Friday, December 31, 2010

2010 Book of the Year -- Top 10 List

There have been many wonderful books published in 2010, not all of which I've had the opportunity to read and consider. Some good books are still sitting on my pile, and some are still being read, and still others I'll never get around to reading.  Among those books that I have had the opportunity to read, deciding which ten books made my own top ten wasn’t easy. I left several books off this list that I found tremendously important – books by Brueggemann, Dunn, Crossan, and Moltmann. But, a choice had to be made, and so I made it.  A caveat here -- every list such as this is a matter of the reader's judgment and sense of importance, as can be seen in the great variety of choices made by "listers."  But this is my list!    

Book of the Year:

Robert D. Putnam and David E. Campbell, American Grace: How Religion Unites and Divides Us. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2010. 

First among the books that I read this year, the book that stands out above the others, is American Grace. I knew from almost the start that this would be my book of the year, because I believe that it holds important lessons for the future well-being of the nation and its religious communities. It is a word of hope that carries with it warnings. Despite the seeming dividing lines – red state and blue state – we’re a pretty open country. In large part this is due to a changing of generations and the development of social networks that bring people of different theological/religious backgrounds into contact with each other. Putnam and Campbell, both sociologists review the data – some of which they collected and some collected by others – interpret it and weave it into a story that takes us to various places in the nation. This isn’t a short book, but it is a must read book.

I've yet to write a full review, but I have been writing comments as I've gone through the book, and will continue to do so in the days to come.  Some of those postings can be found here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.      

Remainder of Top Ten List, in alphabetical Order:

Philip Clayton with Tripp Fuller, Transforming Christian Theology for Church and Society, Fortress Press, 2010.   I didn't write a regular review, but instead put up a series of chapter by chapter postings, so I'm just giving one link, to begin the journey.  

John Gallagher.Reimagining Detroit: Opportunities for Redefining an American City. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2010. Review essay forthcoming from Congregations.

Stanley Hauerwas. Hannah’s Child: A Theologian’s Memoir. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2010.    Reviewed here.

Martin E. Marty. Building Cultures of Trust. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2010.   Reviewed here.

Diarmaid McCullouch. Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years. New York: Viking, 2010. Review forthcoming, but this massive study of the history of Christianity is both readable and comprehensive. 

Carol Howard Merritt. Reframing Hope: Vital Ministry in a New Generation. Herndon, VA: Alban Institute, 2010. Reviewed here.

Thomas Jay Oord. Defining Love: A Philosophical, Scientific, and Theological Engagement. Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2010; and The Nature of Love: A Theology. St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2010. I’m honoring these two books as a piece, because they’re so closely related. I will be reviewing them together once I’m finished reading The Nature of Love.

William Placher. Mark: Belief -- A Theological Commentary. Louisville: WJK Press, 2010.  Review is forthcoming at another site.

Ferdinand Schlingensiepen. Dietrich Bonhoeffer 1906-1945: Martyr, Thinker, Man of Resistance. New York: T & T. Clark, 2010. Reviewed here.

The Closing of the Year 2010

At the stroke of midnight tonight a year will end, and a new year will begin.  We will, I'm sure, during the course of the day contemplate the things that have happened over the year -- the vacations we took, the roofs we put on our houses, the elections we participated in, the movies we viewed and the books we read and perhaps wrote.  We will ruefully think of missed opportunities and rejoice in the great things that got accomplished.  We'll remember the big November election that shook up the political establishment and remember that it was a year in which we lost Mr. Cunningham (Tom Bosley) and Mrs. Cleaver (Barbara Billingsley).  Oh, I can't forget the biggest event of my year, something I've waited all my life to see -- the San Francisco Giants won their first World Series in San Francisco and first in franchise history since 1954. 

Looking backward, each of us will have something different to share, even as we look forward to the next year, wondering what to make of it.  What opportunities will present themselves this coming year, a year in which we observe the anniversaries of the commencement of the Civil War, the publishing of the King James Version of the Bible, and 9-11. 

