Saturday, July 28, 2007

Why Barack Obama?

I strongly believe in the constitutional principle that bans religious tests for public office. It does not matter whether a candidate is a Christian, a Muslim, a Buddhist or an atheist. What does matter is whether a candidate is competent, honest, has integrity, and is compassionate. When I look at Barack Obama he seems to have these important qualities. And so, on those principles alone, I feel like he is the best person running for president to serve as president.

But, as a person of faith who believes that faith can play an important role in the public square, I find Barack Obama’s willingness to speak of his faith and from his faith quite refreshing. That he understands the gospel and its call to love one’s neighbor is welcome.

When I hear candidates speak of faith, I listen for a voice that is authentic, for too many politicians have discovered the value of religion to politics. Now in recent years, Democrats by and large have shied away from such uses, but it would be easy for the party to start using religious language to gain votes. Such tactics will not work – I do not believe. As a Christian and as a pastor who is also Democrat, I do not wish to become a tool of the party (as a person of faith). I welcome the opportunity to speak to the party as a person of faith, but I do not wish to become beholden to the party.
With that in mind, what has stood out from the beginning of this campaign is the authenticity of Barack Obama’s faith. He doesn’t quote scripture for the sake of effect, but instead speaks of issues in ways that reflect a deeply thought out faith, one that has been formed by significant time in worship, in prayer, and in study. He seems to me to be a man who practices what he preaches. That he discovered faith in God and the church in the context of serving as a community organizer, suggests that he understands that words and deeds must go together.

Finally, in an age where religious intolerance, it is good to hear a person of faith who is in a position of power acknowledge the importance of humility and religious pluralism. That he speaks from faith and yet recognizes that there are other voices, legitimate voices that may differ from his, gives me comfort and confidence that he will not use or abuse faith as he brings it into the public square.

I am a pastor who supports Barack Obama, not simply because he is a person of faith -- is like me a Christian -- but because as a political leader he has advocated policies of compassion and grace that connect with my faith. He has I believe understood the principle of love of neighbor. This is why, even though I'm a pastor and at least in my position as a pastor I cannot intervene politically, as a private citizen who is a person of faith, I'm for Barack!

Being Missional -- A Quest for Understanding

I am intrigued by the idea of being a missional church. I'm still learning what that means, which is why I attended the Congregational Transformation workshop at the Disciples General Assembly. Among the presenters were Dick Hamm, whose book Recreating the Church I just reviewed, and Alan Roxburgh, a consultant/coach from Vancouver BC. I'm reading his book with Fred Romanuk, The Missional Leader (Jossey Bass, 2006).
Roxburgh and Romanuck write this about being missional:

Mission is not about a project or a budget, or one-off event somewhere; it's not even about sending missionaries. A missional church is a community of God's people who live into the imagination that they are, by their very nature, God's missionary people living as a demonstration of what God plans to do in and for all creation in Jesus Christ. (p. xv)

Being missional is being outward focused, not inward focused. It's not about program either. It's not top-down, but the mission emerges from within the people who discern God's call and release the imagination. What I'm hearing from Roxburgh and from Dick Hamm is that to be missional is not to get that quick fix but is waiting for God to work, but it's not a passive waiting, it's active waiting.
We have been sold on finding ways of marketing the church so we can build the institution. Mega-church pastors hold pastors conferences and tell us -- do this and you'll succeed beyond your wildest dreams, but for some reason this rarely happens. And we go away discouraged, wondering why our congregation can't be like theirs. Of course we're not supposed to be like their congregation, we're supposed to be the congregation God wants us to be and to discover that we must be open to discerning God's direction from within the community. At least that's how I'm hearing this -- and I expect to learn more in the coming months!

Understanding Religion -- A Foreign Policy Dilemma

I think the Cold War era was less complicated than today's world. There were two superpowers, one "Communist" and the other "Capitalist." It was a matter of ideology. The two superpowers played it's lesser allies off on each other and rattled sabers occasionally. They even fought proxy wars, but the underlying issue remained ideological and there were lots of folks learning the language of that ideological war to guide the government's foreign policy.
Times have changed, but the same Cold War mentality remains dominant in Washington. The problem is that things aren't as they were. The so-called War on Terror has no "focused" enemy. Instead it's some kind of many headed hydra. We use the term terrorist broadly to cover everyone from Hamas to Al Qaeda, but not all groups are alike. Some dream of world wide dominion while others are focused on local issues.
The War in Iraq foundered quickly in large part because those planning it didn't understand the religious dynamics. It is clear to many of us that instead of damping down Islamic extremism (which is the Bush Administration line) we have stirred up a hornet's nest. It doesn't help the cause that back home the biggest supporters of the war effort are the most likely to be embracing a "Christian nation" mantra. This becomes, therefore, a war of religions, and wars of religions, as history shows are always messy. Especially wars of religion that take on cosmic dimensions, and this is surely what is happening. Both Bush and Bin Laden see things in this form.
So what is the problem? Well, in many ways, the problem identified by Stephen Prothero in his book Religious Literacy is at the center of things. As a nation we are religiously illiterate and our leaders are just as illiterate as we are. With that in mind, perhaps the study of world religions will be a growth industry in the coming years. The State Department and Pentagon both should be seeking out experts in religion to consult as they venture out into the world. During the Cold War the government employed experts in Soviet and Maoist doctrine, now we need new experts.
But as the headline in a Religious News Service article states so clearly: "Religion Still Marginalized in Foreign Policy."

Friday, July 27, 2007

Michael Vick, Theology and the Ethical Treatment of Animals

Yesterday I posted a piece from Sightings raising the possibility that chimps might have religion of some sort. Today I read a piece on God's Politics by my friend Diana Butler Bass on the ethical treatment of animals, in light of the charges that Atlanta Falcons QB Michael Vick engaged in dog fighting. Diana is working on a book on church history and has been reading Gregory of Nyssa and his sister Macrina, who deal with this very issue. Funny how the ancient church could wrestle with modern issues like our relationship to the animal world.

The dialogue between Gregory and Macrina is one of the gossamer threads in Christian tradition. Unlike Soul, much of Christian theology emphasized distinctions between humans and animals, rather than stitching connections between aspects of creation (indeed, Macrina even develops a connection between humanity and plant life). Dividing creation into superior and inferior ranks
served as an excuse for rampant injustice on the part of Christians toward the rest of creation—and, sadly enough, toward other human beings (for example, women denied the priesthood or race-based slavery). What if instead of organizing humans and animals into hierarchical ranks, Christians had theologically developed the commonality of creation so tantalizingly suggested
in the fourth century?

Where we go with this, I do not know? I'm not a vegetarian, but too often we treat animals, including dogs and cats as disposable things. Vick hasn't been convicted and needs to be given his day in court, but the premise of dog fighting is truly reprehensible and not within the biblical call to care for creation.

Recreating the Church -- A Review

Richard L. Hamm. Recreating the Church: Leadership for the Postmodern Age. St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2007.

It’s no secret – the Mainline has suffered dramatically in membership losses and influence these past few decades. Where once Presbyterian, Methodist, Episcopal, Disciple, UCC, American Baptist, Reformed Church in America, and ELCA were the dominant forces American religious life, others have taken place. Whether or not that is to change is yet to be seen.

Richard Hamm offers the Mainline churches a manifesto that calls on these historic churches to essentially seize the day and embrace the future. Hamm writes as one who has experienced all levels of church leadership. He has served as a local pastor, a middle judicatory, and head of a national denomination. Soon he will take on a new role as the first Executive Director of “Christian Churches Together.” So it can be said that this is a person who knows his subject well. The book is written to leaders of congregations, regional bodies, and national bodies. He speaks from his own experience – both the positives and the negatives (he retired early from his second term as General Minister and President of the Disciples of Christ). From that experience he has discerned a new way forward, one that is “missional” in orientation.

