Saturday, July 31, 2010

Time to Stop Villifying Muslims and Islam

The other day the head of the Anti-Defamation League, Abe Foxman, joined Sarah Palin and Newt Gingrich in condemning the Islamic center and mosque planned for New York City -- even though the city's mayor, Michael Bloomberg welcomes it.  What saddens me about the ADL response, which includes casting aspersions on the project because of its unknown funders, is that I once worked for the ADL office in Santa Barbara, coordinating its "No Place for Hate" campaign -- an effort that was designed to overcome misrepresentations and bring people together.  But the New York situation isn't the only one at hand.  There is an attempt to block the building of a mosque in Murfreesboro, TN, an effort that has been aided and abetted by politicians who are running for office on an anti-Islam platform.  Remember that the current Lt. Governor, who is running for governor, has suggested that maybe Islam isn't covered by constitutional protections, because its a cult and not a religion.

Then, beyond politics, there is a whole host of Christian groups and churches that have chosen to attack Islam.  Yes, Islam has its share of terrorists and it was an extremist Islamic group that perpetrated 9-11.  But, one shouldn't tar and feather an entire religion, one that is adhered to by more than 1 billion people, for the acts of a minority of its adherents.

So, consider the preacher who has proclaimed that he is going to hold a special service where he'll burn the Koran.  Now, how is that an example of Christian love?  Then there are the so called Christian "specialists" on Islam, who have been shown not to understand this religion, and to have even falsified the nature of their understanding.

Robert Parham has written a very helpful essay for Ethic's Daily that speaks to this problem, sharing two Baptist voices that are trying to counter this problem.  It is time, these leaders say, for Christians to refrain from slander, and engage the issues with honesty. With this, I'm in total agreement. 

It is time for those Christians (and others), whether they are politicians, preachers, or whatnot, who have cast inappropriate aspersions on Islam and Muslims, to put aside vilification, take a humble stance toward the other, and begin conversations that will lead to understanding and hopefully bring peace. 

Friday, July 30, 2010

Arizona, Immigration, and the Law

We heard just the other day that a Federal Court judge had put a stay on implementation of  much of the Arizona iimmigration law.  This stay is based upon the judge's belief that these aspects of the law overstepped constitutional boundaries, and intruded in federal jurisdictions.  It is a decision that is seemingly unpopular with many, one the Arizona governor Jan Brewer has appealed, and one the local sheriff apparently plans to flout.  But it is one applauded by many religious leaders, especially within the Roman Catholic Church.   

I recognize that the Arizona law is in part a reflection of frustration with the inability of the Federal Government to come to grips with immigration.  There have been attempts to rectify the situation, but there hasn't been the political will to accomplish reform, in part because there is no consensus on what  to do, as well as conflicting agendas.  There are business leaders who are largely Republican that want to broaden access for migrant workers, because they need these workers.  These are also the folks who are hiring undocumented workers.  On the other hand there are Democrats who are concerned about civil rights, and thus concerned about the civil rights issues involved, and yet they have constituents concerned about loss of jobs.  Then mix into this a growing nativism, and you have the foundations of a stalemate.

As for the law itself, it simply goes way to far.  Not only does it step on the toes of  the federal government, but it creates untold numbers of problems, including potential for abuse of civil rights.  Proponents of the law say they don't understand why there is all the fuss about producing documents.  But, most of these proponents are white and unlikely to ever be asked to produce such documents such as a birth certificate.  How many of us carry proof of citizenship?   Few if any.  But, if you're Latino, well that's different.  Why?  Because you fit the profile of someone who society believes might be here illegally.    Therefore, one could be a Brit living here illegally, probably having overstayed one's visa, or maybe even a Canadian, but no one would ask for documents, but one could be Latino, having lived here legally one's life, but be required to produce documents -- because they fit the profile.  Suspicions are based on profiles.  You can train the cops and mean well, but the pressure is on in Arizona to show results.  And so rights will be abused.     

Now, what would be best would be for Congress to get behind a reform measure that is realistic and that provides needed security.  I realize in today's political climate that's not likely, but this would be helpful.  It is also time for a broader discussion about immigration.  Why people have come here to the US, and why they continue to come.  Its time w reflect on the benefits that immigration provides to the nation.  After all we are a nation of immigrants.  Even Native Americans migrated here from Asia thousands of years ago.  We also need to recognize that migrants aren't the cause of drug related crimes.  Yes some are involved, but they're not the cause.  The cause is the insatiable appetite on the part of Americans for cocaine and other drugs, signs that the American "war on drugs" has been a failure.

My hope is that the Supreme Court will throw this law out so that we can get on with resolving the real problems.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Focus -- A Lectionary Meditation

Colossians 3:1-11
Luke 12:13-21


We hear a lot about multi-tasking these days. We watch TV, check our email, talk on the cell phone, text our friends, and carry on a conversation. Of course, truth be told, it’s not easy to do more than one or two things at a time. Think talking on the cell and driving at the same time — and you know what I mean.

One of the major themes that runs through Scripture is that you can’t serve more than one master. At some point you will give allegiance to one or the other. Each in its own way, these three texts speak to the danger of idolatry. We hear Hosea cry out to his people on behalf of God, warning them about the dangers of continually walking away from God and pursuing their own agendas. In the Colossian letter a disciple of Paul reminds Gentiles of where they had come from and who they are now – now that they are in Christ, their focus should be on the things above rather than on the things below. Finally we have Jesus’ parable of the rich fool, reminding the people that when you die, you can’t take your riches with you. So, instead of building bigger barns, store up treasure in heaven by being rich toward God.

In the Hosea passage, we hear the prophet describe God’s compassionate outreach to the people of God. The prophet uses parental images to describe the relationship that exists between God and Israel – “When Israel was a child, I loved him;” and “out of Egypt I called my son.” Although some might find the reference to son a bit off-putting, it’s important to remember that in this case Israel is being personified as an individual – looking back to Jacob. With this in mind we see Yahweh acting as a parent, teaching his Son to walk and picking him up when he cried out, bringing healing to his child, and yet the child didn’t acknowledge this love. Instead, Israel chose to follow after the gods of the neighbors, shifting back and forth between Egypt and Assyrian – probably hoping to stay on the right side of these super-power rivalries. But, Israel continued to go his own way, leading Yahweh to let them suffer the consequences – and face the sword of their enemies, for they have gone their own way. Ah, but that’s not the last word, for God cannot let go of his son. His heart recoils within him and he finds that compassion is welling up within him, and so while tempted to unleash his wrath, he is not a human, but God, and therefore God will not come in wrath.

The message of Colossians seems very different from that of Hosea, and in many ways it is different in focus. But it too speaks of making choices. Writing to a Gentile audience the author, who is likely a member of the Pauline school, reminds the readers from whence they had come. You used be living with an earthly focus, one that led to fornication, anger, wrath, malice. But now you’re in Christ, so put away these sinful things, and keep your focus on Christ who sits at the right hand of the Father in heaven. The image used here it indicate the change of life’s focus is putting on new clothes. You are a new person, the author writes, so act accordingly. You have been renewed in knowledge, “according to the image of its creator.” Yes, in this new existence, this new life, with its new focus on Christ, you will experience the oneness that is Christ – no Greek or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, slave or free. There is one pair that is missing here – male and female (Galatians 3:28). Certainly this is oversight! The message here, however, is as with Hosea one of focus – who is it that you will serve? As with Hosea there is a word about wrath directed at the disobedient, though interestingly unlike Hosea, there isn’t any promise of pulling back from the brink. That absence should give us pause as we consider the nature of our relationship with God.

