Saturday, February 28, 2009

Critical Faith: Theology in the Midst of the Sciences –

Engaging Philip Clayton’s Adventures in the Spirit
Thoughts on Chapter 1

As noted in a previous posting, I’m part of a theo-blog effort -- Transforming Theology -- and my assignment is Philip Clayton’s Adventures in the Spirit (Fortress, 2008). This book is divided into five sections, the first being entitled: “The Methods of Philosophy and Theology.” Chapter 0ne – my focus here – is entitled: “Critical Faith: Theology in the Midst of the Sciences.” A critical faith is one that is willing to engage the modern world, with all of its complexities and challenges. This will require adaptation and transformation if we are to successfully navigate this situation.

This discussion of the role of theology in the context of the sciences comes, for me, in the wake of our recent observance of Charles Darwin’s 200th Birthday. It also comes as I finish reading Karl Giberson’s Saving Darwin (HarperOne, 2008). In the process of reading both books I’m reminded that I cannot do theology without giving some important thought to the sciences, and the questions they pose to theology.

Whatever Darwin’s purpose, evolutionary theory raises questions that we must address or lose any hope of long term viability. Science doesn’t have all the answers, but it asks important questions that we dare not flee. You can run, as they say, but you cannot hide. In dealing with theology in the midst of these scientific questions, Clayton poses six theses for our consideration. I would like to deal with each of them briefly.

1. The New Context for Theology

How might we respond to our modern context, one in which science plays such an important and often discouraging role? Of course, it’s not only science, its religious pluralism, secularism, and the privatization of religion. Theology no longer reigns as queen of the sciences, and many question the relevance of our faith. There was a time, perhaps, when the world might hear the words “The Bible Says” and it would heed that word, but that die has long since passed into oblivion.

In this new world, what is theology? The first answer that Clayton gives is for me a bit disconcerting. It is sterile and academic – “Level-two discourse concerning level-one beliefs, attitudes and practices of the Christian Community.” (Adventures in the Spirit, p. 24). I’m not sure that a definition will preach. I much prefer the term “believing reflection.” The key here is the recognition that “believing reflection” involves both “doubt and radical questioning.” Science requires that we ask hard questions. It challenges us to rethink how we believe and construct our theologies and our practices. As progressive Christians we face the absolutist claims of both religious fundamentalists on the right and radical secularists on the other end of the spectrum. So, as we approach our context for theology, we must recognize that there is the possibility that faith and belief is impossible to sustain (pp. 24-25).

2. Theology Concerned with the Question of Its Own Truth.

In his second thesis, Clayton takes up the proposals of German theologian Wolfhart Pannenberg. Pannenberg tried to challenge Karl Barth by placing the context for theological reflection in history. In fact, he sought to demonstrate the validity of the Resurrection within the context of universal history. He was concerned about Barth’s removal of the theological conversation from the broader intellectual conversation. Theology, he believes is subject to scientific inquiry, and Christian truth claims must be placed out in the intellectual marketplace for discussion. Clayton, points out that Pannenberg recognizes the contested nature of Christianity’s truth claims. However, he is not sure that Pannenberg’s solutions work. He’s not sure that Pannenberg’s conviction that “God has already both revealed and accomplished the end of history in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ” gives sufficient room for conversation with other faith traditions or recognizes the difficulties inherent in this position. He appreciates the recognition that we must engage in conversation with the world, but he finds Pannenberg too narrow.

3. Theology beyond Established Conclusions: The Model of Charles Sanders Peirce.

Clayton’s preferred conversation partner is new to me: philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce. Clayton writes that a more radical model is needed beyond that suggested by Pannenberg, one that allows for the conviction that “the life of faith is possible even in the absence of knowing.” Peirce himself was unsure about the value of theology, which he saw is inherently exclusive, demanding absolute adherence to particular doctrines. With this challenge as a starting point, Clayton believes that there is possibility of reform, but it must be open. Such a theology can help us determine what can be kept and with must be discarded. In this new understanding of theology, we enter into conversation with other religions and with science not knowing if our best arguments will favor our position. Although Pannenberg is by no means a conservative Evangelical, his position allows for much more certainty. Clayton, however, believes that if theology is to be transformed, then we must give up some of that certainty. That is not an easy task – especially if one is working within the context of a Christian congregation. As the world becomes more diverse and complex, for many Christians it is the simplicity and the certainty of the old faith that is attractive. So, how do we help our people wrestle constructively with this sense of uncertainty?

4. Theology, Inquiry, and the Nature of Discursive Communities.

Pontius Pilate famously asked Jesus: “What is truth?” That is a question we have long wrestled with. Turning once more to Peirce, Clayton notes that Peirce defined truth as “the opinion which is fated to be ultimately agreed to by all who investigate” (p. 31). In other words, truth is that concept that garners consensus. Private claims to knowledge are insufficient. We must put out our claims for discourse and in the end, that which garners the widest acceptance after “strenuous inquiry,” is accepted as truth (p. 32). As I consider this statement I’m better able to understand the nature of scientific truth claims, especially in relation to evolution. Even if not every question is answered in full, there is a consensus, and thus evolution is true. As Christians, following this logic, when we do theology, we must wrestle with this challenge and adapt accordingly. Clayton writes of the context in which theology is undertaken:

“Theology, like the other disciplines with which it must be in dialogue, exists in the ever-changing realm in which hope, faith, doubt, and skepticism intersect.” (p. 32).

Such a context may not provide certainty, but it does recognize the reality of the situation.

5. Theology in the Midst of the Sciences

Here is where the conversation really comes alive. We discern the need for theology to engage the world in a new way. The church can, if it chooses to remain resistant to change and transformation. Or, it can follow the lead of the reformation and embrace the principle of semper reformata, knowing that “revisions are a constant requirement for any tradition that wishes to speak to its contemporary intellectual and social context” (p. 33).

If we are open to this new situation, then we must engage in conversations both with other religious traditions and with the sciences. This is engaging in “comparative theology,” understanding my own theology in comparison with other possibilities. One is inter-religious and the other is non-religious.

With regard to the sciences Clayton makes the important point that we should avoid two false starts: 1) Assuming that theology is a science and thus can engage in dialogue with the sciences from within. We must, if we’re to have a conversation with the natural sciences, recognize the difference between theology and science. 2) Use science to prove Christian assertions. In other words, the old attempts to prove the existence of God through natural philosophy simply do not work anymore. Of the goal of science he writes: “is to explain the order that we discern in the empirical world, using fundamental natural laws, traceable case histories, and replicable experiments where possible.” To move beyond this – into higher level conversations – is to move into philosophy, and while there’s nothing wrong with philosophy it’s not natural science!

Having said that, it is important to not his warning: “It no more makes sense to advance the theological truth claims in ignorance of the results of the sciences than it does to argue the superiority of one religious tradition over others without knowing what they claim and what the reasons are to which they appeal” (p. 34). In other words, if we are to be true to our calling as theologians we must once again embrace the principle: “faith seeking understanding.”