As we think about all of this and share our memories, which I invite you the reader to do, maybe it's appropriate to keep in mind the words of the Teacher from Ecclesiastes 1 -- just to keep things in perspective:

The words of the Teacher,* the son of David, king in Jerusalem.
2 Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher,*
vanity of vanities! All is vanity.
3 What do people gain from all the toil
at which they toil under the sun?
4 A generation goes, and a generation comes,
but the earth remains for ever.
5 The sun rises and the sun goes down,
and hurries to the place where it rises.
6 The wind blows to the south,
and goes round to the north;
round and round goes the wind,
and on its circuits the wind returns.
7 All streams run to the sea,
but the sea is not full;
to the place where the streams flow,
there they continue to flow.
8 All things* are wearisome;
more than one can express;
the eye is not satisfied with seeing,
or the ear filled with hearing.
9 What has been is what will be,
and what has been done is what will be done;
there is nothing new under the sun.
10 Is there a thing of which it is said,
‘See, this is new’?
It has already been,
in the ages before us.
11 The people of long ago are not remembered,
nor will there be any remembrance
of people yet to come
by those who come after them.   (Ecclesiastes 1:1-11 NRSV)

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Joy to the World –Spiritual Blessings for All -- Lectionary Meditation for 2nd Sunday after Christmas

Jeremiah 31:7-14

Ephesians 1:3-14

John 1:10-18

Joy to the World –
Spiritual Blessings for All

As we meander toward the end of the Christmas season, which according to the commercial calendar began more than a month ago, if not sooner. The carols have all been sung, the presents opened, unacceptable presents have been returned, the trees and decorations have started to come down, and we have begun to focus on the coming new year, when all things become new. The liturgical calendar, however, won’t let us move on quite yet. Yes, according to the liturgical calendar we’re still in the season of Christmas. The texts for this second Sunday of Christmas (unless you decided to skip this day and move to Epiphany a few days early) speak in one way or another of the spiritual blessings that God has chosen to bestow upon God’s people, and the Ephesian letter and the Gospel of John root these blessings quite directly in the person of Jesus Christ. Therefore, as the prophet Jeremiah says to us – sing for joy and make your praises heard.

The Gospel lesson for the first Sunday after Christmas for this year comes from Matthew 2:13-23, a passage that speaks of the slaughter of the innocents and the flight of the Holy Family into exile in Egypt, from which they later return, bypassing Bethlehem and heading to Nazareth in Galilee. This theme of returning from exile appears in the Jeremiah passage, where the prophet invites the remnant people of Israel to sing for joy and make their praises heard, as they call out to God, asking that God would save this remnant. In answer, the prophet says, the Lord will bring the people home from the land to the north and gather them from the ends of the earth. Everyone, the blind, the lame, the expectant mothers and those who are in labor at this very moment, yes a great throng of people will return to the land. And the message is this – God will be with them – continuing the message that we heard from Isaiah 7 in a previous Sunday – and God will lead them along streams of water (so they don’t thirst) and God will make their path level so they don’t stumble. Again, don’t you hear in this word from the prophet the promises that were heard during the Advent season, as we heard the story of the one who would prepare the way of the Lord. Now, it is the Lord who will prepare the way for God’s people to return home, and then will serve as the shepherd for this people, protecting and delivering them from the hand of the ones who are stronger than they. And again, in response, the people will shout for joy from the highest points and rejoice in the bounty of God. Yes, they will embrace the blessings of grain, new wine, olive oil, and flocks and herds full of young animals. Their land will be one of blessing, a well-watered garden. In that moment there will be no sorrow and the young and the old will dance with gladness. In that day of blessing, God will “turn their mourning into gladness.” Comfort and joy will replace their sorrow and the people will be satisfied. The blessings spoken of here are more material than spiritual, but the question of the day, as we await the coming of the magi bringing gifts, do we not need the material/physical blessings as well as the “spiritual ones?”

