Thursday, April 30, 2009

The Continuing Responsibility of North-West Theologians in Global Christianity -- Sightings

On Monday Martin Marty's Sightings contribution focused on the changing demographics of Christianity, one that has pushed the demographic center to the South and to the East. That being said, John Stackhouse offers a follow-up that reminds us that as far as theological work/training the center remains in the North-West and will remain there for some time. In large part that is due to the simple fact that the majority of theological schools and active theologians are in the North-West (that is North America and Western Europe). Thus, as Stackhouse concludes, these theologians continue to have a major responsibility for the church's life.

Take a look and give your thoughts.


Sightings 4/30/09

The Continuing Responsibility of North-West Theologians in Global Christianity

--John G. Stackhouse, Jr.

As Martin Marty’s pointed out in this past Monday’s Sightings, “everyone knows” nowadays that Christian Europe is long over, and Christian North America is declining quickly as well. Africa, South America, and Asia, with their burgeoning populations of enthusiastic Christians, are where the action is. We are already two decades past the moment when the majority of the world's Christian population became non-Caucasian. Missionaries from those regions have streamed into the Global North-West to evangelize once-Christian lands. The centres of Christian influence will soon be, if they are not already, Nairobi, Lagos, Rio de Janeiro, Wenzhou, and Seoul.

Who can deny the obvious Christian demographic shift to the Global South? Yet some breathless exponents of these shifts are getting ahead of themselves in at least one respect. In particular, they are failing to observe two key correlations : theology costs money and it costs time.

I have just returned from a whirlwind lecture tour of four British universities: Liverpool Hope, Bristol, Edinburgh, and Cambridge. Yes, church attendance in the United Kingdom lags well behind the startling numbers in many southern countries. Yes, the Church of England seems a rather fractious and fractured remnant of a once-vital church. But as the visitor gazes at the buildings that house theological study in Britain, as one tours the libraries, and as one participates in conversations with scholars whose pedigrees go back centuries, one cannot help but be impressed by how much money and time lies behind the intellectual leadership North-Western theologians continue to exercise in world Christianity.

The early church had the well-trained rabbi Paul – someone steeped in Jewish tradition – as its intellectual leader. It took centuries for the church to produce anyone to rival him in intellectual power, and Augustine was largely the result of a classical tradition a millennium old, and only latterly of a much-younger Christian one. Not until its own (first) millennium had passed did the western church develop its earliest universities, and while brilliant theology had flourished here and there beforehand (Lyons, Alexandria, Antioch, Cappadocia), a large-scale and sustained intellectual tradition awaited the era of the high middle ages when European Christendom finally enjoyed sustained cultural wealth and stability.

Theological education has been going on, of course, in each of these new communities, some of whom in fact have centuries-old roots themselves. But in comparison with the lineages and legacies of Harvard or Oxford or Paris, or the wealth that produced theological training at Chicago or Duke or Toronto, it is clear where the theological center of gravity will remain for some time yet.

So of course North-Western theologians today should seek out the wisdom of Christian thinkers in these exciting new communities. Of course we have much to learn from brothers and sisters who labor to understand and articulate the gospel in contexts wonderfully and fruitfully different from our own.

But the simple fact is that North-Western theologians will continue to benefit from the accumulated resources of centuries. They will therefore be responsible to continue to bless the world as best they can out of those riches. This is no brief for conceit, but rather a call to heightened responsibility: "To whom much is given, much will be required."

And part of that responsibility will be to invest money and time in the nascent theological institutions outside the North-West so that they can bring their own distinctive intellectual contributions to the global conversation as quickly and as bountifully as possible.

John Stackhouse is the Sangwoo Youtong Chee Professor of Theology and Culture at Regent College, Vancouver, Canada, and has lectured in China, India, Israel, Korea, and Malaysia, as well as in North America and Britain.


In conjunction with the upcoming conference, “Culturing Theologies, Theologizing Cultures: Exploring the Worlds of Religion,” April 22 and 23 at the Divinity School, this month’s Religion and Culture Web Forum features conference participant Alain Epp Weaver’s exploration of “how the arboreal imagination animates Israeli and Palestinian mappings of space and landscapes of return.” Trees are at once contested political and religious symbols and concrete means of claiming the land. Via a close reading of Palestinian theologian Elias Chacour’s writings, Weaver examines the rhetorical role and weight of trees in Israeli and Palestinian thought. “Is the arboreal imagination necessarily bound up with exclusivist mappings of erasure only, mappings which encode given spaces as either Palestinian or Israeli Jewish?” Weaver asks, or, “might the arboreal imagination animating the imagined landscapes of Palestinian refugees also produce cartographies of mutuality which accept, even embrace, the complex character of shared space?”

Visit the Religion and Culture Web Forum:

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

The Demise of the GOP?

I grew up Republican. My parents were active in the local party apparatus. My father even had a weekly radio program broadcast in Siskiyou County (California). I expect the parents of most of my friends were Republicans as well -- at least in the 1960s. Back then there still remained a strong centrist portion of the party. Nelson Rockefeller, Edward Brooke, Mark Hatfield, Gerald Ford, etc. This was the party of Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, and Dwight D. Eisenhower. Indeed, this was the party of Teddy Roosevelt -- a key Progressive politician of the early 20th century. It was the party through which African Americans first gained access to the political system.

I long ago left the GOP (back when I was a student at an Evangelical seminary). I did so because I had begun to realize that the modern GOP was changing, that it was becoming narrower and focused on just a couple of social issues, plus the policy of cutting taxes for the wealthy. The defeat of Lincoln Chaffee in Rhode Island (at the hands of his own party) and the switch of Arlen Specter to the Democrats in Pennsylvania has put moderate Republicans on the endangered species list. With the exception of Maine and one senator from New Hampshire, the Republican Party in New England is essentially dead.

With this as background I found Christine Todd Whitman's editorial piece interesting. She's calling for the rebirth of centrist Republican principles, which she defines as:

In the coming election cycle, we have the opportunity to remind the nation that our party is committed to such important values as fiscal restraint, less government interference in our everyday lives, environmental policies that promote a balanced approach between protection and economic interest, and a foreign policy that is engaged with the rest of the world. The responsibility of ensuring that the party follows the right path lies with those moderates who are willing to work to make it happen. I anticipate that centrists will convene in the coming days to discuss how we can return the party to the sensible middle.

The former governor of New Jersey has a right to be concerned. The GOP has become a party dearth of ideas, a party of no, and unfortunately a party whose public face has become a collection of what I consider to be clowns -- Newt, Rush, Sean H., oh and the torturer-in-chief Dick Cheney. It would be nice if there was a more centrist GOP -- although I'm a Democrat, I don't relish a one party state. But, I don't expect change happening very quickly.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

What's Evangelicalism?

I will continue my attempts to reflect on evangelicalism by starting with the opening sentence of my article on evangelicalism for the Stone-Campbell Encyclopedia (Eerdmans, 2004).
I write:

Evangelical: Term used to identify conservative Protestants who distinguished themselves from fundamentalism in the mid-twentieth century.

Well, I think I wrote that -- it's possible that the editors added that in! From there I note that originally the term was used to designate Protestantism as a whole, noting its roots in the Greek euangelion (good news). I also note that in 19th century America the term continued to be used to identify Protestants in contrast to Catholics and new religious movements such as the Mormons and Seventh Day Adventists. It wasn't really until the mid-twentieth century that the term came to be used in a more restricted party designation -- focusing not only on Protestantism, but more specifically conservative Protestantism.
Thus, when I use the term evangelical for myself, I'm not using it in the sense of a conservative party label, but something more broadly. It has to do with a commitment to hearing the voice of God in Scripture, a reception and commitment to live according to the grace of God revealed to humanity in Jesus Christ. It is a faith profession that lacks the political edge, but instead commits me to living and proclaiming the good news that God is present with us in Jesus the Christ!
Rob Johnston, in his concluding essay to the book The Variety of Evangelicalism (IVP, 1991) writes:
For all their variety and particularity, descriptions of contemporary American evangelicalism have a commonality centered on a threefold commitment: a dedication to the gospel that is expressed in a personal faith in Christ as Lord, and understanding of the gospel as defined authoritatively by Scripture, and a desire to communicate the gospel both in evangelism and social reform. Evangelicals are those who believe the gospel to be experienced personally, defined biblically, and communicated passionately. (Variety of Evangelicalism, p. 261).

