Friday, October 31, 2008

Happy Halloween!

It's October 31! Halloween is here, which means Thanksgiving is on the horizon and just after that it'll be Christmas. Oh, and it'll be winter soon!

But today is time for a bit of tricks and treats. So, enjoy.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Gog on the Move -- Sightings

Apocalyptic scenarios continually get spun by Dispensationalists and others who delve into the "prophetic." Their prognostications change as the news changes. They publish books that capitalize on the latest trends, books that end up on the remainders table a few months later. For a while Russia fell by the wayside as the political fortunes of what was the Soviet Union fell. But with Vlad Putin back on the prowl, the prognosticators are taking notice. John Howell, a U of Chicago Divinity School Ph.D. candidate writes about these recent developments in today's Sightings piece.


Sightings 10/30/08

'Gog' on the Move-- John Howell

Those who followed early coverage of the 2008 Olympics will remember President Bush's interview with NBC's Bob Costas during which the two men discussed Russia's bombing of Georgia. Asked what he had said to Vladimir Putin during the opening ceremonies about the still-simmering conflict, Bush – in a sublime display of locker-room diplomacy that quotation alone cannot capture – stated, "I said this violence is unacceptable."
More interesting than Bush's attentions, however, are those of the premillennialists who contribute to's 'Rapture Index', a calculus for predicting the coming apocalypse, which the site describes as "the prophetic speedometer of end-time activity." Premillennialists believe that a period of apocalyptic tribulation will precede Christ's reign on earth; the index comprises forty-five "end time components" or indicators that this apocalypse is nigh, and the individual score in each category contributes to an overall numerical index. The Russia-Georgia conflict falls into index category twenty-three: "Gog (Russia)." As of the September 28th assessment, category twenty-three contributes five points, the maximum for an individual category, to the overall Rapture Index of 164—a figure that signifies (earnestly) "Fasten your seat belts" in the index's standardized scale.
Anyone who is familiar with Paul Boyer's book, When Time Shall Be No More: Prophecy Belief in Modern American Culture – or who is otherwise acquainted with the ins and outs of end-time speculation – will be familiar with the longstanding tradition in end-time prophecy that associates Russia with Gog of Ezekiel 38:2, which reads, "Son of man, set thy face against Gog, the land of Magog, the chief prince of Meshech and Tubal, and prophesy against him" (KJV). Some translations include "Rosh" among Gog's territories, and it is from the resemblance of Rosh to Russia, Meshech to Moscow, and Tubal to Tubalsk that prophets of the apocalypse, like the famous premillennialist John Nelson Darby, implicate the actions of Russia's leaders in the approach of the Antichrist. Boyer's text, published in 1994, is a dispatch from the close of the Cold War, one of myriad historical developments that have threatened apocalypse predictors with obsolescence. But Boyer cautions that prophecy believers operate with an extraordinarily flexible hermeneutic when discerning the signs of the times, and he anticipates various directions in which end-time prophecy might move (for example, toward the Middle East).
So in one sense the Russia-Georgia conflict rights the narrative of impending doom by reintroducing a Gog on the move; but in another sense it is relatively inconsequential: Insofar as's Rapture Index is a reliable indicator of end-time speculation more generally, the fact that the overall score hasn't dipped below "Heavy Prophetic Activity" in at least the past four years suggests that the end is always nigh if one is looking at things in proper, premillennial perspective.
And while it might be tempting to dismiss's Rapture Index – along with innumerable other web-based, end-time technologies – as a curiosity, one cannot but observe the consonance between the behavior of the Rapture Index and that of a more 'mainstream' (perhaps 'secularized'?) disaster calculus: the Homeland Security Advisory System. Since its introduction on March 12, 2002, the threat advisory has not dipped below Yellow, or "Significant Risk of Terrorist Attacks," and has for the most part oscillated between Yellow and Orange, with the occasional escalation to Red. Reading the chronology of the threat advisory, which is available on the Department of Homeland Security website, one might even suppose that any change at all is due to the effort to keep the threat in view, such that crisis, or terror, becomes atmospheric rather than eruptive.
Without a premillennialist's faith in numerology, it is perhaps difficult to calculate the impact of this atmospheric terror on material instances of culture, but the days following September 11, 2001, have seen the proliferation and immense success of films and television series about comic-book saviors as well as apocalyptic scenarios. NBC's popular Heroes employs prophetic types and tropes to figure forth its narrative, and The CW Network's Supernatural, about two debonair, demon-hunting brothers, is in the process of developing a storyline wherein Sam and Dean have a role to play in halting the world's steady march toward Tribulation.
Unfortunately, the demon Lilith (yes, that Lilith) is simultaneously trying to expedite the process: The angel Castiel tells Dean that Lilith has succeeded in opening one of the sixty-six seals, which are like "locks on a door" to Lucifer. Perhaps someone should tell the writers what any good prophet of the apocalypse knows: Not only are there are only seven seals, but also, pace every postmillennial hope, there's no halting the end-of-days.
John Howell is a PhD student in Religion and Literature at the University of Chicago Divinity School.
This month on the Marty Center's Religion and Culture Web Forum, anthropologist Danilyn Rutherford writes on "The Enchantments of Secular Belief." She examines the "active belief" upon which anthropological work is predicated, drawing on her fieldwork among Biak exiles from New Guinea, her readings of Locke and Hume, and her analysis of the notion of secular belief expressed in the National Public Radio series "This I Believe." Ultimately, she argues that "like Biak appeals to belief, anthropological perspectives on the world lead us to expect the unexpected. This effect does not simply stem from anthropology's power to unsettle the everyday, but also from its method, which entails the impossible belief that one can assume another's point of view." Formal responses will be posted from W. Clark Gilpin (University of Chicago), Malika Zeghal (University of Chicago), and Charles Hirschkind (University of California at Berkeley).
Sightings comes from the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School.

John the Careless

It's one thing to see liberals criticize John McCain, what is most interesting is to see conservatives bash him. Of course, you might call these "elitist conservatives," but George Will isn't a "liberal elitist." There is much that I disagree with George Will on, but today's WaPo column about John McCain is on target.

Entitled "Call him John the Careless" -- an obvious paraphrase of "Joe the Plumber" -- Will takes on McCain's decision making and handle on the issues of the day. Nothing is more clear to Will than the carelessness of choosing Sarah Palin as his running mate. As an example of the problem with the choice, Will points to Palin's claim that the VP is "in charge of the Senate." Will says this is either an example of simplification or an unconstitutional grab at power ala Dick Cheney.

She may have been tailoring her narrative to her audience of third-graders, who do not know that vice presidents have no constitutional function in the Senate other than to cast tie-breaking votes. But does she know that when Lyndon Johnson, transformed by the 1960 election from Senate majority leader into vice president, ventured to the Capitol to attend the Democratic senators' weekly policy luncheon, the new majority leader, Montana's Mike Mansfield, supported by his caucus, barred him because his presence would be a derogation of the Senate's autonomy?

Perhaps Palin's confusion about the office for which she is auditioning comes from listening to its current occupant. Dick Cheney, the foremost practitioner of this administration's constitutional carelessness in aggrandizing executive power, regularly attends the Senate Republicans' Tuesday luncheons. He has said jocularly that he is "a product" of the Senate, which pays his salary, and that he has no "official duties" in the executive branch. His situational constitutionalism has, however, led him to assert, when claiming exemption from a particular executive order, that he is a member of the legislative branch and, when seeking to shield certain of his deliberations from legislative inquiry, to say that he is a member of the executive branch.

If McCain is careless as a candidate, would he not also be careless as President? I think that's the point!

Bill Says Yes We Can

There's been lots of talk about Bill Clinton's bitterness and Barack Obama's snubs. Well last night everyone seems to have made up in a big way. Late in the evening, after the big Obama "infomercial" and probably while Obama was appearing via tape on the Daily Show, Bill Clinton gave a very big endorsement of Obama's candidacy. It was a reminder that under Bill Clinton America ran a surplus and under Bush with his tax cuts and massive spending on the wars and more, America has its biggest deficits ever -- and a financial crisis to end things.

