Thursday, July 31, 2008

The Order of Saint Oprah -- Sightings

What Would Oprah Do? That is the question that some might ask. It is a question that seems similar to the one some Christians have asked -- What Would Jesus Do? Apparently one woman has sought to live her life for one year by following to the letter the advice given by "Saint Oprah." It is of course a secular wisdom, but it has a similarity to other forms of spiritual practice. Aaron Curtis explores this idea and it's ramifications in this week's Thursday edition of Sightings (the last posting we'll be getting until September).


Sightings 7/31/08

The Order of Saint Oprah
-- Aaron Curtis

Is there incipient within the modern cult of the self a desire for a more constrictive way of life? Have those of us who live comfortably within the lax constraints of secular humanism discovered that we long for some rigorous "rule of life"? Some means by which to order a welter of consumer choices (including religion) into a more cohesive lifestyle? One might be inclined to pose such questions in light of the recent spate of "rule of life" experiments, such as A.J. Jacobs' year of "living biblically" or Barbara Kingsolver's year lived as a "locavore" (both of which were turned into bestselling books), or, most recently, one Chicago woman's self-imposed challenge to "design her life" in strict accordance with all of Oprah Winfrey's advice. But what this last experiment reveals, surprisingly, is not so much a desire for a more disciplined lifestyle as an inadvertent reaffirmation of a reigning brand of cultural orthodoxy.

At first glance, it would appear that the experiment undertaken by "Lo"—a pseudonym for "Living Oprah"—has, at best, only a tenuous connection to religious practice. This impression is reinforced by the blog she keeps to track her progress and by a July 10 Chicago Reader article on the project, which features an image of Oprah in a pose and garb resembling Chairman Mao, above the title "The Great Commander." Both the article and Lo's blog emphasize the political and socio-economic implications of this particular cult of personality, opting to leave unexplored the suggestion left by one blog visitor that Lo wear a "WWOD" bracelet, as well as Lo's own impression, after attending Oprah's show, that "it was like a church revival."

But there are two crucial respects in which Lo's "practice" bears an interesting resemblance to more traditional devotional practices. First of all, Lo has chosen to relinquish her power of choice entirely (what she eats, watches, reads, et cetera) and is committed to a faithfully neutral obedience (however much her initial intent may have been critically motivated). She asks, "Will I truly find bliss if I commit wholeheartedly to [Oprah's] lifestyle suggestions?" The true value of the experiment has less to do with the effectiveness of Oprah's advice taken piecemeal than with the change effected on the life of so absolute a follower. Secondly, the project's "faith" is invested in the possible results of predominantly physical practices—that is, without need of an attendant belief in their effectiveness. This bears a certain similarity to a strain of ascetic practice that insists on the power of bodily regimentation to bring about a desired change in one's "spiritual" orientation, rather than vice versa.

However weak these similarities may be to what some would deem "authentic" religious practice, they nevertheless serve to reveal the nature of the "religion" of Oprah's followers. Aside from some supportive advice for the struggling neophyte, the most revealing reaction to the "Living Oprah" project has been that of suspicion and even defensive hostility. On the one hand, Lo is violating an unstated but generally assumed norm of the community: Oprah is beloved as a personality at the center of an alluring communal identity and her authority is to be taken on faith; to test it in such a systematic and empirical fashion is to commit a form of sacrilege, or, at least, to miss the point entirely. On the other hand, and far more significantly, Lo's practice is suspect precisely because it diverges from the orthodoxy of this community. One visitor to the blog responded, "Why would you try to take someone that is only trying to do good things on this planet and make a mockery of her? … I watch Oprah. And take what is important to me and what touches my life. Whether it be medical advice, inspirational stories, her own personal actions or experiences, it's up to you to take from it what you need at that particular time." Here we have a perfect articulation of a prevalent form of modern spirituality that some, especially in orthodox and evangelical circles, have labeled "flexodoxy" —what theologian and scholar N.T. Wright describes as "free-for-all, do-it-yourself spirituality."

The prevalence of flexodoxy is not news. But it is surprising that, with Lo's experiment, the culture of flexodoxy should end up asserting its own orthodoxy—deciding for oneself what one needs, when one needs it. Those aspects of Lo's project that do resemble more traditional religious practices are precisely the ones that are most threatening to this particular "faith community", in which membership is based more on belief than on rigorous practice, and absolute obedience violates the norms of flexodoxy. By refusing the right of choice and by failing to see value in a sense of belonging rather than in practical effects, Lo is failing to live by Oprah's "rule of life" in its most fundamental sense.

The Chicago Reader story on Lo's project can be read at:

Aaron Curtis is a PhD student in Religion and Literature at the University of Chicago Divinity School.

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

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

McCain's Mudslinging

Continued signs of John McCain's desperation is seen in attempts to raise concerns about Barack Obama's patriotism. First it was charges, which he has refused to disown, that Obama is willing to lose a war to win an election. It makes it sound like Obama's opposition to the war in Iraq is simply craven politics. But Obama has been an outspoken opponent of the war from the very beginning. So how is that playing politics. In 2002 did he decide to oppose the war because he knew it would make him a popular candidate for President in 2008?
Now McCain is making charges without any evidence that Obama dissed wounded vets in Germany (to go to the gym) because he couldn't take reporters and cameras with him. The truth is that Obama chose to forgo that visit because the Pentagon voiced concerns that his aid on the trip was a campaign aid and not a Senate staffer -- and thus a campaign stop. But of course John McCain has decided not to let facts get in the way of his own cravenly political attempts to reach high office.
I once had great respect for John McCain, but that respect is becoming increasingly challenged as this election cycle continues. McCain has engaged in a nasty campaign, and shows no signs of letting up. So much for the civil campaign he once promised.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

On Women's Ordination -- Sightings

One day back Martin Marty addressed the question of Women's ordination in the context of the Roman Catholic Church. The question has come up because of a "debate" between two Catholics, one male and the other female as to whether Rome does and can change -- the male argues that Rome should re-examine it's ban, the woman says no, because Rome doesn't change. Marty wades into the debate carefully, but raises the question -- does Rome change?
That is really part of a larger question, how does the church respond to changing times and mores? The role and place of women in society today is much different than 1000 or 2000 years ago. My own denomination is led by a woman, as are others. There is, of course, another question -- that of the meaning and purpose of ordination, but still the question is: how does the church respond to modernity?


Sightings 7/28/08

On Women's Ordination
-- Martin E. Marty

Robert J. Egan, S. J., of Gonzaga University, started it all (this round) with an article in the April 11 Commonweal, in which he asked whether official Roman Catholics ought to consider reconsidering the Vatican declarations against the ordination of women to the priesthood. In best "fair and balanced" style the editors later gave space (July 18) to Sr. Sara Butler, MSBT, of St. Joseph's Seminary in Yonkers. She draws on her book The Catholic Priesthood and Women (2007), which had helped prompt Egan's response. And, also in the July 18 issue, Father Egan was given another chance. So today's Sightings is a response to a response to a response to a response – almost ad infinitum?
Whether Catholics should change and begin ordination of women is their business, not mine, at least not here and today, though outcomes of Catholic debates do have huge "public religion" consequences. I can only testify to the manifest blessings so many churches, like my own (ELCA), have received during the past half-century from the ministry of women-ordained. My business instead picks up on Egan's closing paragraph, where he argues against Sr. Butler's reversion to and repetition of the claim that Rome does not change. He orthodoxly celebrates the constancy of teachings from Rome. But: "New questions arise, and new horizons open, cultures themselves are transformed, and the fund of human knowledge changes." His article has no room to provide chapter and verse when he lists understandings and teachings in which Rome "has changed dramatically, in ways that could not have been foreseen."
He offers a short list. You could look 'em up: "on slavery, women's inferiority, the divine right of kings, the uses of torture, the status and dignity of the Jewish people, the execution of heretics, the idea of religious liberty, the moral legitimacy of democratic governments, the indispensability of Thomism, the structure of the universe itself." In all these cases, after Catholic change has been virtually total and quickly taken for granted, one is hard put to think back to when it supported slavery, women's inferiority, torture, et cetera, or opposed the items just listed which it now affirms.
Several years ago Maureen Fiedler and Linda Rabbin, editors, corralled eighteen scholars who tracked papal statements which suggest significant revisions and reversals in "understanding and teaching," in Rome Has Spoken. Their authors, for example, tell of "Usury: Once a Sin, Now Good Stewardship." Evolution. Positive views of sexual expression within marriage, changes in scriptural interpretation, ecumenism, and more. Admittedly, the nature and extent of changes on some of these subjects are open to debate and should be debated. But change there certainly has been.
"Religious Freedom" is the change most recognized and experienced by modern publics. Rome Has Spoken quotes a dozen papal prohibitions against religious freedom from 1184 to 1906. Change came suddenly, beginning with Pius XII in 1946, more explicitly with John XXIII in 1963 and then, conciliarly, at the Second Vatican Council in 1965. Just 102 years ago, Pius X was still teaching the following in a papal encyclical: "that the state must be separated from the church is a thesis absolutely false, a most pernicious error…an obvious negation of the supernatural order." "Rome" changed, and admitted it did so – and survived. Globally, it flourishes now most where it had persecuted least.
Maureen Fielder and Linda Rabbin, eds. Rome Has Spoken…: A Guide to Forgotten Papal Statements, and How They Have Changed Through the Centuries. NY: Crossroad Publishing, 1998.
Sr. Butler's Cardinal Cooke Lecture on the subject of women's priesthood is available at
Martin E. Marty's biography, current projects, upcoming events, publications, and contact information can be found at
Sightings comes from the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