Note that there is nothing political in this definition, except that it includes a commitment to social reform -- something it would share with the social gospel movement! As for the Bible, I see it as the authoritative witness to the gospel, but that doesn't mean I either taken every element literally or see it as being inerrant. But I do believe that I can hear God's voice present on its pages. So, when it comes to evangelicalism, I guess it all depends on your definition, and recognition of a family resemblance!

100 DAYS

It's been 100 days of a historic presidency, not just because of Barack Obama's ethnicity, but also because of the context in which he has taken office. We are in a deep recession that has put the nation's financial situation on a precipice. We have two wars that confront him and us. There are challenges to our nation's moral authority -- seen in the release of memos that demonstrate beyond a shadow of doubt that we were engaged in torture. Its not that the victims were somehow good people and thus not worthy of such treatment, it is rather that engaging in torture goes against the very principles upon which the nation was founded (though we have never fully lived up to those principles -- considering that many of the founding fathers were themselves slave owners). Connected to the former is our national reputation in general, one that has been torn to shreds in recent years.

So, what do we make of these past 100 days? In many ways it's too early to tell, especially regarding the financial picture. Will the stimulus package work? Can the automakers be saved? Will the banks function properly once again so that credit will once again flow? We could go on -- only time will tell what the outcome will be.

There are big issues out there still to tackle -- especially health care. America has a great system, if you can afford it, not so great if you can't. I know that while we have health insurance, I wonder what will happen if we don't rein in costs. My church provides my insurance, but if things continue to climb they might not be able to afford it. Our education system needs lots of attention. On and on we can go.

As to our national stature, despite the stain created by the revelations on torture, Barack Obama, with the help of Hillary Clinton, has done much to restore credibility. In many parts of the world, Barack Obama is more popular than the nation's own leaders. Though strangely some people think that by opening relations with Cuba and shaking hands with Hugo Chavez, Barack Obama is somehow undermining national security and national honor, I see only the reverse. We have had Cuba under an economic embargo for decades, but the Castros remain in control. I call that a failed policy and support Obama's new direction. As for the Chavez handshake -- in my mind to do other wise would be petty. Whether we like him or not, he is the leader of that nation. Snubbing him would make us look small. And if you want to look at a failed policy, look at what has happened over the past 8 years. Not only has Hugo Chavez come to power, but leftist governments have emerged in many Latin American countries. Obviously our policies haven't worked there.

So, while this is only an interim report card, I do believe that our President should be commended for a job well done. I've not agreed with everything he has done or said, but I do think he has brought credibility back to his office. And apparently a large majority of Americans agree. That members of the GOP think otherwise, may say more about them than Barack Obama.

So, on to the next 100 days, 100 days that will likely be as difficult as the ones that preceded them. We have a long road ahead, but I think we're finally on the right track.

Defining Evangelical

It appears that we have a new topic line, how to define evangelical. Is it a politically tinged term? Is it a term of theological narrowness? The reality is, there are many different definitions. Consider the title of a book edited by Donald Dayton and Robert K. Johnston -- The Variety of American Evangelicalism. Originally and IVP book, it's now published by the University of Tennessee Press.

Don Dayton has made a career out of challenging the definition of this word. He believes that Reformed theologians have gotten too much control over the term, and he wants to add in Wesleyan and Pentecostal variations. The reality is, there are many definitions.

So, I begin with Karl Barth, a "Neo-Orthodox" theologian of the previous century. Barth published a book late in life called Evangelical Theology: An Introduction (Eerdmans, 1963). Consider this definition of evangelical theology:

The qualifying attribute "evangelical" recalls both the New Testament and at the same time the Reformation of the sixteenth century. Therefore, it may be take as a dual affirmation: the theology to be considered here is the one which, nourished by the hidden sources of the documents of Israel's history, first achieved unambiguous expression in the writings of the New Testament evangelists, apostles, and prophets; it is also, moreover, the theology newly discovered and accepted by the Reformation of the sixteenth century. The expression "evangelical," however, cannot and should not be intended and understood in a confessional, that is, in a denominational and exclusive sense. This is forbidden first of all by the elementary fact that "evangelical" refers primarily and decisively to the Bible, which is in some ways respected by all confessions. Not all so-called "Protestant" theology is evangelical theology; moreover, there is also evangelical theology in the Roman Catholic and Easter orthodox worlds, as well as in the many later variations, including deteriorations, of the Reformation departure. What the word "evangelical" will objectively designate is that theology which treats of the God of the Gospel. (p. 5).

Note that final phrase -- evangelical theology, treats "the God of the Gospel." Evangelical theology is that which finds its roots in the God revealed to us in Jesus Christ. This definition is not political nor party affiliated. It is rooted instead in the gospel, which to some degree has received interpretation through the Reformation theologians and their descendants -- but that is not to exclude expressions in other forms of Christian faith.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Finding that Place in the Middle

I'm back from a few days respite -- if you can call a fairly intensive Disciples Michigan Clergy Retreat a respite. Going on a retreat like this isn't necessarily relaxing, but it is both informative and empowering. This was my first Michigan retreat, and many of the clergy I met were unknown to me prior to this event.

It was an interesting conversation, led by fellow Michigan clergy -- no special speaker this year. Our topics were worship and local missions, and the conversation at times go heated (not angry, just intense). We were white and African American, women and men, younger and older, active in ministry and retired, some more liberal and some more conservative. Since it was my first time, I didn't know all the players and their positions beforehand. I understand that the dynamics I noticed occur on a regular basis. There was diversity, and yet there was unity. We might not agree on every particular, but we granted each other the status of brother and sister in Christ. We prayed for each other, and embraced each other as fellow travelers on this journey of faith.

All of this is a prelude to my continuing conversation about living in the middle theologically and politically. Our group is politically and theologically diverse, and that came out in the conversation -- especially regarding mission(s). That diversity is seen in our differences on a number of issues, but none perhaps as striking as on the question of whether Jesus is the only means of salvation.

In my previous posting I asked the question about whether one can be evangelical and liberal at the same time. I believe one can be both, in fact, I would claim both -- but I would have to define those terms for myself. For me to be liberal means being open and inquisitive, tolerant and accepting. It means granting others and claiming for myself freedom to explore faith and social issues without prejudging them.

For me, to be evangelical, is to embrace the good news that God has visited this planet in Jesus, that in Jesus we can know and experience the presence of God, and that in Jesus the world is made whole. I affirm the fullness of the New Testament story, one that begins with incarnation (enfleshment) of the Revelation (Word) of God, a Revelation that is made known in the life and in the death of Jesus, together with his Resurrection from the dead. Now, I don't make a determinative claim on the manner in which the Resurrection occurred. There were no video cameras present. Unlike Thomas I can't put my fingers in his wounds. So, I must take this by faith, but with Paul I do believe that without the resurrection, there is no gospel to preach. As for the fate of my fellow human creatures, I leave that in the hands of God -- but I will and I do declare that Jesus is my Lord! That, to me, is what it means to be evangelical.

So to be Liberal and Evangelical, means that I seek to bring both of these important qualities into my life and into my faith journey. It's not a compromise, but a realization of the full meaning of the Gospel.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Population Changes in Europe

Martin Marty is off to increasingly secular Europe, pondering as he does the demographic implications for religion in the region. More specifically what are the implications of demographic changes that may soon put the center of Christianity in the Southern Hemisphere?


