Monday, April 30, 2007

Marcus Borg -- "Jesus": A Review


Marcus J. Borg. Jesus: Uncovering the Life, Teachings, and Relevance of a Religious Revolutionary. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2006. 343 pp.





Who is Jesus and what is his relevance for the Twenty-first Century? This is the question Marcus Borg seeks to answer. This is not merely an examination of the life of Jesus of Nazareth; more importantly this is a manifesto for a new way of being Christian. At one level, it is the final culmination of Borg’s studies of the life Jesus. Intended initially as a revision of Jesus a New Vision, Borg realized early on that this book would have a larger purpose.

Borg is well known as a Jesus scholar who has been intimately involved with the Jesus Seminar. He is a close friend of John Dominic Crossan, with whom he penned the book The Last Week (HarperSanFrancisco, 2006), and so if you read this expecting a progressive, indeed liberal treatment of Jesus’ life, you will not be disappointed. Still there is more to this than scholarship, for this is a book written for a larger public. In many ways the well read scholar or pastor will find little that is truly new here, but the book remains compelling even for those who already know much of the narrative and its various interpretations.

In the epilogue, Borg states his purpose in writing this book. He intends it as “a contribution to emerging (and emergent) Christianity” (p. 304). The Jesus he presents in the pages of this book “was a person radically centered on God, empowered by that relationship, and filled with God’s passion for the world – a passion that led to his execution and vindication.” In the course of this book we explore the questions of identity – who is then the “pre-Easter Jesus” and the “post-Easter Jesus.” As fitting a scholar related to the Jesus Seminar, Borg is concerned with discerning the identity of the Jesus of history. This Jesus is important to the story, for it is his life and death that gives life to the broader message of Jesus that includes the church’s “post-Easter reflections.”

Borg’s portrait is not of a divine Jesus who is born of a Virgin, visited by shepherds and magi. He uses two terms that are key – memory and metaphor. The reader must wrestle with the question of where the line is drawn between what is remembered (history) and what is metaphor. The birth stories are largely metaphor, as are stories of walking on water and transfiguration. Some events, such as the vision at his baptism by John could be memory, for in Borg’s understanding Jesus was a visionary. Thus, the story of the Temptations are likely rooted in memory, for the description is one of a vision quest. Thus, Jesus is one whose experience of God is decisive for Christians.

The book begins with the contemporary debate about Jesus, and Borg seeks to move the debate beyond the old paradigm that is focused in upon questions of the Bible’s factuality, a concern he rightly roots in the Enlightenment paradigm. Instead he seeks to move the conversation to an “Emerging Christian Paradigm,” one that is very much postmodern. It sees the text as a human and historical product, which includes memory and metaphor, and much of the early portions of the book deal with this question. Yet, this is no scholarly exercise, for Borg wishes to advocate a “robust affirmation of the reality of God” (24).

In Borg’s eye, the message of Jesus – both in his teachings and in his life – has personal implications, but it also has political implications. He takes pains to lay out the idea of a “Domination System,” which is the foil for Jesus’ ministry and the cause of his death. Building on the work of Walter Wink, Borg speaks of Rome’s imperial rule and the role the Temple played in controlling the populace. Jesus was a peasant and spoke for the lower classes, who had suffered under Rome and Rome’s clients, such as Herod, who had built the magnificent Temple complex. After Herod’s death and after the start of direct Roman rule in Judea, the priestly class became important as collaborators – which might explain the clash between Jesus and the Temple authorities. Indeed it may explain Jesus’ outburst in the Temple that likely led to his death.
For us to understand the true nature of this person we must understand the Gospels, especially the synoptic treatments. Borg goes into some detail concerning the priority of Mark and the way Matthew and Luke use Mark, Q, and there own traditions in formulating a picture of Jesus. He also makes clear that John has different purposes in writing. We learn of his actions and his teachings, his parables and his one-liners. We also learn of Jesus’ Table Fellowship, and Borg notes that the church’s practices of the Eucharist are rooted in Jesus’ own sharing of meals. From the debates over how and with whom Jesus eats we discover that meal has important implications. It speaks of social inclusion (to be invited to eat is to be included socially, and to refuse someone is to exclude them socially). The meal also has implications of purity codes, and Jesus broke those purity barriers.

The Jesus found in Borg’s book is a Jewish mystic, a healer and exorcist, a wisdom teacher, and a prophet. He is also a “movement initiator.” He gathered around himself followers who became the locus of a new movement within Judaism that was charged with fulfilling God’s passion – the transformation of the world. And thus the importance of the word/phrase: “The Way.” Jesus offers us a way of living that is in tune with the purposes of God. His is an alternative wisdom that expounds God’s passion for justice. If God’s character, as embodied in Jesus is compassion, then God’s passion is justice, and thus it has a political intent. Indeed Borg finds great meaning in John’s statement that “God so loved the world . . .” (John 3:16). Not in the sense of a penal substitutionary doctrinal statement – Jesus dying for our sins – but in the sense that God is truly concerned with what happens to the creation. And Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life in the sense that he radically embodies a life centered on God.

Again, his death is explained in relationship to his resistance to the Domination System of the day. Some of his contemporaries were collaborators who found their way in the system by cooperating with Rome’s rule. Others approached this rule with resignation and others with violent resistance. Jesus’ resistance was different in that his was active non-violence. Borg speaks of what is normally called the Cleansing of the Temple – an act of purification – an “indictment of the Temple.” He was, Borg says, indicting the “temple authorities as robbers who collaborated with the robbers at the top of the imperial domination system” (p. 235).
With this challenge to Rome and its proxies, it’s not surprising that Jesus was executed by crucifixion, a form reserved for rebels and trouble makers. When it comes to Easter, Borg is not a literalist. In some ways, he is a bit coy about what he believes. He insists that without the resurrection there is no Christianity. But the issue here is not a literal empty tomb, but the experiences of presence (whatever that may entail) and their meaning. And as for meanings, there are two that are pre-eminent. The first is that Jesus’ followers continued to experience his presence after death --- “Indeed, they experienced him as a divine reality, as one with God.” And, secondly, Easter declares God’s vindication of Jesus, God’s yes to Jesus and God’s no to those who crucified him. Thus, two phrases suffice: “Jesus lives” and “Jesus is Lord” (p. 276).

With this narrative of Jesus in place Borg is able to contrast an emerging Christianity with the traditional modality, one that at least today is politically conservative and largely aligned with America’s imperialistic designs. As in his Heart of Christianity (HarperSanFrancisco), Borg is intent on reaching out to those who feel unable to embrace this old paradigm – we might call them the “unchurched.”

For those who are in the mainline church who wish to speak effectively to a questioning but interested world, Borg offers a way. It is rooted in what he calls the “historical-metaphorical approach to the gospels and the Bible as a whole” (p. 303). If you are wedded to a a more literal portrayal of Jesus, this book might be difficult to deal with, but even so it offers a poignant portrait of a Jesus who makes a difference to the world. And thus, the importance of this look at Jesus’ life is that “how we see Jesus affects how we see Christianity.” And thus, this is a most important book, not just for its scholarship, but also for laying out a way of being Christian that is for the world, even as God is for the world.


Rev. Dr. Robert Cornwall
Pastor, First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Lompoc, CA

Emergent and Emerging

The term "emergent" has become an important descriptor of a growing movement, largely within Evangelicalism. It is rooted in a post-modern reading of reality, it seeks to be open to new ideas and directions, recognizes the place of doubt, and recognizes the importance of tradition.
There is another term out there. It's similar but isn't as well known. It's "emerging" Christianity. It is a term used by and connected to Marcus Borg. In his newest book Jesus: Uncovering the Life, Teachings, and Relevance of a Religious Revolutionary, (HarperSanFrancisco, 2006) -- which is an Academy of Parish Clergy 10 Best Book -- Borg describes what emerging Christianity is. Now, I'll be reviewing the book on this blog and for APC, but I want to lay out this definition.
This movement is found in mainline Protestant churches and according to Borg:

It is a "neotraditional" form of Christianity. Both the prefix and the noun are important. Neo" recognizes that it's recent, new; we haven't seen exactly this form before. "Traditional" recognizes that it's not simply new; rather, it is a reclaiming, a retrieval, a recovery, a "seeing again" of the most central elements of the Christian tradition. (Borg, Jesus, pp. 298-299).

