Sunday, August 26, 2012

Does the church have a future?

On Friday, I quoted from If the Church Were Christian by Philip Gulley.  Having finished reading it (I rate it 9 of 10, an excellent book), I want to quote from it again.  This paragraph is from page 190:
"If there is a future for the church in America, perhaps it is to raise America's collective consciousness, so that injustice, poverty, and tyranny would be moral affronts to us and we would hasten to eliminate them.  Such a church would creatively and consistently call us to heed our better angels.  It would actively engage our leaders, urge gracious treatment for the poor and powerless, promote peace and reconciliation among nations, challenge abusive religion, and provide a setting where people could reflect upon significant matters.  The central task of this church would not be convincing us to believe doctrines about Jesus.  Rather, it would help us live out the priorities of Jesus — human dignity, spiritual growth, moral evolution, and the ongoing search for truth and meaning."
If the Church Were Christian: Rediscovering the Values of Jesus ~ by Philip Gulley, 2010, religion, 9/10

Friday, August 24, 2012

If the Church Were Christian ~ by Philip Gulley

If the Church Were Christian: Rediscovering the Values of Jesus ~ by Philip Gulley, 2010, religion
Consider this:  Jesus offered no new revelation from God.  Everything he said and did grew out of his Jewish faith.  As in all religions, there were those in Judaism who'd forgotten and forsaken its principles.  What first-century Judaism needed wasn't a new revelation, but the reminder of a previous one.  The prophets preceding Jesus had described well the priorities of God — mercy, forgiveness, hospitality, and compassion.  Jesus exemplified those virtues, expanded their meaning for his generation, and through the power of his good example, urged others to not only imitate his works, but to exceed them.

What Jesus wasn't about was his own glorification and elevation.  Rather, he argued for humility, modesty, and putting others before self.  This was not a man claiming a special status for himself, but a man committed to faithfully living out the priorities of God's reign and helping others do the same.  Being a fitting example was precisely what he was about.  Instead of accepting that, the church made Jesus God, interpreting his life in ways he likely didn't intend, convincing itself that his way of living was only possible because he was God, providing humanity an excuse not to be like him.  In my twenty-five years of pastoral ministry, I have heard people say time and again, "I could never be like Jesus."  But what I've discovered in the Gospels is the expectation that we could and should be like him.

The Christian gospel ought not be that Jesus was God and we can find life in his death.  Our good news is that we can find life in his example — accepting the excluded, healing the sick, strengthening the weak, loving the despised, and challenging the powerful to use their influence redemptively.  These objectives do not require divinity, but commitment, compassion, and courage.  Jesus accomplished what he did not because of some supernatural power unavailable to the rest of us; he accomplished what he did because of his steadfast dedication to the priorities of God.
These three paragraphs are from pages 25-26 of the first chapter, entitled "If the church were Christian ... Jesus would be a model for living rather than an object of worship."

Monday, August 13, 2012

Proverbs of Ashes ~ Rita's story

Proverbs of Ashes: Violence, Redemptive Suffering, and the Search for What Saves Us ~ by Rita Nakashima Brock and Rebecca Ann Parker, 2001

Rita and Rebecca take turns sharing their stories in this combination of memoir and theology.  Rebecca writes about growing up half Japanese in American — she was born in Japan to a Japanese mother and a U.S. soldier.  She explores the two cultures on pages 81-82.
Japanese culture values harmony in relationships and kinship.  Being individualistic or self-assertive was seen as pathological in my Japanese home, which valued humility and generosity.  Respectful behavior showed one belonged.  Whether one actually believed personally in ancestor spirits was less relevant than participating in rituals that demonstrated one's gratitude and respect for those who have passed on.

The Western version of Buddhism emphasized personal meditation practices, rather than adoption of its Asian cultural forms.  European American Buddhism tends to ignore kinship networks, formal ritual, and obligation to family members, living and dead.  North American Buddhism prefers to focus on individual spirituality and / abstract values such as "respect for nature," or "enlightenment," as a means to help practitioners transcend themselves, their families, and their community obligations.  Christianity functions in a similar way in Asia as Buddhism functions in the United States  Converts to Christianity use it to transcend the limitations of family and culture.  When religious ideas get separated from their cultural forms, they take on different meanings.  They move against a society's norms and grant people more individual freedom.