6. Should Theology Take the Risk?

It is risky, embracing a conversation with religious pluralism and science. It could lead us down roads we’d rather not take. It could put our own faith at risk? So, is it worth the risk? After all, we could make mistakes. In answer, Clayton says that although this is risky, the alternative is even riskier. How dangerous is it to the life of the spirit to “embrace theologies that are based on outdated scientific cosmologies and empirically false claims about the world, rather than basing theological reflection on the best available knowledge we have about the universe” (p. 35). He reminds us that when Galileo was raising questions about the universe he wasn’t just challenging biblical understandings, he was challenging Aristotle, on whom the church had based its interpretation. Aristotle had been left behind, but the church refused to accept this verdict, preferring to base its theology on an outmoded science. Yes, if our witness is to have any value, then we must engage the best that the world offers!

We who are communicators of the gospel, of the good news, have choices to make. We must choose how and what we will communicate. If we are committed to the truth, which would be what consensus would hold as true, then we must also, Clayton insists that we understand that there is only one truth. And as we do critical theology, we must do it from the perspective of humility. Theology no longer rules as Queen of the Sciences. It must be a kenotic effort, self-emptying. But if there is humility, there must also be boldness. Why? Because, Clayton says, we must move from the empirical to the metaphysical. We are called upon to develop and defend our theological positions.

Richard Dawkins compares Christian theology to “fairyology.” He feels no need to engage it, because it is simply fairy tales, and a scientist he need not waste his time on such drivel. Clayton suggests that a critical faith is one that can engage those who are tempted by Dawkins to turn their backs on the conversation. I am hopeful that he is correct.

Friday, February 27, 2009

Transforming Theology -- Adventures in the Spirit: Introductory Thoughts

I have been asked to participate in a conversation concerning Christian theology, and its role in transforming the Christian faith and the Christian Community. It is a project that seeks to rekindle or reinvigorate the theological conversation in a way that will stimulate conversation in the church as well as the academy. The purpose of the Transforming Theology venture is seen in this statement:

“Our goal is an ambitious one: to create the intellectual framework for a progressive religious vision. By forming a broad alliance between the leading scholars and organizations in Christian religion today, we aim at nothing less than to ‘reclaim the progressive voice’. There are movements on the ground, active in various denominations and schools. Up to this point, however, what has been missing is a uniting intellectual and theoretical vision, comparable to what has emerged from the conservatives.”

As I embark on this journey, I do so with a degree of reticence. While I resonate with much that is happening among Progressive Christians, my evangelical roots permeate my thoughts and actions. In many ways, I see myself as being both liberal and evangelical. Indeed, when I consider where I stand, I often think of Charles Augustus Briggs – that 19th century Presbyterian turned Episcopalian theologian from Union Theological Seminary. Briggs was tried for heresy because of his critical studies, but at his heart, he was evangelical. So, I’m not sure where I belong in this conversation, but my job is to interact with a particular book, and I shall do so.

The book that I’ve been assigned is Philip Clayton’s Adventures in the Spirit: God, World, Divine Action (Fortress Press, 2008). It is edited by Zachary Simpson, a former student of Clayton’s at Claremont Graduate University. Clayton is, himself, Ingraham Professor of Theology at Claremont Theological Seminary and Professor of Religion at CGU. He is a Process Theologian, and as such is the successor to John Cobb at CST.

In this book, science is the primary dialogue partner. Although I am very interested in the dialogue between religion and science, my own training is in historical theology and not science or philosophy, for that matter. That means that I will likely approach the conversation a little differently than perhaps someone whose training is closer to that of Clayton’s. Having finished reading the first chapter, I will admit struggling with the concepts and their implications. At the same time, I was challenged to broaden my thinking and consider the context that science provides for theological discourse, a discourse that has important implications for the church. Indeed, it is from the perspective of a working pastor, who sees the need for the church to be transformed, that I will engage this project.

The question that will haunt us in this ongoing discussion is the intellectual viability of theology. Clayton writes of the modern day context:

“In today’s context multiple reasons are given to doubt whether the core assertions of the Christian tradition are still viable – reasons that are regarded by many as decisive objections to Christian belief and practice.” (p. 23).

In the first chapter, of the book, to be considered momentarily, Clayton lays out several theses that will help us respond to this challenge.

In the coming days, and perhaps weeks, I will respond, chapter by chapter to this important book I understand that Dr. Clayton may respond to my postings. I look forward to the conversation.

Steps to Ending Torture

In his speech to the nation on Tuesday, President Obama categorically renounced torture. He has signed an executive order laying out a timetable to close Guantanamo, has ended the CIA's use of other methods not outlined in the Army Field Manual, and abolish secret prisons.

George Hunsinger of Princeton Seminary and founder of the National Religious Campaign Against Torture, writing in the blog Progressive Revival, commends the new administration for the steps it has taken, but he also urges additional steps be taken. He'd like to see loopholes closed, the speeding up of the closing of Guantanamo, and the explicit ending of the practice of extraordinary rendition. In other words, he wants the Geneva Conventions to hold for us as well.

He expects resistance and efforts to evade these new rules. But he wants the leaders of the nation to hold firm:

In short, the new executive orders are full of promise, They overturn illegal and immoral tactics in the defense of national security. But they do not mean that the struggle is over.

America's greatest strength is its principles -- it would be sad if we would continue to circumvent them to protect ourselves. If we do, then what makes us who we are?

Thursday, February 26, 2009

The Scope of Evolution

In reading Karl Giberson's Saving Darwin, which I shall shortly review in full, I was struck by the possibilities presented by Evolution as an explanatory mechanism. I've already noted how Evolution is more complex and difficult to integrate with a definition of the scientific method that is rooted in physics, but the question is: how does this complexity manifest itself?

The amazing thing is the explanatory scope of Evolutionary theory. Giberson writes:

The theory of evolution is a vast and complicated network of interlocking explanatory concepts tying together everything from the age of fossil bones to similarities between human and chimp DNA. There is, quite simply, a mountain of evidence from multiple sources supporting evolution. Organized by evolutionary theory, this mountain of evidence becomes a comprehensible and manageable landscape. Without evolutionary theory, it disappears into the clouds, a hidden and impenetrable mystery of unexplained patterns. (Karl Giberson, Saving Darwin, HarperOne, p. 194).

And what are some of these distinct areas and patterns that evolution explains? Giberson suggests at least five important ones:

  1. The fossil record
  2. Biogeography (the distribution of species around the world)
  3. Comparative anatomy (eg. five fingers in mammals -- from the bat to humans)
  4. Developmental Similarities (embryology)
  5. Comparative biochemistry/physiology (eg. DNA)
Neither Intelligent Design nor Creationism has a mechanism to explain any of these factors.

The Hidden Dialogue -- Sightings

Is the existence of God reasonable? That is the question that folks like Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris ask. Their answer is no. Of course, when it comes to the definition of God provided, many of us believers answer -- we don't believe in that God either. So part of the question has to do with something other than existence, it has to do with the nature of God.

In today's Sightings posting Thomas Zebrowski, a Ph.D. candidate from the University of Chicago, interacts with a recent book by Michael Novak, which appeals to the God of "ancient deism." Apparently Novak thinks this God is thoroughly reasonable (it's the God of Plato and Aristotle), but is it the same God as the one found in the biblical faith. Zebrowski isn't convinced by Novak's case. Are you? Take a read and offer a thought.


Sightings 2/26/09

The Hidden Dialogue
--Thomas Zebrowski

The public debate about God in which the writings of Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, and Dinesh D’Souza, among others, are prominent is more obviously focused on the existence than the nature of the divine. Yet the second topic is very relevant to many of the issues being disputed.