As I'll point out in the review, Borg is keen on the importance of both "memory" and "metaphor." Tradition is a carrier of both the memories and the metaphors of faith, but as he is also keen to point out, they must be reexamined and reinterpreted if they're to be reclaimed by the contemporary church.
Borg is very complementary toward "emergent" Christianity and has appeared with Brian McLaren. Although there are significant differences, there seem to be significant points of contact between these two movements. Some, like me, find themselves positioned in between, hopefully able to benefit from the conversation with both.
I'll be posting more here about this and other thoughts from Borg's interesting and important book.

The End of Limbo -- Sightings

For most Protestants doctrinal ideas like Limbo are pretty meaningless. I guess there are those who believe that if you're not baptized you're not going to heaven, but I don't think even many infant baptism supporters believe this. Grace we assume takes care of this. I expect that many Catholics have seen this in similar ways, but still the idea was there. Pope Benedict has swatted it away now, and so Catholics no longer need to worry. Funny that some Conservative Catholics are concerned about where this will go --- Well Martin Marty in his usual way takes care of the issues! And once again I bring you his learned thoughts.

Sightings 4/30/07

The End of Limbo-- Martin E. Marty
On October 29, 1965, four high hierarchs proposed to their Second Vatican Council colleagues that they might put on the agenda a discussion of the possibility that they should rethink the Catholic Church's position on birth control. That evening, Albert C. Outler, our profoundly informed fly on the wall who moved with the most ease of any Protestant among the bishops, reported that he heard an Archbishop express concern to a Cardinal: "For centuries we've been sending women to purgatory [or hell, I can't remember which] for violating Church law on birth control. If we would change that, what would happen to them?"
Outler reported that the Cardinal responded with a question: "Are you sure God ratifies all our decisions?" That exchange, deeply stamped in my mind, came forward again this week when a change in traditional Catholic teaching was declared. The press reported that Pope Benedict XVI announced that the Church will no longer teach that there is a reality or place called limbo to which unbaptized babies go to spend eternity. The pope reportedly has long chafed when talk of limbo comes up, and welcomed the chance in his pontificate to report on the obsolescence and even disappearance of this teaching. The council father might ask, "What happens now to the babies we said were sent there?"
The post-limbo announcement awakens all kinds of responses, many of them easily accessible on the internet or in the press. Taunters who have heard that Catholicism does not change now taunt, "Here's a change." Catholic pastors who have always found the reference to limbo, a place of non-descriptness and non-happening, to be more chilling than comforting to parents of unbaptized children can be relieved of the charge to pass on word about it. Catholics who lean toward a most expansive Catholic view of salvation and tend toward universalism cheer, for this proclamation that unbaptized infants can go straight to heaven might open the door for Catholic witness that some non-infants could have the same experience. "Pro-choice" Catholics are coming on record as seeing that this can fortify their cause: If fetuses are babies, and they no longer go to limbo but can go to heaven, then abortion may not be as dire a fate as it is often pictured to be. Abort and send them prematurely to heaven. Catholic traditionalists -- you'll find plenty of them -- rage at Pope Benedict and others involved in this announcement, seeing them as traitors to the Catholic cause: If this can change, can't other things? Relativism, which the pope abhors, will take over.
Pope Benedict made clear in his announcement that limbo was never an infallible teaching and was not even a formal doctrine of the church. We wonder whether generations of parents who suffered endlessly as they imagined their infants endlessly denied the vision of God or much of any other kind of vision knew of that nuance. Those of us who are not Catholic, and who care about Catholic teaching and Catholic parents, but cannot appreciate all the niceties of gradation of authority among "infallible" and "not quite infallible" and "traditional" and "easy to change" teachings, will look for clarification.
So will Catholics of many stripes, including some who had not thought about limbo for a long time, but in response to press coverage now find themselves in an intellectual limbo.

References:
The Associated Press article "Pope: There's Hope for Babies Not Baptized" appears in the Chicago Sun-Times (April 20, 2007), and can be read here: http://www.suntimes.com/lifestyles/religion/351485,042007limbo.article.
For further reporting, see Matthew Philips's "Letting Go of Limbo," (Newsweek, April 24, 2007): http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/18296718/.
Alan Cooperman reports on the announcement in "Vatican Panel Discounts Limbo for Unbaptized" (Washington Post, April 29, 2007): http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/04/28/AR2007042800831.html?hpid=sec-religion?hpid=sec-religion.

Martin E. Marty's biography, current projects, upcoming events, publications, and contact information can be found at www.illuminos.com.
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The current Religion and Culture Web Forum features "From Altered States to Altered Categories (and Back Again): Academic Method and the Human Potential Movement" by Jeffrey J. Kripal. To read this article, please visit: http://marty-center.uchicago.edu/webforum/index.shtml.
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Sightings comes from the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School.

Sunday, April 29, 2007

Cheating in the Pulpit

I'm a bit behind in some of my blogging comments, but I wanted to comment on Tom Long's piece in Christian Century on plagiarism in the pulpit. Entitled "Stolen Goods: Tempted to Plagiarize" Long takes on the problem of plagiarism. Now pastors are busy people, and some aren't the best preachers, and with so many options to choose from --- hey my sermons are on the web (hopefully everything belongs to me or is properly noted) -- it's easy to pilfer a sermon or two or maybe a few more.
Some of the well known preachers put their stuff out there and say, come and get it. As Long points out:

Rick Warren, of the Saddleback Church, who markets his sermons online, told the British journal Christianity, "If my bullet fits your gun, shoot it," and Craig Brian Larson, writing about pulpit plagiarism at PreachingToday.com, cites a preacher who says, "When Chuck Swindoll starts preaching better sermons, so will I." When it comes to preachers desperate to feed the incessant pulpit hunger, "the Internet," as one of my colleagues likes to say, "is like having a drug dealer on every corner."

ow there are cultural elements to sermon borrowing, both in the past and present. In some parts of the world, the idea of intellectual property is pretty much unknown, but that's not true in the US. We ought to know the difference, but many seem not to know.
Now there's nothing wrong with preaching someone else's sermon -- just as long as you make it clear what you're doing. I remember John Bray, pastor of Pasadena Covenant Church, back when I was in seminary, preaching a sermon by Luther -- as if he were Luther -- and of course we all knew that John was in character.
There are, to be sure, gray areas to be considered but:

Preachers who strive to tell the truth, who seek to honor the communion of saints, who desire to maintain the trust of the faithful community—that is to say, preachers with ethical integrity—will wrestle with these questions and make the best decisions they can. Pulpit plagiarists, however, in the name of expediency, will grab what they wish wherever they can find it and claim it as their own. Their stolen sermons may occasionally sparkle, but in the end they will have spread the banquet table of God with the empty calories of homiletical fast food.

Jason Byassee has added a poignant commentary at the Theolog blog on Long's piece that concludes with this reflection:
It’s the laziness that troubles me the most. When Rick Warren says, “If my bullets fit your gun, fine,” is he referring back to the ancient church’s attribution of all truth to God, or is he making allowance for pastors who long since quit reading, thinking, working out the content of salvation on behalf of their churches? In the instances I know about that is indeed the case. It’s not as though these pastors have such interesting, important and dynamic ministry that they couldn’t spare a day or even a few hours preparing something fresh. They’re just burnt out: they need love and care, but not a pulpit. As for the rest of us: if Dietrich Bonhoeffer could write fresh sermons at Finkenwalde, if Desmond Tutu could in Apartheid South Africa, if pastors in Zimbabwe can now, surely we can too.
Having just returned from the Academy of Parish Clergy meeting, I'm reminded that clergy live by a Code of Ethics -- or at least we should. Although the APC is currently a small group, the fact that these issues are prevalent remind us of the need for groups like this.

Friday, April 27, 2007

Academy of Parish Clergy Book of the Year and Top Ten Books of 2006

Book of the Year
and Top Ten Books of 2006
Presented April 25, 2007 at APC’s Annual Conference, Princeton, NJ
The Book of the Year of 2006:
Christianity for the Rest of Us: How the Neighborhood Church is Transforming the Faith, by Diana Butler Bass (HarperCollins Publishers, 2006).

The remaining Top Ten Books (in alphabetical order by author’s name):

Conspiracy and Imprisonment 1940-1945 (Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, Volume 16), by Dietrich Bonhoeffer (Fortress Press, 2006)

Jesus: Uncovering the Life, Teachings and Relevance of a Religious Revolutionary, by Marcus J. Borg, (HarperSanFrancisco, 2006).