As we stand here with the people of God, rejoicing in God’s outpouring of blessings, we turn to the Ephesian letter, and standing right at the heart of this passage is a strongly worded embrace of predestination – or so it seems. In him, we’re told, God has chosen those whom God has predestined according to the plan of the one who works out everything in accordance with God’s plan. This is an extremely dense theological passage that requires much reflection, in large part because it speaks so strongly about election and predestination. For this meditation, I’d like to leave that discussion to one side (see my Ephesian Bible study, pp. 14-15, for a fuller discussion of this issue), and focus more on the opening line of verse 3, which calls on the reader to praise God, the Father of the Lord Jesus Christ, because God has “blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ.” The word about being destined – I prefer that form than the use of the word “predestined” – is rooted in this promise that God has chosen us for adoption to sonship in Christ. That is, we are heirs with Christ, of the full blessings of God, which comes to us as a result of God’s grace that includes forgiveness of sins. One of the key points in the Ephesian letter is that in Christ the mystery of God has been revealed, that God had chosen before the world began to bring Jew and Gentile into fellowship, with both peoples being made heirs of God in Christ, so that all might receive the blessings of God. It is, therefore, not a message of exclusion, as if God had chosen to bless some and not bless others, but that God had in mind an expansive sense of love and grace, and that sense is revealed in Christ, and it is sealed, so says the author of this letter, through the Holy Spirit, with which we have been sealed – a deposit guaranteeing that we will receive (redeem) our inheritance as God’s possession, to the praise and glory of God.

When we turn from the Ephesian letter to the prologue of John we move from one theologically dense work to another, though John 1 has a poetic sense to it. This lectionary passage places the first nine verses in parentheses and begins in earnest with verse ten, a passage that invites us to consider the one through whom the world came into existence. Interestingly, while the NIV uses the masculine pronoun in verse 10, the Common English Bible continues the train of thought from verse 9, and speaks of the world coming into existence “through the light.” But, as is often true in life, the world didn’t recognize the light when it came into the world. But, our theme that we’re following here has to do with blessings, spiritual blessings that come to us as a result of our engagement with the living God.

It would seem that the first and foremost blessing is the right to be born children of God, something that happens not because of blood or human desire, but from the decision of God. Consider the Ephesian letter which speaks of God’s election, God’s choice, in adopting us as God’s heirs/children. It would appear that the same theme is present in this text, though here the gift of God comes to us through the Word that became flesh and dwelt among us. Even though we may not have recognized the light at first, for those who are willing, they will see the glory of this one who became flesh, whose glory is that of the father’s only sun, one who is full of grace and truth. This grace comes into the world through the Word (Light) made flesh, and it is this one we remember here in this moment that reveals to us the true nature of God.

As we move from Christmas into Epiphany, a move that continues the theme that began with Christmas, the sense that God has made God’s self known in our world. It is appropriate that this liturgical movement comes at the same time as the secular calendar moves into a new year. As we contemplate this new year, we can do so knowing that the one who is our shepherd goes with us, bringing the light of God into our lives, so that we might experience every spiritual blessing in the heavenly realm. What better gift could one one receive at Christmas? And the proper response to this gift is to give thanks and praise to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ!

Is Yoga a Form of Hinduism? Is Hinduism a Form of Yoga? --- Sightings

One of the Big Issues of 2010 concerned whether Yoga was a Hindu practice and thus off limits to Christians.  Interestingly enough, there was agreement from both some Hindus and some Christians that this was true.  Al Mohler on one side said that Yoga was too Hindu for Christians, while a number of Hindus (Hindu American Foundation) said that American Yoga wasn't Hindu enough and therefore Christians should get their hands off the practice so that Hinduism can be put back into this important Hindu practice.  Well, maybe things are a bit more complicated than this, and Wendy Doniger, an expert on Hinduism at the University of Chicago, sorts things out for us!  I may not practice yoga, but if I did, thanks to Wendy, I needn't fear for my soul!  Take a read.


Sightings 12/30/2010

Is Yoga a Form of Hinduism?
Is Hinduism a Form of Yoga?

- Wendy Doniger

Debates about these questions have been making headlines lately. Some American Hindus have argued that American yoga is not Hindu enough, that Hindus should “Take Back Yoga” (the label of a campaign by the Hindu American Foundation). Other Americans agree that the Hindus should take back yoga—but because yoga is too Hindu: R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, advises Christians to abandon yoga if they value their (Christian) souls, for “yoga, as a spiritual practice, runs directly counter to the spiritual counsel of the Bible.” The problem should not have been breaking news; a spoof in 2003, “Yoga: A Religion for Sex Addicts,” depicted a Christian minister who was asked, “Should Christians practice Yoga?” He replied, “Are we going to have to bring this whole thing up about Yoga again? I thought our Sunday school curriculum included lessons about the evils of everything Oriental, including Yoga!”