After the Gold Rush -- Emmy Lou, Dolly and Linda

Neil Young is a wonderful writer, not such a great singer. So, here's Dolly Parton, Emmy Lou Harris, and Linda Ronstadt offering their cover of Young's "After the Gold Rush." Enjoy!

After the Gold Rush

Okay, here it is! After the Gold Rush, with Neil playing the organ. Can't you imagine Neil as church organist?

My New Organist

One of my first issues to deal with will be hiring an organist/music director. This morning at church in a conversation with a church leader we talked about the merits of hiring Neil Young (we're both Young fans!). He remembered hearing Young play/sing "After the Gold Rush" -- I'm looking for it, but this is a start

So, here's Neil sharing Like a Hurricane with us.

Energy solutions

Several years ago Tom Friedman suggested that Congress raise the gas tax so as to bring the cost of gasoline to $4.00. Prophetically he understood that it would take $4 gasoline to cause Americans to leave behind gas guzzling Hummers, Suburbans, and Expeditions and start driving less and in smaller cars. Now that we've hit the $4 mark it seems he was right. $3 wasn't enough. Gas seems to be declining in price (it's in the high 3.80s around here). Friedman has argued that such a price increase is needed to do two things -- cut our usage in America and encourage the creation of energy alternatives.
Today he writes about an Israeli entrepreneur working on making Israel a totally electric car nation (powered by solar). The other visionary is a Texas oilman that wants to radically expand our use of wind. T. Boone Pickens is investing in 700 turbines for a Texas Panhandle wind farm. Driving across the country this summer we saw lots of land that can be used for either solar or wind. For now we're dependent on oil, but we'll need to quickly free ourselves. By doing so we free ourselves from meddling relationships in the Middle East, become energy self-sufficient and lessen our contributions to global warming. Not a band idea, really.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

A Bellicose McCain

As I posted earlier John McCain has become rather bellicose of late. It is a sign of his own desperation, but it's also a sign of his own attitudes. Joe Klein, who spoke about this on CNN the other night, writes in Time about the same issue. The essay is entitled: "Blowing His Top: McCain's bellicose against-all-enemies foreign policy is collapsing -- and not a moment too soon."

McCain has tried to place himself out front as the experienced leader, the one ready to be commander-in-chief, but as Klein points out his verbiage suggests that he would continue the neo-con foreign policy that has put the USA in such a hole these past 8 years. He's rattled sabers against Iran, Russia, and China (just to name a few). He's made much of the surge, but seems unable to deal with the Iraqi desire to see us gone.

Klein notes that while McCain has been correct on some tactical issues (surge), he's been wrong strategically or doesn't seem to have strategic understandings. He writes:

Neoconservatism in foreign policy is best described as unilateral bellicosity cloaked in the utopian rhetoric of freedom and democracy. McCain hasn't always sided with the neocons — he opposed torture, wants to close down Guantánamo — but his pugnacity seems a natural fit with theirs. He has been militant on Iran, though even there his statements have been tactical rather than strategic: his tactic is not to talk to the bad guys.

And what is his goal for his foreign policy? Klein writes:

His notion of a "League of Democracies" seems a transparent attempt to draw a with-us-or-against-us line in the sand against Russia and China. But that's the point: McCain would place a higher priority on finding new enemies than on cultivating new friends.

I think we're more in need of friends these days than enemies. It was Bush's "us against them" rhetoric that cost us support gained after 9-11. Now, it seems at times that McCain is more inflexible and stuck in a time warp than GW. So, with such verbiage, it should not then surprise us that overseas people prefer Obama to McCain (handily). And perhaps more importantly, will a McCain presidency make us safer or less so?

Pastors and Politics

As anyone can tell who looks closely at the blog, I'm a supporter of Barack Obama. I made the decision to give my public support to Obama some time ago, but chose this medium to do so. I know that I received some criticism for that choice, but that hasn't been a problem with my congregations -- past or present. That is in large part probably due to the fact that I've not made much of that decision in church circles.
The whole issue of church and politics is the topic of several essays in this summer's edition of Congregations (Alban Institute). In one of those essays my friend, Rabbi Arthur Gross Schaefer and I offer some thoughts and guidelines for fruitful conversation between religious folk and the political community. That essay emerged from a presentation Arthur and I gave in June 2007 at a Democratic Party sponsored forum on faith and politics held in Goleta, CA. It is entitled "Faith and Politics: Finding a Way to Have a Fruitful Conversation." In that piece I took and modified ideas I found in Mark Toulouse's book God in Public (WJK, 2006). Arthur provided some important ethical guidelines that may prove helpful. I think you have to subscribe to read, but joining Alban is worth the price.
In another essay I offer my rationale for giving support to a political candidate (I don't name Obama in the article).
As we have seen the whole issue of clergy and political connections has gotten tricky of late -- and we wrote the original piece long before both candidates had their pastor problems!
So, I raise the question again -- should clergy remain neutral/silent when it comes to politics?

Presidential Race Heats Up

Usually the VP candidate is the attack dog, but since John McCain hasn't chosen his yet, he's taken on the role. Barack Obama has been traveling through the Middle East and Europe, largely doing some listening. John McCain dared him to do just that, but now that he's there it's all a campaign stunt. McCain is also dwelling on the surge, which is coming to an end -- suggesting that Obama's opposition to the surge was political calculation and that Obama is willing to lose a war to win an election. The other night David Gergen suggested this had gone beyond the pale and was tantamount to accusing Obama of treason.

Now, from my perspective, watching Obama's trip I've seen someone willing to listen, take cautious positions, and remind people that he's not yet President (there's only one at a time). He's not always taken positions I've agreed with -- I think he's trying to be too pro-Israel, but at least he's more willing to talk to the Palestinians than McCain. That neither side is totally happy suggests that he's on the right track.