Sightings 4/27/09

Population Changes in Europe
-- Martin E. Marty

In hours I’ll be boarding a plane for secular Europe, in particular secular France, and most particularly, secular Paris. Mixing business and pleasure, I’ll be doing some accidental research, namely, observing and taking mental notes on areas familiar to me from past scholarship. One of the delights of travel and scholarly work and play is this: One can be surprised. My surpriser-in-advance this week is Martin Walker, a senior scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center, and director of the A. T. Kearney Global Business Policy Council. He publishes his startler in the Spring 2009 Wilson Quarterly. His goal: To shatter myths or to revise opinions about population change in Europe.

“Everyone knows,” from the Pope all the way down to sociologists, statisticians, and ethnographers, that Western Europe is emptying out of “our kind” of people because of drastically low birth rates and filling up “their kind” from the Middle East and Africa. Daily we receive new impressions of resulting tensions and conflict. The impressions may be accurate, but do they represent the whole story, or the most current trends? No, says Walker, using data the Global Business Policy Council is turning up. He writes: “Something has happened to the world’s birthrates. Defying predictions of demographic decline, northern Europeans have started having more babies.” His gripe is that “sensationalist headlines soon become common wisdom,” with the result that “bastardization of knowledge” lodges misrepresentative and misleading assumptions into peoples’ minds. The first such assumption is that the demographic change “is transforming the ethnic, cultural, and religious identity of the continent.” A second is that the leftover old-Europeans keep getting older, and their demographic cannot sustain the burden of supporting the young. A third is that the population growth worldwide will continue to be high.
Walker cites newspaper columns and reports which feed the three wrongly-measured trends.
Of course, the most noted feature of the change is the growth of Muslim Europe, portending, some say, “the Islamization of the continent.” We can’t go into testing the statistics on the basis of which Walker generalizes; for our purposes, it is the measure of religion and its future that attracts attention. Population growth, Walker notes, is still dramatic in the thirty least developed countries, most of them in sub-Saharan Africa. “One striking implication of this growth is that there will be a great religious revolution, as Africa becomes the home of monotheism.” By mid-century, Islam in Africa will dwarf the Muslim presence in the Middle East. By 2025 there will be as many Christians in sub-Saharan Africa—some 640 million—as in South America, and “by 2050 it is almost certain that most of the world’s Christians will live in Africa.”

John Mbiti, the famed Kenyan scholar, says “Bye, bye” to Geneva, Rome, Athens, Paris, London, and New York as Christian centers. Look to Kinshasa, Buenos Aires, Addis Ababa, and Manila. I’ll skip his China and Russia to report on the next surprise: “Perhaps the most striking fact about the demographic transformation now unfolding is that it is going to make the world look a lot more like Europe.” Why? It’s producing aged people in unprecedented numbers. In 1998, for the first time “the number of people in the developed world over the age of sixty outnumbered those below the age of fifteen.” By 2047, the world as a whole will reach the same point. In short, “The world has changed.” More and faster change is coming. If Walker is accurate, most of us will be doing a good deal of revising.
Martin E. Marty's biography, current projects, upcoming events, publications, and contact information can be found at
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In conjunction with the upcoming conference, “Culturing Theologies, Theologizing Cultures: Exploring the Worlds of Religion,” April 22 and 23 at the Divinity School, this month’s Religion and Culture Web Forum features conference participant Alain Epp Weaver’s exploration of “how the arboreal imagination animates Israeli and Palestinian mappings of space and landscapes of return.” Trees are at once contested political and religious symbols and concrete means of claiming the land. Via a close reading of Palestinian theologian Elias Chacour’s writings, Weaver examines the rhetorical role and weight of trees in Israeli and Palestinian thought. “Is the arboreal imagination necessarily bound up with exclusivist mappings of erasure only, mappings which encode given spaces as either Palestinian or Israeli Jewish?” Weaver asks, or, “might the arboreal imagination animating the imagined landscapes of Palestinian refugees also produce cartographies of mutuality which accept, even embrace, the complex character of shared space?” Visit the Religion and Culture Web Forum:
Sightings comes from the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Room in the Middle

I'm reading a book published by Alban entitled Lost in the Middle (Alban, 2009), by Wesley Wildman and Stephen Garner. I'll comment more fully on the book and the points it makes at a later date, but I'd like us to consider what it means to live in the middle. The last time I asked the question about where people stood, the respondents generally took the discussion in a political rather than a theological direction. I think its important to note that one's politics and one's theology can be different.

So, today I want to pose a different question -- it's a question that the book poses as well: Can one be both liberal and evangelical?

The authors of the book note, rightly so, that while liberal and conservative may be opposites, liberal and evangelical need not be. Going back in history, Charles A. Briggs, a biblical scholar at Union Seminary, who was defrocked for heresy because he engaged in historical critical study, was still in his profession of faith very evangelical.

As for me, my politics is fairly liberal, I use historical critical tools. I find great value in the social gospel tradition, and I'm actively involved in interfaith work. I lean toward a universalist perspective. But, I preach Jesus. I pray in Jesus name (when that's appropriate to the occasion). So, I'm a Jesus centered, evangelical universalist, who takes the bible seriously, though not always literally.

That's where I stand, which probably puts me in the middle. How about you?

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Draft Day

Well, as I take a break in the midst of sermon writing, I thought I'd consider the ramifications of draft day -- NFL draft day, that is.

I am a San Francisco 49er fan, though I've been known to be a Steeler fan, during 49er doldrums (like in the 1970s). Since the 49ers have struggled of late, I've had to turn to other teams (like the Steelers), but now I live in Detroit, home of the first 0-16 NFL team. Thus, even in my new home town, I'm without a truly great, or even a good football team to cheer on. It's kind of like the bad old days of the 1970s when the Oregon Ducks and the OSU Beavers were always really bad!

But today is draft day and hope always springs eternal on draft day -- though the Lions don't have the best track record when it comes to drafting. So, we'll see if Matt Stafford is the savior or not -- the Lions have inked him with the first pick. As a 49er fan I remember Alex Smith, a quarterback with a lot of promise, but apparently not a good fit for the system. I also remember that the Lions once drafted Joey Harrington, of Oregon, to be their franchise QB.

One thing about being the top draft choice is that, unless you've been traded up for by a winning team, you have to fend for yourself. Bad teams usually have a poor cast of characters to surround you with, and unless you can move fast you probably will spend your first year or so flat on your back -- which makes for a skittish QB (Joey's fate, perhaps?).

So, here we are, hoping that Matt Stafford will make good, and help make the Lions good! I'm also hoping that the 49ers have a good draft (I remain, what I am -- a 49er fan, unless I have to be a Steeler fan).

Friday, April 24, 2009

The Blue Parakeet -- Review

THE BLUE PARAKEET: Rethinking How You Read the Bible. By Scot McKnight. Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing, Co., 2008. 236 pp.

What are the blue parakeets that seem to always complicate our reading of the Bible? As you ponder that question, it may help to explain that Scot McKnight uses this metaphor to describe those passages of scripture and concepts that stick out and create awkward moments for people of faith. This is a book about biblical interpretation, written by a biblical scholar for a lay audience. Indeed, for what appears to be a relatively conservative evangelical audience.

The central question that McKnight lays out has to do with the way in which we pick and choose texts to embrace and use. At the root of the question is the methodology by which Christians discern not only the meaning of a text, but its modern application.

“When we encounter the blue parakeets in the Bible or in the questions of others, whether we think of something as simple as the Sabbath or foot washing or as complex and emotional as women in church ministries or homosexuality, we have to stop and think. Is this passage for today?” (p. 25).

Although many people say that they take the Bible literally and at face value, an honest reader must admit that we all pick and choose the texts we will affirm and make use of. So, how do we make this choice?