In No One Sees God: The Dark Night of Atheists and Believers, Michael Novak says the notion of God he aims to establish in his new contribution to the discussion is that of “ancient deism” rather than the one proper to Jewish and Christian faith. Novak wants to show that in the West there is a rich tradition of rational reflection on God to which biblical believers can appeal in their discussions with those atheists who deny that belief in God is reasonable. Greater recognition of this fact among discussants on both sides of the theistic divide should help facilitate formation of a “new habit of reasoned and mutually respectful conversation” between them.

Novak mostly assumes a harmony between ancient deism and biblical faith, representing whatever differs in Christianity and Judaism from Platonic and Aristotelian speculation as a supernatural content that can be grafted onto their rational philosophies. And this approach is consistent with what Novak wrote several years ago: “I do not think that faith and reason are at war with one another, or alternatives, or rivals. On the contrary, Jewish and Christian faith give reasons why reason is to be trusted, cultivated, furthered, celebrated. It is no accident that Western civilization has long been a happy (if not quarrel-free) marriage of Jerusalem and Athens.”

But the harmony of faith and reason is not necessarily the same thing as the harmony of biblical theology and Greek philosophy, that is, of Jerusalem and Athens literally speaking. Certain intimations both within Novak’s book and in his ongoing dialogue with Heather MacDonald suggest rather that the God of ancient natural theology differs from the God of the Bible substantially enough to put classical philosophical ethics at odds with biblical morality in important respects. For now, this problem takes a back seat to the more pressing challenge of getting atheists and theists talking to one another productively. Should the two sides actually reengage each other on the basis of ancient deism, however, eventually they may find themselves confronted by the possibility that Athens represents a quite different way of understanding God’s relation to human life than does Jerusalem.

Novak has not exactly skirted the issue, for he concedes the Bible offers a personal God of freedom, love, wrath, and care. By contrast, “Greek nous (in its highest, purest formulations) is not the biblical God,” is “relatively unaware of human conduct, even unconcerned with it,” a God of “irony and tragedy.” And divine indifference to human affairs is not compatible with particular providence or with love for humans and judgment on their acts – rather, it is the negation of these characteristics. This would seem to write out of the picture metaphysical supports for the moral life that, as an orthodox Christian, Novak occasionally represents as essential. But Novak then positively obscures this difference when he later equates the choice of whether to believe in a theistic or atheistic universe with whether or not to live in one that is “personal through and through.” Because Novak says the classical deists whom he invokes in theology’s support did not believe in a world founded upon a personal reality, ultimately Novak seems to lose sight of the ethical importance of debates about God’s nature.

This subject also lies at the root of the old “problem of evil” that Novak discusses with MacDonald. Why is she open to the idea of “ancient deism” even while seeing the world’s suffering and injustice as evidence against God’s existence? It’s because the deistic God is a subsistent idea or a prime mover but not the kind of Creator one thinks of as having personal responsibility for what happens to humans. Biblical religion’s personal deity was what made the problem of evil a central question for philosophical theology in the first place.

Novak’s attempt at showing that God is a “loving, beneficent Father” by retracing Plato’s and Aristotle’s arguments that we have a divine good is by itself unconvincing. Something like his beloved eros of inquiry did lead these philosophers to propose that our summum bonum depends upon and culminates in knowledge of the divine. But they are silent about that being’s love and benevolent concern for us. Compared to Jehovah, the Greeks’ God can appear heartless. That difference could make all the difference in the world.


Novak, No One Sees God (Doubleday, 2008).

Novak, The Universal Hunger for Liberty: Why the Clash of Civilization is Not Inevitable (Basic Books, 2006).

Thomas Zebrowski is a Ph.D. Candidate in Ethics at the University of Chicago Divinity School and a former junior fellow in the Martin Marty Center.


February's Religion and Culture Web Forum features an excerpt from Jeffrey Shandler's forthcoming book Jews, God, and Videotape: Religion and Media in America (NYU Press, 2009) wherein Shandler, professor of Jewish Studies at Rutgers University, examines the use of new media by the ultra-Orthodox Lubavitcher hasidim.

Formal responses to Shandler's "The Virtual Rebbe" will be posted throughout the month by Sarah Imhoff (PhD candidate, University of Chicago Divinity School), Faye Ginsburg (New York University), and Ellen Koskoff (Eastman School of Music, University of Rochester).


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

About that Waste

It's interesting to watch Republican lawmakers chant the "wasteful spending" mantra. Those evil Democrats, they say, they want to just "spend, spend, spend." Somehow they forget that George W. Bush, a Republican, was President for the past 8 years. Barack Obama, last I knew, had been in office for all of one month, and five days. So, much of the problem isn't of his making.

The question is, where were those fiscal hawk Republicans during the Bush era?

I didn't watch the Bobby Jindal rejoinder to Barack Obama's speech. Of course, I never watched the Democratic response to GW's speeches. Most of the time they're forgettable. Apparently this one was memorable for how bad it was. His only rejoinder, apparently was -- there'll be wasteful spending, pointing to a volcano monitoring station in Alaska. And who is governor of Alaska? Oh, it's Sarah Palin!

Gail Collins has written a great column about dead trees. It's about waste and the likelihood that there will be waste somewhere along the line in this stimulus bill. In spite of every effort expended by the Obama administration to make sure there isn't waste, much of the money will be funneled through the hands of governors -- like Jindal -- and mayors and other local officials. Our own governor has told mayors to be careful how they spend the money!

Collins also notes that some of the biggest "anti-waste" hollering is coming from representatives of states like Alaska and Louisiana that get the most federal money.

Louisiana has gotten $130 billion in post-Katrina aid. How is it that the stars of the Republican austerity movement come from the states that suck up the most federal money? Taxpayers in New York send way more to Washington than they get back so more can go to places like Alaska and Louisiana. Which is fine, as long as we don’t have to hear their governors bragging about how the folks who elected them want to keep their tax money to themselves. Of course they do! That’s because they’re living off ours.

I think I read somewhere that Michigan sends out more money than it gets back from the Feds, and if I remember correctly there was a lot of complaining about Detroit getting loans for the auto industry.

So, yeah, there'll be some waste -- we're humans. But if that's the extent of the GOP plan, complain about waste, it shows that at least for now, the idea deficit is theirs to own!

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Turn Around -- An Ash Wednesday Sermon

Joel 2:1-2, 12-19

Perhaps you’ve driven down a road to nowhere. You think you know where you’re going, but then the road runs out, and you find yourself sitting in a field. You’ve taken a wrong turn, and now you’re lost. At that point, you don’t have any other choice, except to turn around and retrace your steps, hoping that you’ll find your way home.

When we hear these words of Scripture from Joel, what we hear is a wake up call. Joel says to the people of Israel on behalf of God:

Blow the trumpet in Zion; sound the alarm on my holy mountain! Let all the inhabitants of the land tremble, for the day of the Lord is coming it is near — (Joel 2:1).

As we begin our Lenten journey tonight, we start with an invitation to reconsider the direction of our lives. Joel calls on us to think about whether or not we’re heading in the right direction. And then, should we discover that we’re heading in the wrong direction, we find ourselves being called upon to turn around and head the other direction.

It’s appropriate that we come together on a rainy evening to observe Ash Wednesday, because it casts a dark shadow over our lives. It marks us with a sign of death, grief, and repentance. It’s a call for change and transformation. This journey of transformation and change continues on through Good Friday to the glories of Easter Sunday. We get to enjoy Easter Sunday, but we have a difficult journey ahead.