The campaign season is still a long ways from completion, but McCain's negative tone suggests that he's worried about Obama's lead. Here in Michigan we're seeing lots of ads, many stressing McCain's imprisonment in North Vietnam. McCain is a war hero, but that doesn't mean he's the best equipped to be President.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Challenges of Change

Sunday I'm preaching a sermon entitled "Bursting the Wine skins." The text I'm using is Luke 5:33-39. That is the parable of the wine skins. In this parable, which follows a discussion of why Jesus and his disciples don't fast, Jesus suggests that with the coming of new wine (his ministry presumably) there will be a need to create new wine skins. I'm using the sermon to address the prospects of change in the church. Now, I know that pastors aren't supposed to make any changes in a church for the first year. Just listen and learn. But sometimes changes can't wait. The question then is how and when.
Before coming here to Troy I took part in an Alban Institute seminar led by Gil Rendle that dealt with change. Gil helped us understand the nature of change and the reality of resistance that will be present. He helped us understand that you often have to make changes without having everyone on board. Normally, he says, about 20% of the congregation will support change, 20% will resist, leaving about 60% up for grabs. As agents of transformation, our job is to focus on the 60% rather than try to convince the 20% who are against any real change. Rendle talks about this in an article I found online -- and in that article, as in his presentation to us, he mentions the need for pain before change is possible. That is, a system must feel pain before it is ready to change. My sense is that my congregation has been experiencing pain for some time, and due to that pain most of the congregation is at least ready to consider doing a new thing.
The hard thing to do is leave someone behind. We always hop that we can bring everyone along, but as Rendle notes and Will Willimon concurs, that's not always possible. The key is allowing that 60% group the opportunity of feeling good about change -- in their own time. Of course we tend to be impatient, especially if we feel that change is necessary. But it will be important to bring along people so they'll join in. Most important of all, and I think this is Jesus' point, we must be ready to move in the power and presence of the Spirit! As leaders we must both listen and be ready to follow the Spirit.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Open Letter to Religious Leaders on Marriage Equality

I ran across the following at John Shuck's blog -- Shuck and Jive. It's an open letter that deals directly with the issue of marriage equality -- and more specifically of including gays and lesbians in the bonds of marriage. It was written and posted by the Religious Institute on Sexual Morality, Justice, and Healing. I have read the I read through the letter and found it compelling. It's a call to support the extension of civil marriage to gays and lesbians while at the same time recognizing that religious communities have the right to decide how they will bless marriages. I think this is a fair and compassionate statement, one that I have chosen to sign.

As religious leaders, we are committed to promoting the well-being and moral and spiritual integrity of persons and society. Today, we are called to join the public discussion about marriage equality. There are strong civil liberties arguments for ending the exclusion of same-sex couples from the legal institution of marriage. Here we invite you to consider religious foundations for securing the freedom to marry for same-sex couples. Marriage equality is about more than gaining equal access to the legal protections and responsibilities of marriage. It raises fundamental questions about justice and power, intimate relationships, sexuality and gender, respect for diverse families, and the role of religion as well as the state in these matters.
Our religious traditions celebrate that humans are created in and for relationship and that sexuality is God’s life-giving and life-fulfilling gift. We affirm the dignity and worth of all persons and recognize sexual difference as a blessed part of our endowment. There can be no justification for discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. As religious leaders, we believe that all persons have the right to lead lives that express love, justice, mutuality, commitment, consent and pleasure, including but not limited to civil and religious marriage.
From a religious perspective, marriage is about entering into a holy covenant and making a commitment with another person to share life’s joys and sorrows. Marriage is valued because it creates stable, committed relationships; provides a means to share economic resources; and nurtures the individual, the couple, and children. Good marriages benefit the community and express the religious values of long-term commitment, generativity, and faithfulness. In terms of these religious values, there is no difference in marriages between a man and a woman, two men, or two women. Moreover, as our traditions affirm, where there is love, the sacred is in our midst.
Marriage is an evolving civil and religious institution. In the past, marriage was primarily about property and procreation whereas today the emphasis is on egalitarian partnership, companionship, and love. In the past, neither the state nor most religions recognized divorce and remarriage, interracial marriage, or the equality of the marriage partners. These understandings changed, and rightly so, in greater recognition of the humanity of persons and their moral and civil rights. Today, we are called to embrace another change, this time the freedom of same-sex couples to marry.
The biblical call to justice and compassion (love neighbor as self) provides the mandate for marriage equality. Justice as right relationship seeks both personal and communal well-being. It is embodied in interpersonal relationships and institutional structures, including marriage. Justice seeks to eliminate marginalization for reasons of race, gender, sexual orientation, or economic status.We find support for marriage equality in scripture and tradition in their overriding messages about love, justice, and inclusion of the marginalized. Even so, we cannot rely exclusively on scripture for understanding marriage today. For example, biblical texts that encourage celibacy, forbid divorce, or require women to be subservient to their husbands are no longer authoritative. At the same time, there are also many biblical models for blessed relationships beyond one man and one woman. Indeed, scripture neither commends a single marriage model nor commands all to marry, but rather calls for love and justice in all relationships.
In our nation, families take many forms. All families should be supported in building stable, empowering, and respectful relationships. Marriage equality is a means to strengthen families and is especially beneficial to children raised by same-sex couples. The state should not deny same-sex couples access to civil marriage. Many such couples are in long-term committed relationships and yet remain without legal and, in many cases, religious recognition. Conversely, because the emotional and spiritual bond of marriage is precious, the state should not compel anyone to marry (e.g., in order to qualify for public assistance).
The United States is one of the most diverse religious countries in the world. No single religious voice can speak for all traditions on issues of sexuality and marriage, nor should government take sides on religious differences. Therefore, religious groups must have the right to discern who is eligible for marriage in their own tradition. In addition, all clergy should be free to solemnize marriages without state interference. We also note that many religious traditions already perform marriages and unions for same-sex couples. We call on the state neither to recognize only certain religious marriages as legal nor to penalize those who choose not to marry. The benefits and protections offered by the state to individuals and families should be available according to need, not marital status. The best way to protect our nation’s precious religious freedom is to respect the separation of church and state when it comes to equality under the law.
We call on religious and civic leaders to promote good marriages based on responsibility, equity, and love, without restrictions based on the biological sex, procreative potential, or sexual orientation of the partners.
Good marriages:
  • are committed to the mutual care and fulfillment of both partners
  • increase the capacity of the individuals to contribute to the common good
  • assure that all children are wanted, loved, and nurtured
  • are free of threats, violence, exploitation, and intimidation.


The faiths we affirm challenge us to speak and act for justice for all who seek to express their love in the commitment of marriage. Some people of faith differ with us; others may be undecided. To each and all, we reach out and seek to promote what is best for individuals, couples, families, children, and society. Our commitment is not only for the legal rights of some, but relational justice for all.

Fundamentalism in Europe -- Sightings

I'm a bit behind in my postings, but Martin Marty's Sighting's piece from Monday needs to be read. He is an important observer of religious trends and knows "at least a little" about Fundamentalism. Marty is off, he says, to the 10th International Bonhoeffer Congress, which will be dealing with Fundamentalism. Marty is concerned with how the term is being used pejoratively and to lump all things conservative into one grouping, something he finds very unhelpful. Take a look -- I tend to agree with his analysis.


Sightings 7/21/08

Fundamentalism in Europe
-- Martin E. Marty

Off to Prague this week for the Tenth International (Dietrich) Bonhoeffer Congress, to present a synoptic view of fundamentalism(s). The conferees are probing ways in which the life and record of the theologian put to death by the Nazis in the last month of the European War (1945) can illumine life between and beyond "Fundamentalism and Secularism." To prepare, I revisited Fundamentalisms Observed (University of Chicago, 1991), the first of five volumes, 3073 pages -- I counted and added -- by about one hundred scholars. These volumes are regarded as standard in reference libraries globally. R. Scott Appleby, my partner in leading the venture for the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, pursues the subject at the University of Notre Dame. I've wandered off, but still drop in on the subject about which he and I say, "Too bad we're still relevant"

To the point of treating the subject at an International Congress: Twenty-one years ago when we initiated conferences and planned the edited volumes, Europe was virtually absent from our screen. Now, scholars from numerous European nations are presenting papers and discussing the subject. Why were there so few references back in 1991, and why is there such interest now? The simple answer is that all our scholars, from many faiths and disciplines, agreed that the word "fundamentalism" differs from its cousins, "conservatism," "orthodoxy," et cetera. It is always reactive. Members of a religious body or a religiously-informed culture that is already vital and "traditional" have to feel that the threats of modernity, relativism, pluralism, and theological challenge are so drastic that newly-named (in 1920) fundamentalists must react, must "do battle."