Although he admits that there are more than three approaches to the text, he highlights three, two of which he finds problematic. The first “methodology” is “reading to retrieve.” That is, we read the text in order to retrieve appropriate beliefs and practices for today. The question is, how much can be salvaged and brought forward? Some say all, but some are unsure (pp. 25-26). A second way, which also is problematic, is “reading through tradition,” by which he means, we let tradition (historic use and interpretation determine contemporary meaning and use). The problem inherent in this approach concerns which tradition to embrace. There is also the danger of a fossilized faith – traditionalism.

“Traditionalism is the inflexible, don’t-ask-questions, do-it-the-way-it-has-always-been-done approach to Bible reading. . . . Those who read the Bible through tradition always see the traditional way of reading the Bible. This approach is nearly incapable of renewal and adaptation” (pp. 31-32).

There is one other approach, one that while having its own issues, appears to be the most useful. McKnight calls this “reading with Tradition.” That is, tradition is a partner on the journey of faith. It offers guidance and advice, but it doesn’t predetermine interpretation. Thus, it is more forward looking than the other two.

McKnight is an evangelical. You can see it in the way he lays out his arguments. He assumes Pauline authorship of the Pastorals. He doesn’t even acknowledge that there is a major debate on this or that scholarly opinion is running in a very different direction. But, he’s also concerned about the shortcuts that evangelicals tend to take, short cuts that run contrary to the nature of Scripture. Here he has in mind the proof-texting methodologies, the ones that treat the text as merely propositions to be organized or “morsels of Law,” which must be unhesitantly obeyed, or a puzzle to be solved. In contrast to this very narrow perspective that takes many forms, McKnight opines that Scripture is a story, one with a beginning, a middle, and an end. It has a plot and characters. There is really one story, God’s relationship with his creation, and the biblical authors, rework that story so that it might speak anew to a new situation. Indeed, the New Testament is simply a midrash, a “wiki-story” based upon the original Old Testament story.

The plot of the story moves from oneness to otherness, to an expansion of otherness, and a return to oneness – in Christ. To understand the meaning of the text, any text, we must read it not only in its immediate context, but its overall biblical context. As we read a text in this “context,” that is, a Christian context, we must discern what was then and what is now.

In seeking to discern how we should read, apply, and live out this story, McKnight suggests we abandon an “authority” approach, one that in an almost legalistic manner demands our submission, and engage a relational approach. In this approach the reader distinguishes between the Bible and God.

“God existed before the Bible existed; God exists independently of the Bible now. God is a person; the Bible is paper. God gave us this papered Bible to lead us to live his person. But the person and the paper are not the same” (p. 87).
Scripture is a means, bu which God speaks, and as we read we listen for God’s voice, but we must always remember the difference between text and person. We encounter God, as we participate in an inter-biblical conversation, as we listen to the biblical characters dialogue with God and with each other. By participating in this conversation we experience relationship with God, a relationship that ultimately requires that we not only hear, but act. That is, if we are in relationship with the God we encounter in the biblical story, then we must put what we learn into practice.

In a chapter he titles “The Boring Chapter,” McKnight explores “missional listening.” It really isn’t boring, and it is an important one, for it reminds us that if we are to study the Bible then it should lead to transformation. Picking up on the oft quoted text from the Pastorals (1 Timothy 3:16-17), the passage that speaks of the inspiration of scripture, he highlights the words “SO THAT.” He writes: “Everything leads to verse 17, where we come face-to-face with a big fat “so that.” Educators know that teaching begins at the end, with outcomes, with the “so thats” of education” (p. 106). Thus, it’s not only knowledge of Scripture that’s important, we must also know how to practice what we believe. As to what that intended mission entails: it is two things – love of God and love of neighbor, what the author calls the “Jesus Creed.” We express these two elements of the biblical story through good works.

Getting to this place, exploring this relationship, requires discernment. If we think that we can simply follow everything the Bible says – as A.J. Jacobs tried to do for one year – we end up in trouble. A text like Leviticus 19 speaks of any number of things, we would find rather odd – like not cutting our hair or beards in particular ways or refraining from planting two kinds of seed in a field. We could dispense with that chapter as simply relating to then, and not know, but right in the middle of the passage is Leviticus 19:18, which tells us to love our neighbors as we love ourselves. So, why is it that sometimes, even the most biblically committed person chooses not to follow a given text? The answer is that we have developed certain patterns of discernment. We’ve decided on methods of application, ones that seem to fit the modern context. Of course, as the author reminds us, “discernment can be messy” (p. 130). Whether the issue is divorce, circumcision, or women’s clothing styles, we make decisions that are both contextual and cultural. Like Paul, we discern what is appropriate to the task of bringing people into faith in Christ. Paul’s own adaptability – all things to all people – is key. Thus, “discernment, I am arguing, is how we have always read the Bible; in fact, it is how the biblical authors themselves read the Bible they had!” (p. 144).

Scot McKnight has been a vocal proponent of women’s rights in church and society. Being that he’s firmly committed to following biblical text, including those that appear anti-women, he chooses to use this issue as a test case. He notes the debates within the evangelical community, debates that run from hard line patriarchalism to mutuality. While the former seeks to bring the past into the present – completely – the mutualists seek to discern patterns that give guidance and freedom. With this in mind he compares the texts that ask “What Did Women Do?” (WDWD) with those texts that women should be silent or submissive. He shares his own journey, one that is punctuated by encounters with truly gifted women whose gifts and calling were often neglected or suppressed. In seeking a way of discernment, he asks us what we make of texts that speak of women such as Miriam, Deborah, and Huldah, women of strength, courage, and leadership callings. And in the New Testament, what do we make of Phoebe, Priscilla, and Mary? A clue to finding the answer to this question may be found in the Creation story, which he suggests (rightly so, in my opinion) that in the beginning humanity existed in mutuality – male and female as created by God. That relationship got distorted by the Fall, a distortion caused by two parties seeking to dominate the other. Redemption, he suggests, which comes in and through Christ, restores that original mutuality. Texts like 2 Corinthians 5:17, which speak of a new creation, and Galatians 3:28, which speak of oneness in Christ, offer a new vista for human relationships. Thus, the Fall is descriptive, not prescriptive. If this is true, then the “silence” passages (1 Corinthians 14:35, for instance), should be interpreted in the light of these other passages. In doing so, we might keep from silencing the “blue parakeets” in our midst.

McKnight is inviting conservative evangelicals, who take Scripture seriously, to listen for the blue parakeets that require of us a new perspective on the biblical text and its application in the modern context. These blue parakeets remind us that the text before us is culturally shaped, and if we neglect these warnings we will misread and misapply the text that calls into relationship with God.

As one who spent much time in conservative evangelical contexts, I appreciate this venture. I too struggled with how to apply the text, especially to passages relating to women. Perhaps I was more fortunate have attended Fuller Seminary rather than Trinity Evangelical, for Fuller, while evangelical has long embraced the call of women to ministry. In my opinion, there can be little arguing textually against women in ministry – there’s just too many blue parakeets calling out to argue otherwise (I realize that many are not listening, however). That being said, there are other, thornier issues yet to be decided. One that McKnight raises but doesn’t explore in any depth is homosexuality. My question is: Are there blue parakeets singing out in this context? Is there a “that was then, and this is now” element to this discussion? Scot doesn’t offer an answer. I know from other writings, especially his blog, that he remains on the conservative side of the question, but at least he understands that it’s a question that needs to be addressed.

As one who doesn’t embrace inerrancy, and who s willing to attribute more to culture than the author is, I realize that this book isn’t directed at me. But, I appreciate the effort, and pray that others will, like him, leave behind the “authority model,” and embrace a relational one. While realizing that this book might not have left of center Christians as its audience, even those not addressed by the book’s author, may find something important to wrestle with in this book. If we say, with Marcus Borg, that we take the Bible seriously, even if we don’t always take it literally, if we don’t wrestle with the text as it stands, are we really taking it seriously? We too must ask the question – how do we decide which texts to pick and choose, adopt and adapt? For liberals are just as apt to pick and choose as any conservative, and the reverse is, of course also true! I think we can all benefit from reading with the traditions, and with the Spirit, not only the Scriptures, but this book. For our reading of Scripture surely should be transformative, and that may require that we listen for the blue parakeets in our midst.