Gentle Shepherding: Pastoral Ethics and Leadership, by Joseph E. Bush Jr. (Chalice Press, 2006)

The Sense of Call: A Sabbath Way of Life for Those Who Serve God, The Church, and the World, by Marva J. Dawn (William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2006)

What’s Theology Got To Do With It? Conviction, Vitality, and the Church, by Anthony B.
Robinson, (Alban, 2006).

Cities of God: The Real Story of How Christianity Became an Urban Movement and Conquered Rome, by Rodney Stark (HarperSanFrancisco, 2006)

Congregational Leadership in Anxious Times: Being Calm and Courageous No Matter What, by Peter L. Steinke (Alban Institute, 2006)

God in Public: Four Ways American Christianity and Public Life Relate, by Mark G. Toulouse (Westminster/John Knox, 2006)
Press)

Simply Christian: Why Christianity Makes Sense, by N. T. Wright (Harper SanFrancisco, 2006)

This year the Academy of Parish Clergy also honors Pentateuch (handwritten and illuminated by Donald Jackson), published by the Liturgical Press, as the first of seven volumes of the Saint John’s Bible produced by the Order of Saint Benedict, St. John’s Abbey, Collegeville, Minnesota.

The links will take you to my Amazon.Com link for purchase.

5 Blogs That Make Me Think


Dr. Richard Beck at Experimental Theology award me a Thinking Blogs Award. I am deeply honored and flattered by this nomination, as I do believe that Richard's blog is not just intriguing and down right challenging, but it often is cutting edge stuff that we pastors must take note of. He also reminds me of deficiencies regarding my psychological training.

So, the idea here is to choose five bloggers who make you think. So here are my five, among the many I monitor, that I find most intriguing. If I had time and energy I'd add others of you, but here are five.



  • Diana Butler Bass -- Diana blogs for the Belief.net God's Politics blog of Jim Wallis. Diana's writings are challenging and hopeful. As in her books, so in her blogs.


  • Mystical Seeker -- Now Mystical Seeker and I don't see eye to eye on a number of things, but I appreciate his quest for truth, knowledge, and spiritual experience of God. But his honesty and quest lead me to nominate him and his blog -- A Blog of Mystical Searches.


  • Mike Leaptrott has become a regular here and like Mystical Seeker, his quest has challenged me in my thinking. So, I say congratulations for good work at The Nuts: A Progressive Christian Blog.


  • John Spalding is editor and writer for SoMA Review. John is a challenging writer, and since I've been published on his online journal/blog several times, let me tell you he's a great editor. When I send things to him the end up sounding so God, I can't believe I wrote them.


  • Finally I go in a different direction from these previous four blogs, all of which deal with religious ideas and nominate Craig Smith. Now Craig Smith is a local Santa Barbara blogger who keeps us informed about the comings and goings of this town I live in, but most especially the News Press Mess! So, thanks Craig for doing this.

The Worst Theological Invention

Ben Meyers at Faith and Theology has set up a new poll with seven theological ideas, which he calls the Worst Theological Invention. He asked we the theological blogosphere to offer our nominations -- which I did -- and from our nominations he came up with these seven to vote on.

  • Biblical inerrancy
  • Double predestination
  • The rapture
  • Papal infallibility
  • Arianism
  • Christendom (not to be confused with Chrisendom, which is also
    one of the worst theological inventions...)
  • Just war theory
So, go and vote!!! I voted for the rapture, though there were several there I could have gone for,well I could voted for them all. At this moment inerrancy has a small lead over the rapture.

Church Evaluations -- The Theologometer


You go to church and you find yourself frustrated by the experience, and you're not sure what to make of things. Well Richard Beck at Experimental Theology suggests the creation of the Theologometer, which like biofeedback, would be able to chart our experiences of worship -- on a theological scale. You'll find this intriguing -- so check it out.

An Unexpected Stop


Do you know this place? My trip home from Princeton and the Academy of Parish Clergy event was interrupted just a bit. I had a 5:30 P.M. flight out of Newark-Liberty International Airport, but the air traffic was such that my flight was delayed about a half hour. Well, with only a 26 minute window in Salt Lake, you guessed it, I spent last night in Salt Lake, minus my bags. But, if opportunity presents itself, you have to take advantage, and so I did. The airline put me up at a nice downtown hotel, just a couple of blocks from Temple Square. I'd not been there since 1974, so things looked a bit different. But I enjoyed taking pictures of all the hallowed sights of the Latter Day Saints. I had nice conversations with the mostly young women from around the world who are serving as missionaries there. They were very gracious, but they were hopeful I'd read the Book of Mormon and allow the Spirit lead me to its truth. I thanked them for their concern. They were very nice, after all.
Funny thing, there was an older woman in the Tabernacle when I went in, and she was very helpful and didn't seek to share the news of LDS -- maybe it wasn't her job, or maybe she realized a self-identified preacher wasn't a good person to work on!

Back from Princeton


Horror of Horrors, I've been out of communication for too many days. But I'm back, at least for a moment, in sunny Santa Barbara. I did have a very enjoyable time in Princeton, NJ, where I participated in my first annual meeting/conference of the Academy of Parish Clergy. Our leader was Dr. Jack Stewart, emeritus professor of ministry and evangelism at Princeton. Jack did a great job having us consider the ways in which the gospel is embedded in the world around us, from theater to short stories, poetry to music. He invited Dr. Clifton Black, NT prof at Princeton, to share with us the "Gospel According to Johnny Cash," which was quite insightful.

We shared worship with the Princeton Seminary community on Choir Day, and oh was the music good. Singing in the company of gifted singers is always a blessing, and indeed I had a spiritual experience, as our voices filled Miller Chapel!

A highlight which I will focus more on later was the presentation of this year's Book of the Year to Diana Butler Bass. It was a joy to meet her again -- we met once years ago at a historians conference -- along with her husband, Richard. Diana shared her story of how she came to uncover vital mainline churches and gave us an encouraging word.

I'll share my story of the trip home in a separate post with a picture that'll give you a clue as to where I spent last evening due to a missed connection. But pictured here is Alexander Hall at Princeton, named after Archibald Alexander, founder of Princeton Theological Seminary.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Academy of Parish Clergy and Wit, an HBO theater presentation

I'm still here at Princeton for Academy of Parish Clergy. Saw the Princeton Battlefield -- Revolutionary War. We began our sessions today with Dr. Jack Stewart, emeritus professor of ministry and evangelism at Princeton, which focuses on the presence of the Gospel in unexpected places. I shall blog more on this later, but I wanted to comment on the evening presentation which was simply the playing of the DVD of the HBO version of the Broadway play "Wit," starring Emma Thompson.
I wasn't all that excited about seeing a play on film I'd never heard of, but as I began to watch this play about a John Donne scholar stricken with incurable ovarian cancer, a woman who has made her way in the world to the top of her field, and yet in the course of this move upward has isolated herself from essentially everyone.
It is a movie about life and death, about isolation and a sense of abandonment. And yet there are signs of presence -- call it divine if you wish or not -- I will call it divine presence. There is great sadness in this film, but there is also hope. Indeed, I was moved by the play, and the use of an image I shall not name lest I spoil the movie that is simple and yet profound.
It is something that in its own way, whether intended or not, that is a sign of the Spirit's presence.

Monday, April 23, 2007

Tripping Across the Nation

I know I promised to slow down -- but hey I found a computer. It is 11 P.M. in Princeton, NJ. I spent most of the day flying across country and losing 3 hours, which I hope to reclaim on Thursday. But I used my time wisely today and got a good start on Marcus Borg's Jesus, which I shall report on shortly!
I'm now here at the Academy of Parish Clergy meeting -- my first such session. It's also my first time in the Middle States! I look forward to a profitable week -- but less blogging time.

Against Reductionism -- Sightings

Martin Marty takes on the question of science, the mind, violence, moral responsibility in today's Sightings. Consider carefully his thoughts.