Back in 1987 we did not find enough vital religion in state-church-dominated Europe to find reactors. We did finally agree to include Communione e Liberazione, a fundamentalist-like Italian movement. It is hard to be a fundamentalist in Catholicism, because Catholicism teaches "development of doctrine," which means that, even where it is ultra-traditionalist, it has to recognize the potential for such development. That notion is lethal in the minds of fundamentalists, who need everything nailed down absolutely.
Reading on the subject in recent months, I did not lack references to Islamic fundamentalism, which is indisputably present in Western Europe, where non-Muslims and more moderate Muslims are reacting against the reactors. What I did discover on Western European web-sites and in publications is that, absent large-scale Protestant and clear-style Catholic fundamentalism, more and more commentators are stretching the meaning of the word. They apply it wherever staunch conservatism links with political power and threatens liberal polities and policies.

So one will read that causes and governments which oppose feminism and women's or homosexuals' rights in the name of God and citing sacred texts, get labeled "fundamentalist." We who were part of The Fundamentalism Project were not chartered to run around with "Fundamentalism Present" or "Keep Off the Grounds" labels. Still, confusion results, I am contending at Prague, if the term is always used pejoratively and polemically to cluster everyone, especially the religious, whom one does not like. There are real threats out there, without question, but we do societies no service if we lump all movements to the Right together, homogenize them, and mis-label some of them. Dealing honestly with others and carefully with labels are positive ways to react. Then, again, the European colleagues may instruct me otherwise.

Martin E. Marty's biography, current projects, upcoming events, publications, and contact information can be found at
Sightings comes from the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Saying Goodbye to Santa Barbara

On the final evening living in Santa Barbara, Cheryl and I joined another couple for dinner at the Santa Barbara Harbor. It was a gorgeous evening, one to remember. So, here's one last goodbye to our old stomping grounds!

Gay Marriage -- the future beckons?

I'm no longer living in California, so I won't have an opportunity to cast my ballot regarding Prop. 8, a bill that would institute a constitutional amendment limiting marriage to a man and a woman. This bill is similar in nature to another one passed in 2000 (Prop 22), a measure that limited marriage to a man and a woman, but did so as simply a statute, not a constitutional amendment. That effort passe with 61% of the vote.

A recent poll reported on in the LA Times suggests that things have changed in 8 years. Now a slim majority (51%) in a recent Field Poll would vote against the measure. In part that might because of changes in perspective and also because this is a constitutional amendment, and people are less eager to change the constitution. Whatever the case, it is quite possible that the California Supreme Court decision throwing out the earlier vote will stand allowing thousands of gays and lesbians to be legally wed.

The question that stands before us then is this: Is this an anomaly or is it suggestive of what might be around the corner, that we as a culture have come to accept (at least to a degree) homosexuality as a natural part of the community? Certainly there is plenty of opposition and even persecution, but has the tide turned? If so what does that mean?

On this issue the church will not be out front. We will hold back, waiting in part for generational changes of leadership. But looking out over the horizon, I believe that things are changing, and probably quicker than many thought possible.

Friday, July 18, 2008

When Mountain Top Experiences are Few

Last Sunday I preached a sermon, one that was in part autobiographical. In it I noted four mountain top experiences that have helped form me. I did so in order to help my new congregation understand where I'm coming from. I mentioned my wedding, the birth of our son, my ordination, and the receipt of my Ph.D. These four events mark me, so I told the congregation, as Husband, Father (Parent), Pastor and Scholar.

By any stretch of the imagination these are positive markers. Cheryl and I have been married 25 years, our son graduated from high school and is set to go to college, I have been a pastor for the past 10 years (not all of which have been positive years), and have become a scholar of the church.

The question was raised, but what if the mountain top experiences are few or even not present? In what way has God spoken? What if the spiritual experiences have been more the dark night of the soul than the highly ecstatic moments on the mountain. What if the experiences have been more the cross than the mount of Transfiguration, more watching the people of God reject your leadership than standing before God on Mount Sinai receiving tablets of the Law?

In other words, might my presentation have been stronger if I had noted the difficult times as well as the high marks? What if I had shared the great angst I felt after losing my position as a theology professor -- after all I had thought myself called to the academic life and it had taken 4 years to get to that point -- or the deep sense 0f failure I had felt after having to resign from my first pastorate? Indeed, I could go back to the termination of my youth ministry years before. Had God spoken in these moments? Were not these moments of great despair and disappointment equally forming of who I am today? If I'm honest, I have to say yes they were. Perhaps they were even more important to my eventual calling as pastor of this congregation that I serve today. But we would rather highlight the positive points than the negatives, but often it is the thorns in the flesh that lead us close to God, and allow us to hear God's voice.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Left Behind or Left in Cyberspace? -- Sightings

Beginning with a reflection on a new web site capitalizing on belief in the rapture -- you can send e-mails after the rapture to friends and loved ones you don't think will make it -- Noreen Herzfeld reflects on the value and disadvantages of cyber-religion. We have become more and more connected through cyber space, but does this replace face to face connections? That is the question for today.


Sightings 7/17/08

Left Behind or Left in Cyberspace?
-- Noreen Herzfeld

As a teenager, when a friend first told me about the rapture, in which Christians will be miraculously transported to heaven while sinners remain on earth to suffer a variety of tribulations, I was quite sure that, sinner that I was, I was destined to be the one member of my family and friends who would surely be "left behind." My psychology teacher later assured me that considering oneself the "chief of sinners," as the apostle Paul did, was a normal response, since we each know our own peccadilloes far more intimately than we know those of others. Apparently, however, not everyone shares this proclivity. For forty dollars a year, those who are relatively assured of their own salvation can now leave a final e-mail to less fortunate loved ones who might be left behind during the rapture. A new web site,, allows users to compose a final message that will be sent to up to sixty-two recipients, six days after the rapture occurs. These messages might be used to pass on information, such as bank account numbers and passwords, but the site stresses the opportunity to leave a letter begging those who remain to accept Christ, a last chance with one's loved ones to "snatch them from the flames."

This raises a host of questions, both practical and religious. Is it safe to store sensitive financial information on such a website (answer: no)? Would the web still function after the rapture? Why not play it safe, save the forty dollars, and simply leave a stack of letters on your desk? is one of the latest attempts to market religion in cyberspace. Sites abound hawking a variety of religious books and wares. Beyond the crassly commercial, there are web sites for a wide variety of religious faiths and denominations where one can access religious texts, share experiences and prayer requests, initiate new spiritual friendships, or engage in ecumenical dialogue. As a resource for finding a quick answer to a religious question, the Internet is unbeatable. Web cams let one make a virtual pilgrimage to Mecca, the Wailing Wall, or Chartres Cathedral. Avatars in Second Life build virtual churches and synagogues and participate in religious rituals with one another. Each of these draws on the strength of the Internet as a medium that overcomes distance or physical limitations. The computer enlarges the neighborhood, giving opportunities to connect with or learn from a wide variety of people and traditions.

However, what computer technology gives to religion in terms of speed and broader access, it takes away through lack of physical presence. The sacramentality of the Christian faith, for one, calls us to move away from our keyboards and into the real world. In this world we cannot dismiss those with whom we disagree with the click of a mouse. We are asked to taste and feel and smell the world around us in its elemental richness. We learn what is, not what we wish were. Cyberspace is, in the end, an ambiguous place. We do not know if people in chat rooms are who they say they are. We do not know if an e-mail will really get forwarded on. As philosopher Albert Borgmann points out, "ambiguity is resolved through engagement with an existing reality, with the wilderness we are disagreed about, the urban life we are unsure of, or the people we do not understand." Computer applications may seem like a simpler alternative, but they are rarely as satisfying as the real thing.

So I think I'll save the forty dollars. A sealed envelope in my desk and power of attorney documents will cover my much more likely demise from natural causes. And as for worrying about myself or others being "left behind," Jesus' promise that "I will never leave you nor forsake you" is far more reassuring than any web site.

Noreen Herzfeld is professor of Theology and Computer Science at St. John's University, Collegeville MN.


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

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Theocracy in America?

Untold numbers of books and articles have been written of late concerning the threat to American life by the Religious Right and other purveyor’s of theocracy. We’ve been warned that if these groups have their way, America won’t look much different from Iran or even Saudi Arabia. If they get their way they’ll institute Levitical law, which if you look closely seems to resemble Sharia. That there are advocates of religious extremism is quite evident, but the likelihood of a Christian Fundamentalist takeover of American political life is probably far fetched.