An FBI Agent Speaks to Torture Memos

Ali Soufan, a FBI agent who interrogated Al Qaeda leader Abu Zubayda using traditional (non-enhanced) methods, speaks out in a NY Times Op-Ed piece, about the use of those methods and their effectiveness. He notes that they were able to get good actionable intelligence, and that whatever intelligence that was supposedly gained by torture could have been gained using other methods.

He also points out that the CIA decision to use these methods put up a wall between CIA and FBI that made further interrogations and anti-terrorism efforts more difficult.

One of the worst consequences of the use of these harsh techniques was that it reintroduced the so-called Chinese wall between the C.I.A. and F.B.I., similar to the communications obstacles that prevented us from working together to stop the 9/11 attacks. Because the bureau would not employ these problematic techniques, our agents who knew the most about the terrorists could have no part in the investigation. An F.B.I. colleague of mine who knew more about Khalid Shaikh Mohammed than anyone in the government was not allowed to speak to him.

I think that this is important information that counters the "rationale" for torture, and gets us back on top of the conversation as to make sure this doesn't happen again. I appreciate Mr. Soufan's courage in speaking out.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Interpreting the Koran

There is a difference between words on paper and what they mean. That is, there is a process of discernment that allows us to read and understand those words. Thus, there is a difference between what it may say and how it may read.

In the Christian community we continue to debate, fight, argue over the meaning of the text, whether things should be taken literally or not, and whether what was then is what is now (this is a primary concern of Scot McKnight's The Blue Parakeet, Zondervan, 2008). At stake for many people is the authority of the text. There's a fear that if you don't interpret it in certain ways then it will lose value.

Well, if this is a concern within the Christian community, might this not also be an issue in the Muslim world? And, knowing that we're having such debates in the Christian community, debates that can affect behavior, perhaps we can be a bit more understanding of what might be happening in Islam. Nicholas Kristoff reports in his column today about a conference held at Notre Dame that focused on modern interpretations of the Koran. There are, he reports, stirrings of movements as important for Islam as the 19th century Christian ones were. If these stirrings of interpretation can penetrate Muslim countries, then major changes could be in the offering. This will be especially good news for women. It could also blunt militant Islamist movements as well. After all, if its 72 grapes and not 72 virgins that await the martyr, will there be as much eagerness to die? So, I wonder if even biblical literalists might encourage the use of the historical-critical method when applied to the Koran?

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Thoughtlessness and Torture

The revelation today regarding American use of torture (harsh interrogation methods) is that nobody seems to have looked into their origins or use. Looking for ways to get more information, they happened across a military agency that trains American pilots to withstand interrogations, and decided that these looked interesting. Thus, the plans began to be hatched. No one really bothered to ask if they worked, whether they were immoral, even their legality. Apparently no one bothered to look at the previous uses of water boarding -- and that we prosecuted Japanese soldiers for using it on our people.


In a series of high-level meetings in 2002, without a single dissent from cabinet members or lawmakers, the United States for the first time officially embraced the brutal methods of interrogation it had always condemned.

This extraordinary consensus was possible, an examination by The New York Times shows, largely because no one involved — not the top two C.I.A. officials who were pushing the program, not the senior aides to President George W. Bush, not the leaders of the Senate and House Intelligence Committees — investigated the gruesome origins of the techniques they were approving with little debate.
They were looking for a tool and decided this would work -- but as the article in the Times shows, the people involved in devising the program -- psychologists -- really had no real understanding of interrogations, and how to discern whether they worked or not. They were going on theory, theory that is suspect.

Thus, while I'm not sure it makes sense to prosecute CIA interrogators operating under legal guidelines from the Justice Department, and apparently approved by the Cabinet, and which received little negative comments from Congressional oversight authorities, I do believe there is the need to investigate how these decisions were made, and how they could have been made without any exploration of their origins, their usefulness, or their morality. What we have here is a process devised without thought, without consideration, and with great hurry.

Today, our nation's credibility suffers because of this -- and it would appear that a whole lot of people, many of whom probably want to wash their hands of this affair, will have egg on their faces.

An investigation that will make sure that such things don't happen in the future is very much needed. And likely some people will take a fall for this, especially since President Obama is more open now to such an investigation. But the point is: How can our government make decisions with so little thought?

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Where Do We Stand?

Martin Luther famously declared: "Here I stand, I can do no other." His statement was seen then and is seen now as a sort of line in the sand. Whether it's religion or politics (ore athletics), we often find ourselves in either/or situations. Or, I might better put it, others put us in that situation.

In this post Religious Right era, with the Democrats in control of both the White House and Congress for the first time since 1994, many Progressive Christians thought they would now have the ear of those in government -- and are disappointed by the people the new President is surrounding himself with. There are those within the liberal or Progressive Christian movement that could be described as purists. No compromise. You're fully on board, or not at all. There are others, apparently known as accommodationists that are willing to work across the lines.

As I listen to the debates and read the analysis, I wonder where I fit. There was a time, not all that long ago, when I subscribed to both the Christian Century and Christianity Today -- and thought of myself living some where in between. I have since dropped my CT subscription and subscribed instead to the Progressive Christian. If journal subscriptions say anything about who we are, I would say that I fit pretty comfortably with the CC crowd. But, I've published a number of reviews in the Progressive Christian. So, am I somewhere in the middle again? If so, I'm likely much closer to the more centrist sympathies of CC than where many of the Progressive Christian writers stand.

All of this is preface to a couple of comments on a column written by Diana Butler Bass, written in response to a column written by Delwin Brown. Brown's essay defined the antecedents to modern liberal Christianity, and then suggests there are two options -- purists and accomadationists. According to Brown's analysis, the purist Progressive is:

Progressive Christianity, instead, is pointed and pushy—“prophetic,” some would say. It insists on unmasking and undoing the social, political, and economic structures (St. Paul called them “the principalities and powers”) that perpetuate the gross inequality of economic opportunity, the government’s control over a woman’s body and a couple’s love, ecological degradation, militarism, a health care system that privileges the already privileged, and so on. Purists believe that radical call, so conveniently ignored in any case, will be lost entirely if it is linked to the piecemeal and usually tepid “progressive” advances among conservative Christians.
The accomodationist shares many of the goals, but is willing to work "piecemeal."

Diana appreciates the analysis but disagrees with the conclusion that these are the only two options. She describes herself as being a "post-modern, post-partisan, neo-pragmatic progressive pilgrim." We are in the middle of a paradigm shift (once again), and if we look at the world through the old paradigm we're bound to be disappointed.

She concludes:

The tempest-in-a-teapot argument among religious progressives is but one small microburst in the larger storm of cultural change. Those who expected a pure progressive Camelot under President Obama are bound to be disappointed—because he is a post-modern progressive. And that’s a different sort of thing than we’ve known before. History may point the direction, but we’re having to make this up as we go along. Because liberalism just ain’t what it used to be.

I tend to agree with Diana, but maybe that is in part due to the fact that our own journeys are very similar. We're essentially the same age, both born into mainline Protestant families, went to evangelical schools, and have in time become progressive. But what is important to note, is that (if I may speak for Diana) while we may not own all that we once affirmed, we've not shed everything from that journey. So, yes my evangelicalism still shines through at points, even though I now give it a different spin. I'm willing to work across lines for a common purpose, even with those with whom I disagree on some issues. It's probably why I like Obama as a politician -- even if I don't agree with him at all points, I see him as one who considers the possibilities and seeks to make the best possible decision. He's guided by his ideals, but understands the realities.