It was a good night, I'd say, for Barack Obama!

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Heir Not So Apparent

The Nonjurors, a politically-oriented group from late 17th and early 18th century Britain, were strong advocates of hereditary monarchy. So strong was their belief in it that they refused to give up their support for James II and his lineal descendants. Most of you haven't heard about this group, but that's okay. I'm one of the few in the world that has enough time on his hands to dabble in their ideologies and practices. The moral of the story is that they lost out!

Anyway, my reason for writing this post is this -- Ethics Daily has a post about a growing rift between Schuller Sr. and Schuller Jr. Several years ago the aging founder of the Crystal Cathedral handed over the reins of the church to his son -- the heir apparent. Schuller Jr. has tried to emulate his father. Not only does he teach the same possibility thinking theology of Dad, but he talks like his Dad, combs his hair like his Dad, and has the mannerisms of his Dad. Well, apparently things aren't working out all that well and Dad wants to take the reins back somewhat. Dad wants to let other preachers share the pulpit with his son. His son is still pastor of the church, but not necessarily the chief preacher.

This isn't unusual. Preachers who have tried to pass on the church to their children haven't always fared well. Charles Stanley gave the church over to his son and then took it back. Falwell held on until he died. The point in all of this is that these guys refused to retire and let go of things. At 82 Schuller Sr. is still the man in charge of the TV/Radio end of things -- and that's what drives the church.

It's really a sad situation, and a warning to all of us preachers. When its time to go, let's go!

Thoughts on Rashid Khalidi

There has been, from the beginning of the 2008 Presidential campaign to cast Barack Obama as either a closet Muslim or a Muslim sympathizer who would threaten the security of Israel. Most of this is an unveiled attack on Islam. There's also the assumption here that if one is supportive of Palestinian rights one is anti-Israel -- or worse, anti-Jewish.

Barack Obama is friends with Rashid Khalidi, a former Professor of Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Chicago and now the Edward Said Professor of Arab Studies at Columbia University. Born in New York, Khalidi is a Palestinian. He's said some "controversial" things. An attempt at linking Obama and Khalidi is part of the ongoing smear that Obama is "palling around with terrorists," as Sarah Palin puts it. As a Palestinian American, it is natural that Khalidi supports Palestinian rights and that he has criticized, indeed, condemned, Israeli actions against the Palestinians. Palestinians strongly oppose Israeli occupation.

Obama has come out clearly in support of a two-state solution, which is American policy. Of course, many in the Christian Right oppose the two-state solution because they believe in Greater Israel. Not only do Christian Zionists support Israel they are the strongest supporters, both politically and financially of the Settlements.

So, Barack Obama went to dinner to honor a friend and colleague from the University of Chicago. So, he said nice things about Khalidi. Does that mean that Obama supports the PLO, which has become the Palestinian Authority, and is a threat to Israel? That's the charge. While in itself the charge is without merit, there is a bigger issue here. If we are to have any semblance of peace in the middle east, then America must stop treating Islam as a terrorist-laden religion. I mean, who are our "allies" in Iraq, if not Muslims?

My suggestion here -- stop making a controversy out of something that doesn't merit it!

Taxes, Taxes, Taxes

The McCain-Palin mantra -- besides "drill, baby, drill" -- is to call for no more taxes or lower taxes.

When you see either of them decry the Obama "tax plan," you see the crowd boo and hiss at what Obama might do. Even Joe the Plumber has spoken out against taxes. He also is against Social Security, which he apparently thinks is socialist plan as well.

My question is this: if you stacked up each tax plan against each other, how would those booing and hissing fare under each tax plan? From all estimates, if you make under $250,000 in net income you will get a bigger tax break under Obama than McCain. Do a majority of McCain-Palin supporters make over $250,000? In their rhetoric they rail against elites and urbanites and claim to represent the rural hardworking real Americans. Do these folk make more than $250,000 a year? If not, why buy the McCain-Palin rhetoric?

Do they hope that they'll benefit better under a continuation of "trickle down" economics that has guided the nation these past several decades? Interestingly, the one break in the Republican ownership of the White House led to budget surpluses.

So, call me confused!!!

Standing with the Outsider

From its earliest days, Christianity was the religion of outsiders. It was in its earliest moments a radical Jewish sect that stood on the side of the marginalized. It garnered opposition from the religious leaders who feared its reach into the populace. The Romans at first just feared any group that threatened order. Over time the Romans opposed the growing church because it declared primary allegiance to Jesus and not to the emperor. It did this by refusing to worship the emperor. Something happened in 310 AD. Constantine made a bargain with the church -- state sponsorship in exchange for church support. No longer was the church on the margins, it had made it into the halls of power. So different from the early days. When Jesus made it into the halls of power it was as a prisoner on his way to an execution. The same would be true of his followers.

So, what should we think of power and systems?

Going back to Peter Rollins' book, Fidelity of Betrayal, I'm struck by his reflections on the Christian calling to stand with those on the outside. After telling the parable of a man who goes before St. Peter and discovers that only Christians get to go in, he, a Christian, chooses to remain outside in solidarity with those excluded -- which apparently made St. Peter happy.

He writes:

The point that is being made here is that Christianity, as a religion without religion, always resists being implicated in the dominant ideological systems within society by seeking to stand with those who dwell outside of them. As religion without religion Christianity's ir/religious expression cannot be reduced to a tightly held worldview without being effaced, for it is expressed fundamentally in the texture of one's life particularly in relation to the poor and oppressed. Is this not the deep insight expressed in James 2:26 when we read that faith without deeds is dead?

What are your thoughts?

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Extremism or Cooperation -- Religious Choices of the 21st Century

I'm reading Eboo Patel's Acts of Faith (somewhat belatedly) and have Gustav Niebuhr's Beyond Tolerance in the queue. These books speak to something that remains important to me -- building bridges across religious lines. Something that Patel writes in his introduction needs to be heard. Patel's own work is with young people, largely college students, seeking to bring people together who are divided by color, ethnicity, and religion. On this issue of religious extremism he writes:

"Religious extremism is a movement of young people taking action." (p. xvii).

He goes on to say that religious totalitarians and extremists have learned to "prey on young people's desire to have a clear identity and make a powerful impact." We read about their efforts each day in the newspaper.

On the other hand:

"Interfaith cooperation is too often a conference of
senior religious leaders talking." (p. xvii).

Interfaith dialogue is important, but Patel seems to have discovered an important truth, young people are more interested in acting than talking. Extremists have discovered how to tap this energy -- sometimes in deadly ways. That isn't to say that interfaith conversation is unimportant, but it's not involving the young.

We have a choice here -- we can engage young people in work that will bridge the differences -- and as they work together they will find ways of learning about each other. Work will lead to conversation, or at least that seems to be the idea. The most important lesson we can learn here is that extremists seem to have already learned how to get the young doing things.

Patel discusses a little farther in the generational disconnects that keep us from truly engaging with each other. This is a divide we can't let stand.

Vote for Kierkegaard in 08

With all those ads flying around, why not choose between Kierkegaard and Nietzsche? Kierkegaard was, after all, a Christian?