This is a time of reflection and repentance. Like Jesus, we will be tested in the deserts of our lives, and as we face these tests we are forced to look inward, and as we do, we again hear Joel’s wake up call.

When Joel spoke these words, Israel was in a difficult situation. They were suffering, probably from a drought, and Joel suggests that their sufferings are the result of the choices they have made. They chose this path, and now it’s time to reconsider and return to God. As dark and foreboding as this message is, there is within it a word of hope. It’s not too late to change course.

Yet even now return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and
with mourning; rend your hearts not your clothing
(Joel 2:12-13a).

Joel says to them and to us: If you want to experience God's restoring grace, then first take responsibility for your lives. Don't blame your problems on someone else. Rending your clothes, however, won’t cut it. Without a change of heart, no ceremony or gesture will resolve the problem. Ceremony without true heartfelt repentance won't solve the problem. But, if we will turn around, take responsibility, and embrace the ways of God, then our hearts will be unbound and we will experience God’s grace and mercy and we will be "abounding in steadfast love.” Then we will know that God has relented from his word of judgment. (Joel 2:13b). We may suffer the consequences of our actions, but in the end we will be restored to right relationship with God and with one another.

We have come here tonight to stand before God, even if we continue to break our covenant, knowing that God is faithful and that God will not abandon us or reject us. But first, we must turn around, and return to the fold. We do this tonight, as we receive this sign of the ash, confess our sins before God and each other, and receive God’s forgiveness, knowing that as we do we might experience a day of new beginnings.

Preached by:

Dr. Robert D. Cornwall
Pastor, Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, MI
Ash Wednesday
February 25, 2009
Image from Jan Richardson, Artful Ashes

Thoughts on a Presidential Address

I watched Barack Obama's Address to the Joint Session of Congress -- and to the people of the United States. I've not looked closely at what the pundits have to say. I've not checked the Dow. So, these thoughts are mine.

I know that not every one agreed with his thoughts and statements. It was, for him, an opportunity to lay out his vision and agenda. It is a lofty one, full of peril and promise. But at a time like this, what else can a President do? To sit back and let the market run its course could lead to disaster. Of course, taking a more activist course could also do damage. Only time will tell. He needed to do two things last night. He needed to acknowledge the depths of the problems and then reassure the nation that our best days are ahead of us. He had to be both prophet and cheerleader. I expect that each of us will interpret the words and the tone and the expressions differently, but I felt he did what he needed to do. In the very beginning, he came right out and set the parameters:

But while our economy may be weakened and our confidence shaken; though we are living through difficult and uncertain times, tonight I want every American to know this:

We will rebuild, we will recover, and the United States of America will emerge stronger than before.

In the course of the speech he lifted up the challenges and then laid out his vision for the recovery plan (which all by 3 Republican Senators voted against), as well as his budget vision. He laid out a vision that is long term, rather than simply short term. There was a lot of applause (mainly from the Democratic side). When he got to foreign policy, I thought he laid out a good foundation, and he affirmed the principle that America does not and will not use torture.

He concluded his speech with this call for America to come together, knowing that we don't all agree on the solutions to the problems. But, he affirmed the principle that we all love our country, and want it to succeed.

I know that we haven’t agreed on every issue thus far, and there are surely times in the future when we will part ways. But I also know that every American who is sitting here tonight loves this country and wants it to succeed. That must be the starting point for every debate we have in the coming months, and where we return after those debates are done. That is the foundation on which the American people expect us to build common ground.

And if we do – if we come together and lift this nation from the depths of this crisis; if we put our people back to work and restart the engine of our prosperity; if we confront without fear the challenges of our time and summon that enduring spirit of an America that does not quit, then someday years from now our children can tell their children that this was the time when we performed, in the words that are carved into this very chamber, “something worthy to be remembered.” Thank you, God Bless you, and may God Bless the United States of America.

So, I was pleased with the content, and after eight years of George Bush, enjoyed the quality of the speech itself. Oratory and eloquence are not, as some would have us believe, bad qualities. Yes, demagoguery isn't useful, but good oratorical skills can be useful, especially in times like this!

A Reflection for Ash Wednesday

Each year John McCauslin, a member and elder of Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), edits a Lenten Devotional, drawing from the members and friends of the congregation. I'd like to share one of today's reflections -- there is another inside the document -- and invite you to make use of this thoughtful resource in your Lenten Journey. This reflection is written by Elmer Morehouse, an elder and leader and friend. Click here to go to the document. I believe you will be blessed by your time spent here.


Wednesday, February 25, 2009
Ash Wednesday
1 Thessalonians 1—5 (all) and Philippians 4:4–7 (Next Page)
1 Thessalonians 1:1-7

1:1 Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy, To the church of the Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ: Grace to you and peace. 2 We always give thanks to God for all of you and mention you in our prayers, constantly 3 remembering before our God and Father your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ. 4 For we know, brothers and sisters beloved by God, that he has chosen you, 5 because our message of the gospel came to you not in word only, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction; just as you know what kind of persons we proved to be among you for your sake. 6 And you became imitators of us and of the Lord, for in spite of persecution you received the word with joy inspired by the Holy Spirit, 7 so that you became an example to all the believers in Macedonia and in Achaia.

Like Paul, Silvanius and Timothy, we each have not only a legacy of each other in “our church”(we are prone to call it fellowship), but we also have the legacy of the faith of Judaism, the prophets and the many others that carried the message of the “one true God” throughout the centuries. What a legacy these carriers of the message have left to each of us throughout the ages. Christ carried “the message” to us once again. Even though he was the Son of God, he gave his life for us on the cruel cross, the final sacrifice for our sins, that we may have everlasting life. We need to continue as carriers of this message as a missional church. We need to work and pray each day that we become a part of the message, forever …….and forever……Amen.

Prayer: In God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, Grace to you and Peace. Amen.

Elmer Morehouse

An Ash Wednesday Prayer

O Jesus, you place on my forehead
the sign of your saving Cross:
“Turn from sin and be faithful
to the gospel.”

How can I turn from sin
unless I turn to you?

You speak, you raise your hand,
you touch my mind and call my name,
“Turn to the Lord your God again.”

These days of your favor
leave a blessing as you pass
on me and all your people.
Turn to us, Lord God,
and we shall turn to you.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

A rant against the poor

As a new first time home owner part of me isn't sympathetic to those who bought larger than they could afford. But then we were told that America was supposed to be an ownership society. The economy seemed to be heading endlessly upward. The Dow reached nearly 15000. Bank stocks, two of which we owned, were heading upwards. We continued renting because buying in Santa Barbara is an impossibility for the middle class. The 40 year old 1500 square foot house we were renting would have gone for probably 800,000 as a fixer upper.

We bought at just the right time, when prices were tumbling but the credit had yet to freeze. We refinanced because the value of our house remained stable, but had you bought a house, lets say 2 years ago, the value of your house may have dropped 30 or 40%. You can't refinance, because the house isn't worth what you paid for it. If you lost your job, how do you make the payments? I'm fortunate. I have a stable job that pays enough to pay the house payment.