Finally we come to the gospel lesson. It comes from the 12th chapter of Luke, where Jesus finds himself pulled into a family squabble. Divide the inheritance among us the man says? Jesus says – that’s not my job. But, recognizing the issues that are at play in the conversation he tells us a story about a rich fool, a man who had a great harvest, so great that he decided to build bigger barns to contain his abundance. You might not think that this is a bad idea – people do it all the time. But Jesus seems to have a problem with it. Jesus reminds the audience, including the man who wants his share of the inheritance, of the dangers of putting one’s focus on the material things. After all, if you die, those bigger barns won’t do much for you. In this case, that’s just what happened. He built his barns, but he didn’t get to kick back and enjoy his Epicurean delights by eating, drinking, and being merry! I realize that this Epicurean philosophy stands at the heart of the American dream. After all, the “Declaration of Independence” promises us “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” But Jesus isn’t impressed, and suggests that we put our focus elsewhere. Instead of building bigger barns, be “rich toward God.”

As we look toward Sunday, possibly preaching these texts or engaging with these texts as a worshiper, the question stands: “Where is your focus?” Is it on earthly things or heavenly ones? By heavenly I don’t necessarily mean focusing on “pie in the sky in the bye and bye,” but rather focusing on the things of God, the God who according to Hosea is our parent who loves us, lifting us up to God’s cheek, comforting us and healing us and welcoming us back into the fold!

Republished from [D]mergent -- a Disciples of Christ oriented blog,
for which I write a weekly lectionary meditation.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Making Sense of Evolution -- Review

MAKING SENSE OF EVOLUTION:  Darwin, God, and the Drama of Life.  By John F. Haught.  Louisville:  WJK Press, 2010.  144 pp.

Here’s something creationists and evolutionary naturalists agree about: Darwin’s theory of evolution leads inevitably to atheism. John F. Haught disagrees. In Making Sense of Evolution, he proposes that one need not choose between God and Darwin.

Haught is most concerned with people such as Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett who define faith in narrow, ultraconservative terms. He challenges them by suggesting that one can be faithful to a religious tradition and also open to modern science. Haught reminds those of us who are people of faith open to evolutionary science that coexistence doesn’t mean living in separate homes (as Stephen J. Gould suggested).

Making Sense of Evolution invites the reader to develop a “theology of evolution.” The key to Haught’s argument is found in the second half of the book’s subtitle: “the Drama of Life.” Science offers one lens on reality, but it doesn’t tell the whole story. It doesn’t offer answers to questions of meaning or purpose or explain why people continue to believe in God. Haught suggests that evolution is like a set of grammatical rules that guide the telling of the story of reality but don’t define its content. As we seek to understand this story, we also ask what role God might play in the drama.

The traditional answer to this question is to point to design, and no one laid out the principles of design better than William Paley. But as Darwin himself discovered, Paley’s principles of design were too simple, too mechanical. Haught sees reality as involving multiple layers, one of which can be seen from the vantage point of science. Drama is another one of the layers. In this layer, God is not an engineer laying out the machine called life (Darwin effectively overthrew that image) but is coming into reality from the future, luring and beckoning life to move forward toward God’s desired end. Of course not all the scenes are written in this scenario, for God must adapt to the choices that are made.

A theology of evolution offers an “ultimate reason why things are the way they are.” “It is not in the design, diversity, and descent,” says Haught, “but in the transformative drama of life, that theology finally makes its deepest contact with Darwin’s science.”

Haught's theology is process-oriented. He makes wide use of Whitehead, Hartshorne and Tillich. He assumes that God’s involvement in the creative process is noncoercive and synergistic. Humans play a significant role in the evolutionary process.

Drama allows creation the freedom to work in relationship with the creator. The process isn’t always pretty, but do we really want a preordained, preset world that provides no opportunity for growth or contribution from the creation? Haught doesn’t.

If Christians wish to join in the scientific conversation, they need resources like this one. Evolutionary science and theology need not be done in isolation. Instead, we can see Darwin’s theory as a spiritual gift that will further our understandings of God in our age.

This review was originally posted at Theolog, the blog of the Christian Century

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Why Progressive Theology Matters: The God of Possibility (Bruce Epperly)

There is the assumption on the part of many that liberal or progressive Christianity talks more about what it doesn't believe in than what it does believe in.  Bruce Epperly is one of those progressive theologians who is concerned about probing what is possible to believe in today's world.  Today's essay speaks of the "God of Possibility," a piece triggered by the meditation written for this blog by seminarian Dwight Welch.  I invite you to read and engage in the conversation -- Who is the God of Possibility?


Why Progressive Theology Matters:
The God of Possibility

Bruce Epperly

Yesterday I received the latest edition of the United Church of Christ Desk Calendar. The cover announced the following: “Imagine What’s Possible. God is still speaking,” – a reminder of the UCC affirmation from Gracie Allen, “never place a period where God has placed a comma.” Imagine what’s possible! Look beyond the data and bottom line, and awaken to God’s holy adventure!

In the past few months, I have reflected on naturalistic visions of healing and miracles. On the whole progressive Christians have taken the position that God works within the naturalistic matrix of cause and effect to transform bodies, minds, spirits, and communities. Divine power is always relational and contextual, rather than unilateral and coercive. In a recent “Ponderings on a Faith Journey” essay, Dwight Welch insightfully noted that continuity of divine action and human experience does not rule out extraordinary awe-producing events. There is enough wonder in the world without needing to invoke supernaturalistic explanations.

As a spirit-centered progressive, I affirm that God is present in every moment of life. With the causal interdependence of life, there is no ultimate distinction between sacred and secular. While most moments appear ordinary, deep down every moment reflects God’s movements within the each moment of experience and the causal interdependence of life. All moments can potentially be “thin places,” epiphanies and energetic vortices, revealing God’s vision for ourselves and the world. In the continuity of life, there is an ongoing call and response, which invites us to look deeper for God’s touch in our lives and experience the divine aim at beauty and complexity of experience.

For good reason, progressives have shied away from focusing on discrete and supernatural “acts of God.” However, our reticence to identify certain moments as uniquely God-inspired should not prevent us from opening to greater expressions of divine power in our lives and in the world. A key question for progressives is “what can we expect from God and what can we expect from ourselves in the dynamic divine-human call and response?” Although we cannot ever fully discern the divine intention, progressive theology can affirm that God, like ourselves, is a visionary and volitional being in such a way that some moments more fully reflect God’s vision and energetic activity than others. This is a matter of divine choice and personal and communal openness. These moments do not violate the causal relatedness of life, but express a deeper energy and vision within the creative interdependence of life. These are moments of incarnation and possibility that lure us forward toward new and life-transforming adventures.