The popular faces of theocratic tendencies have been folk like James Dobson, Pat Robertson, and the late Jerry Falwell and the equally dead James D. Kennedy. In their writings and in their pronouncements they have railed against the spread of secularism and have called forth legions of Christians to make their voices and votes felt in transforming America. It’s nothing new, of course, back in the 1970’s there were movements that called for taking America for Jesus, but things seem to have gotten farther along in recent years, at least until recently.

When it comes to theocracy, the aforementioned preachers and psychologist (Dobson is psychologist not preacher) aren’t the intellectual founders of the theocratic voice. The person often pointed to as the foundation stone of the movement is an Armenian Orthodox Presbyterian pastor named Rousas John Rushdoony. Rushdoony has since passed on, but over the years he issued a series of books, pamphlets, articles, speeches, and more that offered a vision of American life that is at points quite scary. The question is: who is he and what is his message? Beyond that, what influence does he have on American religious and political life?

I’m neither expert on Rushdoony or the movements that are linked to him – movements that go by such names as Theonomy (divine law), Christian Reconstructionism, and Dominionism – but a Yale University doctoral candidate named Molly Worthen appears to be. In an article published in the June 2008 issue of Church History entitled: “The Chalcedon Problem: Rousas John Rushdoony and the Origins of Christian Reconstructionism” (pp. 299-437) wrestles with the issue of theocracy and Rushdoony’s influence. She makes clear that most of the interpreters of the movement and of Rushdoony have misunderstood and misinterpreted him. She also points out that folk like Robertson make for strange bed fellows with Rushdoony, who is a rigid Calvinist and post-millennialist. Robertson and ilk tend to be pre-millennialist, believing that Christ will return soon in connection with Armageddon. Rushdoony’s program will take much longer and assumes that the church will take dominion of society in preparation for Christ’s return.

What is important to note from Worthen’s interpretation is Rushdoony’s strong distrust of government. He’s a libertarian and could even be considered tribalistic (my words not hers). He believes that biblical law should be instituted, but likely by communities not by something large like the US government. He’s well educated but has a strong distrust in human reason. All of this stems from his Calvinism and embrace of the doctrine of total depravity. It is also rooted in his interpretation of Chalcedon – whereby he sees in the separation of the 2 natures of Christ a strong distinction between the divine and the human.

Rushdoony’s agenda is radical – but of course he’s no longer alive. He has, according to Worthen influenced numerous movements, but they have made their own adaptations of his views. Worthen has written an excellent examination of Rushdoony, his views, and his legacy. She points out his numerous weaknesses, but tries to set him in context. What she wants us to do is look a bit deeper and see what caused this to occur. She writes:

Believing Christians and secular observers alike have the responsibility to see Christian reconstructionism for what it is: a diagnosis of an acute illness in American religious culture, a strain of virulent intolerance that has been mistaken for intellectual consistency. But we can reject Rushdoony’s proposed solution while still granting that the crisis was real. (p. 436)

She also suggests that we consider his basic premise:

“(T)hat we moderns are guilty of the heresies condemned in the fifth century at Chalcedon: we blur human and divine and worship man and his creations. This argument, too often lost in the shadows of his provocative proposals for social change, is the crux of his value for today’s readers. (p. 437)

I found Worthen’s article provocative and thoughtful. I’m not convinced that Rushdoony or his acolytes have the right prescription for American life, but we are best served when understand where a movement is coming from.

I welcome the thoughts of others as to the essay and the movement. Do I find him problematic? Yes. Are we in danger of theocracy? Probably not.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Gun-toting Evangelism

I've heard of shot gun weddings and I've heard of Popsicle evangelism, but I've never heard of a church using an assault rifle give away as a way of enticing teenagers to attend a youth conference, but apparently that's what was going to happen at an Oklahoma Baptist Church --Windsor Hills Baptist Church to be specific.

News is that the offer has been canceled -- along apparently with the shooting contest -- due to the fact that retired pastor who was going to lead it got injured. But apparently the give away has just been postponed until next year.

Now, I'm not sure how giving away an $800 assault rifle is a good evangelism ploy. I'm not sure what it has to do with the gospel -- indeed, I'm not sure Jesus would approve. Indeed, it sounds more like American nationalism than the gospel of Jesus Christ, the guy who gave the Sermon on the Mount for example, you know the one who talked about peace makers being blessed by God.

Thanks to Scott Paeth for the tip.

Peacemaking -- Sightings

Peacemaking is an oft under appreciated calling. It requires a patience and a sense of vision few of us have. Religious folk are often blamed for inciting violence around the world (and Mark Juergensmeyer's Terror in the Mind of God offers good evidence for this tendency), but religious people can also be central to the cause of making peace. As Martin Marty shows us today, writers for The Economist seem to think religious folk just might be best equipped for this job.

Sightings 7/14/08

-- Martin E. Marty

The Economist's (July 5) long headline talks about "Mediation and Faith: Not a Sword, but Peace." The subtitle notes that "In some cases, only the religious have the patience to be reconcilers." The anonymous editors include a couple of cautionary notes, but in the main the story is surprisingly appreciative. It provides "the text for our meditation" this week.

"Public religion," usually sighted hereabouts on local and national scales, has global settings as well. While the world press gets better all the time at reckoning with the role of religion in global affairs, the religious efforts to work on reconciliation and peacemaking often draw slight notice from editors and columnists. Often when they do take up the subject they sneer. Religious mediators get portrayed as naïve, amateurish, foolishly idealistic, and often in the way. Many professional diplomats, who do not have impressive records at bringing about peace and reconciliation, dismiss faith-based efforts and sometimes wish all Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, and other faiths which nurture peacemakers would bring their agents home, and let the killings go on.

Most religious peacemakers whom we know do have respect for professional and secular diplomats, but see their own work as pioneering, bridge-building, conversation-starting efforts to prevent conflict, and picking-up-the-pieces endeavors when the killing stops. Americans witnessed samples of the post-killing endeavors after World War II, where the Marshall Plan was complemented by church efforts. Bishop Desmond Tutu and the Peace and Reconciliation efforts in South Africa offer another example.

Let it also be noticed that if religious groups were to produce no peacemakers, no adventurers across the boundaries of hate, they would fail in their own missions. The first emphasis in most sacred scriptures is on the last things, namely visions of a kingdom of peace, a paradise, a sphere of reconciliation. Let it also be observed that in many cases the chief critics of the peacemakers are hawks who share the faith and the country but not the vision of the prophecies and revelation.
The Economist is a news magazine, so it discusses recent events, not philosophy. Singled out are, among others, the Sant'Egidio community, which now has 60,000 members in seventy countries; the Netherlands Institute of International Relations; the Search for Common Ground; and more. We learn that such groups are at their best in the hardest cases, meaning those in which combating groups are moved by religious impulses. Sharon Rosen of Search for Common Ground says, "I do not believe that inter-faith dialogue will bring about peace in the Middle East, but I do believe that it is essential if peace is to be brought about. To ignore religion is a very grave mistake" and, for example, "the Oslo accords made that mistake."

One partial downside: Sometimes (and, wouldn't you know, evangelicals are singled out here) some groups accompany their diplomatic missions towards other religions with efforts to evangelize. Overall, however, evangelicals share good intentions and some achievements in what the magazine calls "a crowded sector, that of faith-based peacemaking." In a world given to suspicion, sometimes well-founded, and cynicism, always destructive, it is nice to see corners of the media world which would replace the sneering section not with a cheering section, but with a give-peace-a-chance view from the sidelines.