Sightings 4/23/07

Against Reductionism-- Martin E. Marty

From the opinion columns and during television comments in the week that has gone by since the Virginia Tech trauma, one apparently minor theme leaped out for further expression of opinion and comment. Admit it: Many topics have been overworked, often by the under-informed. Let me launch into discussion of a topic on which I am at best only partly informed. Call it "scientific reductionism" and "free will." It takes off from David Brooks's apt op-ed in the New York Times on "Where Serotonin Stops and Sin Begins" (April 10). He properly foresaw that there would be legitimate talk about brain cells and adolescent schizophrenia, the inability to process serotonin and consequent depression and hyperaggression.
Brooks does not disdain the story of how, "over the past few decades, neuroscientists, evolutionary psychologists and social scientists have made huge strides in understanding why people -- even murderers -- do the things they do." Fine -- this is extremely helpful in approaching killer Seung-Hui Cho and his actions. But the scientific studies have "the effect of reducing the scope of the human self." Now the human is a "cork bobbing on the currents" of "evolution, brain chemistry, stress and upbringing." So there is new doubt about "whether there is such a thing as free will." Brooks says that we cannot and should not ever go back to pre-scientific understandings, but "it should be possible to acknowledge the scientists' insights without allowing them to become monopolists." Somewhere "moral responsibility" has to be reckoned in, if not in this bizarre killer's case, then in so many more.

I'd take off from there to say that the most urgent agenda item on the religion-and-science front is not cosmology (Galileo and all that) or evolution (Darwin and all that). Scientific understandings of the brain, consciousness, will, and responsibility pose tougher questions, also for faith and theology. Reduce humans to the chemistry of neuron firings in the brain, and you have crossed a new line. The human is then "nothing but" this or that. To counter such reduction I learned from an exchange between philosopher Richard Rorty, no raging evangelist, and Steven Pinker, who makes so much -- too much, according to Rorty -- of what the genetic make-up of a human determines. Rorty says that, along with scientific understandings, "a theory of human nature should tell us what sort of people we ought to become."

Rorty: "The books that change our moral and political convictions include sacred scriptures, philosophical treatises, intellectual and sociopolitical histories, epic poems, novels, political manifestoes, and writing of many other sorts. But scientific treatises have become increasingly relevant to this process of change. This is because, ever since Galileo, natural science has won its autonomy and its richly deserved prestige by telling us how things work, rather than, as Aristotle hoped to do, telling us about their intrinsic natures."
That quiet paragraph inserted here into the debates about human nature, responsibility, and action will not go far in addressing the savagely warped mind of Seung-Hui Cho. However, the debates his actions inspired offer new opportunities to revisit old and new theories of human nature, theories where "science" and "faith and philosophy" do well not to exclude each other.

References:
"Why Nature and Nurture Won't Go Away," by Steven Pinker, and "Philosophy-Envy," by Richard Rorty, appear in Daedalus (Fall, 2004). For more information, please visit: http://www.amacad.org/publications/daedalus.aspx.

Martin E. Marty's biography, current projects, upcoming events, publications, and contact information can be found at www.illuminos.com.
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The current Religion and Culture Web Forum features "From Altered States to Altered Categories (and Back Again): Academic Method and the Human Potential Movement" by Jeffrey J. Kripal. To read this article, please visit: http://marty-center.uchicago.edu/webforum/index.shtml.
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Sightings comes from the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

A Blogging Slowdown

For the next few days my blog posts will likely be minimal. I'll be traveling from Santa Barbara to Princeton to attend the annual meeting of the Academy of Parish Clergy. Among the highlights will be meeting Diana Butler Bass, whose book I've mentioned a few times. So, with a busy schedule its likely I won't have much time to post. So, enjoy the archived posts and when I return I'll get back to work!
So, have a great week!

The Politics of Genocide

When is a genocide not a genocide? It's when a genocide has gotten caught up in international politics. For nearly a century there has been a concerted effort to deny what seems obvious -- A million or more Armenians were killed by the Ottoman Empire. To this day it's illegal to speak of this in Turkey and the American government goes into contortions not to use the word.

A good friend of mine, a retired Methodist pastor, is Armenian. He has spoken strongly to and with any who would have influence, but he only gets stonewalled. Israel, which understands what genocide means, is silent because Turkey is one of it's few allies in the Middle East. We're silent because we have important military bases there. It would seem that confession would be good for the Turkish soul, but so far nothing has happened there and we have stood by and said nothing.

There is House resolution that calls for the President to use the word on April 24th when he will speak to that event on -"National Day of Remembrance of Man's Inhumanity to Man" - but he will not use the word genocide. Politics has intervened.

Matt Welch offers a well written LA Times editorial on this matter of politics covering the truth. He writes in conclusion:

So in February 2005, while speaking in California, [former Ambassador to Armenia James] Evans said: "I will today call it the Armenian genocide. I think we, the U.S. government, owe you, our fellow citizens, a more frank and honest way of discussing this problem." For that remark he was recalled from his post so that Washington could get back to the business of evading the historical truth.

President Bush won't say "genocide" on Tuesday. In the words of Condoleezza Rice, the administration's position is that Turks and Armenians both need to "get over their past" without American help.

But this issue won't go away. Watching Rice's linguistic contortions in response to harsh congressional interrogation by Schiff, who has become the Armenians' great House champion, is profoundly dispiriting; it makes one embarrassed to be American. Of all issues subject to realpolitik compromises, mass slaughter of a national minority surely should rank at the bottom of the list.

Hitler reportedly said, just before invading Poland, "Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?" It's a chilling reminder that forgetting is the first step in enabling future genocides. Yet Hitler was eventually proved wrong. No temporal power is strong enough to erase the eternal resonance of truth.
If such things are not to happen again -- we must never forget nor ignore the words too horrible to speak.

Protecting, Preserving God's Creation

Faith in the Public Square
Lompoc Record
April 22, 2007


Whether it's global warming, air pollution, lack of safe drinking water, or the extinction of species, from the looks of things we humans have created a mess. It was for this reason that Earth Day was born in 1970. Inspired by a devastating 1969 oil spill off our own Santa Barbara County coast, a movement was born that called the nation's attention to the fact that we had clogged our rivers and streams and fouled our air with any number of pollutants, making the earth less livable for all of God's creatures. Much progress has been made since then, but work remains to be done.

In recent years the issue of climate change has grabbed our attention. Although some in national leadership pooh-pooh global warming as some kind of environmentalist scam, and some preachers have called this ecological movement a Satanic distraction, the scientific evidence continues to mount that we humans contribute significantly to a burgeoning crisis. If current trends continue, we will likely see increased drought, the melting of the polar ice caps - hastening the extinction of species such as the polar bears and rising sea levels, which would displace millions of people. Deadly storms such as Katrina could become more frequent. So, if there's still time to turn things around, what can we do?

I find the biblical injunction that “the earth is the Lord's” compelling. If the earth belongs to the Lord, what's my responsibility for its welfare? I could begin by listening for God's voice emanating from the earth itself. St. Paul offers the image of the creation “groaning in labor pains” waiting for its redemption (Romans 8:22-23). And, if I understand my faith correctly, God will act redemptively through us, which means we have a divine mandate to care for that which God has given us.
There are a number of statements written from a faith perspective about the environment, but I think this particular statement - “An Evangelical Statement on the Care of Creation” (www.creationcare.org) - catches well the ideal that we're responsible for the environment.

Because we await the time when even the groaning creation will be restored to wholeness, we commit ourselves to work vigorously to protect and heal that creation for the honor and glory of the Creator. ... We and our children face a growing crisis in the health of the creation in which we are embedded, and through which, by God's grace, we are sustained. Yet we continue to degrade that creation.

In response to this call for repentance, I confess that I'm not as environmentally sensitive as I should be. I waste too much water, gasoline, and electricity. I contribute more than my share of garbage to the landfills. Yes, I've tried to be more responsible: I drive a compact car and have exchanged all but a few light bulbs for fluorescents. I'm fortunate to live in a climate that's neither too hot nor too cold, so my use of heat and air conditioning is limited, but if I lived elsewhere, it might not be quite so easy to be a good steward of energy resources. Yes, I do some, but not nearly enough, and what is true for me seems to be true of Americans in general.

Confession is a start, but Earth Day is a call to action. It calls us to limit our ecological footprint and reclaim the environment. To do so isn't to worship nature, but rather it's recognition of a gift to be treasured and cared for.
How often do we hear that making fuel efficient vehicles or finding alternative sources of energy is too costly? Where, I wonder is the American sense of ingenuity and creativity? Much of our technology is decades old. The incandescent bulb hasn't changed all that much in 50 years, and electricity is transported through the same inefficient lines as when I was a child. Yes, it will take some money and some political will power to make changes, but progress never comes easy or cheaply, at least in the short run. But if we will commit ourselves to protecting and reclaiming the environment, and make the difficult choices now rather than later, then I expect that in the long term we will reap great benefits that can be shared across the globe.