Progressive theology is forward thinking and forward looking. This present moment and the future are not fully determined by either God or prior causes. In the spirit of Alfred North Whitehead, the limitations of the actual world are the source of possibilities that invite us to go beyond the familiar to embrace a world of adventure. These possibilities are never abstract, but always concrete and continuous with the environmental given. From the womb of possibility come bursts of energy and creativity that can transform our lives and the world. Our openness to God through spiritual practices – prayer, meditation, mindfulness, energy work, social concern, hospitality – opens persons and communities to more transformative possibilities and greater energy to embody these possibilities. God is moving within each moment of experience providing lures for adventures and making a way where there is no way.

These days, two of my best friends have life-threatening cancer. Two years ago, our son was diagnosed with a rare cancer. In all three cases, I committed myself to praying for them in words, visualizations, and hands-on and distant energy work. My prayers are part of a larger matrix that includes chemotherapy and other medical interventions along with their own spiritual practices, healing relationships, and God’s movements through each and all of these.

There are no guarantees of cure, but I believe that a naturalistic approach to divine activity suggests that prayer and optimism open the door for new energies and more lively expressions of divine activity.

As progressives, who are often daunted by the budget bottom line and the medical diagnosis, we need to be hopeful realists, fully aware of the current situation, but equally aware that each moment can be a revelation of divine vision, possibility, and energy. Imagine what is possible when we awaken to God’s movements in the concrete moments of life!

Bruce Epperly is Professor of Practical Theology and Director of Continuing Education at Lancaster Theological Seminary and co-pastor of Disciples Community Church in Lancaster, PA. He is the author of seventeen books, including Holy Adventure: 41 Days of Audacious Living and Tending to the Holy: The Practice of the Presence of God in Ministry.   For more on his vision of divine activity, healing, and wholeness, see God’s Touch: Faith, Wholeness, and the Healing Miracles of Jesus and  Healing Worship: Purpose and Practice.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Progressive Christian Worship -- The Starting Point

Keith Watkins is in the midst of an ongoing discussion of what an alternative worship for progressive churches might look like.  Keith is a theologically liberal/progressive Disciple with strong commitments to the historic liturgical tradition.  In setting out a starting point for our discussion, he asks whether we will start with a "music/message" position, which has been common among Protestants since the Reformation -- that is, we sing and then we finish with a sermon -- or will we choose the "Word/Table" position that has ancient roots.  Being that he is Disciple, a tradition that places great emphasis on weekly communion, it's not surprising (at least to me), that Keith chooses the Word/Table position.

In this week's post he suggests three bases for this choice.

  • He notes the early Christian dependence on both the synagogue  worship practices using Torah and Prayers, which were then combined with Jesus' Table fellowship practices.
  • Noting dependence on Margaret Mead, he points out that bathing and eating are basic to human life, and can become important bearers of meanings that are distinct from the actual functions of these acts.  He writes:    

It is easy to understand why the ritual bath of regeneration (baptism) and the “bread of heaven” (eucharist) are the basic sacramental forms of the church’s life. Meal ceremonies generate are used to remember the past (anniversaries and birthdays), anticipate the future (weddings), celebrate important events, delimit and manifest family and associational connections. It is no surprise that some of the most complex theological and sociological discussions in the Pauline epistles are stimulated by meal imagery in 1 Corinthians (especially chapter 11). Similar challenges face progressive Christians today.
  • Finally, intertwined with this pattern of Word and Table one can find the basic theological affirmations of the Christian faith -- the nature of God, the person of Christ, sin, salvation, atonement.

Keith goes on to say:

What these three points imply is that developing an alternative way of worship for progressive churches is a specific form of the task that faces every generation, which is to inculturate Christian worship. The work has to progress at several levels: theological (how we define and explain our faith), artistic (how we embody faith and theology in rites, ceremonies, song, dance, and drama), practical (how we form and maintain communities) and missiological (how we live our faith in the world “groaning in travail waiting for its redemption).
As I read this, Keith is saying that there has been a historic pattern that provides us with the key elements by which worship can be formed, but these patterns must be re-inculturated in each new day.  Starting with this perspective one can look at what is happening today.  Much "contemporary worship" is of the music/message variety, while many mainline churches have the Word/Table pattern but remain stuck in the 1950s as far as the culture part of the equation.  By placing the focus on Word/Table, however, the emphasis is not placed on music, which is not to say that music isn't important.  I believe that music is critical to vital worship, but music supports the pattern, while not forming the pattern itself. 

You can read the entire piece at Keith's blog by clicking here.  While there you will find a link to a lengthy paper dealing with the question of inculturation that Keith wrote several years ago.  As you read this post I invite you to engage in conversation at Keith's blog and here as well. 

Classroom Controversy -- Sightings

Having been asked to resign from a teaching position -- for doctrinal reasons -- I have some sense of the difficulties that face teachers of religon.  All of my teaching experience has been in private, Christian settings, both seminary and college levels.  As Stanley Hauerwas noted in his wonderful memoir, he had a tendency to say things in class, but especially in meetings, that ticked people off -- usually administrators.  I know the feeling!!

In today's edition of Sightings, Martin Marty picks up on the case of an adjunct professor fired from a public university for the way in which he approached the Catholic teaching on homosexuality -- he laid out the Catholic teaching and noted his support of the position.  As Marty notes, this is an intriguing case because it lays out the narrow line that teachers of religion in public universities must walk.  It raises questions of objectivity -- if such a thing can be truly attained -- and more.  It's a most interesting piece, which "demands" your response!!_________________________________________________

Sightings 7/26/10

Classroom Controversy
 Martin E. Marty

Anyone who spends over a half century at the center and the margins of higher academe, as I have, knows better than to get involved with tenure disputes or hirings and firings of faculty. The further away from the scene of conflict one is, the dimmer the vision; the closer one is, the more the dust of battle obscures vision. So while using a particular issue and university to examine some points, I won’t suggest proper outcomes. The case does help us understand why and how certain kinds of disputes are complex and sticky.

So, to a scene and event: The University of Illinois at Champaign fired adjunct professor Kenneth Howell after the friend of an “offended student” e-mailed Robert McKim, the religion department head, charging that Howell had engaged in “hate speech,” if not in class, then in an e-mail in which he contributed further to a classroom controversy. The issue was his teaching of the Roman Catholic teaching that homosexual activity is sinful, a position with which he agreed and which he propounded with his endorsement.

Step back now, during the reviewing, and let’s see. First, not to include religion studies in higher education curricula is a problem for education and for the citizenry. Religion, in the narrowest and broadest senses, informs most complex human activities, including war-making and peace-making. So include it. Second, teaching religion in tax-supported institutions often occurs at the edge of controversy and conflict, since different individuals and groups in any public will criticize almost any presentation, including the least controversial. (Teaching it in private higher education settings also can be controversial, but we can pass that by for now.)

Next, phenomena related to human sexuality inevitably come up in discussions of religion, since faith communities and their leaders care so much about it, and the general public has interests and fights about it. But it is almost impossible to discuss religion “neutrally,” meaning “fair-mindedly” in the eyes of all, including interest groups. Giving an accounting of what a particular religious community or tradition teaches about something central to a faith is necessary, even urgent, if one is to understand its many features. Had Professor Howell tried to teach about Catholicism, which was his assignment, without getting into Catholic teaching and practice dealing with sexuality, it would represent a failure to educate well.