Martin E. Marty's biography, current projects, upcoming events, publications, and contact information can be found at
Sightings comes from the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School

Politics Keeps Rolling On

I'm just beginning to catch up with all the news. And from the looks of things, things don't change. Surrogates say things they shouldn't and candidates must repudiate them. There's a magazine cover -- The New Yorker -- that apparently is trying to deal with the politics of fear, but it's cover -- Michelle as a gun-toting Black nationalist and Obama as Muslim, with the American flag burning in the fire place -- isn't going over very well.
Not much new really, just the same old stuff. Obama and McCain are still finding their footing. There's restlessness in the base, concern about direction. Both candidates have a image as "different kind of politicians." When they play politics, which they must do to win, the pundits accuse them of hypocrisy. Politics is, by its very nature, the art of compromise. That's why fringe candidates like Ron Paul or Dennis Kucinich won't win, they stand at the edges of their parties and don't budge. Obama is supposedly the most liberal member of the Senate and yet the Left fringe is attacking him for moving to the center. But, how else does he win. I might not agree with some of his positions -- such as FISA -- but overall he represents the best opportunity for change.
The good news is that Arnie the "Governator" has expressed willingness to be part of an Obama administration (even if he's endorsing McCain). Interesting! It might be a great idea.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

On Patriotism -- Sightings

What is patriotism? That is the question that Martin Marty considered in last Monday's edition of Sightings. I didn't get around to posting it until now, but I think that it's worth considering. It talks about the case of clergy prevented from preaching during WWI because they were foreigners and considered seditious. So what qualifies as nationalism? Patriotism? Sedition? Continue reading.


Sightings 7/7/08

On Patriotism
-- Martin E. Marty

Ninety years ago this Fourth of July weekend, the City Council of West Point, Nebraska passed a resolution that citizens were not to hold "assemblages not in sympathy with the war" or to distribute literature "out of harmony with the war," that is, World War I. On April 19, 1918 the local paper reported that three Catholic priests and one Lutheran minister "were not permitted to preach last Sunday," because they violated Nebraska's Sedition Law. "No alien enemy may act in the capacity of preacher…without having first filed an application in district court…The applicant must show when he came to this country, what places he has been, what steps taken toward completing naturalization and what contributions he has made toward winning the war."

Fathers Grobbel, Roth, and Brasch and Pastor Mangelsdorf, not yet citizens, "appeared in court the next week. Each stated his sympathy to the American cause and stated they were in the process of becoming citizens. They were granted licenses to preach...Area residents who had not completed all necessary paperwork to become U.S. citizens fell into the category of possible enemy aliens." A woman accused of being unpatriotic "denied the charges and mentioned her husband had purchased Liberty Bonds and that she had donated to the Red Cross." A new and prize-winning history of West Point adds: "The case came to an end when the armistice was signed in November."

I came across this while doing research before speaking at my natal town, West Point, for its one hundred and fiftieth anniversary last weekend. The Sedition Law was passed in a fit of anti-German sentiment and violence during the War. The story of anti-German-language legislation in Oregon, Nebraska, and elsewhere is familiar, and there were thousands of West Points where scenes like those just described were common. Things have quieted. Today the town (of three thousand plus people) is 87.2 percent White Non-Hispanic (and 12 percent Hispanic), and still numbers 54.2 percent citizens of German ancestry, along with 5.5 percent of Czech and 4.6 percent of Swedish descent. Germans there are obviously safe and prospering. So why bring up this history here and now?

Independence Day Weekend provides occasion, among those who care, not only to barbecue, watch fireworks, wave flags, and watch parades—I did three of the four, so I should qualify as 75 percent patriotic—but also to review our history and reflect on it. This item about wartime hysteria, the impulse to be suspicious and fearful and hence macho about "true Americanism", is matched in numberless American stories. It is almost embarrassing to place anti-German madness during World War I in a context of ferocious hostility against Native Americans, African-Americans, and Asians (recalling the concentration camps our government set up for every Japanese-American we could catch) but sometimes milder cases illumine the more extreme ones.

Why pick at the old scabs? Answer: Because in this long, long war suspicion is raised again, this time against Arab-Americans, profiled potential terrorists, anyone and anything Muslim. If we would learn from history, we might have fewer instances of harassment and embarrassment shown to those who do not appear to be quite like "us", the patriots, who are inconveniencing ourselves so much—tell us how!—to "win" the war against terror. But I don't want to conclude that way. Noticing how relatively at peace our West Points and many big communities are, how ready the majority of Americans are to tell poll-takers that they are not religiously and racially prejudiced, we do have cause to celebrate, without, I think, needing licenses to preach. Yet God bless America.

Martin E. Marty's biography, current projects, upcoming events, publications, and contact information can be found at
Sightings comes from the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School.

Politically Unawares

I am a political junkie. I've been following the election closely, wrote numerous postings on the comings and goings of the candidates, and even gave my endorsement to Barack Obama. But, since I've been moving from California to Michigan (where Obama can count on 3 more votes), I've not been able to keep tabs on what's happening politically.

From what I can gather, things remain close, with Obama leading McCain. Neither candidate has chosen a running mate. Obama has moved to the center on a number of issues (a typical tactic in a general election) and McCain has generally tacked to the right. Liberal activists are upset with Obama, but would they abandon him? Obama seems to be leading in most of the key battleground states, but there's a long time between now and then. It appears that some Clintonites aren't ready to forgive and forget. Oh, and the press still seems enamored with McCain.

But that analysis largely comes from skimming the headlines. I hope to catch up soon, but I've got to focus on guiding a congregation into a new era of its life! Still, I am a political junkie!

Reflecting on a first Sunday

Today was the day. They say you can never overcome first impressions -- and so from the looks and sounds of things, things went well! I'm very excited about beginning my new ministry at Central Woodward. We have lots of work ahead. We must balance our work on growing the congregation with our service to others. We must discern our core values so as to move forward with our work as God's people. We must also focus our hearts on mind toward God in prayer and meditation. That being said, I can say, now several hours later, that we got off to a rousing start!

We've been here a week. Most of the furniture is in place, the books in the shelves, etc. But the fun is just about to begin. So, pray for us -- the Cornwalls and Central Woodward Christian Church. Pray that we might discern what it means for us to be missional.

Good things are ahead, I can sense that. We are moving out of the wilderness and into the promised land!

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Marked for Service

I thought I might post my sermon I'll be giving tomorrow at Central Woodward Christian Church of Troy, MI. It will be my first at this new congregation. This morning I met for the first time with the Elders and we began sharing the dreams for the coming months and years. But for now, share in this message, which can also be found at my sermon blog -- Words of Welcome.
Matthew 17:1-9

We’ve all had life defining experiences. They may not be Damascus Road, Mt. Sinai, or the Mount of Transfiguration types of experiences, but whatever they might have been, they helped define our lives and transform us into the persons we are today. If we look back on them, even years later, we can remember the event vividly.

There are historical and public events that define us – events like Pearl Harbor, the assassination of Martin Luther King, or 9-11. These events define generations and eras. Those of you who grew up during World War II see things differently than we who grew up during Vietnam or the first Gulf War. Because they’re public events, we share them with the multitudes, and so even strangers can find a connection through them. There are also very personal events that mark us as individuals. We may share these events with a few people, but the circle is much smaller and deeply personal. I’m talking about events like a marriage, a birth, a divorce, a death, a graduation. If we’re willing to listen closely I think we can hear in these events the voice of God calling out to us. What we hear is God making a claim on our lives.

1. Personal Markings

Because this is my first Sunday and my first sermon as pastor of Central Woodward Christian Church I wanted to say something autobiographical. I wanted to share with you a couple of events in my life that define me and have shaped me into the person I am today. I could have chosen other events, perhaps events that seem more spiritual, but these are the ones that reveal my identity as a person. In sharing these events, I assume things like my confession of faith and my baptism – they are the foundation upon which these are built.

The first date is July 9, 1983. That was the day 25 years ago, that Cheryl walked down the aisle in her white lace wedding dress and joined me at the altar in marriage. I can say that I was truly enraptured that day by her beauty, and as I stood there at the altar hands in hands, my life was changed forever. We celebrated the 25th Anniversary of that event this past Wednesday with a visit to a furniture store and then Starbucks!

The second date is June 9, 1985. On that warm Sunday evening hands were laid upon me, ordaining me to the ministry of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). Although I didn’t anticipate being a pastor at that point, it was this event that gave direction to my life work. It would be 15 more years before I heard the call to be a pastor, and even then I wasn’t sure, but God had long before placed a mark on my life.