But the issues involved are not trivial. Is yoga, in fact, “a spiritual practice”? More particularly, is it a Hindu spiritual practice? The word “yoga” originally meant “yoking” horses to chariots or draft animals to plows or wagons (the Sanskrit and English words are cognate). Though many yoga practitioners, particularly but not only Hindus, insist that their practice can be traced back to the Upanishads (c. 600 BCE) and Patanjali (c. 200 CE), the word “yoga” in these texts designates a spiritual praxis of meditation conjoined with breath-control, “yoking” the senses in order to control the spirit, and then “yoking” the mind in order to obtain immortality.

Buddhist sources in this same period also speak of techniques of disciplining the mind and the body, and the word “yoga,” owing as much to Buddhism as to Hinduism, soon came to mean any mental and physical praxis of this sort. (Similar disciplines arose in ancient Greece and, later, in Christianity, a subject on which Pierre Hadot and Michel Foucault had a great deal to say). This is the general sense in which the word “yoga” is used in the Bhagavad Gita, a few centuries later, to denote each of three different religious paths (the yoga of action, the yoga of meditation, and the yoga of devotion). But these texts say nothing about the physical “positions” or “postures” that distinguish contemporary yoga. The postures developed much later, some from medieval Hatha Yoga and Tantra, but more from nineteenth-century European traditions such as Swedish gymnastics, British body-building, Christian Science, and the YMCA, and still others devised by twentieth-century Hindus such as T. Krishnamacharya and B. K. S. Iyengar, reacting against those non-Indian influences.

So there is an ancient Indian yoga, but it is not the source of most of what people do in today’s yoga classes. Contemporary yoga traditions are a far cry both from the Upanishads and from Hatha Yoga. Most twenty-first century American yoga practitioners have more in common with a jogger than with a meditating sage; they want to relax after a hard day at the office, tighten up their abs, and reduce their cholesterol and their blood pressure; their yoga of relaxation and stretching may also involve regular enemas, a cure for back pain, a beauty regime, a vegetarian diet with a lot of yogurt (which is not etymologically related to “yoga”)--oh yes, and a route to God.

Is yoga, then, for the mind or for the body? Is it like going to church or like going to the gym? Is it a spiritual praxis or an exercise routine? To all these questions, the answer is: yes. For some people (both in India and in America) it has been one, for others, the other, and for many, both.

In his online column and elsewhere, the Reverend Mohler has objected to the frequent citation by yoga teachers of "the idea that the body is a vehicle for reaching consciousness with the divine," which he says is “just not Christianity.” But yoga is “not just Hinduism”; as we have seen, it has rich European (and Christian!) elements. Despite this historical evidence, however, many Hindus, such as those in the Hindu American Foundation, insist that meditational yoga—rather than temple rituals, the worship of images of the gods, or other, more passionate and communal forms of religion—has always been, and remains, the essence of Hinduism, their religion. Christians for whom a yoga class is simply physical exercise may offend such Hindus but should pose no problem for Mohler; and Christians who take the philosophical doctrines of yoga seriously should be no problem for a more ecumenical, not to say multi-cultural, pastor.


Landover Baptist Church, “Yoga: A Religion for Sex Addicts,” March 2003.

Dylan Lovan, “Southern Baptist Leader on Yoga: Not Christianity,” Associated Press, October 7, 2010.

R. Albert Mohler, Jr., “Yahoo, Yoga, and Yours Truly,”, October 7, 2010.

Paul Vitrello, “Hindu Group Stirs a Debate Over Yoga’s Soul,” New York Times, November 27, 2010.

Wendy Doniger is the Mircea Eliade Distinguished Service Professor of the History of Religions at the University of Chicago and has published translations of the Rig Veda, the Laws of Manu, and the Kamasutra. Her latest book is The Hindus: An Alternative History (Penguin, 2009).


Editor’s Note: Sightings will break and return on Thursday, January 6. Happy New Year!


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

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Maybe the Story of Noah isn't for Kids!

The story of Noah is a favorite of many Sunday School teachers -- isn't it a wonderful story that Noah built an ark so he and his family, along with a pair of each kind of animal might be spared from the flood. But what we don't tell the children is why this big boat has to be built.