He calls for change in the churches, but it is substantive change that he calls for, not just rearranging the chairs on the deck of a sinking ship. He challenges leaders to move from management to mission, from being CEO’s and caregivers to being pioneers and change agents.

At the center of this manifesto is Hamm’s concern for preserving the core values of the Mainline churches in the face of challenges from secularism and fundamentalism. The problem, as he sees it, is that the structures that developed over the years have become obsolete and they prevent the church from adapting to the cultural context in which it lives. By embracing the “missional church” idea Hamm is less interested in quick fixes, but rather calls for long term reinvention of the church so that the Mainline values can be preserved and can influence not just the religious context but the world context.

The choice of the word “postmodern” in the subtitle is key, for this book is written with this changing dynamic in mind. What worked then, in the days before 1968 (and Hamm places the dividing line at 1968, which interestingly is the date of Disciple Restructure). In this postmodern world change will come not via democracy, which has been a hallmark of the Disciples decision making, but through discernment and consensus. It takes longer and is messy, but in the long run Hamm believes it is more effective. Leaders in this new environment must become a “non-anxious presence” rather than an “anxious non-presence.” That is, the way ahead will require of us, a willingness to brave an unknown world while remaining non-anxious.

What makes the way forward difficult, and Hamm is very aware of this, is generational differences. Mainliners have been pretty good about dealing with racial and gender issues – at least at the national levels – but it’s quite clear from counting the “gray heads” in many congregations, that generational differences are what will determine the future. Much of our congregational leadership came of age during World War II and just afterward, and they are, Hamm says, a generation of joiners. They joined churches and lodges, but later generations haven’t followed suite, which is born out in declining numbers in lodges and services organizations as well as churches. So, if the church is to move forward, it must taken notice of these generational shifts. Baby Boomers have made their mark, but the future lies in the Millennials, those coming of age now. This is a generation that is more progressive and concerned about things that Mainliners are concerned about. But their focus is different and they must be attended to.

So, what are the values that the Mainline lifts up? First, there is the witness to the relationship of faith and reason. The mind and the spirit belong together, and this is a hallmark of the Mainline that Hamm sees being challenged by a creeping fundamentalism. Second, Mainline schools educate rather than indoctrinate. They allow freedom to explore and dissent – critical thinking is encouraged. Third, the Mainline perspective encourages the development of a world view that “analyzes reality both in terms of individuals and systems.” Sin, in essence takes on both individual and systemic form, and ultimately it is the systems that must be changed for progress to be made. Fourth, Mainline perspectives seek to be inclusive (though this is always a struggle) of persons, especially women and people of color. With regard to sexual orientation, a matter Hamm doesn’t speak to here, the Mainline is still struggling to know what to do. Finally, in terms of overseas involvements, the Mainline seeks to partner with indigenous people rather than deal with them in colonial fashion.

Our calling is simple – we are called to rediscover our core values and then move from maintenance to mission. We can do this be establishing new congregations and revitalizing older ones. There is no one way of doing things, and so this isn’t a prescription as much as an encouragement to take the first steps to becoming not who we were in the 1950s, but who we are to become by the grace of God today and tomorrow.

This isn’t a long book, but it is an important one. That it’s written by someone who has tasted leadership in all of the churches forms is beneficial. It is an honest book, one that was forged in the midst of difficult times. But, it’s not a bitter book; rather it is a hopeful one. For that reason, it is a book that must be read – and quickly, for there is no time to waste. We must remember, as the author tells us, that this is not a journey to be taken alone, but rather it must be taken with God as the guide and sustenance for the journey.

Religion of the Apes -- Sightings

Religion is considered one of those distinctly human attributes, but what if chimps, our closest evolutionary cousins (if as I do you believe in evolution), have religion also? That thought might be disturbing, but according to Christian Sheppard in today's Sightings essay, such is the view of Jane Goodall. Read the essay, if you might and then I'd be interested in your thoughts about this most challenging idea!
Sightings 7/26/07

Religion of the Apes-- Christian Sheppard

Chicago's Lincoln Park Zoo recently hosted a conference on chimpanzee cognition and culture, "The Mind of the Chimpanzee." The most recent research confirms that chimpanzees possess a sense of self, a theory of mind, strong memory, empathy, politics, and culture. One further question to ask is whether our fellow apes also possess religion.
Jane Goodall has posed this question. She observed long ago that, during the rainy season, male chimpanzees display before the storm's thunder, lightning, wind, and rain by beating their chests, pulling down branches, and shaking the limbs and trunks of trees while hooting and screaming. Such displays usually mean to convey strength to rivals. Goodall speculates that this "rain dance" behavior might be an attempt to get the storm to stop. Chimpanzees in different communities exhibit behaviors that are unique to their time and place, for example, fishing for termites with sticks or using stones to break branches. Ethological observations of such cultural behavior have been corroborated by laboratory experiments. The rain dance behavior has since been observed in other, though not all, wild chimpanzee groups, and so is properly considered cultural. Might it also be religious?
For humans, thunderstorms are a traditional inspiration for religion. Giambattista Vico speculated that religion began with our early ancestors' terror at the lightning and thunder of Zeus. In the summer of 1505, Martin Luther, terrified by a lightning storm, cried, "Help, Saint Anna, I will become a monk" and, true to his word, entered the Augustinian monastery at Erfurt. James Joyce, when asked why he was afraid of thunder when his children weren't, said, "Ah, they have no religion." In this spirit, Lucretius asserted that religion begins in fear.
Goodall, however, offers an alternative beginning: "With a display of strength such as [the rain dance], primitive man himself might have challenged the elements." The chimpanzees' response, courageously facing the fearful unknown of the storm, is exemplary. As Aristotle observed, courage is the first virtue, without which all others are moot. Jane Goodall showed personal courage in facing dangerous apes in the wild as well as in working in an African political climate that was not always safe. Goodall also showed intellectual courage in resisting the biases of her contemporaries, and holding to her own observations and the resulting intuitions that apes possess intelligence and emotion akin to our own. She persevered with groundbreaking work that has found its fruition in the research results and the careers exhibited at the Lincoln Park Zoo conference.
With the kind of courage exhibited by Goodall -- physical, intellectual, and spiritual -- a better kind of religious sensibility may be cultivated. We need a piety that seeks greater understanding of our essential links to nature, a piety that fosters wonder. Wonder, as Plato said, is the beginning of philosophy, and philosophy yet may be the handmaid of religion.
Freud, the second large male in Goodall's group in Gombe, may be our guide. Freud was observed "rain dancing" furiously not in a storm but in front of a powerful waterfall. Afterwards he sat still for a long time and seemed to contemplate the torrent. Might Freud after his courageous display be in his way wondering at the fall's ceaseless and mighty torrent?
Goodall has eloquently argued that religion and science need not be separate; indeed, they must inform one another. The scientific study of chimpanzees allows us to reflect upon a kind of consciousness akin to our own. When those intelligent and passionate fellow apes look up at a random and violent force and challenge that force with their own strength, we can recognize and ought to respect a better part of ourselves that still has the courage to face the always wonderful but often terrifying unknown in nature.

Evolutionary biology has demonstrated how great a role random violence has played in creating our current nature's order, however beautiful it is. We are a part of this natural world. It is this essential connection to the natural order that makes it intelligible to us. We can come to understand it better if, to our ape brethren, we may be brave enough to say: I will praise thee, for I too am fearfully and wonderfully made.

The website of the Jane Goodall Institute can be accessed here:
Jane Goodall's article "Rain Dance" (Science and Spirit) can be read at:
Information about the Lincoln Park Zoo's "Mind of the Chimpanzee" conference can be found at:

Christian Sheppard holds a doctorate in divinity from the University of Chicago, and is working on a book about "King Kong" and religion after Darwin.
Sightings comes from the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

A General Assembly Reflection

The 2007 General Assembly has closed and I might add it closed with a bang!! Jim Wallis was our preacher for the closing session and he did a bang up job. He is much better as a speaker than as a writer and he called us as Disciples to be true to our name. His message was about social justice -- but with a "revivalist" tone. He called us to join together and change the world. I must say I was moved.