So, my question of the day: Where do you stand and why?

Monday, April 20, 2009

One Hundred Years of America -- Sightings

Martin Marty celebrates the centennial of the Jesuit produced magazine -- America. I'm not a reader, necessarily of the journal, but in Marty's post we get a sense of how the times have changed in Protestant/Catholic relations over the past century.


Sightings 4/20/09

One Hundred Years of America
-- Martin E. Marty

It is not hard to sight what I am sighting for Sightings this week, since its shiny gold “100 Years” cover is almost blinding. I am speaking of the centennial issue of America, one of the magazines on which many of us depend for comment on both Catholicism and a wider world. Fattened up by advertisements placed by religious orders and firms which appeal to Catholic interests— remember them?—and many letters of greetings from presidents and pope, this April13th issue boasts ninety-two pages. Since this column is not in the business of peddling, I’ll move on quickly from complimenting the general appearance, to an attempt to locate this weekly among religious information sources in American religious history.

One could write America’s history as Book I, 1908-1958 and Book II, 1959-2009, since there is such a breach in content and intentions around 1958. The centennial issue highlights the best of the new paradigm. First off, two of the seven features are by women. Let me stress: Women were not foreign to the old America, but their appearances were very exceptional. Now they are exceptional in a different set of ways, as is clear to anyone who reads, first, the famed Sister Helen Prejean, C.S.J., trading on her Dead Man Walking, with its prison interest, as she describes how she got her call to service. The other is by Sister Elizabeth Johnson, also C.S.J., a theologian who is radical in the best senses of the term and, in reach and scope, cosmic. I use that word not for hyperbole, but to describe her expansive view of Christian faith, which she spells out “An Earthy Christology,” and which ought to cause us earthbound drudges to gasp. Catholic poets might have written in such language in 1908, but theologians, less likely.

Charles R. Morris provides a history of the first fifty years. You might think you would have to have been there, but, no, he puts you there, without condescension, in the midst of that much more provincial church. Protestants would have called it “sectarian” (big sect!). Morris shows how alert to their surroundings these Jesuit editors were. Timothy Radcliffe is assigned to look at the church to come, which he sees as inheritor of the mixed blessings of the Enlightenment. This at a time when one can select out of the Enlightenment mix what might renew and refresh the church. Some of his envisionings strike me as too hopeful, but every one hundred years editors ought to be allowed to breed hope

The editors also lighten the issue with a humbling “Oops!” admissions article by James T. Keane. He acknowledges gross missteps, like the editors’ long-term support of Franco’s Spain. That was more than an “Oops.” Jim McDermott presides over a set of reminiscences by editors and staff. My non-staff reminiscences would point to the drastically different world at the magazine’s mid-point, the beginning of the pontificate of John XXIII. As a bottom-rung editor at The Christian Century I often got invited to join my seniors at conferences attended and led also by those mysterious (and, we’d been taught, evil) Jesuits. Before that time our Protestant magazine could blithely haul out linguistic artillery and fire the word “Jesuitical!” whenever we wanted to scare the Sunday School kids. “Jesuitical” meant the conniving, beguiling, malicious agency of “the papal minions.” I don’t think we knew then and I don’t know now what a minion is.

However, as we learned to know each other, our hopes and fears, our common enemies and new friendships, across the divided lines of Catholic/Protestant, Christian/Jew, and all the rest, we got to experience change, and to see America as an agent thereof. Congratulations are in order and come with enthusiasm—and hope.


The centennial issue of America is online at

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

Editor’s Note:

Too many emails? You can now subscribe to Sightings as an RSS feed, instead of a twice-weekly email. To learn more and sign up, visit


In conjunction with the upcoming conference, “Culturing Theologies, Theologizing Cultures: Exploring the Worlds of Religion,” April 22 and 23 at the Divinity School, this month’s Religion and Culture Web Forum features conference participant Alain Epp Weaver’s exploration of “how the arboreal imagination animates Israeli and Palestinian mappings of space and landscapes of return.” Trees are at once contested political and religious symbols and concrete means of claiming the land. Via a close reading of Palestinian theologian Elias Chacour’s writings, Weaver examines the rhetorical role and weight of trees in Israeli and Palestinian thought. “Is the arboreal imagination necessarily bound up with exclusivist mappings of erasure only, mappings which encode given spaces as either Palestinian or Israeli Jewish?” Weaver asks, or, “might the arboreal imagination animating the imagined landscapes of Palestinian refugees also produce cartographies of mutuality which accept, even embrace, the complex character of shared space?”

Visit the Religion and Culture Web Forum:

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

Which Translation?

We've been talking here about the biblical canon, but let's take it another step. Which translation of the Bible should we use? Or, which translation does one think is best?

I'll confess up front my preference for the New Revised Standard Version. It blends a certain formalism with a flexibility that the text itself allows. Before I started using the NRSV, for some time I used the NIV, and before that the New American Standard Bible. One's choice in a translation will depend in part on one's theology or one's context. If you attend a church that uses the NRSV, you're probably more likely to use that translation than if you attend one where the NIV is generally used.

So, to get our conversation off, let me offer some definitions:


One of the most important questions facing the translator concerns how close one wants to get to the original literal reading. As Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart ask, how far are we willing to go to bridge the gap between the original and the receptor languages? * Of course there are many people who are satisfied and delight in the archaic nature of the older translations. As Keith Crim points out translators will often retain vocabulary and sentence structure that reflect the wording of the KJV. * Yet, even the early translations such as the KJV or Luther's German translation tried to reflect the idioms and speech of the common person. There are essentially three different ways of approaching this question:


The literal theory seeks to keep as close as possible to the original wording. It tries to keep intact the historical distance. For example, issues of money or weights and measures are not changed to modern usage. (KJV, NASB, RSV, NRSV)


Under this theory, the translator attempts to translate the idea from one language to the other, thereby eliminating most of the historical distance. They do the hard part for you. Most paraphrases lie here. (Cotton Patch, Phillips, Living Bible, The Message).


Under this theory the translators attempt to translate words, idioms, grammar into the most precise equivalent of the receptor language. (Among DE translations are the NIV, GNB, Jerusalem Bible and the New American Bible)

So, which translation do you choose, and why?


Gordon D. Fee & Douglas Stuart, How to Read the Bible for all Its Worth, 2nd ed., (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1993), 34-35.

Keith Crim, "Modern English Versions of the Bible," in The New Interpreter's Bible, 12 vols., Leander Keck, et al, eds., (Nashville: Abingdon, 1994), 1:23.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Bridge over Troubled Water -- a little Gospel

As they say, there's a lot of water going under the bridge!

Commenter David (who attends my church) shared this version of Bridge Over Troubled Water, by Aretha Franklin. I'm familiar with the Simon and Garfunkel version -- Here Aretha puts her own spin -- enjoy.

Walking in Darkness

This morning I preached a sermon entitled "Walking in the Light," a sermon based on the day's lectionary text from the epistles -- 1 John 1:1-2:2. In that sermon I reflected on the idea that God is pure light, without any trace of darkness. Of course the contrast with God is us -- for unlike God we don't exist as pure light -- there is at least some darkness, or the propensity for darkness.

Consider verses 5-10 of this passage:

This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light and in him there is no darkness at all. If we say that we have fellowship with him while we are walking in darkness, we lie and do not do what is true; but if we walk in the light as he himself is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin. If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say that we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.

Now, in the following two verses (1 John 2:1-2), we learn that Jesus is the advocate who will free us from our bondage to darkness.

This passage seems to me to speak clearly to this week's release of the four torture memos, memos that show little regard for the rule of law or life itself. Now you can argue that the men tortured were not innocents, and that is probably true. That's not the point, the point is the willingness to walk in darkness in the pursuit of a supposed good.

The rationale is that the actions allowed by, rationalized by, saved lives. That's possible, we simply don't have that kind of evidence in front of us.