Having a professor identify herself or himself with such a teaching becomes a matter of “how” it is done. The vast majority of religion professors know how to protect the integrity of their students, their subjects, their school. Awareness of this in a conflicted, pluralistic society should lead professors to be careful about propagandizing (which is not educating) for or against a tradition. The Illinois case is complicated by the fact the position held by Howell is, shall we say, irregular, since the Catholic diocese of Peoria funds the chair and has interests that may not match that of regularly appointed and funded members of the religion department. Step back from that fact, and you still have a good illustration of how precarious is the perch of those who teach religion in state schools.

When all is done and said, however, there is no way to assure that at all schools, in all classes, all professors will do all this well. If a student over-reacted and Howell over-acted in the case of a controversial teaching, it is important to back off and, yes, review and re-review fateful decisions about legality, propriety, fairness, and effectiveness of teaching. Don’t envy the Illinois administrators who have to review their own actions and arbitrate among conflicting interests. But also we can pause and note once again how religion, long considered marginal and irrelevant, stirs people on all sides of societal issues in the arena that is the public university. This will not be the last re-reviewing that we are likely to observe, as religious communities and their foes heat up.

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


In this month's Religion and Culture Web Forum ("The Primacy of Rhetoric"), Marty Center Senior Fellow (2009-10) W. David Hall addresses the centrality of rhetoric in the Western humanist tradition by engaging the work of Ernesto Grassi, whose commentary on the Renaissance, especially, diverged from standard Platonic models of interpretation to include arts such as rhetoric, literature, and poetry. Of especial interest for Hall is Grassi's "retrieval of the humanist tradition" during this era and the possibilities that thorough understanding of such a retrieval opens more broadly in the fields of philosophy and religious studies. With invited responses from Andrew Hass (University of Stirling), Jeff Jay (University of Chicago), Santiago Pinon (University of Chicago), Donald Phillip Verene (Emory University), and Glenn Whitehouse (Florida Gulf Coast University).


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

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Singing in Church

Today, my last day of vacation, we decided to attend a larger, well-heeled Episcopal Church.  It is a beautiful Gothic cathedral in a nearby affluent community.  We went with high expectations and came away greatly disappointed.  I won't go into the details, but our experience today reminded me of the importance of congregational singing, which I believe may be a dying "art." 

My experience this Sunday stands in great contrast to what we experienced last Sunday up in Omena.  Now, I have to note that my music minister is the summer organist up north, and he provides wonderful support to congregational singing.  I need to also say that the people who attend this church love to sing.  So, the service we planned last week featured a lot of singing -- I did a sermon that is rather unique in that each movement of the sermon included hymns.

So, back to the issue of singing, and my observations about its place in worship.

One of the keys to congregational singing is "singability."  I think one of the reasons why people like to sing gospel songs is that they are melodic and easy to sing.   Many of the early praise songs -- from the 1970s -- were also very singable.  But there is a lot of church music, especially more recent material, that is very performance oriented and difficult to sing.  Obviously that was true of the hymns that we sang this morning.  It is also true of much of the recent "contemporary praise music."   

A friend who has a Ph.D. in worship and the arts has been studying worship in these large churches which feature praise bands, and what he noticed is that no one was singing.  There was a praise band with professional-level singers, and the folks in the "audience" might hum along, like you might at a concert, but there was very little fully engaged singing.  This is very different from what I experienced years ago (back in the 1970s)

Now, I love to sing and I sing out -- as my congregants will tell you -- so I like to choose music that is singable. Now, I don't always succeed.  Sometimes I'll choose a piece that doesn't work, and so we either move on or work on it some more.  And when introducing new songs and hymns, I try to balance them with songs we know (again, there are times that I fail in this, but that is why I keep track of the songs we sing, so I know how often and when last we had sung a piece). 

So, here are my questions: 

  1. How important is congregational singing to worship? 
    2.   What have your experiences been regarding congregational singing in your settings?

Saturday, July 24, 2010

I've Got Nothing against Counting Heads, But . . . !

In my review of Jason Byassee's new book on the Small Church, a book I enjoyed in part because I've been a small church pastor, I took strong issue with the afterword written by William Willimon.  I didn't take issue with Willimon because of his recent emphasis on numbers and church growth, an emphasis that seems somewhat at odds with his earlier books written with Stanley Hauerwas.  Heck, I have no problem with numbers and counting.  Although I pastor a relatively small church, I want to see it grow.  Numbers can be a sign of health -- though if numbers are the focus, then we often do whatever is necessary to market ourselves so we can get people in the door.  No, I didn't take issue with the numbers issue, I took issue with the  snarky tone he took toward small churches, suggesting that small churches were communities only Jesus could love. 

In an email conversation with Jason after I posted the review, he pointed me to his own response to the question of numbers and counting, that he had offered in a piece he had originally posted at Willimon's blog --and now at the Duke Divinity School's Call and Response blog.  In this piece he notes that hlike many  theologians he had taken a negative attitude toward head counting as a means of determining faithfulness to the gospel. 

He writes:
I confess I can’t find a Methodist argument against Willimon’s claim that Wesley insisted on numerical measures as a plumbline of effectiveness. Amidst the spasms of bile heaped on Willimon in this blogstorm (see link and link), no one has been able to show a Wesleyan argument against Willimon’s claim that numerical growth is a mark of Methodist faithfulness. They’ve attacked him personally, or attacked adherence to Wesley, or suggested bishops be held to the same standard (agreed -- and so would Will), or offered red herrings (“What about the poor?” As if anyone is asking only for new rich members) or just whined and kvetched. But they haven’t overturned his claim that numbers mattered to Wesley and their upward trend is a sign of church health.

As an elder in the UMC this makes me quite nervous. I miss being a local pastor enough that a day doesn’t pass when I don’t think about it. And I don’t much like the idea of my future hinging on whether the church I serve grows.
The worry that Willimon has is whether the church is on such a downward cycle that soon there won't be a church.  Now, I'm not as pessimistic as Willimon seems to be, but then I'm a local pastor and not a judicatory.  But, the debate over numbers does raise the question of how we diagnose health in a church.  Does size matter?  The most recent issue of The Christian Century, which just landed on my doorstep features as its cover story an article on the trend toward bigger churches.  Most churches are small, but growing 50% of Americans attend churches over 350 people, with 9% attending mega churches. While a majority of megachurches remain connected to denominations, most of these churches look and feel like independent congregations -- their links being fairly loose.