Earlier in the evening I had the opportunity to hear and then meet Krista Tippett, whose book I've reviewed on this blog. It was a great message that encouraged us to share our faith in the world with humility and grace.

Yesterday was taken up with business sessions (the afternoon of which I attended). The issue that divided us concerned the Iraq War and a call to oppose it. The measure passed despite some maneuvering to get it thrown out, but the passage was fairly narrow. I was impressed by our moderator's actions after the vote. Bill Lee called us to prayer, a prayer for discernment and healing. It took the rancor out of the issue, I thought.

I didn't get to offer any reflections on Tuesday, but here are a few thoughts.

1. Went to the Northwest Christian College luncheon and was impressed by the vision of the new president of my alma mater. NCC will soon become NCU. It is growing and we'll see where it goes.

2. Transformation Seminar

I took part in the two day Transforming Congregations seminar, which had as its Tuesday leader Alan Roxburgh. Allen is a leader in the Missional Church movement. What I gained from this two day session was that we are called to be missional-- focused not inward but outward, focused on discerning God's direction not planning programs -- and that being missional doesn't happen over night. I hope to blog more on this later.

3. Tuesday Worship.

If the very famous Jim Wallis was the preacher last night, on Tuesday evening we were treated to the wonderful words from the Boston Women. The Disciples are not strong in New England, especially Massachusetts, but three women there have worked to start a new church, two have been working at Harvard (Belva Jordan and Stephanie Paulsell) and the third, a young woman named Elizabeth Meyer Boulton, is the founding pastor of that church. Elizabeth is a profound and powerful preacher who can dig deep into the emotional and spiritual depths of our lives. The theme of the message centered on water -- baptism -- and calling. It spoke of change and dreams.

Worship every night, led by Bill Thomas was simply grand. We may be small in numbers, but we have a group of musicians that is simply wonderful!!!

So, off I go today, after lunch with my friend Mark Toulouse of Brite Divinity School, back home to California. I will enjoy being home, even if only for a short period because I'll be soon heading off on vacation, but I will go home empowered and encouraged and hopeful. I got to see old friends and make new friends -- and as clergy that is always the high point of any assembly!

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

And the Rains Came Down!

Yesterday was the first full day at the General Assembly -- and I overslept and missed the opening business session (I tend to skip as much of these sessions as possible anyway). But the assembly is a good opportunity to network, see old friends, and get information for the church.
I'm attending the 2 day workshop on congregational transformation, which has been interesting. Lots of information is being thrown at us, but it should be interesting. Today Alan Roxenburg will be a lead presenter, and I'm interested in what he has to say. The Disciples have shrunk over the years, but though there is still much pessimism, there is also great optimism.
I do believe that the Disciples message of freedom, unity, justice, and a Christ centered faith will have great promise in the coming years -- but transformation of a denomination and of congregations takes time. As Dick Hamm shared -- if you have a 2 year plan for congregational transformation, the only thing you'll change after two years is the pastor. Transformation is, I'm hearing, not a goal but a journey.
Our preacher last night, our moderator, William Lee, an African American Pastor from Virginia, gave a rousing sermon straight out of the Black Church tradition. It was a reminder not just of the diversity within the church, but that the Disciples continue to have a place for a variety of expressions of Christian faith.
As for the rains, just as we were getting into the restaurant for dinner, the sky opened up and with great thunder and lightening, the rains came down in a torrent. If only we could get a little of that into Southern California.
Well that seems like this will have to suffice for today!

Monday, July 23, 2007

My ESPN Moment

Last night, rather than do my duty and attend to my General Minister's Message to the Church (I'll get the CD!), I went with a friend from Fort Worth to the Texas Rangers/Cleveland Indians game (Cleveland won). My friend has a church member with tickets front row right behind home plate. Last night as I watched the Baseball Tonight highlights, I found myself there on the screen -- as runs scored (Cleveland). That I wasn't standing and cheering can be explained by my being a Giants fan. But despite the humidity, I had a great time!

More reporting on important things later.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

A Little Summer Reading

Faith in the Public Square
Lompoc Record
July 22, 2007

Summer is going by fast, but there's still time to do a little summer reading, and I have a book to recommend. It's not light beach reading, but it has an important message about how people understand and live their faith. It's the story about a religious pilgrimage informed by conversations with people of faith, some who are Christian and some who are not.
Krista Tippett is the host of Public Radio's Speaking of Faith and author of a book by the same name. “Speaking of Faith” (Viking, 2007) is a relatively brief book, but it allows this theologically-trained (Yale Divinity School) journalist to share with us a model of listening to people as they share their stories of faith in ways that are humble and authentic.
In the course of six chapters that range from the auto-biographical to the analytical, she talks about how she grew up in a fairly rigid Christian setting, abandoned that faith, and then rediscovered a broader more open Christian faith.

Her book helpfully shows us what it means to be religious and what the consequences are of our beliefs and practices. We hear a lot about fundamentalism these days, but what is it? Tippet offers one of the best definitions I've seen yet. It is “that defensive grasp at certainties stoked by the bewildering complexity of the age we live in” (p. 15). Instead of offering a defensive grasp at certainty, she offers a positive, forward thinking, open vision of faith that should be attractive to many who are looking for an anchor in difficult times.

Witnessing the hollowness of East German life in the late 1980s was the trigger that brought her back to faith. Discovering a barrenness of the spirit in her own life, she returned to the Christian faith of her youth, but with a difference. This time she would take her faith journey in conversation with theologians like Reinhold Niebuhr and Dietrich Bonhoeffer. She found a model for faith in the Genesis story of Jacob wrestling with God. In this story, she discovered that being a person of faith, indeed, to be a Christian, is to wrestle with God. Certainty might be nice, but the search for certainty leads to a rigidity that limits our questions and makes it difficult to deal with real world issues.

One reason why I recommend this book so highly is that she offers us a model of listening to people of other faith positions.

Too often we decide for others what they believe, but Tippett encourages us to let people speak for themselves. It is the skills necessary to be a good radio host that offers us a way of looking at life through the eyes of others who might not share our religious beliefs. A lesson learned in her own conversations is that while different religious groups all seem to have aspects of the truth, they tend to take those pieces of truth and then absolutize them (p. 179). Too often we settle for a faith reduced to a formula - believe this and you're in - when what we need is a religion able and willing to look honestly at one's own self. Such a faith is better able to inspire us to repairing the world rather than turning to violence - whether physical or verbal.

People seem a bit apprehensive about entering into open-ended conversations with people of other faith traditions, fearful that such conversations will undermine their faith. But, as Tippett demonstrates, true dialogue doesn't require us to give up our distinctives. It does, however, mean that we must look honestly at our beliefs and we must listen respectfully as others share their beliefs with us. As Tippett points out, we don't have to have all the answers, we just need to have questions. In our search for truth, we must, she insists, do so with humility. Then, when we speak of faith “we speak because we have questions, not just answers, and our questions cleanse our answers and enliven our world” (p. 238).

As I said, this isn't light beach reading, but it's an important word about living one's faith in public. Gracious and inviting, the tone is personal and style is eloquent. Not designed to offer answers, it shows us how to ask useful and productive questions on matters of faith, and if we wish to live our faith in public then this is the kind of book we need to read.