The illustration I used this morning comes from Star Wars -- young Anakin Skywalker is lured to the dark side with the promise that the dark side will empower him so he can save the lives of those he loves. But, in the end he's consumed by the darkness and destroys the very ones he loves.

We all have the propensity for darkness. I'm not a purveyor of original sin, but I do believe that we're all capable of evil. The choice is ours. And when applied to our nation, we must ask the question -- at what point does our nation's moral authority evaporate if we're willing to walk a dark path?

As I ask the question, I realize that there is within me darkness. I think we must all make the confession as we debate/discuss the merits of our points on this and other issues.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

The Furious Longing of God -- Review

THE FURIOUS LONGING OF GOD. By Brennan Manning, Foreword by Mark Batterson. Afterword by Claudia Mair Burney. Colorado Springs: David C. Cook, 2009. 141 pp.

In the closing chapter of this brief, even breezy, devotional book, Brennan Manning, who is by confession a former Franciscan and a recovering alcoholic, writes:

All that really matters is this: Have you experienced the furious longing of God or not? (p. 129).
The question sums up the message of the book – God has a furious longing to be in relationship with humanity. Therefore, am I ready to embrace God’s passionate longing to be in this relationship? This is a question that isn’t easily answered, for such ardor for union with humanity, might seem so consuming that one’s freedom might be lost. Yet, who doesn’t wish to be loved passionately, especially if the one who loves is God?

This book is composed of eleven brief chapters, the longest being a chapter on healing. After each of these chapters, Manning has provided two questions under the heading: “Consider This.” The questions are designed to draw us into the message of the chapter, making it useful for personal reflection and for group discussion. The message of the book is drawn from personal experience. While he was once a Franciscan, he is also a recovering alcoholic, who at one point woke up from a drunken stupor, lying in a doorway, being kicked by a disgusted woman.

The morning I woke up in the alcoholic boozy fog, I looked down the street to see a woman coming toward me, maybe twenty-five years old, blonde, and attractive. She had her son in hand, maybe four hears old. The boy broke loose from his mother's grip, ran to the doorway, and stared down at me. His mother rushed in behind him, tucked her hands over his eyes, and said, "Don't look at that filth. That's nothing but pure filth." Then I felt her shoe. She broke two of my ribs with that kick (p. 35).

"That filth," he writes, "was Brennan Manning, thirty-two years ago." But, in grace he discovered that he was loved by God, and it is from this journey of faith, not all of which is positive in nature, that Manning reflects on God’s passionate pursuit of humanity.

The foundation for this message is laid out in the book’s opening chapter, appropriately titled “Genesis.” As Christian interpreters of the Song of Solomon have been doing for centuries, Manning picks interprets this biblical love song allegorically to refer to God’s relationship with the people of God. The passage that he lifts up is well known – “I am my beloved’s, and His desire is for me” (7:10 NASB). Manning notes that if the reader does nothing else with the book, he hopes that he or she will pray this passage, taking it personally, “I mean very personally.” We are the beloved of God, and if one is willing to receive this love, then one may experience a number of beautiful things – some of which he enumerates (pp. 21-22).

Although I’ve never read Brennan Manning before, I’d heard of his Ragamuffin Gospel. The title of that book has always intrigued me, but I’ve never read it. But, when a copy of this book arrived, I decided to take a look and see what it was about. If not for the inside back flap of the dust cover, which identified the author, I would have assumed that I was reading an evangelical book (the book is published by a rather conservative evangelical publisher). There is, an evangelical tint to this book, but I’m assuming that while he hangs around with evangelicals, he never left the Roman Catholic Church. Whatever his denominational loyalties, his message that God is passionately longing to be in relationship with humanity, in such a way that one’s life might be transformed, shines through brightly. Indeed, the book carries a message that resonates with me – a message of God’s unconditional love.

Whether one is evangelical or Catholic or mainline, this is a book that has possibilities. It won’t take long to read, but it will remind the reader that we are beloved, and that no matter how far we might try to run, God will continue to pursue us. If we will receive this gift – to understand the nature of God’s gift, we are directed to consider the parable of Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree – then we may live life with boldness. And if we receive this gift of God, then the life of faith will no longer be a duty, but a way of life. Such an invitation is worth taking up.

A thank you to Kelly Hughes for again sending me something different (for me) to read.

Thoughts on the Torture Memos

Like many Americans, I'm appalled at the immoral "legal" advice given by the Bush Administration's Office of Legal Council. I do think that the people who wrote these memos, and those who gave support to them in the Bush Administration need to be investigated. To this point I've heard nothing from the Obama Administration that rules out such investigations. What he has ruled out, and I think that he is probably correct in this matter, is to eliminate prosecutions of those who carried out these orders. Now, many will disagree, but I think that from what I'm hearing across the spectrum is that such prosecutions would further demoralize our intelligence community and likely hinder reform. I know some of my blogger friends will jump on me for saying this, but Obama is a smart politician and he's also very deliberate -- he has much on his plate and won't go there.

That being said, I think that we will likely see more actions in the days to come. I think you will see an investigation on some level of those who wrote the memos -- if not from the government, from the American Bar Association.

What can we do, from a faith perspective, that will be helpful?

Instead of focusing our ire on the President, let us educate our own people on the issues before us. In our churches, many of our people are firmly of the opinion that torture, if it will protect one of our citizens may be problematic, but necessary. They've bought into the Jack Bauer "ticking time bomb" idea. The problem that these memos reveal goes to the heart of the American psyche. And while part of me would love to see Dick Cheney prosecuted, I'm not sure that it would change things all that much. I'm not sure, either, that any convictions would be forthcoming.

Yes, what has been revealed shines light on darkness, but the question is -- how do we deal with the darkness revealed?

I think some steps have already been undertaken -- including ending the use of such tactics and declaring the immoral. That may not be enough for some, but it is a start. Let's give this some time, to see where it leads.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Canon Fodder

No, I didn't get my can(n)ons mixed up! I thought it might be a good title to tie up a conversation that I opened up to mixed results.

So, here are a few miscellaneous comments:

  1. There has never been one official determination of the canon. The canonical lists that we have probably emerged as a response to Marcion,whose truncated canon was rejected as insufficient.
  2. If, as Robert Funk once said in a regional AAR session that a canon is merely a list determined by a publisher, then we could easily reconfigure our canons. His suggestion was that we eliminate Revelation. His reasoning was based more on how it is used today than its original merits. As for whether Revelation out to be in the canon, well it was one of the last texts accepted.
  3. The Reformers chose to affirm the Hebrew canon rather than the Septuagint/Vulgate. They had their reasons, and whether right or wrong, tradition suggests that this is the appropriate version for the church
  4. While the early church, including the New Testament writers, used the Septuagint, its highly unlikely Jesus would have used it. He was a Palestinian Jew, not a Diaspora Jew. But, that being said, we need to take into consideration the fact that the Early Christians used the Greek Old Testament, including deuterocanonicals.
  5. As for the Didache. It's a fine little book, that gives us important insight into what the church in the 2nd century looked like. But I wouldn't consider it any more important than Justin Martyr or Ireneaus -- or 1 Clement for that matter. But note, all of these are 2nd century texts. While 2 Peter and Jude could be 2nd century, they laid claim to 1st century roots. But the main reason for not including the Didache in any canonical conversations is that it was largely unknown until late in the 19th century.
  6. Finally, while, as one commenter suggested, Kurt Aland may look at the situation through rose-colored glasses, I still think that by and large he's right. There is a qualitative difference between those deemed canonical and those deemed non-canonical. Thus, I receive these texts as the normative texts for Christian practice and thought. That being said, they always need to be interpreted carefully, with great discernment.
  7. This ends my comments!