I write this as context. I didn't see the Rick Santelli rant against Barack Obama's housing program, which suggested that Obama would reward losers for making bad decisions. I hear it was quite popular. Indeed, as I read the comments to a Chicago Sun Times essay written by my friend Diana Butler Bass in response to Santelli, I saw little sympathy or support. Diana told the story of a widow, who had been suckered into a bad mortgage refinancing that allowed her to pay off bills, but when the economy went south she became in danger of losing everything.

Diana writes:

Mary is not a loser. Mary is a victim of the greed of members of Santelli's business class -- people who made money off the plight of a grieving widow and, as I can only imagine, thousands and thousands of good people like her. People who believed that if they worked hard, one day their neighbors might take care of them if they were in need -- people who both made and believed in the American dream.

These are difficult times. I recognize that many people made bad choices, some of which were based on promises sold to them by unscrupulous folk. Of course, some of those who sold the products themselves believed that the sky was the limit. Then the bubble burst and everyone is suffering.

Perhaps it's time for a bit of empathy, not just sympathy. Perhaps it's time to come together as a nation and find a solution. It won't be easy. Sacrifices will have to be made. But can't we find a way to help people stay in their homes. Foreclosed homes don't help the banks nor do they help the property values of the rest of us. Let's come and reason together!

Franciscans -- 800 years of ministry

Whether or not you're Roman Catholic, you probably have a positive view of St. Francis. He's a saint for us all. He speaks to our sense of mercy and grace. His view of creation is inviting and empowering. Well, today marks the 800th Anniversary of the founding of the Franciscan Order -- February 24, 1209.

This description is found at Wikipedia:

At the end of this period (according to Jordanus, on 24 February 1209), Francis heard a sermon that changed his life. The sermon was about Matthew 10:9, in which Christ tells his followers that they should go forth and proclaim that the Kingdom of Heaven was upon them, that they should take no money with them, nor even a walking stick or shoes for the road.[2] Francis was inspired to devote himself to a life of poverty.[2]

Clad in a rough garment, barefoot, and, after the Evangelical precept, without staff or scrip, he began to preach repentance.[2] He was soon joined by his first follower, a prominent fellow townsman, the jurist Bernardo di Quintavalle, who contributed all that he had to the work. Within a year Francis had eleven followers. Francis chose never to be ordained a priest and the community lived as "lesser brothers," fratres minores in Latin.[2]

The brothers lived a simple life in the deserted lazar house of Rivo Torto near Assisi; but they spent much of their time wandering through the mountainous districts of Umbria, always cheerful and full of songs, yet making a deep impression on their hearers by their earnest exhortations.[2]

In 1209 Francis led his first eleven followers to Rome to seek permission from Pope Innocent III to found a new religious order.[9] Upon entry to Rome, the brothers encountered Bishop Guido of Assisi, who had in his company Giovanni di San Paolo, the cardinal bishop of Sabina. The Cardinal, who was the confessor of Pope Innocent III, was immediately sympathetic to Francis and agreed to represent Francis to the pope. Reluctantly, Pope Innocent agreed to meet with Francis and the brothers the next day. After several days, the pope agreed to informally admit the group, adding that when God increased the group in grace and number, they could return for an official admittance. The group was tonsured and Francis was ordained as a deacon, allowing him to read Gospels in the church.[10]

Not the calling to a life of poverty and service. Note too the Pope who authorized this movement -- Innocent III. Innocent was one of the most politically powerful of any of the Popes. And yet he was willing to grant to this movement a commission.

So, today we celebrate their ministry -- which at times, as with any institution, has diverged from its founders goals.

Change and Transition in the Church

Gary Nelson writes in his book Borderland Churches (Chalice, 2008) that the only people comfortable with change are those in control of it. That's why clergy often, but not always, tend to be ahead of the curve on change -- we have more control over it.

As a pastor I've been open to change and have tried to lead change in my congregations. In my first congregation the change that occurred was my finding a new position. The second congregation was ready for change -- but not sure what that meant. They had had a bad experience and much of what had been was coming to an end and we had to rebuild -- which we did. Now, in my new congregation, there is openness to change, but wariness as well. They too had been hurt, but not only that, they were and are having to let go of what was once a great metropolitan ministry. Fifty years ago they were the megachurch, with a nationally known preacher. Things don't stay the stay the same. Today's mega-church may be tomorrow's struggling congregation.

This brings me to a post by Will Willimon about change and transition. He starts with a reflection on church music. He notes that many churches are re-examining their contemporary worship services. What is considered contemporary is getting a bit old and staid. They are discovering that there is a move to ancient-future or emergent forms -- which blend old and new to form new ways of worship. Hey, there might even be a new interest in the organ!

The words change and transition are important -- change is external, while transition is internal. Borrowing from a book by William Bridges, Willimon suggests three phases or stages in the change/transition process.

Endings: Change begins when something ends -- it involves pain and grief, but its necessary.

Neutral zone: This is that inbetween time and it can be both uncomfortable and an opportunity for innovation. A good interim ministry fits this time, for it allows a congregation time to prepare for a new day.

New Beginnings: Here the church is more comfortable with what will be. They've gone through the dark night of the soul, and while not everyone is on board, the majority see a new way forward.

Willimon writes of this stage, following William Bridges:

How do leaders help in times of New Beginnings? Bridges says we must do four things: Give people new sense of Purpose – help people understand the purpose behind the changes. Picture – help people imagine the future and how it will feel. Plan: outline steps and schedule when people will receive information, evaluation, support and training. Give people a part to play: help people understand their new role and relationship to the new world.

And then we start all over again! Change tends to come in waves and in any healthy institution, change is constant. There is always something else to be fixed, some new task to be assumed. The leader doesn’t have to manage it all, but is there to interpret, reassure, and encourage. If our church is to keep up with the movements of the risen Christ, we are going to all have to gain more skills in constant change and transition.

Ah, yes, change never ends! What is contemporary today is old hat tomorrow. Just remember, there was a time when the King James Version was considered cutting edge!

Monday, February 23, 2009

Commodification -- Sightings

A new source of pride is hitting the nation -- in these dark and dismal times -- it's called "frugalism." Martin Marty opines today!


Sightings 2/23/09

-- Martin E. Marty

The Pope (John Paul II) was right. The World Council of Churches was right. The preacher down the block was right. The "moderate evangelicals" were right. The first had a perfect record against collectivization; the second had a mixed record, but was positive on this; the third reached a hundred or half a thousand per week preaching "You cannot serve God and Mammon;" the fourth were buffeted in response by evangelical kin who preached "the prosperity gospel" or the "gospel that God blessed only 'free enterprise.'" In their own ways their criticisms and warnings were directed against "commodification", whether of labor, leisure, or life. They were not whiners or grumps or exempt from the need for self-criticism, but they were serious, and therefore usually unheard and unheeded.

They do not lack platforms or pulpits today. We see illustrations and confirmations of the problems that occurred when devotion to commodities ruled and commodification set the terms for most of life. Colleague Jean Bethke Elshtain, in my aged and crumbling printout from the 2002 edition of Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture, celebrated the late Pope's Laborum Exercens, his "social encyclical" which "shares the basic assumption of Catholic social thought that God created human beings as brothers and sisters, not as enemies…" John Paul II demonstrated his difference from Hobbes and Machiavelli and Marx who "assume worlds of enmity, treachery, manipulation, and conflict." With the mortal struggle against Communism behind him, he took on orders called "Capitalist" and its cognates, and warned against the trend to measure everything as commodity, as hyper-ability to amass and worship wealth, et cetera.

