Saturday, December 20, 2014

Singing Songs of Justice with Mary

46 And Mary[a] said,

“My soul magnifies the Lord,
47     and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
48 for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
    Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
49 for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
    and holy is his name.
50 His mercy is for those who fear him
    from generation to generation.
51 He has shown strength with his arm;
    he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
52 He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
    and lifted up the lowly;
53 he has filled the hungry with good things,
    and sent the rich away empty.
54 He has helped his servant Israel,
    in remembrance of his mercy,
55 according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
    to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”

I am preaching from the 89th Psalm on this the Fourth Sunday of Advent. I have already shared my thoughts concerning the story of the annunciation to Mary.  The alternative to Psalm 89 in the lectionary is the Magnificat -- Mary's song of divine triumph over the powers of this world.  

As we near the Christmas observance, it is good to hear this message of divine justice.  As an avid watcher of the various versions of Charles Dickens' The Christmas Carol, I am quite aware of the message of that story -- that God will bring down the high and mighty and lift up the lowly.  Such is the focus of Mary's song.  So, may we go forward on the journey toward Christmas, with the message of of Mary's song on our hearts.  

Friday, December 19, 2014

Changing Our Mind (David P. Gushee) -- A Review

CHANGING OUR MIND:  A Call from America’s Leading Evangelical Ethics Scholar for Full Acceptance of LGBT Christians in the Church.  By David P. Gushee.  Canton, MI:  Read the Spirit Books, 2014.  Xxiii + 131 pages.

Until recently it was generally believed that one could not be both Christian and Gay.  After all, didn’t the Bible declare homosexuality to be a sin, and besides that doesn’t nature itself suggest that humans are designed for heterosexual coupling?  At least that had been the prevailing opinion.  Things have changed dramatically in recent years.  The status of the Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender (LGBT) community continues to be a vexing question for the church.   Many Christians continue to hold the line on the traditional views, while many others are challenging the traditional understanding.  In part this due to the fact that many good solid Bible-believing Jesus professing Christians have begun to come out of the closet.  As LGBT folks begin to come out of the closet we’ve discovered that they often are our siblings, our children, our neighbors, and even possibly our parents.  To say that the apple cart has been upset is to put it mildly.  The question is – now that the closet doors are opening, where will the church go?  Who will lead the way?

  Of course members of the LGBT community who are Christians are telling their story.  Books by Justin Lee and Jeff Chu are only two possibilities.  But some of the best advocates are evangelical Christians who seek to affirm the authority of Scripture while recognizing that the demands of the hour require that we take a different perspective on questions like this.  Among those who have taken up the challenge is David Gushee, one of the leading evangelical social ethicists in America, and author of my book of the year from a year ago -- The Sacredness of Human Life.  Gushee has a very strong evangelical pedigree, having taught at Southern Baptist Seminary and Union University before moving to McAfee School of Theology (Mercer University).  He has even written a book on marriage that defended traditional view that marriage is the union of a man and a woman (Getting Marriage Right, Baker, 2004).  In recent years, however, Gushee has had a change of mind and heart.  This is due in large part to his encounters with LGBT Christians and the coming out of his own sister.  The latter is an important factor, because many of us have come to the same change of heart due to the realization that one we love (in my case my younger brother) is gay. In Changing Our Mind, Gushee shares how this change occurred and offers his rationale for why the church as a whole should follow his lead. 

Thursday, December 18, 2014

The Authority of Scripture in a Postmodern Age (excerpt)

Over the past few centuries, both those who challenge the value of the Bible as a source of divine revelation and those who defend it have done so with the tools of the Enlightenment. Both sides of the debate believed they could ascertain the truth – either through historical criticism or through assumptions of historicity. As we take our journey of faith into the twenty-first century, many people both inside and outside the church believe that this earlier paradigm no longer works. If there is no certainty, can we still hope to hear the voice of God in an authoritative way in Scripture? That is, if the historical-critical method of biblical interpretation, which emerged during the modern era undermines claims of infallibility and inerrancy, how do we know when we’ve heard the divine voice in these texts we call Scripture? That is, for those of us living on the moderate to liberal side of the Christian spectrum, what authority does Scripture have for our lives?

Many years ago, as I struggled with these kinds of questions, I found help in the writings of Karl Barth. It was during seminary, when I took a seminar on Barth’s understanding of the Word of God, that I found a way between the Scylla and Charybdis of historical criticism and biblical authority. As I read through the first two volumes of the Church Dogmatics, as well as Barth’s more accessible Evangelical Theology: An Introduction Evangelical Theology, I discerned a path to a place where I could look to Scripture for a Word from God even though this Word was embedded within very human and culturally bound words.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Torture in America -- Sightings (Martin Marty)

Martin Marty writes in response to the release of the torture report, inviting us to do a bit of self-examination. Whether we like it or not, all of us need to examine our own motivations and understandings, that we might move forward. Americans have a tendency toward reveling in a sense of moral superiority, but events like this remind us that we too can perpetrate "gross evil."  Listening to some who seek to reconcile these actions with our American identity, it is clear that the only way to do this is avoid the term "torture."  Instead, as I heard one woman on NPR talk, we must carefully cling to the words "enhanced interrogation techniques."  Of course we can't end up wallowing in self-loathing, but we must be willing to recognize that we too are capable of such evil. I invite you to take and read and continue the conversation.