My Disciple colleague from the west side of Michigan, Rev. David Stout, using a sort of Mr. Roger's demeanor, tells the story in a way that turns the tables on the usual presentation -- reminding us that maybe this isn't really a kids's tale after all!  The further question concerns the way we interpret Scripture and understand the nature of God.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Papias and the Mysterious Menorah -- A Review

PAPIAS AND THE MYSTERIOUS MENORAH: The Third Art West Adventure. By Ben Witherington III and Ann Witherington. Eugene: Pickwick Publications. 262 pages.

It’s interesting that leading biblical scholars have recently taken to writing novels, apparently with an eye to communicating their ideas to a wider audience that’s more likely to read a novel than an academic monograph. Marcus Borg did it with his Putting Away Childish Things (Harper One, 2010), a book I reviewed for the Christian Century. In that book Borg shares his own progressive/liberal view of religion and biblical studies. Unknown to me at the time, Ben Witherington, a professor at Asbury Theological Seminary, together with his wife Ann, a biology professor at Asbury College, has done much the same thing – only they have written a trilogy of books with an archaeological adventure theme. Considering that Ben Witherington has been a strong critic of the Jesus Seminar, of which Borg is a founding member, it shouldn’t surprise readers that his novel takes a rather different approach to biblical history than does Borg. Whereas Borg’s novel offers a progressive/liberal perspective, the Witheringtons’s book is clearly evangelical in its orientation. The two together provide an interesting contrast in perspectives.

I was asked to review the third Art West Adventure by the authors’ publicist, which I agreed to do even though I’d not having read the previous two installments. Doing so may be a bit like watching Revenge of the Jedi without watching the previous two installments of the Star Wars series, but since I’d read Borg’s volume, I thought it worth looking at something written by one of Borg’s leading critics.

Taking up this task, I encountered a book with three primary threads that the authors attempt to weave together – sometimes successfully and at other times less so. Early on in the book the authors deal with the threads in alternating chapters, which is rather typical of a novel, but it can also be distracting. In this case, there was one thread that seems to continue a story line from the previous volume, but which doesn’t connect well with the other two threads. This line of thought concerns a Charlotte Bobcat basketball player who is a Palestinian Christian, who had been a Muslim involved with Hamas, and who after conversion changes his name from Ishmael to Yakov, and ends up facing revenge for his rejection of Islam and Hamas. Oh, and Jake the Cat Arafat is boarding with Art West’s mother in North Carolina. I’m not too sure how this thread advanced the story line, but each reader will have to decide if it’s germane or not.

Leaving aside this particular story line, the primary focus of the novel concerns two important archaeological finds that are alluded to in the book’s title. . The first thread concerns an archaeological dig in Turkey that involved the figure of Art West, an American Methodist evangelical biblical scholar/archaeologist (a sort of Christian Indiana Jones – and yes reference to Indiana Jones is made in the book). The dig is located at Hierapolis, a center of Greco-Roman religion and early Christian prophetic enthusiasm. It focuses on Papias, a rather obscure 2nd Century CE bishop, whose references to the traditional authorship of the Gospels are found in the work of Eusebius. One of the features of this story seems to be Witherington’s desire to lift up the possibility that the gospels aren’t anonymous documents, but carry the identities of their actual authors – though he attributes the identity of the Beloved Disciple to Lazarus and not John the Apostle. Papias is, according to this story, a chiliast – a strong believer in the coming millennium, whose theology is directly influenced by the author of the Book of Revelation.

Any good novel needs a bit of romantic tension, and the Witheringtons provide it in the form of an attractive secular Turkish archaeologist named Dr. Marissa Okur. The confirmed bachelor who is now in his 50s develops feelings for his younger colleague who is leader of the dig, which raises the jealousy of another Turkish colleague, who will engage in some mischievous actions designed to either rid himself of his American rival or take credit for a major discovery. Of course, the question will be – are these to be unrequited feelings or not? And, of course, as an evangelical Christian, Art is concerned about being “unequally yoked.” You will have to read the book to find out how this tension will be resolved.