Today Sightings has bulging files which document where "enmity, treachery, manipulation, and conflict" were consuming us. Documents now come not just from papal and conciliar warnings but in news reporting in The Economist, The Wall Street Journal, and your daily paper—if yours has survived. My breakfast encyclical on February 21st included a story by Tom Hundley in the Chicago Tribune. His account shows how pride, not long ago, focused on what luxuries one could buy and own. He quotes one Cecelia Dames, "an expat Midwesterner" who came back from Europe to a changed world. She observes: "Conspicuous consumption is out…Conspicuous frugality is in." Hundley reports on "the new braggers" who boast of their success in getting bargains at thrift shops, and are now scaling down the goodies they offer friends at parties

Hundley offers new terms—new to me, at least—such as "frugalista" and "luxury shame" ("a sense that even if you can still afford it, it's best not to make a show of it"). Dames: "Maybe [those who adjust, and brag] seem ostentatious about [frugality] because they have to embrace it." Paul Harris in Britain's Guardian: "For three decades, American culture has celebrated the glories of unabashed capitalism and the ideals of the rich. No longer. Frugalism is taking hold." What remains to be seen is whether the collapse of everything—of global markets, shopaholicism, et cetera—are replaced by culture-wide adjustments to a changed world, to fresh thought that can inspire more than bragging.

Sightings monitors media on fronts like these, and will report when reporters give accounts about trends that go deeper, adjustments in the soul and the visions of life that everyone has to come up with in these days of drastic and sudden change.

Martin E. Marty's biography, current projects, upcoming events, publications, and contact information can be found at
February's Religion and Culture Web Forum features an excerpt from Jeffrey Shandler's forthcoming book Jews, God, and Videotape: Religion and Media in America (NYU Press, 2009) wherein Shandler, professor of Jewish Studies at Rutgers University, examines the use of new media by the ultra-Orthodox Lubavitcher hasidim. Formal responses to Shandler's "The Virtual Rebbe" will be posted throughout the month by Sarah Imhoff (PhD candidate, University of Chicago Divinity School), Faye Ginsburg (New York University), and Ellen Koskoff (Eastman School of Music, University of Rochester).
Sightings comes from the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School.

Star Trek Returns

Okay, I may not go to Star Trek Conventions, nor do I wear those funny ears, but I have long been a Star Trek fan. I even liked Star Trek 1, which wasn't all that good. Still, as much as I like Star Wars, nothing beats Star Trek.

So, I am excited about the upcoming prequel to the 60's era show. In the next edition of Star Trek we meet James T. Kirk and Mr. Spock -- in the early days, before the 5 year mission. Below is the trailer, and if the movie is half as exciting as the trailer -- we're in for a great movie. Well, at least for us Trekkers!

H/T to Connexions

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Reforming a Tradition of Transformation

I've not gotten very far in my responsibilities as a "theo-blogger" for the Transforming Theology Project. But, I'm trying to understand the principles and processes of this project by listening to and responding to the thoughts of Philip Clayton, which have helpfully been placed on YouTube and thus on the transforming theology blog!

In this brief posting Philip Clayton wrestles with reformation and tradition. He suggests that church history is really the history of a series of challenges, which no one at the time knows how to resolve, and yet works to find a solution. That is the principle of the Reformation -- Semper Reformata, "always reforming." The foundation of the Progressive Christian project is to take this to heart.

Take a listen and offer your thoughts to this question of reforming the tradition, so that theology and the church might be transformed!

Defining Science

There is this constant argument going on between pro- and anti-evolutionist groups. That argument centers around the definition of science, with both sides charging the other with trading in ideology rather than science. Standing at the center of the debate is the nature of scientific study itself.

I am not a scientist, though I like reading about science. That means that there is much I don't know. So, I hadn't thought about it before reading Karl Giberson's Saving Darwin (HarperOne, 2008), but I think I finally understand why we keep having such unfruitful discussions about evolution. The problem is that our definition of the scientific method essentially derives from physics, but biology, and with it evolution, isn't quite the same thing as physics.

Giberson notes that many creationists and Intelligent Design theorists like to point to a definition set out by Karl Popper, the philosopher of science, and a method modeled by Einstein's theory of relativity. Einstein had set out the principle of relativity, suggesting that light would be warped by space. An astronomer picked up on the challenge, tested it, and proved to be correct.

Giberson notes that Popper took this situation and based his own definition of science upon it. Giberson writes, according to Popper:

All genuinely scientific theories, he argued, must make novel predictions about unknown phenomena. These predictions must be articulated so clearly that they can be conclusively refuted by observation. And if the predictions fail, the theory has been falsified. If a theory cannot make such falsifiable predictions, then it cannot claim to be scientific (p. 186).

Because evolutionary theory is complex and dependent on history, it didn't lend itself well to Popper's definition, leading him to declare Darwinism, along with Marxism and Freudianism, pseudosciences.

Creationists have picked up on this and charged that evolution is not science but ideology. Now as Giberson points out, Popper later recanted, but Creationists and ID folk don't note that change of heart. Unfortunately, many supporters of evolution make use of this same definition in arguing against Creationism and ID -- so both sides are making major mistakes.

The problem here is that the combatants are applying principles that derive from physics and apply them to biology. Physics, unlike biology, lends itself well to such a principle.

Physical theories present their conclusions in tidy mathematical equations -- think E=mc2. The relevant phenomena can be demonstrated in laboratory experiments and in public displays at science museums. Impressive technological spin-offs bathe the underlying science in the warm glow of credibility. Evolution, alas, offers nothing but vague generalities -- "the fittest survive" -- and invokes entities like "common ancestors" or processes like "speciation," for which the evidence is often depressingly small and indirect. . . . (p. 188).

He goes onto note that the disciplines are quite different and so the definitions don't apply equally. Physics is simple and thus words like elegance and beauty fit well. Their theories are neat and testable, but biology is quite different. So, here we have conundrum -- how do we define science? Not as easy to do as we once thought!

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Biology and Belief -- Reflections

With Charles Darwin's 200th birthday just barely in our rear view mirror, it is useful to contemplate the connections between science and faith. I've just begun reading Philip Clayton's Adventures in the Spirit: God, World, Divine Action (Fortress, 2008). Clayton posits a new context for theology, a context in which there are significant questions about the viability of the Christian tradition (p. 23). Science plays a significant role in this conversation -- and it would appear that for Clayton the dialogue with science is an important one.

With that as a back drop, Time Magazine published an intriguing article last week entitled "The Biology of Belief: Science and religion argue all the time, but they increasingly agree on one thing: a little spirituality may be very good for your health," by Jeffrey Kluger. In the article Kluger explores the ongoing research that suggests that religious people are much more likely to live longer and healthier lives. Now, this conversation can go two ways -- it can suggest proof of religion's validity -- though it doesn't appear that doctrine is a factor. One caveat on that last statement -- health is more likely to improve if you believe in a benevolent/loving God than if you believe in a wrathful one.

Now, all of this could offer support for religion, but it could also suggest that religion is a biological/evolutionary development. We needed God so we created God?