For good or bad, according to the article written by John Dart, this trend has changed the face of the church.  Even smaller churches face the reality that people come to the church looking for the opportunities found in megachurches.   That is the point made in the followup article written by Kyle Childress entitled "Oversized Expectations."  In this article he notes how people come to the church with expectations forged by megachurches, expectations that even impact long term members.  He notes that his Baptist church in Nacogdoches, Texas is one of the few without screens and praise bands.  The article opens with a description of visitors who seemed rather uncomfortable in the service.  Recounting a conversation that occured afterward, he notes that one of the persons blurted out:  "Well, we noticed you use hymnbooks.  We've never been in a church that still uses hymnbooks.  We've always had the words on overhead screens." (CC, July 27, 2010, p. 28).  Childress goes on to recount another conversation with a young couple who had visited.  In a conversation that occurred during a visit to the couple, they people told him that while they liked the church and the people, especially the emphasis on the environment that the church had, but in their estimation:  "a person has to work to hard to be a member of your church. We don't have time to work that hard."   Childress notes that this is part of the issue, the bigger the church the less one must do to be part of the congregation.  In a small church it's always "all hands on deck."  

So, the question is:  how do we determine congregational health and faithfulness?  Although I have pastored smaller congregations, I must ask myself -- would I join one if I were to be without church employment?  What are your thoughts?

Friday, July 23, 2010

Lincoln, the Know Nothings, and Nativism Old and New

Earlier I wrote about my disgust with both Sarah Palin and Newt Gingrich's demagoguery concerning Muslims in America.  Actually, Palin's rant wasn't as dangerous as Gingrich's.  But both are what some call "Christianists," and in their understanding of "real American" is quite narrow.  The Nativism that is driving the debate in Arizona and in New York is not new.  It has a fairly strong pedigree, that goes back to the early days of the Republic.  It fueled the dispossession of Native Americans from their lands, kept blacks in servitude, excluded Asians, and targeted Catholics, especially Irish Catholics.

Back in the 1850s a political movement emerged that came to be known as the "Know Nothing Party" -- a party that targeted Catholics.  It had some political success and even recruited a former President to run on its behalf in 1856 -- Millard Fillmore.  The response that Abraham Lincoln gave in a letter to friend Joshua Speed dated 1856 speaks clearly to what is happening today.  Although the majority of the letter speaks to the question of slavery and the impending admission of Kansas to the union, the letter also speaks volumes not only to the situation then regarding immigration and the other, but to that which exists today. 

I am not a Know-Nothing. That is certain. How could I be? How can any one who abhors the oppression of negroes, be in favor or degrading classes of white people? Our progress in degeneracy appears to me to be pretty rapid. As a nation, we began by declaring that "all men are created equal." We now practically read it "all men are created equal, except negroes" When the Know-Nothings get control, it will read "all men are created equal, except negroes, and foreigners, and Catholics." When it comes to this I should prefer emigrating to some country where they make no pretence of loving liberty -- to Russia, for instance, where despotism can be taken pure, and without the base alloy of hypocracy [sic].
So, in response to Gingrich's demand that no mosque be built whilst churches can't be built in Saudi Arabia, perhaps we who love liberty should move not to Russia but to Saudi Arabia, for if the "Know Nothings" of today take over, then at least we'll not live with they hypocrisy of our pretensions of liberty for all.  

They're Going to take over! -- Anti-Muslim Political Rants

Who would have thought that the decision to build a mosque in Manhattan, a block or so from the World Trade Center site, would take on a national political spotlight.  But, as we know, none other than Sarah Palin has twittered her opposition, and created a word of her own in the midst of the tirade.  Now, I really don't care about Palin's use of the word "refudiate."  The accurate word would be "repudiate," but that's the least of our problems.  It's easy to ridicule Palin, but all that seems to do is endear her more to people across the country -- the ones Palin calls "real Americans."  "Real Americans" are, as you know, Christians.  More specifically conservative ones -- the ones that Richard Dawkins has determined are to be considered real Christians as well.  

Newt Gingrich chimes in by saying that there should be no mosques near ground zero as long as there aren't churches and synagogues in Saudi Arabia.
There should be no mosque near Ground Zero in New York so long as there are no churches or synagogues in Saudi Arabia. The time for double standards that allow Islamists to behave aggressively toward us while they demand our weakness and submission is over.
My question is -- when did a theocratic/autocratic country set standards for the United States.  I thought that this was a free country, where we are free to practice our faith as we please.  Would Sarah and Newt think it okay for a church on that site?  If so, then how can you discriminate against Muslims who wish to have a place to worship in Manhattan?

Now, I'm not naive -- there are terrorists out there who are Muslim.  There are also Muslims who dream of a world empire.  But there are Christians with the same dreams and attitudes.  But, anti-Islamic rants and policies will do little to bring down the tensions or promote peace.  They do little to enhance the American reputation as a place of freedom and opportunity.

Of course, these are politicians and they are appealing to people who have been lead to believe that a Muslim horde is about to descend.  Demagoguery of right and left has always worked well, especially when it has played on religious fears.  Remember 1960 and the fear that Jack Kennedy would get his marching orders from the Pope?  Now, there is a play on the fears that seem to infect a near majority within the Republican Party that the current President is a secret Muslim.   Plant the fears now and you don't have to be overt with attacks later when you're a candidate.

But, according to Newt, the Islamists are bent on taking over, and thus destroying our society.  Consider this:
America is experiencing an Islamist cultural-political offensive designed to undermine and destroy our civilization. Sadly, too many of our elites are the willing apologists for those who would destroy them if they could.
It is unfortunate that we are at this place in time.  But, with the nation at war in two Muslim countries and provocative behavior coming out of several others, you can see how this is problematic politically.  But, I'm not a politician, I'm a pastor and a theologian.  My greatest concern is that we are failing in our call to love our neighbor.  So, can't we stop the rants?!  I say now is the time for Americans to recognize the genius of the nation and embrace the freedoms placed in the Constitution that protect religious expression.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

The Bricolage Religion of LOST and American Religious Culture -- Sightings

The recently completed LOST TV show offered a six year long odyssey in which the show's creators and writers seemed to be making up as they went along.  I was a faithful watcher for the first several seasons, and then for a number of reasons I wasn't able to stay with it -- though I did watch the finale.  One of the things that the show did was mix in religious themes, but as Benjamin Zeller writes here in a Sightings piece, the religious ideas are not only eclectic but the varieties of religious elements are mixed together in what appear to be rather odd ways.  Thus the Dharma Initiative borrows an Indian religious term to define itself and yet it combines this with a Taoist symbol as its logo.  But that's really not the point -- the point is that Americans are very good at combining religious/spiritual ideas in creative ways, and this isn't all that new.  So, read, consider, and respond!


Sightings 7/22/10

The Bricolage Religion of LOST and
American Religious Culture

-- Benjamin E. Zeller

This spring the television series LOST, which achieved cult status over its six seasons, came to an end. A tale of the survivors of an airplane crash on a mysterious tropical island, the series wove together stories of the survivors’ pasts and presents. It also slowly introduced the inhabitants of the island and what fans of the show call the island’s “mythos” – the supernaturalistic elements and features of this sacred space.

LOST’s flirtations with religion followed an intriguing pattern of bricolage that mirrors contemporary developments in American religion. Not content to remain within the bounds of any singular religious approach, the writers combined elements of Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism, Taoism, Egyptian religions, and New Age spirituality. The great mystery during much of the series, the enigmatic “Dharma Initiative” – a name derived from Indian religious traditions – curiously used Taoist symbols as part of its icon. Meanwhile a group of the island's original residents lived in an Egyptian-style temple, led by a Japanese master named Dogen, a reference to a Zen philosopher. Among the survivors, the Catholic Mr. Eko carried a large stick with scriptural references, and sometimes functioned as an unordained priest. The island itself became a sacred space of healing, miracles, and conflicts, set apart and forbidden by the mysterious Jacob, a two thousand year old guardian. Meanwhile characters with names like Locke, Hume, and Rousseau served to advance the plot of the series.