Dr. Bob Cornwall is pastor of First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) of Lompoc ( He blogs at and may be contacted at or First Christian Church, P.O. Box 1056, Lompoc, CA 93105.July 22, 2007

Saturday, July 21, 2007

From Santa Barbara to Texas for the GA

I left Santa Barbara at 6 AM this morning. It was foggy and cool -- just perfect. Got to Fort Worth -- it's green here -- cloudy and humid -- not used to the weather, but should be interesting.

Looking forward to the General Assembly -- all those hours sitting in hard seats. Oh, yeah! But will be good to be together with my fellow Disciples. Had lunch with an old friend today -- hadn't seen him in about 11 years. That's what Assemblies are for!

Friday, July 20, 2007

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

Volume 7 of the Harry Potter series is nearing it's revealing. As I've noted, my copy is in the mail -- which likely means a Monday arrival. But, we saw the movie -- Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix -- today!

It's been a bit of time since I read the fifth book in the series, so I didn't go into the movie with all the details fresh in my mind -- which is probably a good thing since a movie like this must compress the story down to manageable size. As I watched, though, I began to remember the plot line of a book that had moved a step further toward that final showdown that is likely revealed in the soon to be read book.

Deserving of its PG13 rating this isn't a movie for small children. The one major death of course is Sirius Black, and Harry's relatioship to Sirius gets greater texture in the film/book. Dumbledore plays a more remote but important role, and the three central characters take center stage, and Harry becomes not just hero but teacher as well.

The story takes furter into this battle of good and evil, with a new movement emerging -- the Order of the Phoenix -- to do battle against the evil doers. In another reminder that things are not always what they seem, Severus Snape seems at least on the service to be on the side of the good, and yet he struggles with his own relationship with Harry.

Dolores Umbridge is the character who becomes Harry's nemesis. She becomes the latest defense against the dark arts teacher, but her goal is not to teach the children but to keep them from joining together in support of Dumbledore, who is at odds with the Ministry of Magic. Whereas Snape is always dressed in black and seems creepy, Umbridge appears jovial and upbeat, but dressed in pink with an office decorated in pink, and with walls covered with those picture/plates (of cats), she is revealed to be cruel and even Sadistic. She, of course gets what's coming to her!

What is central to this telling of the story is the importance of community. Harry feels alone, with a quest that he must carry himself. But at every turn it is Ron, Hermoine, Neville, Jenny, and even Luna who stand by his side. He becomes their leader and their teacher -- forming Dumbledore's Army.

But one of the plot lines here is the Minister of Magic's state of "denial." Despite all the evidence in front of him, he's convinced that Voldemort hasn't returned and that Harry and Dumbledore are liars working as part of a plot to over throw him. And yet, by taking this tack, he puts everyone in danger and lets the Deatheaters free to work for the restoration of Voldemort to power. Since the series is not yet complete -- we know that Harry has been able to vanquish his foe.

Is it a perfect movie? Of course not. But it is a good retelling of an important volume in the Harry Potter series -- If you've not yet seen it -- do so immediately!!!

I'm Going to the General Assembly

I'm off to the 2007 General Assembly of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). For a few days we'll gather in Fort Worth to worship, study, do some business (nothing earth shattering -- except we'll vote to end the war). Last time we made history by electing Sharon Watkins as General Minister and President.

I'll spend some time learning about church transformation, hear Krista Tippett speak at a banquet, and on the last evening hear Jim Wallis. I'm going to a Texas Rangers/Cleveland Indians baseball game (skipping the GMP's state of the church address, but I couldn't turn down front row behind the umpire tickets).

So, my blogging for the next week will likely be intermittent, but I'll be back soon!

Harry Potter

The book is in the mail, saw the movie this afternoon --- more on that a bit later. And then visiting Danny Bradfield's blog, I came across this little Harry Potter quiz. Had to do it and I can't claim to know why I came out as:

You scored as Albus Dumbledore, Strong and powerful you admirably defend your world and your charges against those who would seek to harm them. However sometimes you can fail to do what you must because you care too much to cause suffering.

Albus Dumbledore


Remus Lupin


Ron Weasley


Ginny Weasley


Draco Malfoy


Severus Snape


Harry Potter


Hermione Granger


Lord Voldemort


Sirius Black


Your Harry Potter Alter Ego Is...?
created with

Religious Tests for Office

I participated in a conversation last evening that concerned the relationship of faith and politics. I won't say anything about the content of the meeting, since I need to respect the privacy and concerns of those involved. But a question was raised about litmus tests, and it's a good question.
It's kind of easy to gloat these days as the Democratic candidates seem to have their "faith" statements down and the GOP, the party of God, is having problems finding appropriate candidates that will reach to its Religious Right base. The issue raised and the one that needs to be addressed is that of litmus tests and the precedents set by the willingness of the three top tier candidates -- Barack Obama being the most outspoken -- to speak of their faith. They have been, I think up front, honest, and authentic. Now, I'm a bit biased but I don't see them pandering to religious folks, but a precedent seems to be in the process of being set.
Is it necessary for a Democrat to be a person of faith in order to be elected? In their attempt to get beyond the label of being the "secular party" with no room given to people of faith, has the party swung the pendulum too far the other way?
Let us remember: Article Six of the Constitution specifically rejects religious tests.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

How to Love GW?

Jesus tells us to love our enemies as well as our neighbors. I do believe that. I'm not sure whether George W. Bush is my enemy -- since he's my president I can't say he's my enemy. But he is frustrating and I think he has done considerable damage to the nation's image at home and abroad. The War in Iraq, rather than serving to keep terrorists at bay has created a whole new brigade of them.
Should he be impeached? I don't know. I think he comes close and Dick Cheney even more so. In fact I sent a letter to my Congresswoman asking her to pursue that course. But then again, would that serve any real purpose at this point, and would such a course be seen as "politics of retaliation"?
Diana Butler Bass argues against pursuing impeachment, in large part because it is an ineffective remedy and it's not "loving George W. Bush."
She writes:

Impeachment is the politics of retaliation, a tool of political violence that should be used in the most extreme of circumstances (and something that was wrongly used against President Clinton). Religious progressives should not practice tit-for-tat politics. We are supposed to be peacemakers, agents of forgiveness, and those who build bridges across human divides. Drawing from this disposition, we are called to practice reconciliation—to create restorative possibilities for trust, healing, and shalom where no such hope currently exists.

Like many Americans, I am angry. And I am not particularly in the mood to forgive an administration that has endangered the course of human history for the next century. As much as I hate to say it, I am called to love George W. Bush and I do not think impeaching him serves that end. As a Christian, and as a religious progressive, I must move beyond revenge politics to reach deeply for spiritual dispositions and practices that nurture God’s dream for shalom. And I
fear that if the religious left only becomes part of the “base,” our desire for a wiser and more just America will fail before it even begins.

Tonight I will attend a meeting of religious leaders and one of our local political leaders, who is a bit uncomfortable with too close a relationship of religion and politics -- and with the GOP as our guide it's no wonder. But is religion a private matter and if not, how does the relationship between religion and politics work?
Check out Diana's complete post at God's Politics by clicking here. You can leave comments there are start a thread here!

Bush, God, and War

As we debate the rightness of mixing religion and politics, George Bush is the poster child for why not to mix them. GW seems stubborn by nature, and it seems that stubbornness is reinforced by a sense of divine calling that will not waver.
As Robert Parham shares in an Ethics Daily post, Bush is truly convinced that the war in Iraq has a divine mandate -- that's why he could care less what Congress or the American people think. He is called to bring "freedom" and democracy to the world -- or at least that is what he apparently shared with NY Times columnist David Brooks.
But what does this say about the war? Parham writes:

If this is Bush's theological perspective, then our nation is being lead by a Christian crusader, not a commander in chief. And that is a very dangerous place to be. Good democracies go bad when governed by theocrats.

If the president is theologically right that God wills the war in Iraq, what does that say about the moral reflection of the broad sweep of Catholic bishops, Methodist bishops, mainline Protestant clergy and other Christian leaders who hold the view that the war is morally wrong?