Here's what's surprising: a growing body of scientific evidence suggests that faith may indeed bring us health. People who attend religious services do have a lower risk of dying in any one year than people who don't attend. People who believe in a loving God fare better after a diagnosis of illness than people who believe in a punitive God. No less a killer than AIDS will back off at least a bit when it's hit with a double-barreled blast of belief. "Even accounting for medications," says Dr. Gail Ironson, a professor of psychiatry and psychology at the University of Miami who studies HIV and religious belief, "spirituality predicts for better disease control." (Read "Finding God on YouTube.")

The article discusses how scientists have been able to show how prayer and meditation effect certain parts of the brain. For instance, meditation seems to effect the frontal lobes of the brain so as to improve memory. From the article we learn that science is doing all kinds of studies that show interesting results.

What is interesting is that people in the medical field are beginning to wrestle with ways of drawing in faith -- or at least being open to it -- as a way of improving their patients' healing opportunities.

While churches are growing increasingly willing to accept the assistance of health-care experts, doctors and hospitals have been slower to seek out the help of spiritual counselors. The fear has long been that patients aren't interested in asking such spiritually intimate questions of their doctors, and the doctors, for their part, would be uncomfortable answering them. But this turns out not to be true. When psychologist Jean Kristeller of Indiana State University conducted a survey of oncologists, she found that a large proportion of them did feel it was appropriate to talk about spiritual issues with patients and to offer a referral if they weren't equipped to address the questions themselves. They didn't do so simply because they didn't know how to raise the topic and feared that their patients would take offense, in any event. When patients were asked, they insisted that they'd welcome such a conversation but that their doctors had never initiated one. What both groups needed was someone to break the ice. (See pictures of Billy Graham, America's Pastor.)

Kristeller, who had participated in earlier work exploring how physicians could help their patients quit smoking, recalled a short — five- to seven-minute — conversation that the leader of a study had devised to help doctors address the problem. The recommended dialogue conformed to what's known as patient-centered care — a clinical way of saying doctors should ask questions then clam up and listen to the answers. In the case of smoking, they were advised merely to make their concern known to patients, then ask them if they'd ever tried to quit before. Depending on how that first question was received, they could ask when those earlier attempts had been made, whether the patients would be interested in trying again and, most important, if it was all right to follow up on the conversation in the future. "The more patient-centered the conversations were, the more impact they had," Kristeller says.

It is interesting to read this article. From a faith perspective, as one who has spent time as an on call chaplain for a local hospital and who as a pastor goes into hospital rooms and prays, I'm intrigued about how we might be partners with medicine. I don't believe that it's an either or -- medicine or prayer. I think they go together. But, the question is how do we connect with each other?

The article offers intriguing possibilities for our consideration. It fits into Clayton's suggestion that science will prove to be an important and challenging partner in our theological and pastoral conversations.

Netanyahu: Ideologue or Pragmatist

The immediate future for the middle east remains a bit cloudy. We don't know what will happen in Iraq or Iran in the near or long term. Pakistan really isn't part of the Middle East, but it is a player.

But at the center of the Middle East is and always will be Israel and its erstwhile Palestinian partner/enemy. Benyamin Netanyahu has long had a hard edged perspective on the issues. As leader of Likud he has opposed the current negotiations, favored expanding West Bank settlements, and opposed a 2-state solution. Now, he's suggesting that he, like Barack Obama, is a pragmatist.

In an article in the New York Times today, reporter Ethan Bronner writes:

But when he was prime minister a decade ago he explored the issue through an American intermediary. The Israeli election campaign in recent weeks tilted rightward after the war in Gaza, so he may have been campaigning rather than revealing his true intentions. Those on the left who dislike Mr. Netanyahu say they hope he is as personally ambitious as they suspect and that pressure from Washington will produce results.

“I don’t think he has much compunction in sacrificing an ideological position as long as it keeps him in power,” said Yaron Ezrahi, a liberal political scientist at Hebrew University. “We either need a prime minister who is ideologically committed to a two-state solution and has the power to move the country in that direction, or a very flexible opportunist who appears committed to the right but acts according to what is necessary.”

So, the question is -- Is Netanyahu a rigid ideologue or an ambitious pragmatist? If it's the latter there may be hope for peace. But at the same time, the question is: Will his envisioned solutions be acceptable to Palestinians? Again, time will tell.

Friday, February 20, 2009

My name is Origen!

I think I did this one before -- or at least I've done several like it. If I were a Church Father who would I be?

Well, apparently Origen, that 3rd Century liberal and allegorist.

You’re Origen!

You do nothing by half-measures. If you’re going to read the Bible, you want to read it in the original languages. If you’re going to teach, you’re going to reach as many souls as possible, through a proliferation of lectures and books. If you’re a guy and you’re going to fight for purity … well, you’d better hide the kitchen shears.

Find out which Church Father you are at The Way of the Fathers!

Jazz Spirituality -- Reflections on a Theme

I love jazz! I'm listening to Coltrane and Monk as I write. It is an idiom that is dynamic and innovative. It takes from the past and reinvents it. Coltrane, Monk, Davis, Rollins, Brubeck, Desmond, just to name a few who have blessed us with music that is unforgettable and challenging.

This morning I spent time with my minister of music -- who is a master of the organ and the piano, and willing to go where the Spirit is leading us as a congregation -- and the representative of a company that builds and rebuilds pipe organs. Our organ, which dates back to 1928, though only the console and half the ranks of pipes remains from what was one of the grand church organs of Detroit. It is in need of something to be determined. Our hope (our minister of music and me) is that what emerges from this effort is an instrument that is versatile enough that it will support a truly modern or contemporary worship -- not contemporary in the sense of a praise band (though I'm not averse to having one) but a worship that is expansive enough that we can include and embrace the full spectrum of musical expression. One of those expressions I do hope to include is jazz -- in part because I love jazz, but also because it offers so much to us.

In a brief essay for the Transforming Theology blog, Thomas Reynolds of Emmanuel College, Toronto, reflects on jazz and spirituality. He explores the dimensions of jazz and the way in which it can enliven and enrich not only worship but the very theological efforts that we undertake together. He suggests three dimensions of jazz that can open up theology and transform it.

In the first place he suggests that jazz is "it is dynamic, restless and searching." Dynamism -- yes -- after all the word dynamism derives from the Greek for power. There is power in jazz, and its a power that allows us to break free of convention: "the musician deliberately seeks to break free from constraining mechanisms in order to pry open a passageway to something more, to new forms of variation and novelty."

Secondly, he suggests that jazz has a "relational content." Yes, the jazz soloist is an individual, but that individual needs the rest of the band to accomplish this effort.

While the improviser gives voice to his or her own unique interpretation of the music, this is only possible in the incubator of what drummer Art Taylor calls “the jazz brotherhood.”4 Like Christianity and other spiritual heritages, jazz has its tradition. A collective consciousness indwells the jazz musician.

Finally, jazz has a sense of "openness." It requires letting go, letting things happen as they will, even if that means making mistakes (and then integrating the mistakes).

Such letting go entails risk, and thus requires courage. For things could become undone; mistakes could be made. But the improviser moves forward nonetheless, perhaps even transforming mistakes into new possibilities. Space for error is required if space for creative advancement is also to exist.

Yes, there is need for decency and order in worship -- as Paul would have it -- but there is also a need for some rhythm and some blues and some joy and some syncopation. Yes, there is a place for jazz in our spirituality -- if only we're open to the journey!