The values of my American life have often been at odds with my Japanese origins.  The anti-religious spiritual search so characteristic of Americans is part of my Protestant upbringing.  Protestant Christianity places above all else the relationship of the individual self to God, and U.S. society reflects this with its emphasis on indivual achievement, self-assertion, authenticity, and personal fulfillment.  The search for individual fulfillment is often based on an antagonism toward organized forms of religion — toward forms of religion that are social and community-based. ... I needed a way of being religious that connected me to others, that broke through my isolation, that gave me living presence.  Denver's life had done that, but not his theology.  [Denver was a Baptist preacher and father figure for Rita.]
Rita, who the author of the award-winning Journeys by Heart, is a research associate at Starr King School for the Ministry at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California.

(Rebecca's story, Aug 12, 2012)

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Proverbs of Ashes ~ by Rita Nakashima Brock and Rebecca Ann Parker

Rebecca Ann Parker
Proverbs of Ashes: Violence, Redemptive Suffering, and the Search for What Saves Us ~ by Rita Nakashima Brock and Rebecca Ann Parker, 2001

Rebecca and Rita take turns sharing their stories in this combination of memoir and theology.  Rebecca tells this story (on page 34) about her father, who was a Methodist minister.
When I was twelve, we had confirmation class, and my father was our teacher.  Just before Palm Sunday, each child was invited to decide whether or not to join the church.  I'd thought about it carefully and announced to my father that I was not going to join.  My mother had already sewn me a spring-yellow Easter dress to wear for the confirmation service, but I ignored this fact.  Nor did I consider that my father might be embarrassed if his own daughter decided to remain a heathen.

My father, however, did not show the slightest sign of unhappiness with me.  He respectfully said, "You have a perfect right not to join the church.  But I would be interested to hear your reasons."

I explained myself.  "First of all, I don't believe that God sends people to hell."  Nothing in my liberal Methodist upbringing had asserted that God condemned people to hell, but I'd gotten the idea somewhere, and I objected to it.  "If there is a God," I continued, "God must be at least as good as you and Mother.  Neither of you would ever condemn anyone to eternal damnation."  My father nodded, appreciatively.

"Furthermore," I went on, "I don't believe that Jesus was the only son of God.  I believe everyone is a child of God."

My father said, "Do you know what a person who believes as you believe is called?"  "No," I said, surprised to hear that there was a name for my heresy.

"A Unitarian," my father said.  Then he added, "I'm a Unitarian in my theology.  I agree with your ideas.  You can be a Unitarian and join the United Methodist Church.  There is freedom to believe as you see fit.  John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, frequently preached on the maxim, 'We need not all think alike to love alike.'"

"Oh!" I said, happy to discover this.  "Then I'll join the church."
Rebecca is now an ordained United Methodist minister in dual fellowship with the Unitarian Universalist Association.  She is also professor of theology at Starr King School for the Ministry at the Graduate Theological Union.

(Rita's story, Aug 13, 2012)

Friday, August 10, 2012


My friend Ginny Case wrote this on Facebook today:
I often wonder why people say "don't forget" rather than say "remember."  Remember is more positive!  Some psychologists say that the negative like "don't run" plants the suggestion to run ... especially in children.
I commented:
Ginny, this is interesting. I'll have to "remember" to be positive!
I'm surprised that, as a word person, I had not noticed this before.  The negative version of it must really be ingrained in me (and maybe our culture).
"Don't forget to buy bread on your way home."
"Don't forget to turn out the light."
"Don't forget......."
While writing this, I went back to Ginny's post, and discovered she had added:
I read that when we say "I can't remember" or "I forgot" that we program our brains to not remember. Rather we might say "I will remember." This might especially help us older folks who are often accused of forgetting more.
I responded:
 Wow, this is also interesting.  So let me restate my previous comment even more positively:  "I will remember to be positive!"
Ginny, ending the conversation, clicked "like" on what I just said.  Tell me I'm not the only one — besides Ginny — who likes thinking about the way we use language.