Apparently what it says is that either he has a better ear for God's voice, or the "Almighty" he worships is the Roman God Mars -- the God of War. And beyond that, is it any wonder the Muslim world thinks that the US is at war with Islam?

A Benevolent Visionary?

I came across one of those personality tests -- It says I'm a benevolent visionary. I think what it really says is I like to find ways of wasting my time -- when I need to be cleaning the house or doing the financials!!!

Severus Snape and the Transparency of Evil -- Sightings

University of Chicago Ph.D. candidate Elizabeth Musselman wrestles with the moral qualities of one Severus Snape, Harry Potter's apparent enemy at Hogwarts, and yet perhaps not. Musselman explores the question of appearances and moral ambiguities. We like things black and white, good and evil, clear and not ambiguous, but Snape's character reminds us that all is not as it seems.

So, with the Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix in the theaters (I see it tomorrow) and the final installment of the Harry Potter series due in our mail boxes on Saturday (I pity the poor mail carriers or UPS carriers) -- one busy and heavy day -- Musselman's thoughts are worth pondering!!!

And yes this preacher is a Harry Potter fan!


Sightings 7/19/07

Severus Snape and the Transparency of Evil--

Elizabeth Musselman

On July 21, children across the country will stay up all night reading as the narrative of Harry Potter draws to a close. Many adults will also stay up all night reading the final chapters in J. K. Rowling's imaginative epic of teenage wizards negotiating the forces of good and evil. Perhaps if Martin Luther were alive today, he too would find himself drawn into the textual world of Harry Potter -- for Harry's world bears some striking resemblances to Luther's theological realm. Appearances are deceptive, and human reason is not to be trusted; spoken words carry the power to defeat danger; and the ongoing struggle between good and evil finds no easy resolution.

One of the most contentious questions in the online world of textual interpretation (blogging, fan fiction, and the like) concerns the moral status of Severus Snape, Harry's "Defense Against the Dark Arts" teacher. Snape is the only character whose moral status has remained unknown through the series: while this greasy-haired teacher appears on the surface to be more evil than good, by the end of the sixth book the reader is still left questioning Snape's motives and disposition.

Perhaps this is why in February Borders/Waldenbooks offered customers who pre-ordered the final Harry Potter text a choice between two bumper stickers: "Trust Snape" or "Snape is a very bad man." Posters in stores pose the question: "Severus Snape: Friend or Foe?" The moral status of Snape has turned into an extravagant marketing campaign, and helped launch Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows to the top of bestseller lists months before its publication.

But the mystery of Snape's moral status is more than a clever marketing strategy. In the face of our cultural discourses regarding good and evil, the answer to the Snape question matters deeply. If Snape's story ends as a narrative of redemption -- a narrative pattern that Northwestern University psychologist Dan McAdams believes most Americans seek in the face of the contingency and tragedy of human existence -- it will serve as a reminder that the human condition is marked by moral ambiguity rather than the Manichean flatness of an axis of evil; that goodness and sin exist simultaneously in all of us; and that the post-9/11 American predilection toward regarding evil as utterly transparent is unrealistic in light of the noetic effect of sin. If Snape's story concludes as a narrative of pure evil, it may provide hope that in the end, with much struggle, evil can be defeated by good. But it will fail to reflect the struggle that each individual faces between sin and redemption in this post-Fall world.

The fact that so many people are so profoundly invested in the Snape question also matters deeply. Many of us desperately want Snape to be good not only because we believe that fiction has the power to reflect and to shape reality, but also because we hope on some level that people have the capacity to be better (as well as worse) than they appear; we know that the legacy of sin hanging over us calls for humility in our assessment of what is good and what is evil; and we believe that we will live less dangerously and more ethically if we acknowledge this fact.

Of course, the text has already been written, and Snape's final moral status has been determined once and for all -- it only remains for readers to discover in the early morning hours of July 21st. This reader is hoping that Severus Snape will, in the end, be trustworthy even in the face of his status as a very bad man -- that he will, like all of us, prove to be, as Martin Luther put it, simul iustus et peccator, at once righteous and a sinner.


Dan P. McAdams, The Redemptive Self: Stories Americans Live By (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005).
Links to images of the February Borders marketing campaign may be found at

The current shape of the Borders Snape marketing campaign may be seen at

Elizabeth Musselman is a PhD candidate in theology at the University of Chicago Divinity School.

Sightings comes from the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Ratzinger and Liberation Theology

As I continue posting comments on Benedict XVI as I read through David Gibson's fascinating biography The Rule of Benedict (Harper 2006), I was intrigued by his discussion of Joseph Ratzinger's interactions with Liberation Theology/Theologians. A while back I posted on Benedict's treatment of Jon Sobrino of El Salvador, but Gibson puts that in context.

Like John Paul II, who had a strong aversion to anything Marxist (understandable considering his experience in Poland), Benedict had a similar distaste (to put it mildly) for things Marxist. Though Ratzinger wasn't a big fan of western capitalism, which he found "hellish," Marxism was much worse.

That many Liberationists turned to Marxist analysis to analyze Latin American society and promote change, provoked a strong reaction. He believed that they had co-opted the Gospel and turned it into a "godless prophetic movement." It promised this-world benefits, but did not deal with spiritual matters in a way Ratzinger believed proper.
Gibson comments on this turn to caricature to respond to Liberationists such as Gustavo Gutierrez and Leonardo Boff, among others:

As he often does with ideas he opposes, Ratzinger painted liberation theology in stark tones that distorted the movement's tenets beyond all recognition. Whatever the undeniable excesses of some proponents of liberation theology, Ratzinger was in reality criticizing a movement that did not exist. But the tactic also made liberation theology -- and other deviations Ratzinger perceived -- much easier to condemn since they were made to seem so patently corrupt. This is in keeping with Ratzinger's grim, purist theological outlook, which sees even the slightest deviation from his view of tradition as tantamount to despoiling the entire theory or movement or person, a seduction so subtle we may not ever realize it is happening. (Gibson, 193).

A bit like a Harold Lindsell of "Battle for the Bible" fame, Ratzinger was afraid of the slippery slope, "where the smallest misstep will inevitably lead to disaster." And therefore, he viewed liberation theology fomenting all kinds of evils, from Islamic terrorism to militant feminism. Why, because Liberation theologies assumed that "man is to be his own creator." (p. 194).
It wasn't that Ratzinger had no sympathy for the poor, but he saw in liberationist ideas a movement toward anarchy in society and in the church, and he could not abide that possibility.

Blogging Comes of Age

According to Craig Smith's report this morning, we will soon celebrate -- December 23 -- the 10th anniversary of the birth of blogging. A Santa Barbara attorney and reporter on all tings Santa Barbara News Press, he's been blogging since 2005. I started in March of 2006 or there abouts. His has a much larger readership, but then he reports on all things News Press -- and with Wendy, Travis, and Dr. Laura to talk about, obviously he gets the readers (including me).
Here is a quote from Elizabeth Spiers of Gawker found in a Wall Street Journal article about what makes for a good blog -- you must judge whether this particular blog fits the bill!

[T]he (blogs) that had the biggest and most loyal readerships -- always had a few consistent qualities. They were topically focused, often in niche areas. They published regularly and frequently, typically during office hours and several times a day. They published content that was original or difficult to find, from breaking news to proprietary photographs to obscure links that readers are unlikely to find on their own. They were usually well-written, which has its own intrinsic appeal for anyone who prefers to enjoy what they're reading. And lastly, they engaged their readership by soliciting feedback and responding to it, in the form of asking for tips, allowing comments or otherwise demonstrating some level of interest in their audience's preferences.