Thanks to James McGrath I ran across the following:

Jesus' Social Gospel

We who are Christians must look at the world, including the life of our nation, through the eyes of faith. As followers of Jesus we must ask the question: how does Jesus view the world and how should that influence me?
Quite often through the centuries, Christians have domesticated Jesus, using him to bless their many campaigns and actions. Constantine, we're told, marched to victory under the sign of the cross. As a result the religion of Jesus became the religion of Caesar.
As I was pondering these questions -- about faith and life, I did a trip through a couple of my historical resources. In the book Sources of Christian Theology in America, edited by Mark Toulouse and James Duke (Abingdon, 1999), there is a selection from Walter Rauschenbusch's Christianity and the Social Crisis (1907). I think this paragraph from this father of the Social Gospel is worth considering.
There was a revolutionary consciousness in Jesus; not, of course, in the common use of the word "revolutionary," which connects it with violence and bloodshed. But Jesus knew that he had come to kindle a fire on earth. Much as he loved peace, he knew that the actual result of his work would not be peace but the sword. His mother in her song had recognized in her own experience the settled custom of God to "put down the proud and exalt them of low degree," to "fill the hungry with good things and to send the rich empty away." King Robert of Sicily recognized the revolutionary ring in those phrases, and thought it well that the Magnificat be sung only in Latin. The son of Mary expected a great reversal of values. The first would be last and the last would be first. He saw that what was exalted among man was an abomination before God, and therefore these exalted things had no glamour for his eye. This revolutionary note runs even through the beatitudes where we should least expect it. The point of them is that henceforth those were to be blessed whom the world had not blessed, for the kingdom of God would reverse their relative standing. Now the poor and the hungry and sad were to be satisfied and comforted; the meek who had been shouldered aside by the ruthless would get their chance to inherit the earth, and conflict and persecution would be inevitable in the process. (p. 297).
When we say "God Bless America" or "In God We Trust," which God do we have in mind? Is it the God of Jesus? As a Christian, I must ask that question! Even though I have great hope in the person I believe will be the next President of the United States, I also know that ultimately he is not the one who brings the hopes of the world to fruition. Ultimately, my trust must be in God, the God revealed in the person of Jesus.

One Week to Go!

In seven days America will go to the polls (at least those Americans who either won't vote or have already voted). We will be casting votes on candidates and propositions that range from the local to the national. Then it will be over and the work will begin.

It was back on February 10, 2007, nearly two years ago that Barack Obama announced what many thought was an improbable campaign for the presidency. Just two years before he had joined the Senate, and not even three years before he had electrified the Democratic National Convention as a State Senator from Illinois running for the US Senate. He was a person with little national experience, but he did have a compelling story and an ability to inspire. There were many odds to overcome -- including the formidable campaign advantages of Senator Hillary Clinton. Despite the odds, Barack Obama is on the edge of making history. It's not over until it's over. There is no room for celebration yet. You've seen clips of that guy running for a touchdown, only to have the ball stripped away at the last moment. He'd slowed down, was doing the dance, even before entering the end zone. Obama is cautioning his supporters to not celebrate just yet.

But, in seven days we will turn the page. Yes, George Bush will have a couple of months more in office, but the transition will begin -- hopefully with Barack Obama the victor.

But victory is only the beginning. Rarely does a new President enter office with such a steep hill to climb. If we are, as some say, in a similar position as FDR was in 1932, then Obama will have much work to do. We have two wars, an uncertainty about our status in Iraq, a growing Iranian power, economic woes. There is fear and there is anger. In many ways, this is not a time to be in power. The expectations will be extremely high, the honeymoon short, and yet the solutions will take time. There will not be an overnight turn around.

But what we need now is someone who will stir us all to come together and work for a better future. It's going to be difficult, but its not impossible. We've been through worse, and often times situations like this give an opportunity for the nation to take a new path.

So, here's hope for the future -- as we move into the final week of what has seemed like a never ending campaign.

TR and Taxation

Barack Obama and Joe Biden have been heavily criticized for wanting to "spread the wealth" and redistributing the wealth. They've been called socialists and even Marxists. Apparently wanting to tax the wealthy (who by the way have seen their wealth increase exponentially in recent years while the lower and middle classes have at best stagnated), is anti-American.

John McCain likes to claim Teddy Roosevelt as his hero. I want to remind John that Teddy Roosevelt, though a Republican, was also a progressive. Remember that in 1912 he ran for President under the Bull Moose banner. One of TR's legacies is the Progressive Income Tax, which requires that you pay more if you earn more -- in the name of fairness. That apparently is an idea John McCain doesn't like -- but why then embrace TR?

Here's what TR had to say about taxes.

"No man should receive a dollar unless that dollar has been fairly earned. Every dollar received should represent a dollar?s worth of service rendered?not gambling in stocks, but service rendered. The really big fortune, the swollen fortune, by the mere fact of its size, acquires qualities which differentiate it in kind as well as in degree from what is possessed by men of relatively small means. Therefore, I believe in a graduated income tax on big fortunes, and in another tax which is far more easily collected and far more effective, a graduated inheritance tax on big fortunes, properly safeguarded against evasion, and increasing rapidly in amount with the size of the estate."

Note that he believed in the value of the graduated estate tax -- what Republicans like to call the "death tax." He also put his focus on the earned income over the unearned income. John McCain is proposing lowering the capital gains tax. While that may have some value, in many ways capital gains cuts helped fuel the bubble that recently burst. Rather than encouraging companies to pay dividends, they encouraged companies to inflate value so as to take a bigger share of capital gains. So, Republicans -- listen to TR!

And read Steven Waldman's beliefnet commentary.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Opie/Richie Cunningham say yes to Obama

Ron Howard has been a director for the past quarter century, but he has played two iconic TV characters Opie Taylor and Richie Cunningham. Reprising these roles, and joining with Henry Winkler (Fonzie) and Andy Griffith (Sheriff Andy Taylor), Howard gives his endorsement to Barack Obama.

Thanks guys!

So, watch!

See more Ron Howard videos at Funny or Die

Bringing the Campaign to Finland -- Sightings

There are only 8 days to go until the big election. Things are getting heated, and will continue to get heated. Religion is one of the components of this race, not just at the national level but at the state level. In California religion is playing a big role in Proposition 8, the effort to ban gay marriage. Here in Michigan it's Proposition 2, a measure that would allow for stem cell research, a proposition heavily opposed by religious groups -- though religion itself is rarely introduced. It's all about taxes and unrestricted science -- the latest being a comparison between stem cell research and the Tuskegee experiments.

So, what is the effect of this interaction -- on politics and on religion? Martin Marty addresses this issue from afar, being in Finland where he's been asked to address America's embrace of religion and politics.


Sightings 10/27/08

Bringing the Campaign to Finland

-- Martin E. Marty

I am currently in Finland, where scholars at Turku and Helsinki asked me to address, among other topics, the role of religion in the American presidential campaign. Having done very different variations on that theme in the United States before I left, let me pass on to you something of what I will have delivered in Finland by the time of this Sightings. Trying to explain why religion is any part of politics in the United States, which was constitutionally "born secular" (in European eyes and terms), why religion is the hot topic in a year when the economic agenda should top all others, and why religion in this "one nation 'under God' indivisible" becomes the most divisive element in a campaign, is a challenge to the explainer and will only fall short in the ears of the explainees. But…

I called the theme "Religion and the Presidential Campaign: We Can't Live Without It/We Can't Live With It." "It" has been an irritant in the campaigns of Presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy, Carter, Reagan, and especially the current incumbent, though it also led to some chafing in every campaign which I observed and sometimes covered since 1948. Why is the temperature hottest, or worst, this year? Among many reasons has been the step-up in 24/7 TV and radio coverage and the explosion in the blogosphere, which attracts the noisiest firebrands. All must compete to hold audiences and readership for tomorrow, so they have to blow up differences today. Race, incidentally, also is huge, but usually under-toned; religion gets treated more openly.

Why can't "we" live without religion in the campaign? Here thoughtful observers and partisans on all sides during the primary and on both sides since, knowing their history and the cultural climate, acknowledge that millions do make up their minds about politics on the basis of religious teaching, affiliation, and habit. Religion can't be legally suppressed, and is psychologically repressed only among the few. Good things have sometimes happened when religion showed up in politics and the religious worked for peace, justice, mercy, welfare, and more. Bad things also often happen, as we observe this year.

Why can't "we" live with religion in this campaign? Two main reasons: First, the religious can be exploited or can exploit religious teachings, allegiances, fears and promises; second, religion gets exhibited in ways that are criticized in the texts of Judaism, Christianity, and most other faiths. Candidates and their backers lunge at or are lured to use the opportunities to make a display of their piety and virtue in an "I'm better than you are, and God blesses me and mine" mode. Exploited and exhibited religion is bad for politics, a zone where give-and-take should be built into the process, but is not in evidence among absolutists and the obsessed during the campaigns.