This discovery is the house of Bishop Papias, a domicile that provides important clues to the bishop’s theology and confirmation of theories of authorship and transmission of scripture, for in this house is found manuscripts of a long lost series of volumes that interpret the gospels and speak of their transmission – the volumes that Eusebius quotes from two centuries later. Here is a major find that would revolutionize our understandings of the Christian faith (if this were fact and not fiction).

The second thread that is mentioned in the title concerns a Menorah that is owned by a Muslim antiquities dealer. Having been purchased several decades earlier, the owner, Kahlil Said, has decided to give the menorah to Jewish friends, the bride to be being an archaeologist in her own right, as a wedding present. But first he must prove that he has properly obtained this menorah to the Israeli Antiquities Agency, and in the course of proving this, he discovers the presence of two pieces of paper, both of which appear to be ancient, and are hidden within the hollow core of the menorah. Both pieces of paper will prove intriguing and even dangerous. What is discovered is that this is no ordinary menorah. Not only was it ancient, it appears to have come from Herod’s Temple, making it the oldest menorah known and the only artifact known to exist from that Temple. Needless to say that when the wedding occurs, the menorah isn’t the present – but the intrigue that goes with discovering the nature of its existence proves to be an adventure in itself.

Since this is a review of a novel, I’ll leave the rest of the details of the story line to one’s imagination. As I noted in my review of the Borg book, I’m not much of a reader of novels, and so I’m not the best judge of literary style, but I know what I like. I did find this novel to have a degree of movement and adventure that wasn’t present in the more sedentary Borg novel. It is a pretty good tale that moves along fairly quickly. The inclusion of quotations in the Greek may be off-putting to some, but fortunately the authors provide translation – though perhaps the presence of the actual Greek in the text really isn’t needed to carry the story along. And, depending on your starting point you may find the little evangelicalism – like concern for being “unequally yoked” endearing or perhaps a little silly. I found some of these statements a bit odd considering that they supposedly come from the lips of a distinguished biblical scholar, but perhaps that’s due to my having been absent from the evangelical mainstream for some time.

Even as Borg attempted to lay out his view of a metaphorical interpretation of the biblical text, the Witherington book seems to be offering an imaginative rendering of a very traditional view of the transmission of scripture. Perhaps this is an area of conversation that needs further development, for it is a much more conservative view than I learned at Fuller and taught at the Bible college that employed me. What, I wonder is the rationale for such an interpretation of authorship, other than the assumption that if written by eyewitnesses or those who heard the story of Jesus from eyewitnesses gives these texts greater authority in a skeptical age. Due to the nature of this genre these questions are left hanging, but perhaps that’s the purpose – opening up a conversation about the importance of authorship to authority.

Although this isn’t Hemingway or even Dan Brown, it’s an interesting story that raises interesting historical questions in a “novel” way. And if you need another view than mine, consider that of Richard Baukham, who says of the book – on the back cover -- that each of these “archaeological thrillers is more enthralling than the last.” Baukham may be a bit biased, as the book is dedicated to him and he is mentioned as an authority, I think it’s worth considering his esteemed judgment (especially since I’ve not read the previous two installments). As I noted in my review of the Borg volume, Jesus scholars understand better than most the value of story in communicating ideas. The Witherington’s, like Borg, should be commended for picking up this genre. Writing novels isn’t, I expect, as easy as some might think. And they do a commendable job, making this a book worth reading.

Time to Remember the Civil War -- without the spin!

For the next several years our nation will observe the 150th anniversary of the the Civil War.  We will remember the inauguration of Abraham Lincoln, the shelling of Fort Sumter, the formation of the Confederate States of America, the many battles and the more than 600,000 who died as a result of the war (I saw recently that in terms of percentage of population, that figure today would be around 6 million), and finally we will remember the signing of the treaty to end the war at Appomattox and the assassination of the President by John Wilkes Booth.  

The way we remember this event may be determined in part regionally.  I must say up front, that I have lived my life on the West Coast, in Bleeding Kansas, and now in Michigan.  The way I remember and understand this war may differ from one born and raised south of the Mason-Dixon Line.  I know that down there they refer to this not as the Civil War, but as the "War of Northern Aggression."  We can have debates about aspects of this war, but I think that it is essential that we not spin it so that the war becomes about something other than it was.  These states that formed the confederacy did so for one reason -- to protect slavery.  That was, as E.J. Dionne notes in a column, the reason given by the founders of the Confederacy in defense of their actions.  Oh, they spoke of defending states rights, but only after the war was lost and slavery was no longer "defensible."   