If the earth is the Lord's, then let's celebrate Earth Day by heeding the call to redeem God's creation so that later generations will have an earth to enjoy!

Dr. Bob Cornwall is Pastor of First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) of Lompoc (www.lompocdisciples.org). He blogs at http://pastorbobcornwall.blogspot.com and may be
contacted at
lompocdisciples@impulse.net or First Christian Church, P.O. Box 1056, Lompoc, CA 93438.

April 22, 2007

Saturday, April 21, 2007

Religions of Peace?

How often do you hear Christian preachers declare that Islam is a religion of violence and that they should get their act together and denounce violence.
Well it's time we got our act together and repented of our own attraction to the way of violence. This piece I found on Daily Kos should shatter any pretensions we have! It's a call on our part as Christians to repent -- as Jesus said, take the log out of your own eye before taking the splinter from your neighbors!

When Did I learn about Evolution?

I was talking about evolution with my father-in-law. Like many Americans he’d rather choose Genesis over what the scientists teach. He said, well we didn’t learn about that stuff when I was in school. That got me to thinking: Did we talk about evolution when I was in school? Now, I took biology in ninth grade, way back in 1972-1973. My biology teacher was beloved by the students. He got leeches and other wonderful delicacies out of the local canal for us to look at and I think dissect. But my teacher was also an Evangelical and the sponsor of our student-organized Bible club. I don’t remember talking about evolution, one way or another back then. So, maybe I didn’t learn anything about it. And perhaps, I shouldn’t be all that surprised, considering all the controversy that surrounds evolution. Most schools would probably rather steer clear of the controversy by not teaching evolution.

Now, after my high school days, I didn’t take any more biology classes after high school, but I did attend a debate between Duane Gish of the Creation Research Institute and a University of Oregon biology professor. I remember thinking that Dr. Gish sure got the better of his debating partner. Of course that poor old biology professor, he knew his stuff, he just wasn’t used to debating a guy who debates for a living. When you decide to debate a Creationist, whether it’s Dr. Dino, Duane Gish, or William Dembski, its probably a no win situation.

So, when did I learn about evolution? Well I probably learned most of what I know from watching the Discovery Channel or visiting museums. You know, I never remember reacting to those displays -- so somehow I must have compartmentalized things.

But, with all the polls saying that 50% or more of Americans reject evolution and choose creationism or Intelligent Design instead, then obviously we've not learned much -- despite what we see on TV or see in museums. I simply don't believe the reason why we believe this is that as a theory evolution is in trouble or full of holes. Scientists might be reluctant to change at times, but they're not stupid. And as for we religious teachers, we've not done a very good job of helping our congregations learn how to read the Bible critically as well as reverently.

Reading Edward Humes' Monkey Girl and Not in our Classrooms help explain why it is we as a nation know so little about the theory of evolution -- we simply haven't been taught the theory!

As Edward Humes points out there's a myth that evolution won the day at the first Scopes trial in 1925. Yes, William Jennings Bryan was humiliated but the court upheld the Butler Act, and after that references to Darwin were essentially removed from text books and they didn't reappear until the 1960s.
"The reappearance of evolution in America's textbooks led to the resurgence of the long-dormant anti-evolution crusade, and the conflict soon ended in the courts again." (Monkey Girl, p. 54).

And we've been fighting ever since!

Faith and Health -- Are they related?

A while back a study came out that seemed to discount the value of prayer in healing -- it was a rather strange and in my mind silly study. It tried to see if the prayer of strangers helped people who didn't know they were being prayed for.

But despite that misstep, it has long been recognized that faith has something to do with recovery. It could be the prayers or maybe it's the sense that you're not alone. Maybe it's the community that surrounds you. As a pastor I know that people express appreciation not just for my prayers, but my presence there.

In an LA Times article today Times writer Angie Green shares another study, this one suggests that 85% of doctors believe that religion and spirituality have a positive effect on health. Now before we get all excited, we need to remember that this isn't tradition specific -- it doesn't matter which religious tradition, as long as it offers positive support, it can be of great help. It can also be detrimental if one's faith puts guilt trips on you.

The good news in all of this is that doctors are recognizing that faith can be a partner in recovery. I know that at Cottage Hospital in Santa Barbara, where I served as part of an on-call clergy visitation team in support of the spiritual care team there, the hospital has been very supportive of this partnership, and not just for the patients but also for staff.

Can't We get practical about guns?

You've heard the old canard that "guns don't kill people, people kill people." In other words, if a person wants to kill someone they'll find a way. With that kind of logic, though, why are we so concerned about airport security? Or national security for that matter?

E.J. Dionne yesterday raised the question of pragmatic gun control talk. Unfortunately the gun lobby always reacts with a big fat "NO!!" to such talk of regulation of gun ownership and use. But why? Sometimes we hear that they'll take away our right to hunt. Who said that? PETA? But what hunter needs an AK-47 or an Uzi to get that deer or duck? And why do you need a 15 bullet clip?

Consider this:

Our country is a laughingstock on the rest of the planet because of our devotion to unlimited gun rights. On Thursday, an Australian newspaper carried this headline: "America, the gun club."

John Howard, the solidly right-wing Australian prime minister closely allied with President Bush, bragged this week that when a mass killing took place in Australia in 1996, "we took action to limit the availability of guns, and we showed a national resolve that the gun culture that is such a negative in the United States would never become a negative in our country." No doubt the NRA will mount a boycott of Foster's beer.


So, let's get real and stop the "us against them," either-or talk and make some responsible laws. Then maybe we could cut down on some of this violence. As we saw on the streets of Santa Barbara, you can kill with a sharpened stick, but you can kill a lot more a lot quicker with a semi-automatic gun with a 15 bullet clip!

Small Churches -- their difficulties and their possibilities

I'm a small church pastor. Easter Sunday we had according to the "official" count 55 there. I'm sure a pastor's count would reveal a few more, but needless to say, we're not big. Now we've added a few new members lately -- 5 so far this year. But I did read in the letters to the editor in the local paper that the 4Square Church had 1300 for Easter breakfast. Ah, if I only had a couple of their people! But then again we're a different kind of church. Anyway, that's not my point --

I ran across a most interesting piece by David Fitch at Reclaiming the Mission.Com. He writes about the difficulties of growing a small missional church -- noting that it's more difficult to take a church from 0 to 150 than it is from 600 to 5,000. He suggests that it's also more difficult to preach to 100 people you know than 8000, of whom you don't know 99%. People go to big churches because that's where the action is -- programs galore, etc. Small churches are very different.

And there's this:

It is more difficult to build a community of people who know and care for one another, who when they speak, they are heard, who when there is conflicts, all participate in reconciliation and growth, than it is to put on a production and provide religious goods and services where if some people don't like it they can just go shopping elsewhere.


Pastoring a small church has its difficulties, but it's real! Ah, and:

It is more difficult to build a gathering that is a mission in the world, than it is to build a gathering that comes to see the show. It is more difficult to build a gathering into being the Body of Christ in the world than it is to build a crowd into a bigger crowd around a personality. Yes it is more
difficult, but in the end so much more satisfying. And when you're gone this community will keep reproducing the love of Christ, the fruits of the Spirit and the leader(s) to carry on the transformation of the world until Christ returns.

Friday, April 20, 2007

Three Pillars of Creationism

Glenn Branch, writing in Not in Our Classrooms, outlines three pillars of creationism, first espoused by William Jennings Bryan in 1925 and continually in use since.
  1. Evolution is in conflict with the actual facts of science -- in other words, it's bad science (this despite the fact that essentially all reputable scientists affirm it).
  2. Evolution is atheistic, anti-Christian, and immoral (again this despite the fact that numerous Christians from B.B. Warfield to Benedict XVI are fine with it -- Benedict recently dismissed a "God of the Gaps" view of science).
  3. It's only fair to consider the tax payers when developing a science curriculum -- thus, if the tax payers, the majority of whom apparently think that creationism ought to be taught, want an alternative theory then so be it -- (Yes Americans are all about fairness, but is it fair to charge the tax payers to teach bad science?)