Check Craig Smith out at:

Ten Propositions on Faith and Laughter -- Kim Fabricius

Kim Fabricius is a wonderful creator of propositions that catch important points with poignancy and wit. This time he takes on faith and laughter. Sometimes faith can be a bit dour, but need it be so? As Kim notes there has been a theological tradition that suggests that laughter is not a divine attribute -- for God is impassible and incapable of emotional outbursts, and surely laughter is an emotional outburst. And of course there is the question of whether Jesus laughed. I sort of think he did; how could he not?

So here are the 10 Propositions as first posted, as they always are, at Ben Meyers' influential blog Faith and Theology. I've posted them here in full this time, but if you want to read them with Ben's choice illustrations, just go back and click the title!

Ten propositions on faith and laughter
by Kim Fabricius

1. Let’s face it: the Bible is not exactly a barrel of laughs. In the Old Testament the Lord laughs a few times in the Psalms – at the nations’ rulers in Psalm 2:4, at the wicked and godless in Psalms 37:13 and 59:8 – but it is a disdainful, derisive laughter. As for human laughter, the preacher in Ecclesiastes 2:2 calls it “foolish” (GNB), “mad” (NRSV), even if it does have its “time” (cf. 3:4); while Job’s so-called comforters Eliphaz and Bildad console their friend with the promise of laughter if he repents (5:22, 8:21) – but we know what God thinks of them (42:7).

2. Is Sarah an exception? She laughs when God promises her a child in her dotage, but beneath her breath (Genesis 18:12). But the Lord hears her giggling – “Yeah, right!” she is thinking – and he is not amused at her doubt, so in fear she denies that she laughed (18:15a). “Oh yes you did!” the Lord replies (18:15b). We should remember that Abraham laughed too when told that Sarah will bear him a child (17:17), but evidently our (sexist?) Lord was more indulgent with the old man than with his old lady. One thing is for sure, juxtapose the two scenes and you have the stuff of situation comedy!

3. And then there is the name “Isaac” – “the one who will laugh.” Does giving the child of promise such a sobriquet suggest that God has a sense of humour after all? And perhaps we should not overlook the additional syllables that God adds to the names Abram and Sarai: they become AbrAHam and SarAH. “An onomatopoeic ‘Ha-Ha’”? (Simon Critchley).

4. There are three explicit references to laughter in the New Testament. In James 4:9 the complacent laughter-become-mourning of repentance; in Matthew 9:24 (par. Mark 5:40, Luke 8:53) the dismissive laughter of the crowd at a funeral that Jesus crashes; and in Luke 6:25 the smug laughter of the powerful – and in Luke 6:21 the eschatological laughter of the powerless. The eschatological laughter is promising, even proleptic. For if the verbal abuse of Jesus’ enemies at the foot of the cross surely included cruel and mocking laughter, may we not suggest an Easter laughter – risus paschalis – that rings out with resurrection joy?

5. Did Jesus laugh? The fictitious dispute in Umberto Eco’s novel The Name of the Rose “is more than fiction. It reflects a line of tradition which really existed, from John Chrysostom through Augustine to Bernard of Clairvaux and Hugo of St Victor, of the Christian denunciation of laughter” (Karl-Josef Kuschel). Nor is such a “theology of tears” limited to the world-denying, death-obsessed zeitgeist of the Middle Ages. John Wesley once disciplined a preacher on the charges (in ascending order?) of heresy, adultery – and the man’s proneness to “break a jest, and laugh at it heartily.” Here, from Beckett’s Molloy, Moran debates the issue with Father Ambrose, who sides with Eco’s Jorge (a Dominican – who is blind):

“What a joy it is to laugh, from time to time, he said. Is it not? I said. It is peculiar to man, he said. So I have noticed, I said. A brief silence ensued. […] Animals never laugh, he said. It takes us to find that funny, I said. What? he said. It takes us to find that funny, I said loudly. He mused. Christ never laughed either, he said, so far as we know. He looked at me. Can you wonder? I said.”

6. You laughed, right? Christ, I reckon, would have cracked up too! Did he not have a Beckett-like sense of the absurd (gnats and camels, logs and splinters), the ironic (calling Simon a Πετρος, telling fishermen where to fish), and even the coarse (suggesting that one go starkers in court [Matthew 5:40], insinuating that the Pharisees are full of crap [Mark 7:15]). And is anyone going to tell me that a man who likes to party, with a reputation to go with it, doesn’t like a laugh? So with many a Renaissance Humanist, Eco’s William of Baskerville (a Franciscan, one of God’s “merry men” – who can see because he wears spectacles) was surely right: of course Jesus laughed!

A limerick comes to me:

In the O.T. our God the Most High
in his folk put timor Domini,
but in Jesus his Son
he earthed Word-play and pun:
like a mushroom,
he was a fun-guy.

7. The only serious theological question is not “Did Jesus laugh?” but “Did Jesus laugh in his divinity as well as his humanity?” As with suffering, the doctrine of the divine impassibility would suggest not. If, however, revisionists like Moltmann and Jüngel are right, then, if God can suffer, surely God can laugh. The resurrection event is crucial, as it identifies, even defines, if it does not constitute, the very being of God. In any case, the grammar of faith allows, and (I submit) the substance of faith demands the statement: “God laughs” – and not only with scorn for his enemies but, above all, with joy for his friends.

8. Ergo, an Easter people cannot act like lemon-suckers. Chesterton said that “Angels can fly because they take themselves lightly,” and no less an authority than the Angelic Doctor himself “leaves the Christian with a wide field for his fun. He does so on the authority of the Philosopher” – revelation and reason in perfect harmony – “who, we are reminded, ‘posits the virtue of eutrapelia, which in Latin we call jucunditas, enjoyment.’ His conclusion rejoices smiling Christians” (M. A. Screech). Alas, St Thomas set limits to Christian frivolity: no dirty jokes! Calvin agreed – but not scatologically-minded Luther. And Erasmus, while keen on wit, disapproved of tickling – which, in my view, comes close to advocating child abuse!

9. There is a political dimension to laughter, namely laughter as protest and resistance, disarming tyrant or terrorist with ecstatic power. “Laugh and fear not, creatures,” declares Aslan. “For jokes as well as justice come in with speech.” Humour has been particularly important in sustaining the children of Moses in the wilderness of oppression, not least in the face of Christian anti-semitism. Hence the extensive corpus of Jewish jokes about Christians, doleful and yearning, yet also acerbic. Like this one:

The priest says to the rabbi: “There are three things I can’t stand about you Jews: you wander about the synagogue, you pray noisily, and your funerals are chaotic.” The rabbi replies: “We wander about the synagogue because we feel at home there. We pray noisily because Yahweh is old and hard of hearing. And as for funerals, we too prefer the Christian ones.”

And there is the Jewish character, figure of fun, known as the schlemihl: a rather weak, inept, and vulnerable guy who takes on the chin whatever goys throw at him, who gets knocked down again and again, but who always gets up, dusts himself off, and gets on with life without a grumble. There is a Christian version of the schlemihl: his name is Charlie Brown. In the schlemihl, laughter is not only polemical critique, it is also therapeutic self-critique lest the oppressed becomes an oppressor.

10. Finally, the liturgical dimension of laughter: is there a place for laughter in worship? W. H. Auden suggested that “The world of laughter is much more closely related to the world of prayer than either is to the everyday secular world of work,” and Reinhold Niebuhr actually said that “Laughter is the beginning of prayer.” But Niebuhr also said that “there is faith and prayer, and no laughter, in the holy of holies.” So it’s okay to crack a joke in the pulpit perhaps, but not at the altar? But who has not laughed during the scrum that can be the passing of the peace? And if there are children at the table, well, as Art Linkletter famously put it on his American TV show, “Kids say the darndest things!” And although the eucharist as anamnesis of the meal “on the night he was betrayed” is certainly a solemn moment, does not the eu-charis-t as anticipation of the Messiah’s wedding feast invite making merry? Donald MacKinnon rightly pointed to the tragic elements in the Christian story, but his mentor Kierkegaard, depressive Dane that he was, called it “the most humorous point of view in the history of the world.”