The third event came during the evening of April 3, 1990. I won’t go into the details, but that was the day, 18 years ago, that Brett was born. Up until the very moment of his birth I wasn’t sure whether I was ready to be a parent – and I was already 32 years old! But when the nurse placed him in my arms for the first time, I was so enthralled that a sense of confidence replaced the fear I had felt. Of course, that was only the beginning, and other fears would set in over time, but for the moment I sensed God’s calling and I was transformed.

The final date is June 15, 1991. On that day I received my Ph.D. It was the culmination of many years of study, but in receiving that degree I sensed God’s call to be a scholar in the service of God’s kingdom.

Each of these events has marked me for service -- as a husband, a father, a pastor, and a scholar. They are markers of God’s grace and they helped mold me into the person I am today. What is true for me is also true for you. Your markers might be different, but God has placed a claim on your life as well.

2. Mountain Top Experiences
We call these kinds of life events mountain top experiences. This metaphor has deep roots in human experience. There’s something mysterious even mystical about standing on the top of a mountain. It can be the view or may be the thinness of the air, but for some reason you feel closer to God. We call these thin places, because the boundary between God and us seems much thinner up on the mountain.

Ancient peoples, including biblical people, understood the spiritual power of the mountain. In our text this morning we see Jesus going to the mountain. Moses went to the mountain, as did Abraham. We still talk about God being in the heavens – up there above us. This need to go to the mountains was so strong that some people built artificial mountains if they lived too far from real ones. Just think about the ziggurats of Mesopotamia or the pyramids of Egypt, Mexico, and Central America. The story of the Tower of Babel is a good reminder of this need to get close to the heavens – though in the case of Babel, the people wanted to draw close to God on their own terms.

When Jesus went to the mountain he was transfigured. The scriptures say that his countenance changed and he heard God’s call on his life. Like Moses before him, he became a new person. Moses became the Law Giver and Jesus the Redeemer of humanity.

3. Experiencing Transformation

I told you a little of my story, but each of us has our own story to tell. These are the events that marked me for service, but you have also been marked for service. Some of the markings might be similar to mine, but others will be quite different. In this we’re all much like Moses, Paul, and Jesus – we’ve been to the mountain top and we’re not the same because of it.

As important as these defining moments are, we also need to experience God’s transforming grace as we live our lives on the valley floor. Remember both Jesus and Moses had to return home. While there are many ways that we can experience God’s grace, let me suggest just a few for your thoughts.
  • In Prayer and Worship
Time spent regularly in prayer and in worship is one of the most important aspects of living faithfully on the valley floor. This can happen privately or corporately; in church, on a retreat, or in the bedroom. Even if our experiences aren’t dramatic, God’s grace and love washes over us, empowering us for service. And, it’s important to remember that each of us will experience God’s presence differently. For some it will be a song and for others the Lord’s Table; it could be a sermon or maybe a prayer simply spoken; whatever it is, we hear God speak to us. Whatever it might be, that moment will be unique to the individual.
  • Service
Worship and prayer is about being – being in the presence of God. But the Christian life is about more than being, it also involves doing. God can and is encountered not only in our worship and prayer; God is also present in our doing.

God was just as present with Moses and Jesus when they got to the valley floor and had to deal with the mundane issues of life. After Moses came down from the mountain he found the people in rebellion. Jesus found his disciples struggling with a botched healing. As glorious as the mountain top experiences might be, they had work to do, and so do we.
In the coming months we will be being and doing. We will stop and listen closely for the voice of God in our prayer and worship, but we’ll also be working on any number of projects. The important thing is to keep things in balance and in perspective.
And what will we be doing? That’s to be determined. It might be serving a meal to the homeless or tutoring a child. It could involve driving an older person to the doctor or sitting with someone in great pain. Maybe we’ll be building a home or advocating for peace and justice in our world. And as Brother Lawrence discovered, as we do these things we’ll “practice the presence of God.” As we do these things our lives will be changed.

Let us then, go to the mountain top and experience the enrapturing presence of God and then return to the valley refreshed, empowered, transfigured and marked for service to the kingdom of God.

Preached by:
Rev. Dr. Robert D. Cornwall
Pastor, Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, Michigan
July 13, 2008

Thursday, July 10, 2008

The Economy of Relics -- Sightings

There is something mystical about what the Catholics call relics. But relics can be more than something related to a religious figure. Indeed, Topps is offering presidential relics -- sun glasses worn by Woodrow Wilson.
Spencer Dew ruminates on the economics of relics, whether sacred or not in today's edition of Sightings.


Sightings 7/10/08

The Economy of Relics
-- Spencer Dew

The most discussed aspect of this month's release of baseball card company Topps' "Triple Threads Baseball" series is, in fact, not related to baseball at all. Inserted in a single pack of baseball cards will be a "relic" of President Woodrow Wilson, a so-called "book" card – actually two cards together, which open like a book – wherein will be embedded a pair of sunglasses owned (and presumably worn) by the president. You can hold the card up to your face and look through it, seeing, as one release says, "what President Wilson saw." It is a unique card, or, in collector's jargon, "a one of one."

Topps will release a variety of other Presidential cards as part of the baseball series, including those boasting the presence not only of autographs but also "DNA," as in an actual hair from George Washington. Such cards, along with those that include more conventional, sport-themed items such as swatches of "game-used" jerseys, mitt pieces, or bits of pads, are marketed as "relic cards," and indeed, the economy generated by their creation and circulation is quite similar to – and therefore can offer us a revealing "sight" on – that of relics in more traditional religious contexts.

John Calvin once remarked that there were enough splinters and fragments of the True Cross for sale in the world that, if collected, one could build a ship from them. The core of his critique is both that authenticity can become a dubious category and that there is a risk in the proliferation of relics for profit. A relic may have no intrinsic value until it is offered for sale as a relic. Likewise, there may be no demand or market for a given object until it is reframed as relic.

Traditional Catholicism holds that there are three classes of relics, and while first-class relics are, for instance, pieces of the body of a saint, second and third class relics allow for wild proliferation, being objects associated with holy sites, people, or objects (meaning, in many cases, that they are relics only because they have been in contact with relics – a piece of cloth that has touched a piece of cloth that once touched a saint, for instance, is a third-class relic). Third-class relics are less efficacious, in metaphysical terms, but they are also, in economic terms, more affordable. And there is a potentially infinite supply – this is the rub of the relic. The laminating machines of the Topps company can churn out utterly unique "one of one" relic cards day and night, inserted with an array of autographs or slivers of bats, bits of ball casings, or snippets from presidential neckties.

All relics, whatever their class or level of authenticity, act as artifacts of the social conditions that created and circulated them. While the conflation of athletic and political celebrity in Topps' "Triple Threads Baseball" series may well be worth mining for some reflection of the culture from which it springs, with trading card companies it is not merely the arena of sports or history wherein the allure of the "authentic" leads to the proliferation of relics: There are also collectible fragments embedded in cards devoted to television shows and movies.

Relics are a special class of objects, but Calvin's worry was related to how that special status came to be – was it natural to the object or conferred upon it? While fragments of the True Cross should, by their very nature, be limited in number, signatures of politicians, celebrities, and sports stars need not be, and "game-used" outfits and equipment are of a similarly staggering quantity. Saint Thomas only had so many teeth in his mouth, but Jackie Robinson may very well have signed thousands of autographs and used hundreds of bats. And a contemporary player like Jermaine Dye is not only constantly doing these activities; in addition, he may very well, upon retirement, participate in the business of relic-making as a side industry of celebrity, signing autographs for the companies that will then make collectible cards. The economy of relics functions by taking bits of cultural detritus for which previously there was no monetary value per se, and repackaging and reinventing them as something new and potentially valuable. Ultimately, it is up to consumers as to whether they will create a continuing market for such relics. Will Woodrow Wilson's sunglasses become a hotly tradable item, or will some young sports fan merely be disappointed to find she's been cheated out of actual baseball cards when she rips open the unique pack?

Spencer Dew is a PhD candidate in Religion and Literature at the University of Chicago Divinity School.


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

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Visioning for Change

I'm just settling in, getting house and office set up. Ordered a desk so I could set up my computer at home. So for a moment my focus is on the present. Even the past is somewhat in the rear view. We think of Santa Barbara, our beautiful former home town, and the fires that are effecting our former neighborhood. We think of our friends in Lompoc, and the ministry we engaged in while there. But like I said, for the moment the focus is on the now and not the past.