The first pillar is suggestive that evolution is a theory on the verge of collapse, which isn't true. The second pillar is a reminder that Design theories ultimately have a religious foundation, and well what can we say about the third one?

From Not in Our Classrooms, p. 136)

Not in Our Classrooms -- A Review



Eugenie C. Scott and Glenn Branch. Editors. Foreword by Rev. Barry W. Lynn. Not in Our Classrooms: Why Intelligent Design Is Wrong in Our Classrooms. Boston: Beacon Press, 2006. xi + 170 pp.


From the time of Copernicus to the present, religion and science have been locked in a seemingly unending war of attrition for the hearts and minds of the Western World. At least in the United States the battle rages on and from the poll numbers it would seem that with regard to evolution, “religion” is ahead on points. The 2005 Dover, PA trial that struck down an attempt to balance evolution with “Intelligent Design,” but as important as this decision was, it was merely another skirmish in an ongoing culture war.

Not in Our Classrooms is a response by the scientific community and its allies in the religious community to a well organized and well funded Creationist movement. With a preface by Barry Lynn of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, this is a handbook that can be used by supporters of evolution education, educators, and members of the religious community who wish to offer their support to this cause. Contributors to this relatively brief book include scientists, science educators, activists, and a theologian.

The book begins with a historical overview by Eugenie Scott, an editor of the book and executive director of the National Center for Science Education, which lays out the issues, highlights the central points of conflict and significant events such as trials in Arkansas, Louisiana, and most recently in Dover, Pennsylvania. Since proponents of Intelligent Design wish to distance themselves from earlier Creationist movements and present it as a scientific alternative to evolution and not a religious philosophy, Scott helpfully connects the dots between the predecessor entities and this most recent expression of Creationism.

The second essay, written by Nicholas Matzke of the NCSE, and Paul Gross, an emeritus professor of life sciences at the University of Virginia focus on the most recent expression of the Creationist/Intelligent Design movement – “critical analysis.” These groups may not believe in evolution, but they do evolve, especially as the courts rule. And thus, with Intelligent Design under suspicion, proponents have shifted to “critical analysis” as a way of slipping Intelligent Design into the curriculum through the back door. A tactic being used currently in Ohio and Kansas, partisans have attempted to introduce legislation or change curriculum standards to mandate that students be encouraged to question evolution – and thus “teaching the controversy” is introduced into the curriculum. The problem with this strategy is that there is no real controversy to be taught, except that students are left with the impression that evolution is a theory in crisis.

Being that I’m a theologian and not a scientist, I welcomed the contribution of Martinez Hewlett, a retired biology professor and devout Roman Catholic and Ted Peters, a Lutheran theologian. In a chapter entitled “Theology, Religion, and Intelligent Design” the authors remind us that there is no necessary contradiction between evolution as a scientific theory and religious faith, and Christian faith in particular. This is really the crux of the issue, for evolution opponents insist that evolution and atheism are commingled. They lay out the principle that the Christian command to seek truth requires that Christians seek out the best science, and at this moment that science is not Intelligent Design, which has no fertility – that is it does not further scientific discovery – is not good science and thus should be rejected. And as Christians, the authors insist that it is incumbent upon them to “provide young people in classrooms with the best science available,” and at this point the Darwinian model is that science (p. 82).

Jay Wexler is an attorney who specializes in church-state issues. He helpful clarifies the legal issues, especially as they pertain to the application of the First Amendment. As the Dover, Pennsylvania school board found out, ignorance of the law is no excuse, and as long as the scientific community insists that evolution is the accepted theory to explain the diversity of life on earth, courts will likely look with disfavor on Creationist and related attempts to circumvent science.

Brian Alters is a science educator who explains why teaching Intelligent Design is a bad idea. Not only is ID not good science, by including it in the discussion will only confuse students. He reminds us that science teachers are, by and large, not scientists, but scientifically trained educators, who must depend on the expertise of the scientific community. Alters recognizes as well that when ID is put into the conversation students likely will think that not only are the questions about evolution, but that evolution is necessarily in conflict with their religious beliefs. When that happens students and their parents will choose their faith over evolution. He also notes that because some science teachers are creationists and others are fearful of dealing with ongoing conflict evolution is often either taught poorly – again confusing students – or it’s not taught at all. And therefore, the American populace remains uninformed about this important scientific theory.

The final chapter is a set of guidelines written by the other editor, Glenn Branch, deputy director of the NCSE, for those who wish to advocate for a strong science curriculum and oppose efforts to bring ID or Creationism into the science classroom. And if anyone thinks this “battle” is going to end any time soon, Branch says that “Creationists are resilient, so it is unwise to assume that any victory for you is final” (p. 144).

The real point of this book is that this is a crucial issue of our time. Therefore, it requires the whole community to become informed and to become engaged in the cause. Branch includes in that call to action, the religious community, and clergy in particular. Why? Because, clergy have a vested interest in defusing the conflict between science and religion.

A small and inexpensive book, Not in Our Classrooms is easily and quickly read and could be handed out to science teachers, school administrators, board members, and members in various religious communities. From a religious perspective it is good to see a book on the issue that respects the religious community and seeks to engage this community as allies in the search for truth and knowledge. They recognize that Creationists and supporters of ID wish to drive a wedge between religion and evolution by characterizing evolution as inherently atheistic. Richard Dawkins may believe this to be true, but many like Ted Peters, Pope Benedict XVI, and me, think otherwise. And, as an introduction to the issues, there is no better place to start than with this manual. Besides, how can you go wrong with a book that carries on its cover the recommendation of Bill Nye the Science Guy®!


Rev. Dr. Robert Cornwall
Ponderings on a Faith Journey
April 20, 2007

Snow in April in Santa Barbara?



You have to see it to believe it! You may have to click on the picture to get a close up. But after a winter of cold winds, freezing temperatures and little rain, we finally got a storm that was fitting for January or February! And so we have snow in the mountains behind Santa Barbara. None, of course, down here in the city -- it's not nearly cold enough.

Preacher's Wife -- Guilty

I've posted a couple of times on clergy related issues. One was a discussion of a Time Magazine article on pastor's wives. Yesterday I posted the results of a survey that said that clergy express the most job satisfaction of any profession/vocation. Today, I read first in the LA Times the verdict in the Mary Winkler trial.
Mary was convicted of voluntary manslaughter in the murder of her husband, Matthew Winkler, who at the time of his death was pastor of 4th Street Church of Christ in Semler, TN. Winkler claims that the shotgun she was holding during a fight with her husband had gone off accidentally --- which is probably why she got the lesser sentence. She tells of a life of abuse, physical, emotional, and even sexual. It's a sorry tale, and of course much of it went on behind closed doors with no witnesses. Thee are three children, but all are under 10. How could a minister's wife do such things? And then of course, if, as I suspect she is, telling the truth, how could a pastor do such things to his wife. Ah, but that's the tale we neither wish to tell nor to hear.
But the family, as traumatized as they must be, aren't the only parties involved. There is also a church, now without a pastor and facing questions about its judgment in selecting a pastor. From Ted Parks' article in the Church of Christ magazine the Christian Chronicle, we find out more about what's going on from within.

The church’s progress after the shattering loss does not mean the congregation fully comprehends what happened the Wednesday morning in March 2006 when Matthew Winkler died.

“The pieces just do not fit together,” said Fourth Street member Pam Killingsworth. “I think there’s some things that weren’t meant to be understood. And we’re just going to have to live with that fact and go on with our lives.

“At this point,” she added, “I’m ready just to give it to God, and let him take care of it.”

Indeed, this is a tragedy that affects families, congregations, and the church at large. In a week when we contemplate acts of violence, we find that this story is added to the others, and we grieve and we wonder. We pray and hope for better days.
Mary Winkler's story reminds us that even within the sanctity of a family, yes a clergy family, all may not be right. It's too bad that Mary didn't have a safe haven, but as is true of many pastor's wives there appears to have been no place to go and so she suffered in silence so as not to embarrass her husband -- until it was too late.
Thanks to Rebecca and News Muse for the tip on the Ted Parks article.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Bad Things, Good People -- Why?

My friend Steve Kindle went me this audio link from Beliefnet. It's a short reading from Rabbi Harold Kushner's Why Bad Things Happen to Good People. As we consider the events of Monday and the daily reports of violence from Iraq, perhaps these words will be helpful!