Despite these many references to religions and philosophies – and the previous summary barely scratches the surface – seldom did the writers delve too deeply into the meanings of such references. Besides some Buddhist-sounding platitudes, the character Dogen did not actually espouse the real Dogen’s philosophy, nor did LOST’s John Locke represent John Locke’s. The Dharma initiative was not particularly influenced by any Buddhist, Hindu, or even New Age notion of the dharma, and Mr. Eko’s Catholic vocation was completely divorced from the liturgical and sacramental reality of Catholic life. Religious elements in LOST generally appeared shorn of their cultural, historical, and theological moorings.

Yet LOST’s flirtations with religion should not be read as a failing of the writers. Rather, LOST represents a broader trend in contemporary American culture. The recent 2009 Pew Forum poll – which received treatment in Sightings – reveals Americans’ propensity for engaging in similar religious bricolage. Thirteen percent of American Christians have visited psychics, twenty-three percent believe in spiritual energy in trees, and twenty-two percent accept reincarnation. A decade ago in his study of American Baby Boomers, Wade Clark Roof found the same phenomenon. And Catherine Albanese has traced this pattern of religious combinativeness back to the colonial era. Religious bricolage is not a new phenomenon, though LOST made it explicit on national airwaves.

As viewers of the final episode of LOST discovered, the show’s writers even offered a vision of the afterlife. As the character Christian Shepherd (yes, that’s his name) explained, people create their own gathering places in the afterlife where they reunite with loved ones, before “leaving” to journey on. Reminiscent of both the Buddhist bardo and the Christian limbo, LOST’s afterlife had the added New Age element of envisioning the afterlife as a positive realm created by the power of the mind.

The LOST survivors met in the afterlife in an interfaith chapel replete with sacred objects and symbols from a variety of world religions. Such a place, and the metaphysical belief in the power of the mind to construct reality, is an apt metaphor for LOST’s engagement with religion and philosophy. Rather than focus on a single worldview, its writers created a patchwork. Such an approach may sometimes lead scholars of religion to scratch their heads, but it also speaks to a continuing proclivity for combinativeness in American religious culture.


For treatments in Sightings of the 2009 Pew Forum poll, see Martin E. Marty, “Decline in Conservative Churches,” December 14, 2009:; and Martin E. Marty, “Searching for God,” December 21, 2009:

The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, “Many Americans Mix Multiple Faiths.” December 9, 2009:

Catherine L. Albanese, A Republic of Mind and Spirit: A Cultural History of American Metaphysical Religion (Yale University Press, 2007).

Wade Clark Roof, Spiritual Marketplace: Baby Boomers and the Remaking of American Religion (Princeton University Press, 1999).

Benjamin E. Zeller is Director of College Honors Program and Assistant Professor of Religion, Brevard College, and the author of  Prophets and Protons: New Religious Movements and Science in Late Twentieth-Century America (NYU Press, 2010).


In this month's Religion and Culture Web Forum ("The Primacy of Rhetoric"), Marty Center Senior Fellow (2009-10) W. David Hall addresses the centrality of rhetoric in the Western humanist tradition by engaging the work of Ernesto Grassi, whose commentary on the Renaissance, especially, diverged from standard Platonic models of interpretation to include arts such as rhetoric, literature, and poetry. Of especial interest for Hall is Grassi's "retrieval of the humanist tradition" during this era and the possibilities that thorough understanding of such a retrieval opens more broadly in the fields of philosophy and religious studies. With invited responses from Andrew Hass (University of Stirling), Jeff Jay (University of Chicago), Santiago Pinon (University of Chicago), Donald Phillip Verene (Emory University), and Glenn Whitehouse (Florida Gulf Coast University).


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

There's Still Hope -- A Lectionary Meditation

Hosea 1:2-10

Colossians 2:6-15

Luke 11:1-13

There’s Still Hope

Persistence – that is the message of Jesus’ parable in Luke 11. Just after teaching the disciples an abridged form of what we know as the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus tells a parable about a man who wakes up his neighbor at midnight so he can feed a friend who has dropped by unexpectedly – in the middle of the night – and is now hungry. In that culture, if someone drops by, you feed them, but what do you do when the cupboard is bare? You go knock on your neighbor’s door – sort of like Sheldon knocking on Leonard’s or Penny’s door (Big Bang Theory). The neighbor might not get up and help out from friendship, but if you knock long enough, well then perhaps the neighbor will give in, get up, and get the bread. Of course, God isn’t like that neighbor who has to be pestered into helping.

One of the stanzas of the Lord’s Prayer speaks of forgiveness – something that we often approach God desiring. The concern that is present in the minds of many is whether God will be receptive, and what that will require of us. In the parable, the suggestion is – if we ask, it will be given to us – so there is still hope.

Hope is something that appears absent from the Hosea passage. It’s the 8th century, Jehu is on the throne of Israel, and the situation is not good. The people of Israel have been playing the whore and have flirted with the gods of their neighbors, choosing to reject God’s ways. So, God sends another prophet into their midst – Hosea – and God decides to illustrate the troubles Israel faces by directing Hosea to marry a prostitute. Being the obedient one that he is, Hosea marries Gomer and with her he has three children (though since she is a prostitute you can never be sure that the children are his). Each child has a name that reflects God’s displeasure with the northern kingdom of Israel. The first is Jezreel, a son whose name reflects God’s decision to take the kingdom of Israel at the valley of Jezreel. The second child is a daughter named Lo-Rahama, whose name suggests that there will be no pity or forgiveness for Israel (though God will forgive Judah – at least for now). Finally, there is a son, Lo-Ammi, whose name signifies God’s judgment — “You are not my people, and I am not your God.”

The Hosea passage is so full of hopelessness and judgment. God has decided that enough is enough. Having acted as a prostitute, the nation has followed after other gods and lords, and so God will allow them to suffer the consequence. Having had enough, God is casting them off on their own. Only the prophet offers a sliver of hope in verse ten. We hear this word of restoration, this promise that Israel will be like the sand of the sea – too many to count – and though once called “Not My People,” now they will be called “Children of God.” The hope lies in the restoration of the whole people, as Judah and Israel are gathered together, taking possession of the land once more under one head (vs. 11). There is hope yes, but difficult times remain. Perhaps then the key is in Jesus’ parable – be persistent – persevere – hold on to the one who gives good things to God’s children.

The Colossian passage draws everything together. It is a call for the children of God to hold fast to Christ, in whom we are to be rooted and built up. There is a warning here – reminiscent of the word to/through Hosea. Be careful about whom you listen to – philosophy, empty deceit, human tradition. You can see from this list that the author of this letter is writing to Gentile Christians who are struggling to make sense of the differences between the gospel and the theologies of those outside the faith. Instead of attending to these other voices, listen for Christ. Listen to him because it is in him that the fullness of deity dwells bodily, and it is he who reigns over all rule and authority. Again we see the echoes of Hosea – there is hope, but you must put your trust in God who is revealed in Christ.