(I posted this on my word blog this morning.)

Tuesday, August 7, 2012


I have a word blog called Joyful Noiseletter, where I ponder word meanings.  Harvard offered the public an ethics class on "Justice" in 2009, so I posted the word "justice" on my word-blog and an invitation to join the class discussion here on my book-blog.  After watching each week's video posted by Harvard, a group of friends met at my house to talk about it.  You can explore "justice" with us, if you are interested, by answering any of our weekly questions:

1 ~ cannibalism
2 ~ guardrail
3 ~ taxing the rich
4 ~ owning myself
5 ~ selling a kidney
6 ~ cheating a child
7 ~ racial profiling
8 ~ what we deserve
9 ~ ethnicity
10 ~ civic virtue
11 ~ patriotism
12 ~ same-sex marriage

We covered two subjects each week, as I showed in my overview post.

Justice: What's the Right Thing to Do? ~ by Michael J. Sandel, 2009
What are our obligations to others as people in a free society?  Should government tax the rich to help the poor?  Is the free market fair?  Is it sometimes wrong to tell the truth?  Is killing sometimes morally required?  Is it possible, or desirable, to legislate morality?  Do individual rights and the common good conflict?  Michael J. Sandel’s “Justice” course is one of the most popular and influential at Harvard.

Monday, August 6, 2012

My friend Jane Yelliott has been honored

My friend Jane Yelliot, "local artist and longtime supporter of the arts" (as described her), was honored with the installation of a plaque on the Walk of Honor at the historic Walnut Street Bridge last week.  (See photos of the installation.)  She joins other notable Chattanoogans such as Bessie Smith, world famous blues singer, and Adolph S. Ochs, publisher of the Chattanooga Times and the New York Times.

I've written about Jane on this blog many times, like when she gave me a tiger "cat" to hug after Kiki died.  She's a special person, and I'm happy to see her honored like this.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

From my archives ~ once again, Mattie

A Northern Light ~ by Jennifer Donnelly, 2003, YA fiction, 9/10

This is an excellent book.  I especially liked that Mattie had a "word of the day" and even while working would ponder that word, coming up with all sorts of new ideas.  Eventually, of course, Mattie thinks the unthinkable:
"Jezzum ... What if God was a woman?  Would the pope be out of a job?  Would the president be a woman, too?  And the governor?  And the sheriff?  And when people got married, would the man have to honor and obey?  Would only the women be allowed to vote?  Emily Baxter's poems made my head hurt.  They made me think of so many questions and possibilities" (p. 208).
I rated the book 9 of 10, an excellent book.  It received the Printz Award for excellence in YA literature, as you can see on the cover.  Here's my review from a couple of years ago.  (SPOILER: The comments say perhaps a bit too much, if you haven't read the book.)

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Quote from Spong ~ about the Bible

Re-Claiming the Bible for a Non-Religious World ~ by John Shelby Spong, p. 297
Some years ago when I was on a tour with the publication of my book Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism, I appeared on a late-night talk show with host Tom Snyder, who was broadcasting at that time out of a studio in Burbank, California.  In the interview I mentioned that the gospels were generally dated between 70 and 100 CE.

Tom, a lapsed Roman Catholic, bestirred himself and said:  "Now wait a minute, Bishop.  If the gospels were written that late, none of them could have been written by eyewitnesses."

I responded:  "That is correct, Tom."

"But that is not what the nuns taught me in parochial school," he said.

"What did they tell you?" I inquired.

"They said that the disciples followed Jesus around and wrote down everything he said, and that is how the gospels came into being."

Amused at how naive an otherwise educated and worldly-wise person could be about religious matters, I asked:  "Tom, did the nuns tell you that the disciples used spiral notebooks and ballpoint pens?"

It was wonderful to see a new realization sweep across my host's face.
Although I won't be there, this quote is from the chapter my Sunday school will be discussing tomorrow morning.