Are the exploitation and exhibiting of religion also bad for religion? I like to hedge bets when commenting on politics, with all its built-in ambiguity. But here I am unambiguous: it's bad. Bad for the name of religion itself, for religious institutions, for a fair reading of sacred texts, for sundered religious communities, for swaggering religious communities which are too sure of themselves, for the pursuit of virtue, for extending the reach of religion too far. Devote one's years to the public dimensions of religious life and to the religious dimensions of public life, as my kind and I try to do, and one can only be saddened to see the distortions and selling-outs that blight the seasons. The broadly-defined religious forces and texts teach waiting and hope. Soon the waiting will be over. One hopes consciences, and not only emotions, will be stirred again.

Martin E. Marty's biography, current projects, upcoming events, publications, and contact information can be found at

This month on the Marty Center's Religion and Culture Web Forum, anthropologist Danilyn Rutherford writes on "The Enchantments of Secular Belief." She examines the "active belief" upon which anthropological work is predicated, drawing on her fieldwork among Biak exiles from New Guinea, her readings of Locke and Hume, and her analysis of the notion of secular belief expressed in the National Public Radio series "This I Believe." Ultimately, she argues that "like Biak appeals to belief, anthropological perspectives on the world lead us to expect the unexpected. This effect does not simply stem from anthropology's power to unsettle the everyday, but also from its method, which entails the impossible belief that one can assume another's point of view." Formal responses will be posted from W. Clark Gilpin (University of Chicago), Malika Zeghal (University of Chicago), and Charles Hirschkind (University of California at Berkeley).


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

Sunday, October 26, 2008

The Fidelity of Betrayal -- Review

THE FIDELITY OF BETRAYAL: Towards a Church Beyond Belief. By Peter Rollins. Brewster, MA: Paraclete Press, 2008. 196 pages.

We have entered a Postmodern Age, an age where conventional wisdom and rationalism no longer reign supreme. Things have been turned upside down, requiring new ways of looking at the world, including the religious world. This new age is marked by a distinct anti-institutionalism, where the usual ways of organizing life are rejected. Because churches are institutional creatures, they come under critique in post modern analysis, as do doctrinal professions. Most interesting of all is the attractiveness of such understandings among young evangelicals.

Peter Rollins is one of those young evangelicals who is questioning the received traditions. He seeks to embrace a radical Christianity, one that in this book requires a bit of betrayal of traditional faith and practice. To give the reader a taste of what will come, Rollins begins his book with a reflection on Judas. Turning on its head the phrase “What Would Jesus Do?” Rollins asks “What Would Judas Do?” Judas is infamous for his betrayal of Jesus, and so using Judas’ act of betrayal as metaphor, Rollins asks whether Jesus would betray modern Christianity.

“Rather, by asking whether Jesus would betray Christianity as Judas betrayed Christ, I am asking if Jesus would plot the downfall of Christianity in every form it takes. Or rather, to be more precise, I am asking whether Christianity in its most sublime and revolutionary state, always demands an act of betrayal from the Faithful” (p. 6)

If we are to be faithful to the Christian faith, then perhaps we must betray it.

If to be faithful is to be a betrayer, then Judas becomes a hero of sorts. The Last Temptation of Jesus portrays Judas in just this way; in turning Jesus over to the authorities, Judas fulfills his purpose. We follow Judas’ example when we betray institutional Christianity so that it might be crucified, so that something new might be born. Judas isn’t the only betrayer to be considered. Abraham proved himself faithful in betraying his own son and then later challenging God’s decision to destroy Sodom. There’s Jacob, as well, who wrestles with God, challenging God’s authority. Throughout Scripture we read of figures challenging the status quo, the way things are supposed to be. In the end, their actions prove to further story, and become examples for us.

As one who has spent considerable time in the Evangelical world, I know that questions of biblical authority are front and center. Back in the 70's and 80's, when I was a college and seminary student, there was a much publicized “Battle for the Bible.” My own seminary was caught in the crossfire – accused of betrayal of evangelical distinctives. Its crime was that it replaced an inerrancy statement with an infallibility one. What is interesting with postmodern evangelicals, is that they’re much less concerned about arguments over inerrancy. Indeed, they tend to avoid arguments over critical study of the Bible, often taking a “pre-critical” look at the text. This decision stems from a rejection of a rationalist starting point, which they believe defines both the right and the left.

Rollins feels that it is a mistake to get caught up trying to intellectually defend factual claims for the Bible.

“As such, those institutions that advocate biblical inerrancy expend a great deal of time and energy attempting to offer explanations that will effectively reconcile any problems that they are presented within the Bible. Yet it is this very process of rational justification that makes fundamentalism a very modern phenomenon, one that sets it at odds with the more ancient tradition of inerrancy found within the church” (pp. 43-44).

Rollins accepts the need for critical study of Scripture, but he doesn’t feel it is helpful in leading one to a life of faith. More important is the devotional reading, what he calls the “second naïveté.” The purpose of this reading isn’t intellectual, but transformational. That there are conflicts in the biblical accounts shouldn’t be seen as problematic or even surprising. The purpose of the text isn’t to provide information, but rather to invite a person into the life of faith.

I am sympathetic to Rollins’ claim on the Scriptures, for I too see them as an invitation to a life of faith. I am a bit concerned, however, by what I consider a premature jump to the devotional reading. The fact that so many people are biblically illiterate suggests that we might need to spend just a bit more time on the critical issues, and then move onto the event that is the Word of God. That being said, I’m with him in his definition of the Word of God being “what the believer encounters as a presence exploding from the heart of the text, a presence that can never be captured in some confession of faith or creedal formation, no matter how beautiful or profound it may be” (p. 55). That work may require of us a certain act of betrayal, even of the words themselves.

If the Bible requires a new reading, so does our understanding of God. To understand God we must move beyond our attempts at objectifying God, and begin to engage God as a subject. Indeed, this will be an encounter between subject and subject. He begins his conversation by pointing out the ancient understandings of the name(s) of God. To know the name is to have power over God. But in the Hebrew text the name is either non-revealed or revealed in such a way that it’s impossible for one to know and manipulate the name of God. He contrasts the story of Lilith, the first woman, who seduces God, and Moses who asks God’s name but isn’t told the name, at least not exactly.

If seeking to manipulate God, by naming God, another way of domesticating God is to follow Descartes and turn God into a philosophical system. God exists, because the idea requires existence. God must exist because it is impossible to dream up something that stands beyond our ability to create. Such a God is a noun, but truth is found in God the verb, God the event. When we think of God in factual terms, who can be defined and defended, then there’s always the danger of those ideas being overturned. Borrowing from Nietzsche, Rollins asks whether the old idea of God – as a noun and factual statement needs to die. The problem with the Cartesian understanding of God is that it doesn’t lead to transformation. It doesn’t lead one to love one’s enemies. It may provide a sense of meaning, but little else.

If the Cartesian understanding must be betrayed, then we enter risky territory. We must embrace what Bonhoeffer called religionless Christianity. This idea permeates the book. Christianity, in Rollins’s mind is a religion without a religion. It is a rejection of self-centered faith. It is a faith that emerges out of love and not need. The question that we should be asking is not whether Christianity is true on a factual basis, but rather true in the way in which it affects for the good the lives it touches.

What is most profound, and perhaps both disturbing and at times confusing, is the radical dismissal of religious systems. The idea that we can have faith because of our ability systemize faith is not only questioned but rejected. Faith emerges from the event that is God. Christianity is both religious and irreligious. Structures may be necessary, but they’re also unnecessary. That’s because Christianity, at its deepest, transcends systems and structures. To be a Christian requires the willingness to betray the very system that defines faith. Doctrine isn’t primary, living life with God is primary.

If living is the center of faith, then gathering communities of faith is key. It’s not in an institutional manner, but in a radically non-institutional fashion. The focus isn’t doctrines or practices, but living with God and with one another.

“Instead of forming churches that emphasize belief before behavior and behavior before belonging, there is a vast space within the tradition to form communities that celebrate belonging to one another in the undergoing and aftermath of the miracle, a belonging that manifests itself in communally agreed rituals, creeds, and activities. In the midst of all of this these communities can also encourage lively, heated, and respectful discussions concerning the nature and form of belief” (p. 161).