Consider carefully the rationale given for the formation of the Confederacy by Alexander Stephens, the Vice President of the Confederacy, in a speech given in 1861 just before the war commenced.   

Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its corner- stone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth. This truth has been slow in the process of its development, like all other truths in the various departments of science. It has been so even amongst us. Many who hear me, perhaps, can recollect well, that this truth was not generally admitted, even within their day. The errors of the past generation still clung to many as late as twenty years ago. Those at the North, who still cling to these errors, with a zeal above knowledge, we justly denominate fanatics. All fanaticism springs from an aberration of the mind from a defect in reasoning. It is a species of insanity. One of the most striking characteristics of insanity, in many instances, is forming correct conclusions from fancied or erroneous premises; so with the anti-slavery fanatics. Their conclusions are right if their premises were. They assume that the negro is equal, and hence conclude that he is entitled to equal privileges and rights with the white man.

I think that as we remember this war that it is essential that we as a nation acknowledge that a moral cancer was present in the very founding of the nation.  Because it was deemed necessary to appease southern colonies dependent on slaves for their agrarian way of life, the Constitution was drawn up in such a way as to allow for its presence.  Over time it became clear that the nation could not remain united with these two very different understandings of slavery present. 

One of the reasons why it's important that we acknowledge that this was a war about slavery is that the ideas of nullification and secession and states rights have become increasingly popular.  I see in the Tea Party crowds, not only those "Don't Tread on Me" flags, but Confederate Battle Flags as well.  I think that these flags are, in my estimation, an affront to the nation.  Not only do they represent racism and slavery, but they represent an act of treason against the nation.  The shelling of Fort Sumter could easily be classified as a terrorist act on the part of the South Carolina secessionists. 

I know that this posting is provocative.  It's meant to be, because I think we need to keep focused on the true reasons for this war.  I think we need to beware of revisionist history that excuses the moral cancer that ate away at our nation until it was impossible to stay together.  I also need to say, that this critique of revisionist history, should not be taken as excusing the racism that was present in the North then and today.  It doesn't excuse others who kept slaves either -- including Native Americans.  It is no a justification of every act on the part of the Union Government.  General Sherman was correct in his assessment -- "War is Hell" and he operated out of that understanding in ways that should give us pause. 

As we start this discussion it's important that we begin by acknowledging the essential causes of this War.  Were there economic issues involved?  Yes, but most of those issues were tied up with slavery.  Were there issues of clarification about the rights of states?  Well, probably, but again the rights at stake was the preservation of and expansion of slavery in the nation.

Over time I hope to comment on these issues more fully and I invite your responses (just keep them "civil").

Monday, December 27, 2010

Public Religion Trends in 2010 -- Sightings

As we enter the final week of 2010, Martin Marty comments on the top 20 public religion trends as laid out by the Religion Newswriters Association.  Islam makes itself felt, as does homosexuality.  Anyway, I'll just let you read and comment.


Sightings 12/27/2010

Public Religion Trends in 2010
--Martin Marty

The end-of-year summaries of “public religion” draw frequently on the most extensive press survey each December, from the Religion Newswriters Association, made up of reporters and columnists in the secular media. (A ringer in the Association, I was one of some 300 respondents to a poll by Debra Mason, RNA Executive Director.) It is hard to find trends this time. Muslims and Islam do show up in four of the twenty trends on which Mason reports. First, to no one’s surprise, was the ruckus stirred up by the announcement of plans for an Islamic community center not far from Ground Zero. Feisal Abdul Rauf, who seemed to fit the bill of the often-sought “Muslim Moderate,” ironically, was attacked immoderately for his effort. The event suggested how motivated by fear, defensiveness, and exploitation of sentiment many in the United States are.

Way down the list were the other Muslim/Islam sightings: #14, the Oklahoma Constitutional Amendment, again ironic, in that it ruled out the possibility of making judicial decisions based on the Qur’an in a state with very few Muslims. William Franklin Graham made news by being disinvited from a Pentagon National Day of Prayer observance, given his anti-Muslim rhetoric and record. The President visited Indonesia, and so made the list with some references to Islam. The only other non-Christian faith, way down the list, was Hinduism, at #20, because of flaps over yoga practices and the novel Eat, Pray, Love.