In Christ, we are circumcised spiritually, putting off the flesh – the way of the world. It is in baptism that we identify ourselves with Christ, our sins and trespasses being buried with him, and then raised again, the power of death no longer hanging over us, as we embrace God’s purpose through faith. In Christ, the legal record that has hung over our heads is cleared, having been nailed to the cross.

What do we make of this message? Especially we who take a more progressive view of God and God’s relationship with creation? We may be troubled with Hosea’s use of his marriage as prophetic example – and God’s command that he do so. We may like the promise that if we ask God, then God will respond because God has to be a better parent than any human parent – but does that mean that God is like a vending machine, giving us whatever we want without any discernment? And then there is Colossians, which could be taken in an anti-Jewish way.

But however you deal with the particulars, there is a promise here, a promise that there is hope of reconciliation and restoration. God is good and faithful and will make a way for us to experience a restored relationship with God and creation. Central to the promise is the statement that in Christ the legal slate is wiped clean. It may be that we must first repent – turning from the way of “whoredom.” In another passage from Luke, we get the idea that repentance is involved in this process (Luke 17:1-4). Repentance, of course, is not groveling before God, grinding our knees into the gravel. Instead, it is a decision to walk faithfully with the God who offers us peace and reconciliation. It is a decision to live differently – even if we stumble and require forgiveness time after time. Still, there is that word of hope!

Reposted from:  [D]mergent -- a new Disciples oriented blog, for which I write this weekly reflection

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Serenity Now -- a Seinfeld Thriller

My posts have been rather theological and serious of late, which is in keeping with the nature of this blog.  But, having said that, there is always time and place for a little levity -- if you can call it that.  So, enjoy this "Trailer" of a Seinfeld thriller featuring Wayne Jackson as "Newman."  Enjoy!!

Worship and the Progressive Christian Church -- laying out a new pattern

It may seem ironic that some of the churches with the most conservative theology have the most culturally-connected "worship."   I put "worship" in quote marks, because in some ways -- as planners of church services have a tendency to do -- much of this "worship" borders on pure entertainment.  It uses all of the technology and style of the current cultural moment.   Worship in many progressive or liberal churches -- those in the old Mainline traditions -- have a tendency to be quite traditional and conservative.  The theology might be liberal but the medium is old style and traditional -- with liturgy, hymns and organs instead of guitars, free form worship, praise songs, and preachers in Hawaiian shirts.

So, what might a more culturally engaged, but theologically progressive worship look like?   I reposted a piece last week written by my friend Keith Watkins, which launches a series of posts that will engage this question.  Keith is deeply rooted in liturgical studies and treasures the ancient patterns.  But, he wants to envision what might be if we were to create worship contexts that are true to our liturgical patterns of Word and Table and yet be culturally aware. 

In his second post of the series, he takes up an address by Thomas Schattauer, the current president of the North American Academy of Liturgy.   In this address, Schattauer lists five perspectives on worship and the ways in which we formulate it:

•Recovery of historic practice toward a distinctive community witnessing to God’s purpose in the world

•Use of cultural materials toward a wider embrace of people (be it the unchurched or particular ethnic groups)

•Attention to the experience of the marginalized toward justice and inclusion of God’s reign

•Focus on relational community toward social belonging and wholeness

•Openness to the movement of God’s Spirit toward personal healing, holiness, and hope
Keith admits that his focus us been on that first perspective, but seeks to broaden it out in search of an alternative way of doing worship in progressive churches.  I'm going to repost three key paragraphs so you can see what Keith is trying to do. 

My perspectives have been deeply influenced by the first of Schattauer’s impulses: the liturgical movement. Schattauer says that its central interest is “to give the church clearer definition as a community of Christ through the focus on central practices which constitute persons in relation to Christ and to one another, most especially the reading and proclamation of Scripture, baptism, and Eucharist. Moreover, the purpose of this community in Christ constituted in its liturgical assembly is to be understood in relation to God’s purpose in the world.”

As useful as it is, Schattauer’s list gives insufficient attention to another impulse that I encounter with increasing urgency in theological literature and in conversations with church people week after week: the need to restate central Christian doctrines in ways that can be affirmed by people who have dismissed older ways of stating Christian beliefs and who are searching for believable ways of describing their faith. My early theological studies focused upon the continental liberal tradition and for a generation my closest theological colleagues were advocates of process theology. While I have only limited competence as theologian, the mood, perspective, and themes of contemporary liberal theology are important to the way I think about my life as a Christian.

My plan for this series is to propose that the classic union of Word and Table, understood in its simplest and most direct form, is the place to begin our construction of worship that is “something other.” I then will discuss each of its components, in their order as they appear in the classic shape of the service. Along the way, I will take time out to comment on specific challenges—atonement theologies in the eucharist, for example—that are especially challenging to the progressive Christians whom I meet week after week, in churches on Sundays and lots of other places on the other days.

I am deeply interested in where Keith will take this.  I have devoted considerable attention to the form that worship takes, in the hope that the worship services I help plan will bring people into the presence of God, so that they might worship God fully, and be empowered and encouraged so as to engage in the mission of God in the world -- bringing wholeness and healing to a deeply fragmented and wounded world.  To do this one must think deeply about what one is doing -- bringing theology, culture, and tradition into conversation with each other.  Theology provides the fulcrum upon which we balance culture and tradition.  It is not an easy task and requires that we attend to those who have wisdom in these matters -- even if we don't follow in every point of contention.  I invite you to participate in the discussion here and to continue over to Keith's blog, where you can read the full piece and engage him in conversation. 

Jesus and America -- Sightings

There has been for who knows how long a debate about the role of religion in American society.  Our coins say:  "In God We Trust" and the Pledge of Allegiance says:  "One Nation Under God."  People get pretty heated with their opinions.  Personally, I trust in God, but I'm not sure which God is referred to in this statement.  The same can be said for "One Nation Under God."  Which God are we speaking of?  A generic god that all peoples (at least those who at a minimal level say they believe in God) can affirm? 

Martin Marty picks up on the relationship of Jesus and America, a conversation triggered by a 4th of July Hobby Lobby ad.  Until this point, I didn't know that Hobby Lobby was  a big Christian booster, but apparently they are -- and they like to link Jesus to America, sort of.  Anyway, Marty in his Monday essay lifts up the questions surrounding this relationship, and celebrates the fact that there is room to have this debate.  I invite your thoughts and comments!


Sightings 7/19/10

Jesus and America

-- Martin E. Marty

“If you would like to know Jesus as Lord and Savior, Call Need Him Ministry.” That invitation appears at the bottom of a full-page Hobby Lobby ad that ran in scores, if not hundreds, of newspapers a fortnight ago, appropriately on the Fourth of July. More prominent was the motto in the middle of the big page, in bold type: IN GOD WE TRUST. The juxtaposition of the Jesus-invitation and the America-claim inspires some reflection. Nowadays, writers have to “declare an interest,” so I’ll declare mine. I “came to know Jesus as Lord and Savior” on February 26, 1928 – at baptism – and grew a bit in that knowledge as years have passed, so the phrase is fine with me. As for “In God ‘We’…," I am never sure how inclusive the ‘We’ may be. From what I’ve read of the Hobby Lobby people, I am not sure non-Christians or the wrong kind of Christians would be included, but we can generously treat it generically, keeping the boundaries vague.