What Rollins envisions is a radical form of Christianity that is willing to betray its own apparent well being in order to be faithful to God. It is a Christianity that focuses less on doctrine and institution and more on the people who inhabit the faith. It is willing to question and challenge even God, if necessary. Indeed, it may require of us to stay outside heaven in order to be faithful.

This is an intriguing book. Like others of its kind that have emerged from the Emergent movement, it suggests that the old ways of doing things is not working. There is no life in doctrinal and institutional formulations, and thus to be faithful we must abandon them – even if that requires abandoning the way we have conceived of God. In part because it is postmodern this isn’t an easy book to read and comprehend. It proves itself challenging and deep. But it will be a worthwhile read. One may wish to push back at certain points. For instance, although I’m in agreement in how Scripture might be best used in the life of faith, I sense we still need to give greater attention to the critical study of Scripture, in part because that study might break us free from the doctrinal statements that keep us from living before God in a way that is transforming of our lives and of the world itself. That being said, it is an important witness to a new way of living the Christian faith.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Considering an Inclusive Gospel

About a week back I raised the question of universalism. For many in the Christian community there is great concern about who is in and who is out, and how we might know the answer to the question. In answer we heard several seemingly exclusive texts listed. The question is, as always, how do we interpret and use these texts. At the same time I've been reading Peter Gomes' The Scandalous Gospel of Jesus, about which I posted a review last night.

Gomes raises the point about inclusion in the book. He does so in a number of ways, reminding us of the darker sides of Christian life. He reminds us of the stain of anti-Semitism that ultimately sustained the Holocaust. He reminds Protestants of the strong anti-Catholicism that had been present at least up until John Kennedy's election. He reminds us of the attempts to exclude women from church life and leadership. Much of this has changed or is changing, but there are still parts of Christian life that place barriers against others.

Gomes makes an interesting point about inclusion and Jesus' own ministry and message. Gomes suggests that the question: what would Jesus do? is misguided, but instead we should listen to his teachings and ask: what would Jesus have us do? Thus, he writes:

Can serious Christians seriously believe that they are the only ones upon whom God has placed his blessings? If we take the Bible seriously, how do we explain that the notion of a chosen people is one that expands rather than contracts? If Jesus Christ is the center of the biblical witness and the one in whom all that we know about God is to be found, how do we reconcile his expansive and inclusive behavior as recorded in scripture with what has so often been the constricted and exclusive practice of the church? (Gomes, Scandalous Gospel of Jesus, p. 196)

I invite your thoughts on this question.

Friday, October 24, 2008

The Scandalous Gospel of Jesus -- Review

THE SCANDALOUS GOSPEL OF JESUS: What’s So Good About the Good News? By Peter J. Gomes. San Francisco: HarperOne, 2007. pb. 264 pp.

With a title like this, it’s not surprising that Harvard’s renowned chaplain, has caught the attention of many a reader. The title reminds us that the one we so often seek to domesticate and manipulate for our own purposes, resists our best efforts. Should we choose to read the words of the gospels and consider them, then perhaps our sensibilities will be challenged. Jesus does not do well the status quo, and yet centuries of Constantinian efforts have inoculated us to his message.

The book is divided into three parts – “The Trouble With Scripture,” “The Gospel and Conventional Wisdom,” and finally “Where Do We Go from Here?” He begins with the Bible, a text he has looked at in a previous book, for obvious reasons. If we are to understand the foundational figure of the Christian faith, we have to understand the book that bears witness to his life. Thus, we must understand that to read the Bible is to interpret it. We must recognize that we don’t read the text in a vacuum, but rather bring our own experiences and perspectives to the task. Gomes writes for the general reader, not the scholar, so there is nothing radically new here, but it’s an important warning to the general reader, many of whom have limited experience with the Bible. Once one has a basic understanding of the need to interpret, then one is ready to consider the person of Jesus.

It is important, in Gomes’ estimation that we distinguish between the Gospel or Good News and the Biblical witness as a whole.

“Those who heard Jesus preaching and teaching heard him give specific utterance to a point of view that he himself called the glad tidings. He came preaching not himself but something to which he himself pointed, and in our zeal to crown him as the content of our preaching, most of us have failed to give due deference to the content of his preaching” (p. 17).

If we pay attention to the actual teachings of Jesus, then what we find is a rather “scandalous gospel.” It was, in fact, a very eschatological message, one that announced the coming kingdom in very profound and challenging ways. That his message was considered scandalous and radical can be seen in the resistance and opposition that it garnered. He was, after all, rejected in his own hometown. In part that’s because he announced a God who was bigger than their expectations. This is a generous God, one, who as we will see as we progress, is inclusive and merciful.

The Jesus we meet here is a nonconformist. Gomes suggests that Romans 12:2 is the Bible’s most dangerous verse, for it commands us to not be “conformed to the world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, . . .” Thus, “in a culture in which conformity is valued, nonconformity is likely to get one in trouble” (p. 45). To American Christians who have been in the majority for so long, Gomes reminds us that at its founding, the church was on the margins and composed of those who lived on the margins. In time, however, expedience caused the church to modify itself to fit in. But what does it mean to be a Christian in light of Jesus’ teachings? In answer to this question raises the issue of inclusion.

“Thus, when Christians state categorically that Jews, or Muslims, or believers in other faith systems are outside the provisions of God, they utter arrogant nonsense. A respected agnosticism is called for when often there is offered in its place a self-interested certainty. If God is the God of all, and not just a tribal deity, then God has made provision, not necessarily known to us, for the healing and care of all his creation, and not simply our little part of it” (pp. 62-63)

The words are blunt, but they call on the reader to consider a larger vision of God. The Good News, he suggests is that “God is greater and more generous than the best of those who profess to know and serve him” (p. 63).

If the message of Jesus is radical and scandalous, then what would Jesus have us do? In asking this question, Gomes rejects an earlier construct, one that asks “What Would Jesus Do?” That construct fails, because we don’t know what Jesus would do if he were living in the modern age. To simply follow an example allows for no growth in understanding. Thus, in asking “what would Jesus have us do,” he suggests that the “onus is not on Jesus, but on us.” We’re not simply to imitate, but to consider how we should live in the modern world in light of Jesus’ radical message of inclusion. We’re called to love our enemies and do good to those who despise us. We’re called to care for the poor. Indeed, we’re called to engage in a life that transforms our neighbors. Our calling is to live lives full of compassion and love for “the works that proceed from them are all that one needs in order to do what Jesus would have us do, and become what Jesus would have us become” (p. 86).

As we consider the good news, we must confront the challenges to the gospel, challenges that include fear. When fear strikes, the question is, how do we respond. His example is the response to 9-11. In the aftermath, some asked – where was God? That is, why didn’t God prevent this? But others responded by finding inner strength to live lives of grace in spite of the tragedy. Too often we live lives defined by fear and that fear leads down dangerous paths. The opposite of fear, however, isn’t courage, it’s compassion. And Jesus, he suggests when in the cross, isn’t defined by fear but by his compassion for others.

Fear isn’t the only challenge, for the Gospel must take into consideration the reality of conflict. Conflict is unavoidable, so how do we participate conscientiously. Peace is the ideal, but the New Earth has yet to arrive. Conflict comes in many forms, including the internal kind. There are the choices we must make. There is the sin that is part of who we are, and ultimately that sin is our refusal to admit and acknowledge our finiteness.

If fear and conflict must be dealt with, so must the future. By the future, Gomes points us beyond the apocalyptic messages of rapture theology. It isn’t an issue of when the end will come, but rather how we might live in hope as we go forward in life. In this, Gomes taps into Jurgen Moltmann’s theology. To live in such hope is to live beyond conventional wisdom. To live in hope is not to trust in a God who gets revenge or sustains until we can escape to heaven. Instead, it is a forward-looking view that embraces God’s gracious and merciful vision.