Christian Peace Bloggers

Well, I joined up -- I put my blog into the Christian Peace Bloggers ring. This ring is run by Michael Westmoreland-White over at Levellers. I shall try to keep up the task of peace over here!

If your part of the ring and you're stopping by, leave a note here and say hi!

Christianity for the Rest of Us -- a Review


In the mail today came my copy of Congregations (Alban Institute), which includes my review of Diana Butler Bass's Christianity for the Rest of Us. Diana's book, which if you read the review shows, is I think a truly remarkable contribution to our conversation about the future of the church in America.


As I announced earlier, the Academy of Parish Clergy has named this their Book of the Year. Although I'm journal editor, and thus a staff member of the Academy, I was not on the committee and did not influence it's selection. Though I'm glad it won! Though it did beat out Mark Toulouse's God in Public -- which I reviewed for Encounter and believe to be an extremely important book in it's own right. If you can get through to the review take a read and then if you've not purchased the book -- well buy one here at Pastor Bob's Bookstore!!!

Preachers like their Jobs!!!

Job satisfaction -- that's what we all want in life. Despite everything I read about clergy burn out (and we featured an article on that in Sharing the Practice) word comes out that in a recent survey 87% of clergy say they're satisfied with their job. Folks, that's tops among all professions/vocations -- topping fire fighters by a whopping 7%. In the article on Ethics Daily Marcia Nelson reports:

Tom W. Smith, director of the General Social Survey at the university research center, said he was surprised clergy led the list. Many "helping" occupations, such as doctors and nurses, also experience stress, which can affect their overall happiness, he said.

"Apparently the rewards of spiritual guidance and leadership outweigh the burdens of being a religious leader," he said.

One caveat on this -- a recent Time Mag story I've reported on here suggests that as happy as the preachers are, their wives (for us male clergy) aren't exactly thrilled or prepared for their lot in life.

A Note on VA Tech from the Disciples' Korean Churches

The fact that the perpetrator of Monday's acts of violence was a Korean-American has hit the Korean Community hard. Here is a word and call to prayer from Geuhnee Yu, Executive Pastor of the National Association of Pacific Islanders and Asian Disciples (NAPAD).

Dear fellow Disciples:

We at North American Pacific/Asian Disciples (NAPAD) are deeply shocked and profoundly saddened by the massacre at Virginia Tech on April 16. On behalf of the community of NAPAD and the Korean Disciples Convocation (KDC), I sincerely offer my condolences to the families and friends of the victims, as well as all who have been adversely affected. It is indeed my most heartfelt prayer that our gracious God sends comfort and healing. I also steadfastly and tearfully pray for the souls of the victims.

It is horrifying that a Korean-American student is at the center of these heinous acts. It is my sincere hope, however, that we make great efforts to not allow racial overtones to further darken this tragedy. Simply put, he committed a brutal crime -- a deranged madman sinned against all humanity. Allowing this to drive an ethnic wedge between us would do nothing but make a bad situation worse. I hope you agree.

All of the NAPAD churches have been in prayer vigils for the victims and their families -- as well as for our entire nation. I urge all of our fellow Disciples to join us in prayer and mourning.

May God comfort the victims and heal our nation.


Rev. Geunhee Yu
Executive Pastor
North American Pacific/Asian Disciples (NAPAD)
gyu@dhm.disciples.org
(317) 713-2681

A Voice from Within -- Evangelicals and the Left

When people think of evangelicals more often than not they think of Jim Dobson, Pat Robertson, or maybe James Kennedy -- doyens of the Religious Right. They seem surprised to learn that Jimmy Carter, Tony Campolo, and Jim Wallis are evangelicals. Well John Stackhouse, theology prof at Regent College in Canada (not to be confused with Robertson's Regent University), offers an interesting take on all of this in the Thursday edition of Sightings.

Sightings 4/19/07

Evangelicals on the Left? How Shocking! How Awful!-- John G. Stackhouse

Martin Marty wrote on Monday about evangelicals from his vantage point outside evangelicalism -- but within the fellowship of those he likes to call the "original evangelicals," namely, Lutherans. From within (latter-day) evangelicalism, then, I offer this week's second observation of this burgeoning movement.
I have been wondering why people both within and without evangelicalism are so surprised -- and sometimes even upset -- about the emergence of a "non-right-wing" evangelicalism in America.
For example, the executive of the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) recently endorsed a document produced by a group called Evangelicals for Human Rights that condemns the use of torture, and calls on the United States government in particular to forswear its use. This action, coming after last year's declaration of concern about global climate change by evangelicals as prominent as Rick "Purpose Driven" Warren, has aroused shock and awe among many on the right who had previously enjoyed arrogating the term "evangelical" entirely to themselves.
Mark Tooley of "Front Page Magazine" says that "the 17-member drafting committee, called 'Evangelicals for Human Rights,' is comprised nearly exclusively of pseudo-pacifist academics and antiwar activists who sharply condemn the Bush administration." (One notes with bemusement this characterization of, for example, drafter David Neff, editor of the notoriously non-left-leaning Christianity Today magazine. And one asks again the perennial question, What exactly is a "pseudo-pacifist"?)
Indeed, Tooley pronounces the ultimate doom on the NAE and its fellow-travelers: They are on the same leftist path to irrelevancy, if not heresy, as the National Council of Churches -- an insult no greater than which can be conceived in these circles.
The same week as this bit of excitement was brewing, Michael Kerlin of Philadelphia's "Evening Bulletin" wrote of "A Different Kind of Evangelical" -- namely, a typical South American evangelical who votes with left-wing political parties because they promise relief and social change from the establishment's oppression. Mr. Kerlin suggested that as the First Evangelical was touring South America, President Bush might have liked to know that the average evangelical is more likely to vote for the likes of Daniel Ortega or Hugo Chavez than anyone else. He or she would do so because the alternative choices usually mean voting for the old regime of landowners or the new regime of business magnates, not to mention the Roman Catholic hierarchy, which is often identified with both.
Meanwhile, our gaze returns to North America, where evangelicals are excited about the release of the movie Amazing Grace, the story of William Wilberforce and the campaign to abolish the British slave trade. But in the context of these contemporary observations, we might ask whether this evangelical hero would be more likely to line up today with Jim Dobson or Jim Wallis.
Of course, it is anachronistic in the extreme to try to situate Wilberforce in terms of today's American political landscape. And there wasn't a lot of socialist theory to attract Wilberforce's interest -- he died in 1833, in the earliest decades of socialist thinking and fifteen years before the Communist Manifesto was published. But the abolition of slavery is what anyone would have to call government-initiated broad structural change on behalf of justice -- which is what socialism ideally is all about. So it's certainly not clear that Wilberforce would maintain the current religious right's narrow focus on the (free, white, prosperous) family, so to speak.
Indeed, as a Canadian who has lived all his life with a third national political party dedicated to democratic socialism and founded by a Baptist pastor; as one with a nodding acquaintance with social democratic movements in Britain, the European Continent, and Australasia; and as one who notes that George W. Bush's best political friend in the world is a Christian man who leads the British Labour Party -- well, the idea that evangelicalism should be confined to the American right strikes me as something that could literally happen only in America.

References:
Laurie Goodstein's article "Evangelical Leaders Join Global Warming Initiative" (New York Times, February 8, 2006) can be read at: http://www.nytimes.com/2006/02/08/national/08warm.html?ex=1297054800&en=c3998565b07f9657&ei=5088&partner=rssnyt&emc=rss.
Michael D. Kerlin's article "A Different Kind of Evangelical" (The Evening Bulletin, March 12, 2007) can be read at: http://www.thebulletin.us/site/news.cfm?newsid=18068434&BRD=2737&PAG=461&dept_id=576361&rfi=6.
Mark Tooley's article "The Evangelical Left's Tortured Logic" (FrontPageMagazine.com, March 15, 2007) can be read at: http://www.frontpagemag.com/Articles/ReadArticle.asp?ID=27382.