I was told, don't look back. Don't regret moves or decisions. Make the most of the opportunity. And, so we will. As we dig out from the present, we will begin to look outward, see what is possible and more. It will be time to look for where God is at work. I've long appreciated the writings of Jurgen Moltmann for precisely this reason. He reminds us that God is out front of us, at work in the world. God isn't in the past. Instead, God is really in the future beckoning us forward.

As I begin my new ministry, I can see where we must begin working. I know that change is in the wind. That is why they called me from so far away, this is a church that while not ready at all points to make major changes, knows that change is in the offing. The question this and all churches must ask is this: What is God doing and how might we participate?

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Have Arrived!

Travels can be travails, but our trip east was generally enjoyable. We saw a beautiful country, and the route we took crossed beautiful but often lonely countryside. Wyoming is pretty barren of people. Nebraska and Iowa are more developed, but still quite rural. Even much of western Illinois is rural. But, we're here in Michigan. The furniture has arrived, and it's time to unpack.

The future stands before us. We pray for good things -- both for us and for the church.

Soon, I'll get back to regular posting, but for now, I'm hit and miss.

Saturday, July 05, 2008

Jefferson's Bible

With so much attention being given to presidential religion, it's appropriate to remember that not all of our presidents have been equally religious. Some -- Carter and Bush, for example -- have made much of their faith. Others tried to keep it private -- JFK -- and of course Thomas Jefferson was extremely interested in religion, but was not especially Christian. He was highly interested in Jesus and his message, finding in him a primary source of morals, but did not believe in his divinity or the miraculous.

Today's LA Times offers an article on the famous (infamous) Jefferson Bible, Jefferson's cut and paste version of the gospels that removed the miraculous, much of the birth narrative, and the resurrection.

Historian Lori Anne Ferrell asks the question: what would we think if we heard that the President of the US had taken scissors to the Bible? Of course, Jefferson's little Bible didn't get published until 1904. I suppose that if a contemporary President were to do such a thing, it would be prudent to keep it quiet!

Friday, July 04, 2008

A Journey Eastward

No, I don't mean a journey into Eastern religious traditions. Since Monday we've been moving eastward toward Troy. We left Santa Barbara Monday evening, after a rather eventful day. The movers were 4 hours late, didn't have the necessary materials for packing and didn't know they were supposed to pack certain items. But, we got out of town and started the journey. After a couple of nights in Vegas (didn't do any gambling), we continued on through some beautiful country -- Utah, Wyoming, and Nebraska. Wyoming is barren of people, but full of beautiful lands. Since this is the 4th of July -- a day spent driving -- I must say that this is a beautiful land, one we must take good care of.

Only a couple of days more and then the new ministry begins. Life will take on a new dimension for me. I plan to blog, but my time may grow more limited. But the issues of the day are to important not to speak to them, so I'll keep my voice in play.

As we move toward our new home, I must stop to offer my thoughts for friends in the Goleta/Santa Barbara area being affected by the fires. The fire began yesterday, I believe. Had we still been there, we would have been watching the flames in the foothills behind us.

Tonight it's Kearney, NE, and tomorrow on to Moline!
I commented recently on the James Dobson--Barack Obama fracas. I admit to not being all that sympathetic to the Dobson mentality. Obama has tried to bring his faith into the equation without making that faith onerous. He speaks from faith, but has made it clear that in doing so he has tried to find a common language that would include those whose faith is different than his. He is a committed Christian, but like many mainline Protestants he puts his faith into a pluralist context.

In yesterday's Sightings, a U. of Chicago theology Ph.D. student, Rick Elgendy, looks more closely at the issue and suggests that Dobson might have raised some important questions, even if his criticisms were largely off-base.


Sightings 7/3/08

A Public Theology or a Theology of the
Res Publica

-- Rick Elgendy

Last week, Focus on the Family's James Dobson took issue with a 2006 speech made by Senator Barack Obama at a meeting of "Call to Renewal," a movement of politically activist Christians. A religious figure criticizing a presidential candidate is nothing new, but an important exchange about the place of religion in the life of a democratic society ought not to be lost amidst the presidential politics of this election season.

In his speech, Obama wondered not whether an emerging plurality of religious traditions spells chaos for a once-monolithic public discourse, but whether even a solely "Christian" population would have fewer disagreements about public policy: "[W]hose Christianity would we teach in the schools? Would we go with James Dobson's, or Al Sharpton's?" Obama here echoes a point made by Jeffrey Stout in Democracy and Tradition: Under the circumstances of "secularized discourse" – wherein the participants of a common public conversation cannot take for granted a basic religious agreement, either in conviction or in application – a simple appeal to a single religious authority as arbiter of public conflict will fail. Stout's claim is demonstrated is Obama's question, "Which passages of Scripture should guide our public policy?" The debates that would ensue in response to that question would not be settled by the establishment of Christian (or any other) faith as normative for American citizenship. Thus, we ought to expect disagreement between people of good faith, and cultivate the virtues of civic life which allow conversation to continue in spite of disagreement. Based on Dobson's criticisms, which focus on his objection to being considered a co-religionist of Al Sharpton and on Obama's scriptural examples, Dobson seems to have missed this point.

Yet Dobson does voice a concern worth serious consideration. Later in his speech, Obama departed from Stout, gesturing in the direction of John Rawls' notion of public reason: "Democracy demands," Obama claimed, "that the religiously motivated translate their concerns into universal, rather than religion-specific, values. It requires that their proposals be subject to argument, and amenable to reason." Dobson worries that Obama is "trying to make the case that it is anti-democratic to believe or fight for moral principles in the Bible that are not supported by people of all faiths," and asks if he is required as a citizen to conform his advocacy to a "lowest common denominator of morality."

Obama should care about this, having spoken of the non-neutrality of telling citizens where and how their religion should not be practiced (i.e., in matters of public policy), and having asserted that it is a "practical absurdity" to expect men and women not to "inject their 'personal morality' into public policy debates." Yet he also noted that, were we to see a modern-day version of Abraham commanded by God to sacrifice his son Isaac, "we would, at the very least, call the police and expect the Department of Children and Family Services to take Isaac away from Abraham," valid as his religious experience might be. Here, Dobson's fears about Obama's Rawlsian side resonate: If we have recourse only to "common laws or basic reason," (whatever constitutes those suspicious entities), then society cannot accommodate the burden of certain robust religious convictions (and, by extension, certain religious persons). While tradition-specific theology is surely a poor tool for consensus-building, a situation in which the state must disenfranchise any religious conviction or action outside the grasp of "public reason" would seem a tragic defeat for religious freedom. How, then, do we move forward as a society seeking both public consensus and space for citizens to be religious?

Several authors have recently offered reconceptions of our approach to public space itself. Charles Mathewes' suggestion in A Theology of Public Life turns on the distinction between a public theology and a theology of public life: A public theology is a statement of Christian conviction stripped of its particularity and rendered acceptable to others, while a theology of public life is a description of the place of public life in the economy of God's creative and salvific agency. A theology of public life involves engaging in the political arena as an ascetical enterprise, a practice in discipleship that works through the building of the virtues of faith, hope, and love; Mathewes thus underwrites Stout's suggestion that discursive virtues, and not necessarily religious consensus, make for a healthy public conversation. Another analysis comes from William T. Cavanaugh, who, in his Theopolitical Imagination, highlights the ways in which material political conditions open up avenues beyond state-sponsored policy debates. Cavanaugh describes concrete practices – from participation in community supported agriculture to certain ways of understanding and performing the Eucharist – as a means of dialogue with the wider world, without the translation of religious convictions into something they are not.

These prescriptions do not finally resolve the perennial problem of comprehensive conviction amidst democratic plurality, nor do any of the claims made by Obama or Dobson. However, as theologians and ethicists elaborate reasons for religious citizens to engage the public sphere charitably, and with more in mind than mere competition for public goods, we can hope that the conversation will be both more civil and more fruitful.

Rick Elgendy is a Ph.D. student in Theology at the University of Chicago Divinity School.


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