The gospel, the one that Jesus preaches, the one that is scandalous, calls for a social gospel. It is a gospel that transforms society. It is a gospel that’s not simply optimistic, one that simply confesses positive things. Instead, it is a message that calls for patience and perseverance. It is one that doesn’t distinguish between the “social” and the “spiritual,” but offers a whole gospel. It is one that offers true hope. It is a gospel that is inclusive. Gomes remembers the plague of anti-Semitism that has infected the church and its witness. He remembers as a Protestant the anti-Catholicism of an earlier age. There is the issue of the role of women in church and society. Indeed, there is the broader question of who is in and who is out – including gays and lesbians. Pointing to Cornelius, Gomes asks: where is the Spirit at work today? Finally there is that Gospel of Hope.

Hope is different from optimism – quoting Voltaire, Gomes notes that optimism simply thinking that everything is okay when everything is not okay. The kind of hope that emerges from the Gospel is a muscular sort. It’s a hope that produces character and emerges from suffering. It is hope that gives strength to change. That the world might be different.

So, what is the scandalous Gospel of Jesus? It is one that is focused on the future, it is one that stops being part of the problem and becomes part of the solution. It is a message that upsets the status quo and the conventional wisdom. It is a message focused on the future and not the past. Our job isn’t to restore a golden age, but to pray “thy kingdom come, thy will be done.” In this there is abundance.

Gomes is a wonderful story teller and preacher, who has a penchant for the cadences of the King James Version and obscure and forgotten hymns. It is an eloquent statement that should cause us to rethink what it means to be a follower of Jesus in the modern world. As we do so, then perhaps we can live in hope and not in fear, resting and working in the midst of the wideness of God’s mercy.

No Preconditions

Way back when, I don't know, back in 2007 I think, Barack Obama was asked if he would sit down with the leaders of "enemy" nations without preconditions. He said yes. He got a lot of criticism for that answer. Indeed, he still is getting flak for it, long after he has filled out what he means.

By "no preconditions," Obama meant, as I understand it, and as the question that day was phrased, that he would not require them to meet unreachable standards before sitting down with them. For instance, if he decided it was in our best interest to talk with Iran about the situations in Iraq and Lebanon, he wouldn't necessarily require Iran to let's say, stop its nuclear activities or withdraw support of Hezbollah. Those are likely goals that might emerge from the talks, rather than being the preconditions for the talks.

The other night I heard Sarah Palin say, with John McCain sitting next to her, that her understanding of "no preconditions" meant "no preparation." Here is a clip of what she said:

Now, Obama has never said he would sit down with another leader without doing hard preparatory work beforehand. And, he might not meet with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. He might instead request a meeting with the real leader of Iran, the Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Or, maybe he'll put off such a meeting and decide to meet with Syria's President. There is much evidence out there that Syria could be peeled off from Iran, if we would just engage them. But all of this takes preparation -- something Obama has consistently said must be done. Palin's view, is simply not in line with the truth. In fact, I don't think she knows what she's talking about.

Richard Nixon understood that one had to talk with enemies, and so he went to China and he went to the Soviet Union -- during the Vietnam War. And he opened up relations with both countries. Did he require that Mao give up power or the Soviets give up their arms? NO. Did he have his team prepare for this carefully, of course. And, he was a Republican, last I checked.

So, if you're going to criticize Obama for what he said, at least give him the courtesy of criticizing him for what he said rather than for what he didn't say! Of course she would have to understand the issue first!

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Religion is Ridiculous? -- Sightings

There have been many recent assertions that religion is not only ridiculous and irrational, but it's inherently violent and dangerous. I've not seen Bill Maher's Religulous, but I've seen clips, so I have an idea. David Myers in a Sightings piece today suggests that these attacks on religion, which base so much anecdote don't hold up once one digs deeper into the data. Religion might not be so bad after all, as long as it doesn't go to extremes!

So, if you're interested in seeing the other side of the debate, check this essay out!


Sightings 10/23/08

Religion is Ridiculous?

-- David G. Myers

Ridiculous, and worse. So say the new atheist books: In God is Not Great, Christopher Hitchens does not mince words, calling religion "violent, irrational, intolerant, allied to racism and tribalism and bigotry, invested in ignorance and hostile to free inquiry, contemptuous of women and coercive toward children." Now Bill Maher's movie Religulous lampoons the plausibility and social effects of all religion, ominously concluding that the world will end if religion does not end. But I suggest that social science data point to a different conclusion than do the new atheist anecdotes of hypocritical and vile believers.

Many in the community of faith gladly grant the irrationality of many religious fundamentalists − people who bring to mind Madeline L'Engle's comment that "Christians have given Christianity a bad name." But mocking religious "nut cases" is cheap and easy. By heaping scorn on the worst examples of anything, including medicine, law, politics, or even atheism, one can make it look evil. But the culture war of competing anecdotes becomes a standoff. One person counters religion-inspired 9/11 leader Mohammed Atta with religion-inspired Martin Luther King, Jr. Another counters the genocidal crusades with the genocidal atheists, Stalin and Mao. But as we social scientists like to say, the plural of anecdote is not data.

Maher and the new atheist authors present anecdote upon anecdote about dangerous and apparently irrational religious behavior, while ignoring massive data on religion's associations with human happiness, health, and altruism. The Gallup Organization, for example, has just released worldwide data culled from surveys of more than a quarter-million people in 140 countries. Across regions and religions, highly religious people are most helpful. In Europe, in the Americas, in Africa, and in Asia they are about fifty percent more likely than the less religious to report having donated money to charity in the last month, volunteered time to an organization, and helped a stranger.

This finding – that the religious tend to be more human than heartless – expresses the help-giving mandates found in all major religions, from Islamic alms-giving to Judeo-Christian tithing. And it replicates many earlier findings. In a Gallup survey, forty-six percent of "highly spiritually committed" Americans volunteered with the infirm, poor or elderly, as did twenty-two percent of those "highly uncommitted." Ditto charitable giving, for which surveys have revealed a strong faith-philanthropy correlation. In one, the one in four Americans who attended weekly worship services gave nearly half of all charitable contributions.

Is religion nevertheless, as Freud supposed, and Maher's film seems to assert, an "obsessional neurosis" that breeds sexually repressed, guilt-laden misery? Anecdotes aside, the evidence is much kinder to C. S. Lewis's presumption that "joy is the serious business of heaven." For example, National Opinion Research Center surveys of 43,000 Americans since 1972 reveal that actively religious people report high levels of happiness, with forty-three percent of those attending religious services weekly or more saying they are "very happy" (as do twenty-six percent of those seldom or never attending religious services). Faith (and its associated social support) also correlates with effective coping with the loss of a spouse, marriage, or job.

Maher would surely call such religiously-inspired happiness delusional. But what would he say to the surprising though oft-reported correlations between religiosity and health? In several large epidemiological studies (which, as in one U.S. National Health Interview Survey, follow lives through time to see what predicts ill health and premature death) religiously active people were less likely to die in any given year and they enjoyed longer life expectancy. This faith-health correlation, which remains even after controlling for age, gender, ethnicity, and education, is partly attributable to the healthier lifestyles (including the lower smoking rate) of religious people. It also appears partly attributable to the communal support of faith communities and to the health benefits of positive emotions.

These indications of the personal and social benefits of faith don't speak to its truth claims. And truth ultimately is what matters. (If religious claims were shown to be untrue, though comforting and adaptive, what honest person would choose to believe? And if religious claims were shown to be true, though discomfiting, what honest person would choose to disbelieve?) But they do challenge the anecdote-based new atheist argument that religion is generally a force for evil. Moreover, they help point us toward a humble spirituality that worships God with open minds as well as open hearts, toward an alternative to purposeless scientism and dogmatic fundamentalism, toward a faith that helps make sense of the universe, gives meaning to life, opens us to the transcendent, connects us in supportive communities, provides a mandate for morality and selflessness, and offers hope in the face of adversity and death.

David Myers is a professor of psychology at Hope College and author of A Friendly Letter to Skeptics and Atheists: Musings on Why God is Good and Faith Isn't Evil (Jossey-Bass, 2008).

