the gods we find along our way are only idols we capture to serve our own interests.

Christian spirituality is not something we add to our lives like an app to our phone to help us find God. Rather, spiritual practices are meant to help us stay available to the God who finds us, the only One whose mercy can dismantle our filters so we can increasingly see reality as it is. With our distorted lenses, we see the world in the illusory way we want to see it. By making ourselves available to God’s grace, we can become disillusioned. We stop seeing neighbors as competitors and love as a zero sum game.

We can stop seeing the world through the narrow screens of sin, ego, and ideology. And we can start seeing the world as it is—the playground of God’s Spirit and the theater of redemption, shining from the inside out with the glory of a hidden God.

Now, where’s my son? I need him to show me how to get that game on my phone.


The Rev. Dr. L. Roger Owens is associate professor of leadership and ministry at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and teaches courses in the MDiv, Doctor of Ministry, and Continuing Education programs. Before coming to PTS he served urban and rural churches for eight years in North Carolina as co-pastor with his wife Ginger. He has written multiple books including The Shape of Participation: A Theology of Church Practices which was called “this decades best work in ecclesiology” by The Christian Century.


7/12 2016

Pokemon Go: Augmenting Reality, Transcendence, and Dragon Doors

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Pokemon-GoChances are you’ve heard quite a bit about Pokémon Go lately. There have been safety concerns, bizarre findings, and lots of people moving around in odd ways.

So what is it?

Augmenting Reality

Pokémon Go is a game that uses a GPS signal of a smartphone, along with the camera and display to bring a video game a little closer to the reality.

By using the phone’s GPS information, users can view specific locations in the real world through the camera and display of their smartphones. The game then overlays a video game creature on the phone’s display. The result is an image that makes it appear as if the game characters are inhabiting the real world.

This is a style of gaming called “augmented reality.”

Pokémon Go isn’t the first game to use real world movement to capture new characters. Some have used real world wifi signals. Others have used simpler means like a camera that detects colors. Decades ago there were even games that created monsters from player’s CD collections.

Pokémon Go also isn’t the first game to use “augmented reality.” Years ago a video game promised to project fictional pets on living room floors. While Pokémon Go isn’t the first game to use real-world information to augment reality, it’s certainly made a big splash.

So what do we do with this information in ministry? I think there are two opposite responses worth considering.


First, it’s important to recognize that as humans we have a yearning for something that reaches beyond the world we experience. We always have.

Theologians call this “transcendence.” Don McKim, the author of the Westminster Dictionary of Theological Terms, defines “transcendent” as “that which stands beyond all limits of human experience.” He quickly adds that Christians often use this word to describe God.

As humans, we hope, we suspect, we believe that there is something deeper than the world we can see and touch and taste. We have a fascination with the strange and bizarre. There’s something deeply human and healthy about it. In fact, churches have used art in similar ways for centuries. Just consider the symbols of the four evangelists.

Pokémon Go is one way we take that deep yearning and let it out to play. It’s a way to give expression to the longing for transcendence through silliness and fun.

Perhaps, as we consider ministry in a world with Pokémon Go, it may be helpful to recognize the yearning for transcendence, and allow people to express it in deeper ways.

Dragon Doors

Second, it’s important to realize that we often fail to see how bizarre reality can be. G. K. Chesterton, with his typical penchant for quotability, mused that “A child of seven is excited by being told that Tommy opened a door and saw a dragon. But a child of three is excited by being told that Tommy opened a door.”

His point was that in childhood, we recognize how amazing the world can be. There is no need to augment reality–reality itself is fascinating.

At its best, a game like Pokémon Go can help us recapture some of the fascination with the world around us.

The downside, of course, is that augmented reality games do put dragons behind doors. At their worst, they cause us to miss out on the excitement of reality.


Pokémon Go doesn’t just give church leaders something to think about; it also gives them something to do. Consider this: Pokémon Go may actually bring new people to your church since tons of churches are locations for the game. Wondering how you can reach these potential visitors? Check out the “Church Marketing Sucks” blog post on the topic.

Perhaps in a world of augmented reality, we can strive to help people to see the wonder of reality itself. We can encourage others to see the wonder of doors and trees and clouds, whether or not there are cartoon dragons behind them.


The Rev. Derek Davenport ’05 is director of enrollment at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and program co-director of the Miller Summer Youth Institute. Derek is also a PTS alumnus of the Master of Divinity (MDiv) Program after which he served at a church in Orlando, Fla., for five years. Besides working with prospective students, he serves as a guest preacher in Western Pennsylvania, researches church symbolism on his website, and tweets at @DerekRDavenport.

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