Around the bold motto are portraits of four founders of the United States, all of whom trusted in God, however defined – and they did their own defining. (In smaller print under them, without picture, is also a word from former President Ronald Reagan, but let’s stick to the founders’ point.) George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and Benjamin Franklin all receive three- to five-line spaces for testimony connecting God with “all nations” (Washington), with “a moral and religious people (Adams), “a people” and “my country” (Jefferson), and “the affairs of men” plus “an empire” (Franklin). The Hobby Lobby people have enough integrity not to try to smuggle in a reference to Jesus as Lord and Savior in the “Founders” part of the ad.

Bloggers, as you can easily find, are passionately pro or con the idea of the ad. I, for one, would argue that this is a legitimate way to witness: not through privileging Christian testimony, but by letting free marketers in religion use non-coercive, non-governmental instruments. The fact that this kind of ad is quite rare, however, illustrates why the courts get so many cases dealing with Jesus in the civil realm. The “Christmas wars” are not about crèches on the 30,000 lawns of a city, but on the 300 square feet of everybody’s “civil space” on the court house lawn.

The rest of the controversy deals with the four founders and their faiths. Many bloggers quote fake lines or distort what was said, in efforts to “Christianize” the big four. That won’t work. And contenders against them often make the mistake of trying to fit the four into a groove called “Deism.” They did have many things in common with Deist belief. If Deists had a church, Franklin could have served as a creed-maker. Unitarians did have a church and Jefferson let his contemporaries know that he felt at home there, where Jesus was not Lord and Savior but a humanist-ethicist’s dream.

It’s wiser to keep Founders’ beliefs vague, as they did. Jefferson once told the Delaware Indians it’d be nice for them to know about Jesus’ religion, but dropped the subject after one line. The Founders all believed that morality was important for the republic – of course! – and some of them sometimes linked “morality” with “religion,” still in that vague way. Franklin wittily ducked the Jesus-as-divine question, but believed in God the way – oops! –Deists did. Bottom line: Let Hobby Lobby invite you to Jesus. It’s a free country. Let their ads help them swell the coffers of newspapers, which desperately need advertisements. And we keep enjoying a republic where debates over religion, God, Jesus, and the public order can so openly occur.

For Further Information:

Click here to watch Glenn Beck discuss George Washington's faith with Peter Lillback, author of the bestselling George Washington's Fire:

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


In this month's Religion and Culture Web Forum ("The Primacy of Rhetoric"), Marty Center Senior Fellow (2009-10) W. David Hall addresses the centrality of rhetoric in the Western humanist tradition by engaging the work of Ernesto Grassi, whose commentary on the Renaissance, especially, diverged from standard Platonic models of interpretation to include arts such as rhetoric,

literature, and poetry. Of especial interest for Hall is Grassi's "retrieval of the humanist tradition" during this era and the possibilities that thorough understanding of such a retrieval opens more broadly in the fields of philosophy and religious studies. With invited responses from Andrew Hass (University of Stirling), Jeff Jay (University of Chicago), Santiago Pinon (University of Chicago),

Donald Phillip Verene (Emory University), and Glenn Whitehouse (Florida Gulf Coast University).


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

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Why Progressive Theology Matters: God is Still Speaking (Bruce Epperly)

There is a verse that appears near the close of the book of Revelation, which suggests that anyone adding to the book faces divine curses.  Some have taken this little message to be speaking of the Scriptures as a whole, so that if you share any revelatory materials beyond this passage, then God will get you.  In other words, God has spoken once and for all and is now forever silent.  But is God forever silent?  Could it be that God might still be speaking?.  Remember that this passage only works because of its placement at the end of the canonical books of the New Testament, a placement that was in doubt as late as the fifth century.  But, if God is still speaking, how is God speaking and what does this mean for us?  Bruce Epperly once again points us toward progressive theology, suggesting that it has resources that might help us hear God's voice today. 


Why Progressive Theology Matters:
God is Still Speaking

Bruce Epperly

My denomination, the United Church of Christ, proclaims “God is still speaking” in much of its literature, but is still trying to figure out what this statement truly means for moderate and progressive Christians. I believe this statement takes people in the United Church of Christ and other denominations much further than its original intent: it asks us to become practically-oriented mystics. In fact, the affirmation that “God is still speaking” is at the heart of a spirit-centered progressive faith that can transform the face of North American Christianity. In light of the recent Pew Center report, indicating that 50% of mainstream Christians have had mystical experiences, today’s progressive and moderate Christians are challenged to claim their spiritual experiences and develop open-ended practices appropriate to progressive Christian theology.

Today, progressives need to claim a holistic spirituality that embraces action and contemplation, and mysticism and social transformation. Progressive theology has untapped resources for holistic mysticism and spiritual transformation. First, of all, progressive theology affirms the universality of God’s presence and revelation. God is moving in and through all things; no one is exempt from revelation. God touches everyone and everyone can touch God. Second, progressive theology affirms that God is alive and constantly creating in our world. The affirmation that “God is still speaking” embraces and joins spirituality and social transformation. God is constantly doing a new thing in widening the scope of liberation and healing for us and all creation. God’s new vision invites us to go beyond biblical literalism and exclusiveness to affirm God’s presence in science, medicine, evolutionary theory, and gender and marriage equality. But, just as important, God is inspiring us in new ways as individuals, calling us to explore new dimensions of spiritual formation and healing and wholeness. Third, the dynamic divine-human “call and response” brings forth constantly new possibilities for creativity and adventure in spirituality, politics, and relationships. Our changes inspire God to act in new ways and divine activity inspires us to embody new paths of faith and action.

The God who is “new every morning” and “new every moment” invites us to novel forms of spirituality and social concern appropriate to our time and place. A joke among United Church of Christ folk is “God is still speaking, but is anyone listening?” Listening to God implies that we trust God’s voice in our lives as we open to the many media of revelation – in moments of quiet contemplation, intuitive experiences, dreams, encounters, literary work, meditative practices, yoga and energy work, and calls to service. Listening to God inspires us to let our lives speak through actions that transform our relationships and social structures.

Today, progressive Christianity needs to come out of the closet and claim its spiritual gifts and resources. Our churches need to become laboratories of the spirit, inspiring our care for this good earth. Today’s Christianity needs holistic spiritual practices, embracing the traditions of Christianity in a new and creative ways, and open to the insights of non-Christian spiritualities.

Progressive Christianity can be a leader in dynamic global spiritual formation that embraces the quests of seekers within and beyond the church.

Bruce Epperly is Professor of Practical Theology and Director of Continuing Education at Lancaster Theological Seminary and co-pastor of Disciples Community Church in Lancaster, PA. He is the author of seventeen books, including Holy Adventure: 41 Days of Audacious Living and Tending to the Holy: The Practice of the Presence of God in Ministry.