This month on the Marty Center's Religion and Culture Web Forum, anthropologist Danilyn Rutherford writes on "The Enchantments of Secular Belief." She examines the "active belief" upon which anthropological work is predicated, drawing on her fieldwork among Biak exiles from New Guinea, her readings of Locke and Hume, and her analysis of the notion of secular belief expressed in the National Public Radio series "This I Believe." Ultimately, she argues that "like Biak appeals to belief, anthropological perspectives on the world lead us to expect the unexpected. This effect does not simply stem from anthropology's power to unsettle the everyday, but also from its method, which entails the impossible belief that one can assume another's point of view." Formal responses will be posted from W. Clark Gilpin (University of Chicago), Malika Zeghal (University of Chicago), and Charles Hirschkind (University of California at Berkeley).


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

We the Purple -- Review reposted

With the election coming down to the wire, I thought I'd re-post my review of Marcia Ford's We the Purple. It's an argument for third parties/non-partisan voting -- a middle way of sorts. I disagree with parts, agree with others. I'm concerned that we've become increasingly polarized, and this election, which had the possibility of being different has proven to be just as polarizing as earlier ones. So, take a read, see what you think!


WE THE PURPLE: Faith, Politics, and the Independent Voter. By Marcia Ford. Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House, 2008.

I must confess that my politics are thoroughly partisan. For better or worse, America is a two-party system. Recognizing this to be true, I’ve cast my lot with the party that best represents my values – even if it doesn’t do so perfectly. I do believe, however, that our politics has become unnecessarily polarized, so polarized that little gets done in Washington, in our state capitols, and even in our local communities. I also don’t think states are either red or blue, but that in reality they are quite purple. And while our religious communities might have a predominance of one party or the other, they too are rather purple.

When Marcia Ford’s new book We the Purple arrived in the mail, sent to me by her publicist Kelly Hughes, I took a quick look at the cover and made a few judgments. The cover is purple, which goes well with the title. Underneath the title is a fairly long manifesto encouraging political independence.

We are independent voters, neither Republican red nor Democratic blue. Many of us are people of faith who are tired of partisanship in the church. We believe that together we can bring about radical reform by avoiding partisan politics and finding creative solutions to our nation’s many problems. Starting now.

With a statement like that right on the cover, the reader should have a good sense of the author’s perspective. Then I looked at the name of the publisher – Tyndale House – and since this is normally a conservative Christian publisher that got me to wondering about the author’s perspective as well. How really independent is she?

Marcia Ford is a journalist, author, and evangelical Christian, who by her own admission had not been particularly interested in politics until it started cropping up in church. She describes herself as the kind of voter who votes for the candidate and not the party, but she also declares herself to be politically independent – by registration. In doing that she represents a growing trend among voters, as much as one third of voters, especially among the young. It is part of a broader trend in society, which in religious circles is seen in the demise of the denomination. Ford’s book is first of all an extended argument for giving more space to independents and third parties in our political realm. She doesn’t leave things there, however, for she believes that political independence is superior to partisanship. She wants to open things up, so that those who feel left out can have a voice. In doing so, she wants to make it clear that being politically independent isn’t the same thing as being undecided, nor does it means she is declining to state. She isn’t undecided, nor is she declining to state. She is an independent who will vote her conscience.

While this is very serious book, this is also a witty and even satirical look at politics. You can almost hear echoes of the Wittenberg Door throughout the book. This use of wit is not only useful in carrying along the discussion, it also reminds us that as serious as politics is, we can't take ourselves too seriously!

When it comes to politics, I consider myself to be a realist. Because the current system favors having two dominant parties -- if you want to get something done you have to have a working majority, or sometimes a super-majority – it has seemed to me that if you want to be politically involved you’ll have to make a choice. Besides, very rarely has a third party candidate broken through to win a statewide or congressional election, let alone the presidency. There have been exceptions – Bernard Sanders, a socialist, won the senate seat in Vermont, but Vermont is a very small state. Reading the book from the perspective of a politically aware and committed partisan, my first reaction to the book wasn’t positive. Even though I was in agreement with some of her criticisms, I found many of her solutions to be naïve and unworkable. For instance, her calls for reform of the primary and caucus system seem unrealistic, since ultimately these are party affairs administered by the governments. Indeed, the call for open primaries seems to defeat their purpose – allowing parties to select their candidate for the general election. To do otherwise would require a change in the way we do business. Of course, as you read on you discover that’s the point. She wants to do away with party. Open things up, put everyone who wants to run on the ballot, and the one who comes out on top should win – she suggests things like instant run-offs as a way of determining a final winner.

While I may disagree with her at a number of points, I am in agreement that the current system isn’t working very well and many voters have become turned off. Rather than choosing not to vote, maybe we should begin to look at real reform – which might start by making it easier first for candidates to get access to the ballot, and more important to make it easier to register to vote. She is right in chastising those who seek to suppress the vote by raising the specter of voter fraud or by requiring means of identification that are either expensive or difficult to obtain.

I understand all the arguments for requiring identification – I really do. I can hear some of them in my head right now. But the insistence on these requirements certainly does point to a pattern of voter suppression rather than voter fraud. I mean, come on. I think if someone wants to overthrow the government and undermine our democracy they’re probably not going to do it by voting. However, if “certain elements” of our government have figured out that encouraging minorities, the poor, and the elderly to vote would give the opposition party an advantage, they’re probably going to engage in some pretty underhanded efforts to suppress the vote. (pp.

The lists of voter restrictions included in the book are worth the price of the book! She also notes that some of the efforts at requiring special ID’s are reminiscent of the poll taxes of yesteryear – by making it overly expensive to vote you discourage voters from registering. That, she says, isn’t the American way, and she’s correct.

While Ford’s book is a manifesto for election reform and for empowering voters in general, and in particular the independent voter who is disgusted with the current state of partisan politics, that’s not her only agenda. As concerned as she is about the political landscape, she’s even more concerned about the effect that politics has on the church. If the body politic is polarized, then what effect does that polarization have on the church? At times, Ford appears to endorse a vision that would make any real political engagement in the church difficult – she commends Greg Boyd’s efforts to remove politics from the church – but she is again correct in reminding us that our churches are full of people who cross political lines. Our first priority isn’t politics but proclamation of the gospel. She notes that people are leaving the church because they feel pressured to conform to a political position.

What’s driving them away is that the focal point of many worship services has shifted from God to government. Even if members are in complete agreement with the leadership of the church on the cultural and moral issues of the day, they’re forced to sit through sermon after sermon on reclaiming America for Jesus. Any pastor worth his salt will, of course, provide a biblical basis for h is political views. But that’s not enough; every Sunday morning too many people across the country leave their churches without truly worshiping God. (pp. 128-129).

While she directs her critique at fellow evangelicals, especially those who are part of the Religious Right, she doesn’t let Mainliners off the hook. There is, she notes, overt partisanship in these churches as well, it’s just that it tends to go the other way.

Mainline denominational churches go on the partisan bandwagon much later and much more slowly. Once they realized how much political ground they had ceded to the Religious Right, though they began making up for lost time. (p. 131).

If truth be told mainline pastors have been dealing with politically sensitive issues for a long time, but many stepped back from dealing with anything controversial in fear of offending people.

The question that needs to be raised here is where do we draw the line? Active partisan politicking from the pulpit or using church resources is supposedly beyond the pale, but churches and their leaders are often unsure what is allowed. Some churches don’t deal with anything socially relevant, while others push the barriers.

Ford isn’t in favor of eliminating conversation about social issues; she just wants to broaden the conversation. She notes the danger of getting stuck on two issues – abortion and gay rights. Both are important to her, but they’re not the end all of issues. As for gay marriage, she reads the polls of younger Christians, even evangelicals, and sees that this is quickly becoming a non-issue. It is no longer a religiously defined issue, but is rather a generational one. While there will always be those who stand in opposition it will be, in her estimation (I think rightly) that it won’t be a driving issue. What we need then, is an opportunity for open discussion of an issue that still rankles many in our society and especially in our churches.