A personal anecdote. During my training for the ministry I was leading morning worship at Mansfield College, Oxford. Lesslie Newbigin was present, so I wanted to be word perfect. The Old Testament lesson, from I Samuel 14, was about Saul slaughtering the Philistines. I came to verse 15, which reads: “There was a panic in the camp.” But this idiot read: “There was a picnic in the camp.” As I prayed for the earth to open, all eyes turned to the great man. How would he respond? He laughed, of course!

St Theresa prayed well: “Lord, preserve us from sullen saints.”

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Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Oprah's the true Obama Girl!

If you want an endorsement, besides Tiger Woods or maybe Tom Brady (of the Patriots) there's no better choice than Oprah Winfrey. Hillary might have Spielberg, but Obama has Oprah. If she can sell books and Dr. Phil, surely she can sell Barack Obama. Yes, the true Obama Girl isn't the young lady who danced her way to fame on YouTube, it's Oprah!
News comes that she's going to start raising money for him in my own backyard. Yes, Oprah will be hosting a little shindig at her Montecito estate near my Santa Barbara home. Now I'd love to get an invite, but I doubt I've got the big bucks to make it inside. I'll have to wait my turn!

Augustine and Ratzinger's Pessimism

As I have been reading David Gibson's The Rule of Benedict I have been getting a better sense of the man who became Pope. We are products of our environment and experiences, and Joseph Ratzinger was influenced by his context -- leading him to become the man he is today.

What is interesting to see in the section dealing with Vatican II is Ratzinger's growing disillusionment with the optimistic tone of the proceedings. His Augustinianism shows in his feeling that the aggiornamento party of Kung and Rahner did not take sin seriously enough. Gibson writes:

Yet there is a consistent thread to his thinking, which runs counter to the optimism of the Second Vatican Council and which grew more defined in later years. Indeed, the aftermath of the council only reinforced his suspicion of man's seemingly unending capacity to go wrong and betray himself by believing he can accomplish things by himself. It also confirmed his view that returning to the sources, stripping away and simplifying and sanctifying rather than moving into uncharted territory with newfangled ideas, holds the true promise for faith. (Gibson, p. 172).

He started out in the first session excited about the possibilities of reform, but as time went on he discovered that the changes had begun to snowball and get out of control. He wanted to reform the church by returning it to a purer time, not go head first in uncharted directions.
Think for a moment of another theologian, from an earlier era, the Reformer that most intrigues Benedict XVI -- Martin Luther. For a moment in time Luther was the radical, but soon he was outflanked and he turned more conservative. Is Kung to Benedict what Andreas Karlstadt was to Luther?

Monday, July 16, 2007

Religion and Politics -- Who's Got it?

Religion is mixing with politics this presidential primary season in most intriguing ways. By all estimates the GOP, which is supposed to be the party of God is having a hard time finding a candidate. The two most outspokenly religious candidates -- Sam Brownback and Mike Huckabee -- can't get any traction and at least for now aren't a factor. Mitt Romney's Mormonism has proven problematic, and well there's Rudy Giuliani who just doesn't fit the program guide (McCain is fading out quickly). So who might the savior be?

Well it appears that the Religious Right is checking out Law and Order DA and former Tennessee senator Fred Thompson. Dan Gilgoff writes a short piece for U.S. News and World Report on Thompson's outreach to Conservative Christians, but there seem to be real questions about the authenticity of his faith. He's willing to meet with the kingmakers, who are interested, but they're not going bonkers over him. At least at this point, it seems more like pandering than outright piety.

The Democrats, of course, are the secularists, except that this year the top tier candidates are all quite glib about their faith professions, and Barack Obama is the most open about his faith. Despite efforts to tar him as being a Muslim -- and of course you can't suggest a Muslim (that's called xenophobia), Obama is the most outspokenly candidate about faith in the campaign. He makes it clear he's not ceding the faith and values conversation to the Religious Right. Yes, he's a liberal and he's a member of a liberal Black church with a controversial pastor, but he's very clear that his commitment to public service is rooted in his faith. The Christian Science Monitor has an excellent and fairly lengthy piece that lays out Obama's roots and faith views.
The author of the article on Obama, Arial Sabar, writes:

More than the other Democratic candidates for president, Obama has made faith a centerpiece of his campaign.

He has warned the left against ceding the mantle of religion to the evangelical right. He speaks of the church as an abiding force in American public life, from the Boston Tea Party through the abolitionist and civil rights movements. He suffuses his speeches with biblical allusions – "I am my brother's keeper" is a favorite phrase. And he has cast his generation of black leaders as modern-day Joshuas, after Moses' successor, who led the Israelites to the Promised Land.

Many of Obama's political views are "an outgrowth of his reading of some of the seminal parts of the Bible about doing unto the 'least of these' just as we would have done unto Christ," says Joshua DuBois, the campaign's director of religious affairs, paraphrasing verses in the book of Matthew. "He takes very seriously the numerous passages in the Bible that talk not only about poverty, but of people of faith taking God's words and extending them beyond the four
walls of the church."

But as Obama promotes faith as a means of uniting a diverse America around a shared set of values, he has at times found himself in a political minefield. To the left are liberals uneasy with religious intrusions into politics; to the right, conservatives who have questioned his Christianity and denounced his ties to Wright's Afrocentric church.

Now, I realize that this is a controversial step that Obama is taking. In fact it's a risky one. He has to keep a balance that doesn't put off the secularist wing of the party or unsettle those, like me, who believe in the separation of church and state, but I appreciate his willingness to take back from the Religious Right the Values debate!

The fine line here has to do with authenticity and recognition of the diversity of religious views in the nation. I think the reason people are fed up with the Religious Right is that it's so exclusivist and dogmatic. But, if the Religious Left is to find its voice it must be open while at the same being seen as believing in something -- wishy-washy won't cut it. But, whatever happens come November 2008, this election cycle has certainly turned things upside down!

New Regional Ministers for Pacific Southwest Region -- Disciples of Christ

Doesn't that look official -- like I'm an official reporter for the Pacific Southwest Region of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)? I will admit I'm not the official announcer, but I was excited to learn this morning that my good friends and colleagues from the Ventura First Christian Church, Don and Susan Dewey, have been called to be our next co-Regional Ministers. The Pacific Southwest Region of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) consists of Southern California, Southern Nevada (Las Vegas) and Hawaii!

I've known Susan since way back when we served together on the Adult Nurture Committee for the Region. Back then she and Don served the La Mesa church in the San Diego area. Later on I served as Juniors (4-6 grades) co-camp director with Susan at Loch Leven, our regional camp. Don and Susan have friends, confidants, encouragers over the past 9 years of ministry in the local area. So, I am excited for them and know they will be a great asset to the Region and to the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).

I talked this morning with Susan and she's excited -- so I'm excited for them and the broader church!

Let me also say thanks to Don Shelton, our outgoing Regional Minister. Don has been very helpful to me over the years and he has demonstrated extraordinary leadership these past 12 years.

Councils of Churches -- A Martin Marty Report

Martin Marty is always on top of things, ofering analysis and insight into the various aspects of religious life. Today he picks up on Council's of Churches, especially that of Wisconsin, which hosts an annual forum. He offers insight and at the end a link to other Councils around the nation. Just so we know what's going in in the ecumenical sphere!

Sightings 7/16/07

Report from Wisconsin-- Martin E. Marty
Editor's Note:
Last Monday's column ("Campus Funding Frays," July 9) incorrectly stated that the Rosenberger case was decided in 1991. The case was decided in 1995.