How to meet authors ~ Wes Rehberg

I'm writing a series of posts to answer a question posed by Helen of Helen's Book Blog:
"How the heck do you meet all these authors? That's awesome!"
Today's author is Wes Rehberg and, at the end of this post, you'll see why I show him holding that huge video camera.  I met him in Sunday school a mere two weeks ago.  I had heard about the retired pastor and his wife Eileen, who had moved to Chattanooga from upstate New York and had been attending the Seekers class on Sunday mornings.  When I finally met him a couple of weeks ago, on July 22, he had brought a copy of his latest book to class with him.  Hey, nobody had mentioned he was an author.

Political Grace: The Gift of Resistance ~ by Wes Rehberg, 2012
Philosophy and theology have increasingly turned to the problem of the rising numbers of people who live in severe conditions of oppression, people who are surplus to global economic and political orders which the oppressed define as "neoliberal" and "neocolonial."  This work, Political Grace: The Gift of Resistance, is part of that turning, through conversations with those who were and still are living under oppressive conditions, especially in Central America and Mexico, and through conversations with phenomenology, feminist theology, feminist jurisprudence, ethics, and liberation theology.  There is an assertion that grace, and the organization of the "lifeworld" which phenomenologists discuss, act in concert to seek to empower the flourishing of humans to understand and resist the abasing conditions they confront.  What frequently occurs when people living under oppressive conditions try to change their circumstances is a backlash by those who control their political, social, and economic conditions.  In response, the spirit of grace, as part of the human effort to flourish, aids in the resistance against the denial of this flourishing.
When Wes and I exchanged business cards, I learned that he does both "writing and film works."  He's a former journalist and founded a company called Wild Clearing.  When I got home, I went online to find out more and discovered our library has copies of two of his documentaries.

"Chattanooga's Homeless Challenge: A Documentary Film" gives homeless people a voice and also shows opportunities that allow them to transition out of homelessness.  When I watched this first video, I was surprised to see that a big part of it is about "Barry's church" (for then pastor Barry Kidwell) — which used to be "Bonnie's church," though we weren't set up to assist the homeless when I was the pastor at Forrest Avenue United Methodist Church from 1987 to 1991.

"Tracing Chattatonia" is another video by Wes that's available from my public library.  It's a 45-minute video collage that "contains spontaneously 'found' scenes from the Chattanooga region in 2006, compiled experimentally and interpretively, as a collage on a timeline."

Wes also has a blog called Writing in the Wild Clearing and a web site for experimental video art work he calls The Video Curio Theater.  Wes says, "The theater is open," so go take a look.

And that, boys and girls, is how I met another author (and film maker).

Wednesday, August 1, 2012


One book that's been on back order has finally arrived, and another six have arrived or been shipped.

Jesus Wars: How Four Patriarchs, Three Queens, and Two Emperors Decided What Christians Would Believe for the Next 1,500 Years ~ by Philip Jenkins, 2010
The fifth-century political battles that forever changed the church.  In this fascinating account of the surprisingly violent fifth-century church, Jenkins describes how political maneuvers by a handful of powerful characters shaped Christian doctrine.  Were it not for these battles, today's church could be teaching something very different about the nature of Jesus, and the papacy as we know it would never have come into existence.  This book reveals the profound implications of what amounts to an accident of history, that one faction of Roman emperors and militia-wielding bishops defeated another.
With or Without God: Why the Way We Live Is More Important than What We Believe ~ by Gretta Vosper, 2008
Envisioning a future in which the Christian church plays a viable and transformative role in shaping society, Gretta Vosper argues that if the church is to survive at all, the heart of faith must undergo a radical change.  Vosper, a minister in Toronto, believes that what will save the church is am emphasis on just and compassionate living — a new and wholly humanistic approach to religion.  Without this reform, the church as we know it faces extinction.
Worship Come to Its Senses ~ by Don E. Saliers, 1996
What makes Christian worship both true and relevant to ever-changing human circumstances?  How can our gathering about the Scriptures, the Table of the Lord, and the waters of baptism shape and express authentic Christian faith in the world of everyday life?  Saliers finds a fresh way of answering these questions by exploring four "senses" of God:  awe, delight, truth, and hope.  Why are wonderment, surprise, truthfulness, and expectancy so often missing or diminished in Christian liturgy today, whether Protestant or Roman Catholic, "high church" or "low church," "traditional" or "contemporary"?  Saliers contends that we are still restless for communion with God, and suggests how these essentials may be rediscovered by every worshiping congregation.