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Torture Memos Released

The Obama Administration today released memos, ones that have been well discussed, written by members of the former Administration's Justice Department that gave the CIA permission to use interrogation methods that qualify as torture or near torture -- including water boarding. The President has made clear that he has banned these methods by executive order and released the memos to make clear what has happened. He has also stated that CIA operatives will not be prosecuted. Nothing in the statement by the President, however, rules out prosecuting those higher up in authority -- but we'll see.

Obama does say in his released statement that they were banned because they run counter to the moral values of our nation and undermine our moral authority as a nation:

My judgment on the content of these memos is a matter of record. In one of my very first acts as President, I prohibited the use of these interrogation techniques by the United States because they undermine our moral authority and do not make us safer. Enlisting our values in the protection of our people makes us stronger and more secure. A democracy as resilient as ours must reject the false choice between our security and our ideals, and that is why these methods of interrogation are already a thing of the past.

He is choosing not to pursue prosecutions so as not to disrupt the unity of our nation. I doubt that this overture will be appreciated by supporters of the former administration, especially of the former Vice President. Indeed, I'm sure the former VP is livid and will attack, but he should be glad he's not be prosecuted, because the memos clearly state that the highest levels of government authorized torture.

Judging the Canonization Process

I've always appreciated this statement by Kurt Aland, historian and biblical scholar, concerning the apparent arbitrariness and messiness of the canonization process:

The confusio hominum ("confusion of men") connected with the determination of the canon cannot be disputed by anyone who takes the trouble to look some into its history. But on the other hand, I would think, just as unmistakable is the providentia Dei ("providence of God"). Despite all the lack of principles, despite all the arbitrariness, despite all the errors--what the church has received in the New Testament stands on an incomparably higher level than all other early Christian literature. None of the Apostolic Fathers can even remotely compare with those of the New Testament. None of the so-called New Testament apocrypha can remotely be compared with what was accepted in the New Testament. It is characteristic that in the last generation, which brought to our attention either complete texts or thorough reports about many previously unknown writings from that early period, no one claimed that any of these newly discovered early Christian writings could claim canonical validity. That is how wide the gap is between what we know from the early age and what the New Testament offers. Even in their weakest sections, these writings possess the witness of the Spirit and power in a completely different fashion than all other early Christian literature. (Kurt Aland, History of Christianity, Fortress Press, 1985, 1:113-114. )

Is there a flatness of grace and purpose within the New Testament? No, there is variation -- some texts rising far above others. Some texts need to be examined with great care and applied with even greater care, but given all that, what we have as a New Testament is far above any "competitor" for space within the canon.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Process of Canonization -- How We Got the New Testament

I can't give a detailed explanation of the canonization process, but perhaps what follows can be helpful in our conversation about biblical interpretation -- and why these books got in. I'm in agreement with Kurt Aland that whatever the process, the church got it right. There is a qualitative difference between the "accepted" books and those kept out.



1. The Growth of the "Apostolic" Literature.

The Christian Scriptures (New Testament) have their origins in oral traditions, such as the sayings of Jesus, that were passed on and eventually written down (the Gospels, Acts, and “Q.”). Others were of course letters that were passed through the churches. By the early 2nd century, much of what we know as the New Testament was being gathered into collections and used by church leaders. When written down, there was not the sense that these were sacred writings. Only time and use granted them this property.

By reading the works of early church leaders we can get a sense of their growing usage as something akin to Scripture. Polycarp (135) wrote a letter composed largely of Pauline texts, suggesting that the Pauline letters were the first gathered. The Gospels were probably written between 70 and 100 AD. We find reference to the use of what became the New Testament in worship by the middle of the 2nd Century (Justin Martyr). Ireneaus was the first to formally recognize a New Testament Scripture, and it is he who first uses the terms Old and New Testament.

While the New Testament canon is forming, other works also emerged that were often used as Scripture, suggesting that the early church was quite diverse and fluid. Some of these works include the now famous Coptic Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Peter, the Shepherd of Hermas, the Didache, the Gospel of Barnabas, the Gospel of Paul and Thecla, but church leaders in the end chose not to include them.


With such a diversity of church life and texts, the churches began to consider the question of genuineness. If you have a lot of competing stories, which ones should be considered normative for the church. Though we have no record as to how this was accomplished, there are some criteria that were preeminent.

1. Apostolicity

The early church gave pride of place to those pieces thought to be written by an apostle or by someone close to the apostles. If it was thought to be written by an Apostle, then it was deemed scriptural. Questions of authorship would bring into question texts such as Peter, James, John, Hebrews, and Revelation. Apostolic appellations themselves do not seem to have been major determinants, since a large part of the New Testament was not written by an apostle (e.g., James, Jude, Hebrews, Mark, Luke-Acts). The church rejected many works that carried apostolic names, including the Gospel of Peter, the Acts of Peter, the Gospel of Thomas, and the Acts of Paul and Thecla.

2. Orthodoxy of Content

More important than authorship was content. That is, did these works teach right doctrine and practice. The question therefore was whether these books best represented the core faith of the church – that is their agreement with the “Rule of Faith.” (I'll post this later)

3. Antiquity
To be Scripture, a work needed to be considered coming from the apostolic age. It is for this reason that Shepherd of Hermas did not make the Muratorian Canon.

4. Usage

Where and how was it used? Works used in worship and in the larger churches like Rome, Alexandria, and Antioch, was also determinative. Apostolic Succession factors into all of this as well -- those churches that could trace their lineage, had the ability to speak to this issue.

Tradition! Tradition!!

What should we make of tradition? What value does it have? Should we celebrate or forget the past?

Tradition, as Tevye sang in Fiddler in the Roof tells us where we belong -- so that there might be harmony . . . except . . .


Then consider Jason Byassee's thoughts here about Tevye's message!

Oh, and don't you love this song. One of the great all time musical scorers! Turn it up, enjoy, and pray a blessing on the Tsar -- that God will keep him far, far away!

Is American Christianity Dying?

If you read the headlines, you would think, that American Christianity is in a death spiral. Jon Meacham's cover article of Newsweek from last week declares the "end of Christian America." The recent ARIS survey says that the number of "no religion" has doubled in the last 20 years, while the percentage of self-identified Christians has dropped from 86 to 76 percent. In the 1950s Will Herberg could speak of America's religious life as Protestant, Catholic, and Jew. That would be more difficult to say today -- for many reasons. We can debate over whether this is a Christian nation or a Judeo-Christian nation -- the reality is, we are a predominantly Christian nation, where Roman Catholics form the largest denomination within the Christian community. Christian ideas and values influence American life in as much as Christianity has for the past 1500 years or so influenced the direction and development of Western Society. Since the majority of Americans hail from Europe, it's not surprising that Christian ideas and values have stood with us.

But, the question remains, is Christianity dying in America? Are we about to capitulate to secularism? While secularism is on the rise (whatever secularism means), I'm of the opinion that E.J. Dionne is correct, Christianity is pretty resilient.

I do think that younger people are walking away from coercive and exclusivist forms of religion (yes conservative churches are growing among younger people, but the ones with the most success are adapting their message). I do think younger people are fed up with politicized religion (which is a message to Progressives as well as Conservatives) -- and for the past quarter century Christianity has been identified in the minds of many with conservative politics and politicians. They are looking for a faith that makes sense of their lives and encourages love of neighbor.

Dionne writes:

Religion is always corrupted when it gets too close to political power. It's possible to win a precinct caucus and lose your soul, to mistake political victory for salvation itself.

It is this approach to Christianity that is decidedly in decline, thank God, in part because conservative Christians themselves are rediscovering the church's mission to the poor, the sick, the strangers and the outcasts. This augurs new life, not decay.

So, should we mourn the decline of American Christianity as we've known it recently, or should we rejoice that Christianity may see itself resurrected into something new and closer to the founding vision? Remember when Christianity was a proscribed and persecuted religion? It didn't die, instead it thrived by serving and loving their neighbors. So, no, Christians probably won't be able to control the agenda on controversial social issues, simply by saying that it goes against the Bible. Is that a bad thing?