Torture in America
Monday | Dec 15 2014
                                                                                             Image Credit: Walter Kopplinger / shutterstock
A micro-second or two after the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence Report on CIA Torture was released, a maxi-predictable reaction occurred. It was subjected to partisan interpretations and transformed into self-serving weaponry. Is it possible to step back and try to see it in the larger context of American history and policy? Are there efforts to bring some sort of theological judgment to bear on what it revealed about the U.S.?

For me, the strongest effect may be to see what it suggests about the “bad” and the “good” in national life in light of the current controversy. Each of us has his or her own way of dealing with its main themes.

With your permission or, for that matter, without it, let me propose an analogy between personal and national experiences. I’ll start, as Sightings seldom does, by looking not out the window but into the mirror of the self. A story: having engaged in some ornery activity when in theological school, I was typed—I heard this second-hand from a reliable source—as “too immature and irresponsible” to be entrusted with a solo flight into Christian ministry. I “needed seasoning” under some wise, mature, mentoring pastor. One was found, and I was launched with good grounding into a meaningful vocation.

In conversational counsel at get-acquainted time, the wise senior told me that I could never be an effective preacher or pastoral confessor if I was not able to put myself into the position of a confessing person “in the extreme.”  He said, “Know that you are vulnerable to committing every sin in the book.” I added: “. . . . except the really gross ones!” He corrected: “. . . including the really gross ones!”

Now, by analogy, we learned from the Senate's Report that our nation has to confront itself not as the always morally superior country, nor even one that blurred the line dividing “good America” from “bad America.” Now, we know that some in authority representing the United States, with sometimes grudging and sometimes enthusiastic approval, but approval nonetheless, perpetrated a “gross” evil against other humans—grossly, grossly evil though they themselves were seen to be.

Evading the reality of what Senators Feinstein and McCain and others, using a variety of terms, call a “stain” or an evil, will not serve. If we do not recognize the evil, we can learn from other (also often guilty) nations of the world, law, international agencies, people of conscience, religious voices, that we have to face the national depths through self-analysis. But awareness of this does not mean that as a nation we are simply burdened with the grossness of it all. We are not called to be masochistic confessors, virtuosos of self-loathing any more than self-glorying boasters.

Creative alternatives? While there may be theological imprecision in Abraham Lincoln’s image of this nation being touched “by the better angels of our nature,” it can be transformed into the language and expression of any number of religions or moral frameworks. Psychologist and social theorist Erich Fromm decades ago in The Art of Loving suggested that if we are nothing but self-loathers, we are incapable of effecting loving relations: who wants to be loved by such?

The historian of America in me that cowers in front of the mirror of our collective activities also beams to find too many examples of generosity, nobility, and dignity to be content with only one-sided descriptions of our common life, intentions, and record.

One may hope, at least with faint hope, that we will transcend the merely partisan reactions of our new day. If I say more, this will turn into a sermon, and, in my view, using a column in such a turn would be, if not a “gross evil” then at least a more than petty transgression.


Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. “Committee Study of the Central Intelligence Agency’s Detention and Interrogation Program.” New York Times, December 9, 2014, World.

“Reaction to CIA torture report.” USA Today, December 10, 2014, News.

Apuzzo, Matt, Haeyoun Park and Larry Buchanan. “Does Torture Work? The C.I.A.’s Claims and What the Committee Found.” New York Times, December 9, 2014, World Torture Report.

Fromm, Erich. The Art of Loving. New York: Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2006.

In this article, Kathleen O’Dwyer asks, with Erich Fromm, if we can learn how to love: O’Dwyer, Kathleen. “Is Love An Art?” Philosophy Now: a magazine of ideas, Nov/Dec 2014, Philosophy & Love.

Also of interest, philosopher Steven Pinker's book: The Better Angels of our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined (New York, New York Viking, 2011). For a summary of the book, visit:

Image: Walter Kopplinger / shutterstock.

To read previous issues of Sightings, visit
Author, Martin E. Marty, is the Fairfax M. Cone Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus of the History of Modern Christianity at the University of Chicago Divinity School. His biography, publications, and contact information can be found at

To comment, email the Editor, Myriam Renaud, at
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Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Expecting a Divine Visitation -- A Lectionary Reflection for Advent 4B

Luke 1:26-38 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

26 In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, 27 to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. 28 And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” 29 But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. 30 The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. 31 And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. 32 He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. 33 He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” 34 Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” 35 The angel said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. 36 And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. 37 For nothing will be impossible with God.”38 Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her.

                The way has been prepared.  The pathway for the coming of God’s reign has been made straight.  John the Baptist has taken up his calling, preaching the reign of God and inviting the community to come and be baptized as a sign of their repentance.  John’s calling, as we are reminded throughout the season of Advent, is one of preparation.  He is not the one we’re waiting for.  He is instead the advance man.  The Gospel of Luke begins with John’s story – the story of his miraculous birth to a woman who like Sarah and Hannah is barren.  Elizabeth and Zechariah had long since given up hope of having children of their own, but then an angel of God appeared and surprised them with news that they would have the opportunity to have a child who will be dedicated to the work of God and prepare the way for the Lord (Luke 1:5-25).