Proverbs of Ashes: Violence, Redemptive Suffering, and the Search for What Saves Us ~ by Rita Nakashima Brock and Rebecca Ann Parker, 2001
The gap between knowledge born of personal experience and traditional theology led the authors to write this exploration of the doctrine of the atonement.  Using an unusual combination of memoir and theology in the tradition of Augustine's Confessions, they lament the inadequacy of how Christian tradition has interpreted the violence that happened to Jesus.  Ultimately, they argue, the idea that the death of Jesus on the cross saves us reveals a sanctioning of violence at the heart of Christianity.  Brock and Parker draw on a wide array of intimate stories about family violence, the sexual abuse of children, racism, homophobia, and war to reveal how they came to understand the widespread damage being done by this theology.
Saving Paradise: How Christianity Traded Love of This World for Crucifixion and Empire ~ by Rita Nakashima Brock and Rebecca Ann Parker, 2008
When the authors began traveling the Mediterranean world in search of art depicting the dead, crucified Jesus, they discovered that it took Jesus Christ a thousand years to die.  Christians filled their sanctuaries with images of Christ as a living presence in a vibrant world.  He appears as shepherd, teacher, healer, enthroned god, infant, youth, bearded elder, but never dead.  When he appears with the cross, he stands in front of it, serene, resurrected.  But once Jesus perished, dying was virtually all he seemed able to do.  The authors ask how the early vision of beauty evolved into one of torture.  Changes in society and theology marked the medieval emergence of images of Christ crucified.  They found imperial strategies embedded in theologies of redemptive violence, which sheds new light on Christianity's turn to holy war.  They ground justice and peace for humanity in love for the earth and open a new future for Christianity through a theology of redemptive beauty.
The Scandalous Gospel of Jesus: What's So Good about the Good News? ~ by Peter J. Gomes, 2007
"What did Jesus preach?" asks Gomes, who believes that excessive focus on the Bible and doctrines about Jesus have led the Christian church astray.  To recover the transformative power of the gospel — "the good news" — Gomes says we must go beyond the Bible and rediscover how to live out Jesus's original revolutionary message of hope.

Sun of Righteousness, Arise! : God's Future for Humanity and the Earth ~ by Jurgen Moltmann, 2009
Moltmann brings together the biblical, historical, and theological elements of a new integrated Christian vision of the world, especially in light of our contemporary understandings of nature and the evolving universe.  Anchored in the resurrection of Jesus, such a vision affirms that God is the God of resurrection promise, God is present in justice and righteousness, Jesus is the son of righteousness, and nature can be seen as the site of God's work toward the fulfillment of life.  Here is a theological vision that can integrate our faith, inform our worldview, and fuel our life engagements.

The Only Way : From Cruelty to Compassion through Inner Transformation ~ by Gerald May, 2002 (three audio tapes)

The topic of these tapes fits the subject I'm studying right now (transformed lives that lead toward compassion), so I need to learn more about Gerald May and about Shalem Institute.  To read an excerpt from an article he wrote, click The Only Way : Cruelty to Compassion, Personal Transformation.

Gerald May (1940-2005) was well-known for his writings on psychology and spirituality.  From 1983 to 2005, he served at the Shalem Institute in Washington, DC, as Director of Spiritual Guidance, as Director for Research and Program Development, and finally as Senior Fellow in Contemplative Theology and Psychology.


I need a break, but here's something for you to think about while I'm away from the blog.

... and do something about this book mess...

... which has only gotten worse since I took this photo.
(Seven reasons appear at the top part of this blog post.)