Israeli Right Turn Confirmed

Well the news is in -- Benyamin Netanyahu has secured the necessary votes to become the next Prime Minister. It is a Right Wing coalition, with the fascist like Avigdor Lieberman as his primary junior partner. Netanyahu wants Kadima and Labor to join him, but Tzipi Livni has signaled she has no interest in joining such a coalition -- better for her to go into opposition than give moderate cover to a right wing agenda. Now, Netanyahu will have to decide how he'll approach the Palestinians -- he has no interest in a two-state solution or talking with the Palestinians -- and Iran -- he sounds quite provocative on that point.

Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton now have a major choice ahead. Do they give a green light to whatever Israel wants to do -- as the Bush Administration did -- or do they say no to expansion of settlements and abandonment of talks with the Palestinians? To give some teeth to this we must cut off military aid if Israel goes in a direction contrary to US interests in the region. In fact, Kadima and Labor are counting on us to do just that. If we give in to Likud, then they will set the agenda and our interests in the region will be not just hampered but likely compromised in signicant and dangerous ways. By not giving in, Netanyahu's reign will be short and hopefully not too damaging.

Although my position may seem anti-Israel, it really isn't. I believe that US policy has allowed Israel to develop policies that ultimately are destructive to its own welfare. If we had said no before, perhaps we wouldn't be in this position now.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Hyper-Muscular Christianity -- Sightings

For years we've been hearing about the feminization of religion. Go to any church and you're more likely to find women than men. Groups like Promise Keepers were designed to help counteract that image, to put the manliness back into Christianity. Real men, we were told, go to church. Of course, part of the message was a reinforcement of traditional patriarchal structures. Men were encouraged to become the "spiritual leaders" of the house, etc. Such groups generally oppose women in ministry -- how can a man experience a masculine faith if the preacher is a woman?

Of course, historically, while church leadership has generally been male, it has been women who have kept the spiritual home fires burning. Women generally were the ones who passed on the faith to the next generation -- while the men were off hunting/working.

More recently we've begun to see the emergence of a what Joseph Laycock calls here a "hyper-muscular Christianity," a muscular Christianity on steroids even. The most prominent of these purveyor's of the anti-sissy Christianity is Mark Driscoll. I do think you'll find this piece interesting! And maybe just a bit frightening as well.


Sightings 2/19/09

Hyper-Muscular Christianity

-- Joseph Laycock

In Seattle, self-described "charismatic Calvinist" Mark Driscoll preaches that "Jesus is a pride fighter with a tattoo down His leg, a sword in His hand, and the willingness to make someone bleed. That is a guy I can worship…I cannot worship a guy I can beat up." Justin Fatica, founder of the Catholic ministry group Hard as Nails, found a different way of demonstrating the rugged power of Christ when he appeared in an HBO documentary shouting "Jesus loves you!" as a colleague beat him with a folding chair.

Although Fatica is Catholic and Driscoll is Protestant, there are remarkable similarities between the two: Both were raised Catholic but had a lackadaisical approach to their faith until a conversion experience in their late teens (at age seventeen for Fatica, and age nineteen for Driscoll). Both men also emphasize their tough origins. Driscoll believes Jesus had calluses and does not hesitate to compare Joseph's vocation as a carpenter with his own father's career as a drywaller. Fatica comes from affluence but emphasizes that prior to his conversion he lived a shady, worldly life in New Jersey where he "hung out with some characters." These narratives generate the capital of manliness necessary for their sermons.

The preaching styles of Driscoll and Fatica–which are both controversial and confrontational–appear to be motivated by a concern that Jesus has been emasculated by a bloodless church that is more concerned with culture than salvation. They are not alone in this view. Fundamentalist cartoonist Jack Chick produces a comic tract entitled "The Sissy," in which a hirsute trucker named Duke mocks a fellow trucker's Christianity because "Jesus was a sissy." Have we actually reduced Jesus to, "a limp-wristed hippy in a dress with a lot of product in His hair," as Driscoll claims? Or are there other cultural forces behind these types of extreme preaching?

As Molly Worthen notes in a New York Times piece on Driscoll, men from Billy Sunday to the Promise Keepers have railed against the feminization of the church. "Muscular Christianity," which emphasized an ideal of vigorous masculinity, first appeared in Victorian England. The term was coined to describe the writings of Charles Kingsley and Thomas Hughes, who felt that sports and athleticism would produce Christians who were more fit for civic duty. Hughes and Kingsley also shared a concern over the changes of industrialism and worried whether traditional morality would be able to adapt.

Driscoll and Fatica appear to embody a sort of muscular Christianity on steroids. Rather than sports, Driscoll and Fatica tie Christianity to modern spectacles of violence. Fatica admits that his signature use of folding chairs is borrowed from World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE). Driscoll has organized an event called "Fighting with God" in which he discusses spiritual warfare with Christian athletes from the Ultimate Fighting Championship.

If Kingsley and Hughes were concerned about industrialism, Driscoll and Fatica seem to blame consumerism for feminizing Jesus. Driscoll writes in his book Vintage Jesus, "Jesus did not have Elton John or the Spice Girls on his iPod, The View on his TiVo, or a lemon-yellow Volkswagen Beetle in his garage." Tim Hanley, a speaker for Hard as Nails Ministries, has commented, "We've had enough of the facades and the fake people…We live in a world that's so fabricated." According to Worthen, the most popular movie at Driscoll's church is Fight Club, a tale of manly emancipation from consumer culture.

However, the perception that manliness must be restored to the church seems suspiciously linked the rise of women as well as gays and lesbians in the ministry. Another similarity between Driscoll and Fatica is that both have been cited making misogynistic comments. Fatica is known for pointing out overweight women in his audience and yelling, "You're fat!" He claims this is done to demonstrate the cruelty of consigning people to their categories. While Fatica encourages women to join the Hard as Nails ministry, Driscoll reminds his congregation that women must submit to their husbands and are forbidden from taking preaching roles. On his blog, Driscoll implied that Ted Haggard's wife contributed to his downfall: "A wife who lets herself go is not sexually available to her husband in the ways that the Song of Songs is so frank about is not responsible for her husband's sin, but she may not be helping him either." These comments beg the question: Is this hyper-muscular Christianity really a radical, transgressive approach to ministry? Or is it actually the death-throes of an outmoded patriarchy?


"Who Would Jesus Smack Down? Mark Driscoll–A Pastor with a Macho Conception of Christ," Molly Worthen, The New York Times, 6 January 2009.

"Controversial Preacher is 'Hard as Nails,'" John Donovan and Julia Hoppock, ABC, 20 June 2008.

Mark Driscoll, Vintage Jesus (Good News Publishers, 2008).

Joseph Laycock is a PhD student studying religion and society at Boston University, and the author of Vampires Today: The Truth About Modern Vampires (Praeger Publishers, 2009).


February's Religion and Culture Web Forum features an excerpt from Jeffrey Shandler's forthcoming book Jews, God, and Videotape: Religion and Media in America (NYU Press, 2009) wherein Shandler, professor of Jewish Studies at Rutgers University, examines the use of new media by the ultra-Orthodox Lubavitcher hasidim.

Formal responses to Shandler's "The Virtual Rebbe" will be posted throughout the month by Sarah Imhoff (PhD candidate, University of Chicago Divinity School), Faye Ginsburg (New York University), and Ellen Koskoff (Eastman School of Music, University of Rochester).


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