Marcia Ford hasn’t convinced me that I should abandon my commitment to a party, become an independent, or even eliminate the political from my preaching. She has, however, made a good case for electoral reform, the end to efforts at voter suppression, and the importance of alternative forms of networking. Even if I don’t think our nation is close to abandoning the parties, resources like the Internet allow for the kind of networking that was never possible in earlier decades. She is also right in reminding us to be careful about how deal with politically sensitive issues. If church looks little different from a political party rally then something is wrong.

I maybe blue, but as I read I realized that I’m also quite a bit purple. Marcia Ford is to be commended for writing this book and Tyndale for publishing it.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Sarah Palin -- You're no Aimee Semple McPherson

Sarah Palin is the much beloved/maligned woman running for Vice President of the United States. She's running as a populist and as a maverick -- an outsider you might say. She's born again, having spent her growing up years as a Pentecostal (something I know a bit about, having been one myself). She doesn't make much of the distinctive Pentecostal doctrines, but she seems to buy into much of the perspective.
Aimee Semple McPherson was an earlier Pentecostal Maverick. The founder of the International Church of the Foursquare Gospel, even found time to discuss politics with Huey Long. Aimee was a pioneer in many ways, and innovative and smart.
Matt Sutton, author of an important study of Aimee, focusing on her politics, has penned a "Tale of Two Mavericks." It is a comparison and contrast of these two women, and his analysis leads him to the conclusion: "Sarah Palin is no Aimee Semple McPherson." I'll let you check out the piece, posted about a week ago, and let you think about what he has to say.

Noticed in the Paper

I wanted to post a link to the Troy-Somerset Gazette, which gave a shout out to my installation. They essentially reprinted my press release, but hey that's fine with me. As they say, any publicity is good publicity!!! Except perhaps the obituary!

Who's a True American?

A Congresswoman from Minnesota suggested that the press check out who in Congress is truly "pro-American" and who isn't. Sarah Palin has spoken about visiting parts of the country that are truly pro-American -- mainly small towns and rural areas, as opposed to urban areas. Immigration hasn't been touched upon much in the election, but it's another component. Suggestions that America is a Christian nation suggests that those who aren't Christina are somehow not truly American -- or at least they're second class citizens. There are those who suggest that a Muslim can't be trusted to lead the nation.

Since early in the primary season, there has been a whisper campaign suggesting that Barack Obama isn't a true American or isn't patriotic. Remember the absent flag pin? Of course John McCain doesn't wear one (though Gov. Palin wears one big enough all of them). Of course, he's a socialist (and no good American can be a socialist), he's a Muslim, he's an Arab, he's a racist Black radical, he pals around with terrorists . . . need I go on.

It is a sad fact of American life that we regularly question people's loyalty to the nation. If it's not as hot or fervent in its rhetoric as some others, then they're not sufficiently patriotic. But is such patriotism a virtue? Is putting "country first" necessarily a good thing? Remember, Americans aren't the only one's who love their country. Russians love their country. Nationalism fuels many of our crises in the world today.

Colin Powell said it well:

This business from the congresswoman from Minnesota saying, let's examine all congressman to see who is pro-American or not pro-American. We've got to stop this kind of nonsense and pull ourselves together. And remember that our great strength is in our unity and diversity and so, that really was driving me.

Let's stop questioning if someone is sufficiently pro-American or not. I have significant disagreements with the Republican Party. But I think it inappropriate to question the patriotism of its members. Let us remember who we are. We are more than Republicans or Democrats or Independents. We come from across the globe. Some of us trace back our ancestry to colonial times, while others are first generation immigrants. Whatever our background we should remember our national motto: E Pluribus Unum -- Out of the Many, One. This is a motto that I think we too easily forget -- and to our detriment as a nation.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Monotheism, Polytheism, and Violence -- Sightings

We are often told that monotheism, especially Western monotheism is not just prone to violence, but is inherently violent. Our conversionist temperament is central to that. We are often told as well that non-monotheistic traditions and atheism are not so prone. But is that true? Or must we all reach beyond the violent tendencies/traditions and try the non-violent ones? These are some of the questions that Martin Marty grapples with in yesterday's edition of Sightings, which I post a day late!


Sightings 10/20/08

Monotheism, Polytheism, and Violence

-- Martin E. Marty

"Hindu Threat to Christians: Convert or Flee," Somini Sengupta's front page story in the October 12th New York Times, is part of one day's additions to my bulging clippings file on religiously-inspired terror, war, and violence, in the name of…(fill in the blank). The file bulges as I prepare to speak on "The Monotheists and the Problem of the Other" in Finland. A second assigned topic has me on safer disciplinary grounds, in seminars at the universities of Helsinki and Turku, on the study of church history. The third is a hopeless assignment: Try to make sense of the use of religion in the U.S. Presidential campaign.

Back to "monotheism" and violence, as reflected, for instance, during the past seven weeks in the eastern state of Orissa, India, where Hindu militants force Christians to deny their faith, flee, or get killed. This case is especially interesting because, in the romantic concept of many Westerners, such things are not supposed to happen. It is said that the children of Abraham, being monotheists, find it easy to kill because they are acting in the name of the One God who licenses and sometimes impels adherents to engage in terrorism. It is read and said that such a God—Yahweh, Allah, or the Father of Jesus Christ—is clear and unambiguous about divine purpose, motivating some towards actions that would not be expected in the non-monotheist, and hence non-violent, faiths.

What to do? The American writers called "The New Atheists" have an easy answer: Simply kill off religion, all religions, get rid of God, and utopia can come. However, any review of the 20th century, with its records of the killing of hundreds of millions in the name of state-sponsored atheism, demonstrates that killing off religion will not kill off killing off. Anything but that. So, is the solution simply getting rid of monotheism in favor of alternatives such as polytheism? In South Africa, where decades ago I served as resource for a seminar on religion and violence, a Buddhist, advertising non-violence, was asked what the West would have to give up to promote peace among the religions. Answer: "Dogma" and "Monotheism." Dismissing "dogma" was non-threatening. Pop-religion in the West thinks it can jettison dogma and prosper with feel-good activities. But "Monotheism?" Give it up and have peace, we were told.

But what militants demonstrate—be they victims or oppressors, in Sri Lanka, Orissa, Tibet, Thailand, and elsewhere—is that neither Buddhism nor Hinduism nor Atheism nor other non-Monotheist systems are guarantees against killing in the name of God, gods, or a-god. What my longtime colleague R. Scott Appleby, fellow fundamentalist-tracker, reduced to acronyms as 'VHP-BJP-RSS," was a cluster of "Hindu nationalists" who 1992 attacked the Babri mosque and killed many, non-monotheisitically.

Scholars serve us well by studying what it has been and what it is in Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism, among others, that spawns extremist movements which arrogate to themselves the right to carry on missions which take lives and threaten peace. Rather than point fingers at "the other" and play games in which people compare whose god(s), texts, and policies are most murderous, those who embody "the better angels of their nature", to use Abraham Lincoln's phrase, bid them to follow the non-violent and peace-seeking elements in their traditions and then take a new look at "the Other." The sacred texts include stories and commands beyond the violent ones. They are less well known and are less well followed. It's their turn.

Reference: Read Somini Sengupta's New York Times article at

Martin E. Marty's biography, current projects, upcoming events, publications, and contact information can be found at

This month on the Marty Center's Religion and Culture Web Forum, anthropologist Danilyn Rutherford writes on "The Enchantments of Secular Belief." She examines the "active belief" upon which anthropological work is predicated, drawing on her fieldwork among Biak exiles from New Guinea, her readings of Locke and Hume, and her analysis of the notion of secular belief expressed in the National Public Radio series "This I Believe." Ultimately, she argues that "like Biak appeals to belief, anthropological perspectives on the world lead us to expect the unexpected. This effect does not simply stem from anthropology's power to unsettle the everyday, but also from its method, which entails the impossible belief that one can assume another's point of view." Formal responses will be posted from W. Clark Gilpin (University of Chicago), Malika Zeghal (University of Chicago), and Charles Hirschkind (University of California at Berkeley).


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