Last month, I spent a page sighting activities in mainline Protestant bodies as exemplified in a large congregation, and extrapolating on the basis of that to smaller ones everywhere ("Mainline Mission," June 4). Today I focus on a Council of Churches in order to look at councils of churches. I do this because I have spent the week in Wisconsin, on cherished (for the Martys) Washington Island, off the tip of the Door Peninsula. It was our home for all of summer, decades ago, but now we are able to go for only a week. For eleven years we held retreats there, but decided to quit while we were ahead. Mine was a week of great great-grandparenting and family leisure, so I did not even stop by to look in on the Washington Island Forum, led this year by notables Barbara Brown Taylor and Tom Long. The Wisconsin Council sponsors it, and the Christian Century, in which I have a finger, has a hand in it. The Forum is an annual highlight.
I waited until the Forum was over to mention it because the publishers of Sightings, like most publishers, know that it is opening a can of caterpillars to use a newsletter as a free bulletin board for "Forthcoming Events." Why? Because most readers can't go to most of them, so detail is irrelevant, and advertising shouldn't be free, they tell me. So to keep my covenant with subscribers I will list no dates of forthcoming events of the WCC, and will mainly point to events of a typical season in a typical Council. (And I have sentimental ties to this one, having spoken for a milestone anniversary many years ago.)
Now, in the nature of things, such councils are always under-staffed, under-budgeted, and under-noticed, but they coordinate and/or are the pulse of many things that go on in the putatively languishing mainline. They are under-noticed in part because the mainline is not adept at or focused on the media. They make news this century mainly because they are torn over the issue of homosexuality.
So what goes on, beyond the Forum? To those who think mainliners are wishy-washy, one should point out that its website identifies the Wisconsin Council as a collection of churches which proclaim the Triune God and redemption in Jesus Christ. It helps equip the "missional church." On its agenda are topics like hunger, health care, housing, nonviolence, poverty, and other issues which their leaders are told should not be their focus the way homosexuality and abortion are, but which they find hard to avoid because of the hundreds of pages in their Bibles which do address such issues. And they announce some strong "Bible-believing topics," such as Susan Briehl's workshops on the Gospel of John at three sites, and workshops by James Bailey on the Gospel of Matthew.
There are churchly concerns, such as lay ministry and relationships among religions and cultures, and some probing of church and state issues, with one workshop on advocacy, whose singularity suggests that it's not an overdone topic.
Note that this Illinoisan is not "promoting" Wisconsin. Hit the link provided in the "References" below, and you will find that most of the other forty-nine states have analogous agencies, and there are hundreds of non-state bases as well. They may seem to fly "under the radar" of the media, but they help fly reconnaissance and other missions whose beneficiaries are well aware of them.

For more information about the Wisconsin Council of Churches and other agencies, please visit:

Martin E. Marty's biography, current projects, upcoming events, publications, and contact information can be found at
The current Religion and Culture Web Forum features "Christian Responses to Vietnam: The Organization of Dissent," by Mark Toulouse. To read this article, please visit:

Sightings comes from the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

For the Bible Tells Me So -- Updates

In today's LA Times there appears an article about a Gay film festival that featured five films dealing with religion/sexuality issues. Among those films shown at the festival was "For the Bible Tells Me So." This is a documentary that appeared at the 2007 Sundance Festival and garnered great reviews. But a general release date hasn't been set -- at least until now.
Directed by Daniel Karslake the documentary follows 5 families dealing with a gay family member -- among those families is Dick Gephardt's. Desmond Tutu and Peter Gomes are among the persons interviewed in this film that in a straightforward manner deals with the biblical, theological, and pastoral issues of this controversy. My friend Steve Kindle of Clergy United for the Equality of Homosexuals was involved in the film.
It appears that a theatrical release date is set for October 2007.

I know that Spike Lee's movie Malcolm X came out fifteen years ago, but sometimes it takes a while to get to view a movie, and so it is with me.
Fortunately there's the DVD to watch and finally I've had the opportunity to view the life of this powerful African American leader whose message was definitely unsettling in the 1950s and 1960s. Malcolm was a powerful speaker who could move groups of people to take action.

Malcolm X is not as honored a Black leader as Martin Luther King, but as Malcolm seems to understand himself, his radicalism made Martin look more palatable to whites. It's quite possible that Malcolm's vision scared White politicians to agree to Martin's demands.

The movie itself, which is based on Alex Haley's The Autobiography of Malcolm X, brought Oscar nominations to Spike Lee and Denzel Washington in 1992. It is a long but powerful portrayal of Malcolm's journey from a young man caught up into a life of crime to a convert to the Nation of Islam in prison, on to leadership in the Nation and finally a break with the Nation of Islam and Elijah Muhammad shortly before his assassination in 1965, at the age of 39.

Malcolm X was a powerful speaker and leader, whose message was "Black Nationalism." It was infused with the ideology of the Nation of Islam, but later as he adopts true Islam he separates his Islam from his political program, which was separatism and Black self-help.

Denzel Washington has done a great job in bringing to life Malcolm's life, and it is a life that needs to be attended to. As a white Christian, I'm of course, closer in philosophy to Martin Luther King, but Malcolm's message was a powerful one. That he lost his life so young, before he could fully develop his philosophy is a shame.

If you've not yet seen it, get the DVD and pay close attention. If you're interested in listening to Malcolm X the speaker click here.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Wrap Up on Vatican Proclamations

The LA Times Beliefs article focuses on the recently released proclamation from the Vatican's Congregation on the Defense of the Faith (CDF) concerning the nature of the church -- and the fact that Protestant congregations are not by RCC definitions to be considered churches in the proper sense, for they do not have proper orders or sacraments.
The article by Rebecca Trounson is a brief but helpful summary. It raises the question that I've raised -- why now? Yes, as others have said it clarifies things concerning Vatican II. But there are parallels here to the debate over the Constitution of the US between "strict constructionists" and non-strict folk. Every document, whether the Bible, Vatican II, or the Constitution, is subject to interpretation, and it would seem that Benedict wishes to take the narrowest of interpretations, whereas his opponents such as Kung and others wish to take a broader view of the Vatican II proclamations.
So, as I said earlier, we'll have to wait to see what this all means. In the mean time, read the LA Times article here.

Understanding Benedict

As a historian I know about the importance of putting a person or a movement in context. The recent proclamations made by the Vatican, first on the Latin Mass and then the clarification on the nature of the church don't come out of nowhere.

Reading David Gibson's The Rule of Benedict (Harper, 2007) has been a helpful eye opener into the psyche of Joseph Ratizinger, aka Benedict XVI. I will write a review when I've completed the book (I'm about 1/2 way through the book at this time), but I thought this important to note. In a chapter dealing with Ratzinger's involvement at Vatican II, and he was one of the leading contributors to the discussions -- along with Hans Kung and Karl Rahner --we learn a bit about how the apparently progressive Ratzinger becomes the archconservative.

Gibson lays out the two opposing parties within the progressive/reforming end of the discussions in Rome in the early 1960s. Unlike the group that included Kung and Rahner, Ratzinger was an Augustinian who sought to return to the sources -- the Ressourcement party. What is telling is this passage:

Faith is a given for Ratzinger, a gift from God (and one that he apparently has enjoyed since birth), and the dogmas and doctrines of the church are not up for debate. Theology and the powers of the intellect are not to create but to conserve -- a task that requires just as much energy, as he would discover -- and to illuminate avenues to the depositum fidei, the deposit of faith for the faithful. This is His church and not a laboratory for theologians," as he put it. (Gibson, The Rule of Benedict, 158).

Unlike his fellow progressives in the other party, the aggiornamento party, he was not seeking to revamp the faith for the modern world. Instead he wanted to get back to the sources. He was an Augustinian and not a Thomist. From Gibson we learn that when he went to Vatican II it was with the idea of overthrowing a Thomist dominance that he believed had harmed the church.