John G. Stackhouse, Jr., is Sangwoo Youtong Chee Professor of Theology and Culture at Regent College in Vancouver, Canada.
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The current Religion and Culture Web Forum features "From Altered States to Altered Categories (and Back Again): Academic Method and the Human Potential Movement" by Jeffrey J. Kripal. To read this article, please visit: http://marty-center.uchicago.edu/webforum/index.shtml.
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Sightings comes from the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Pluralism Sunday Press Release

Below is the press release for Pluralism Sunday. I'm still not sure how I'll handle it and my congregation is likely different in make up and intent than others participating. I'm not a big John Spong fan, for instance, and he's quoted below. Still, I do believe in the importance of religious pluralism. So, if you're interested, check it out.
PRESS RELEASE: FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
PLURALISM SUNDAY: May 27, 2007
in progressive churches nationwide
For more information: contact Rev. Jim Burklo, coordinator, Pluralism Sunday:
jtburklo@yahoo.com , 415-332-3790, or Rev. Fred Plumer, President, The Center for Progressive Christianity, center@tcpc.org, 253-303-0022
For a full description of the event, see: www.tcpc.blogs.com/pluralism_sunday


________________________The Center for Progressive Christianity, (TCPC.org) a national network of 370 affiliated congregations of many denominations, will be celebrating the diversity of the world's religions on PLURALISM SUNDAY, May 27, 2007. Churches are participating in the event in a variety of ways, exploring and sharing the spiritual riches of other faiths. Churches are inviting people of other faiths to preach, including elements of other religious traditions in their worship services, and offering study groups and other events. Their message: one does not need to believe that Jesus is the only way to God in order to be a Christian, and that Christian faith is deepend by learning about other religions.

"In this nation of increasing religious diversity, more and more people have come to realize that no one religion rightly can claim superiority over all others. More and more people have been exposed to the insight and wisdom in spiritual traditions other than their own," says Rev. Jim Burklo, pastor of Sausalito (CA) Presbyterian Church and coordinator of PLURALISM SUNDAY. "Many folks see the damage that religious chauvinism is doing in the world today, and have turned away from Christianity because they think that it claims to be the only true pathway to God. On PLURALISM SUNDAY, Progressive Christians swing open the doors of their churches and invite everyone to discover a form of the faith that abandons this prideful, hurtful claim." TCPC's Welcome Statement, which can be seen at http://www.tcpc.org/, includes these words: "We are Christians who recognize the faithfulness of other people who have other names for the way to God's realm, and acknowledge that their ways are true for them, as our ways are true for us."

PLURALISM SUNDAY will be held on May 27, which is the Christian day of Pentecost. According to the biblical legend in the book of Acts (chapter 2), Jesus' followers gathered after his death and resurrection in the "upper room" in Jerusalem, and though they spoke in different languages, suddenly they were able to understand each other through the power of the Holy Spirit. PLURALISM SUNDAY invokes a Holy Spirit of deep respect that moves us to embrace the diversity of religions of the world. It is a time for churches to celebrate the common language of the soul that transcends the boundaries of faiths.

Each participating church is making its own unique plans for PLURALISM SUNDAY. For example, at First Congregational Church in Long Beach, CA, the director of the Shura Council, which represents the imams and leaders of Muslim communities in southern California, will be the preacher. Christ Community Church in Spring Lake, MI, will hold sessions in the weeks prior to PLURALISM SUNDAY to study "The Faith Club", a book by three women - a Muslim, a Jew, and a Christian - who sought to find common ground on which to share their faiths. University Place Christian Church in Enid, OK will use multiple languages to express the wisdom of different world religions in worship. Mizpah United Church of Christ and Bet Shalom (Reform Jewish) Congregation in Minneapolis will have a "pulpit exchange".

John Shelby Spong, retired Episcopal bishop and author of Jesus for the Non-Religious and many other books, is a member of the advisory board of The Center for Progressive Christianity. He says "the Christ path leads me to a God who is bigger than Christianity and thus God can not be bounded or limited to the spiritual yearnings of a particular people. Pluralism is necessary because we are human."

The Center for Progressive Christianity is a network of churches that take the Bible seriously because they don't take it literally, believe that striving for justice and peace is just as important as personal morality, and welcome gay and lesbian people just as they are. See the 8-Point Welcome Statement of TCPC for a fuller description of the progressive Christian movement.

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Jim Burklominister, Sausalito Presbyterian Churchpersonal website: www.openchristianity.comweblog: www.tcpc.blogs.com/musingsPO Box 236, Sausalito, CA 94966415-332-3790 -- www.sausalitopresbyterian.comA progressive (www.tcpc.org) churchWorship: Sun 9:30 am"Open Christianity: Home by Another Road" by Jim Burklo - at www.risingstarpress.com
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What is Good Science?

I was struck by something said by Lutheran theologian Ted Peters and Catholic biologist Martinez Hewlett concerning the definition of the best science. They write that faith demands the best science and that to this point the best model is evolutionary biology. Why? Well this is what they say:

The criterion that establishes the superiority of one model or theory over its competitors is fertility. By fertility we mean this: a theory or model of natural reality is fertile when it gives rise to a progressive research program, when it guides scientists in performing experiments that lead to new knowledge. The Darwinian model has proven itself fertile for a century and a half now. (Peters and Hewlett, "Theology, Religion, and Intelligent Design," Not in our Classrooms, ed. Eugenie Scott and Glenn Branch, Beacon Press, 2006, 76-77).

In other words, this theory/model is suggestive of fruitful scientific exploration. Intelligent Design on the other hand doesn't accomplish this. It points out gaps but unlike Darwinian Evolution it doesn't point the scientist in a direction that will allow for that gap to be filled. Instead, it truncates the search before it ever starts by filling the hole with the designer, aka God.

Looking forward from Blacksburg

The tragedy at Virginia Tech hovers over us, in part because this event shattered our belief that colleges and universities are safe havens. As father of a high school junior who will soon head off to college, I have to take into consideration what that will look like for him. Totally protecting a college campus isn't possible, but that doesn't mean no steps should be taken, that we shouldn't learn from what happened.
In part, we're not ready to have that conversation. To politicize VA Tech as a gun control versus gun rights debate at a time when the people on that campus, and indeed people across the country must grieve, is at best insensitive -- and that insensitive debate is already underway. Though I'm on the side of gun control and would hate to see a college campus full of gun toting students, that debate needs to wait for a moment.
But, when the conversation begins in the coming weeks, we must look at real solutions. Ron Brownstein raises this very issue in what I think is a sensitive, non-politicized way in this mornings LA Times column.

BUT THAT doesn't mean we should not constantly search for better ways to reduce the threat of random violence. The issue isn't whether we might have prevented the Virginia Tech attack if we had closed a particular legal loophole last month. It may be that no combination of plausible policies would have deterred this rampage. And it is almost certain that the next horrific attack will present different facts.The better question is whether we are doing enough to diminish the overall risk of violence in our society.

In part we can look to the initial responses to 9/11 he suggests. After 9/11 we didn't say, well who would have thought people would fly planes into buildings and then leave it at that. We would and should start asking questions, like was their sufficient counseling opportunities available to this young man and whether "Bush's decision to de-fund the Clinton program that subsidized the hiring of more local police" had some effect, and of course we will need to reopen the debate on availability of guns.
And so, he concludes: "The ineradicability of evil ensures that we will never be free from terrible days like Monday. But we will compound this tragedy if we fail to learn from it."
And we must learn from this tragedy! In the meantime, however, may we grieve with those who grieve and comfort those who are at this moment comfortless.

Is the Resurrection Central to Christian Faith?

In conversations with several readers I've been wrestling with the question: Is the resurrection of Jesus central, indeed, essential to the Christian faith? In answer I have to say yes. One could raise the question of whether Jesus' teachings are sufficient to under gird a faith. At one level they are. And yet the cross seems problematic in such a scenario. Concerning the centrality of resurrection, I could turn to someone like Tom Wright, Bishop of Durham, who forthrightly defends a bodily resurrection. But I think for my purpose here, Marcus Borg is a more effective conversation partner. He writes in his response to Wright in The Meaning of Jesus:

Easter is utterly central to Christianity. "God raised Jesus from the dead" is the foundational affirmation of the New Testament. About this Tom and I agree. We also agree that the best explanation for the rise of Christianity -- indeed, the only adequate explanation -- is the resurrection of Jesus. We also agree about its central meanings. Put most compactly, I see the meanings of Easter as twofold: Jesus lives, and Jesus is Lord. Both claims are essential: Easter means that Jesus was experienced after his death, and that he is both Lord and Christ. Though each of us might add further subpoints of meaning, we agree about all the above.

Where they disagree is in the manner of that post resurrection experience of Jesus, that is it's historical grounding, but they agree that without the resurrection there is no Christian faith.