The Pope was often in the headlines, but only twice did events involving him make the top twenty. One dealt with his dealings in the priestly sexual-abuse scandals, while his notable visit to the United Kingdom with his critiques of European secularism was down at #16. The Catholic bishops were part of #5, the signing of the health-care reform bill, which the American bishops had criticized because they feared it would involve tax-funds in funding abortions.

Mainline Protestantism was mentioned (#6) for its non-presence in the current US Supreme Court and for Lutheran, Presbyterian, and Episcopal denominational infighting, chiefly over homosexuality issues, which made a presence also in #8, on religion and the bullying of homosexuals.

Religion in action showed up properly in #2, on churchly response to the catastrophes in Haiti, the murders of faith-based aid workers in Pakistan and Afghanistan, while Christians continue to flee Iraq (#11). “Faith-based environment groups” also made their mark after the BP oil spill (#12). The political Right was evidently less prominent or less religious, since it showed up mainly with Glenn Beck’s presence in Tea Party stories (#4). Southern Baptist leader Richard Land pushed faith-based groups to put more energy into immigration issues.

Cross-denominational stories also included #7, on the severe effects of the economic crisis on publishing, pension plans, and the Crystal Cathedral’s economic bankruptcy. Supreme Court decisions were not as prominent and revelatory of trends as in many years. More dramatic decisions are ahead. Non-denominational news told (#9) of the Pew Forum on U.S. Religious Knowledge which showed that agnostics, Jews, and Mormons knew most about the faiths. The RNA folks, often the only religious educators of the public, have their work cut out for them, again, ironically, at a time when print media, their natural abode, are also threatened in the digital age.

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

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

Understanding the God Gap

The census report is out and from what I've heard a number of "blue states" will lose
Congressional representation, while a number of "red states" will gain representatives.  This, according to the pundits bodes ill for Barack Obama's reelection chances.  I really can't comment on the latter, the next election is two years away, so who knows how this all will work out.  But I'd like to think about some of the assumptions, like the idea that the God Gap we currently see in our political landscape will have long lasting governing implications.

I'm reading American Grace by Robert Putnam and David Campbell, and have been reporting from my experiences reading this tremendously important book.  I've reached the section of the book that looks at the relationship of religion to American Politics.  One of the interesting points that the authors make is that prior to 1980 there really wasn't much of a God Gap between the two parties.  Things changed around 1980 with the election of Ronald Reagan and the decision of the two political parties to place in their platforms planks both pro and con abortion.  The authors write:

Remember, though, that a political issue can only divide the electorate when voters are presented with a choice on that particular issue.  In the case of abortion, the Democratic and Republican parties did not diverge sharply on the issue until the 1980s.  In 1976, the Republican platform was more or less neutral on abortion.  By 1980 it unequivocally endorsed a constitutional amendment to ban abortion, language that has been preserved ever since.  Meanwhile, as described by political scientist Christina Wolbrecht, 1980 was "the first time the Democratic party firmly established itself as pro-choice and expressed its opposition to the curtailment of federal funding for abortions."  Beginning in the 1980s, voters had a choice on abortion.  The battle lines had been drawn. (American Grace, p. 391). 
From then on the GOP became the party of "moral traditionalism," and at least for religiously observant whites, it became the "God party."  The authors of this book note that Blacks, who are the most religiously observant group within American society, are the exception to this rule -- with few blacks voting GOP!  Although many Blacks share the GOP view on abortion and gay marriage, their list of social issues is much broader and thus they do not find themselves able to make common cause on these issues.  

So, what does that portend for the future?  Does it mean that you can't be religious and a Democrat?  I hope that's not true, but those who take a more secular view are more likely to be Democrat than Republican.  

And then the question is -- what is the electoral impact of this Gap?  Here is where the future is uncertain -- with a growing number of voters declaring themselves Independents -- religion apparently plays little role in their views.  So, with this growing swing group making itself felt, maybe religion will fade into the background in the near future?  Only time will tell, but I think this is a conversation worth having for both the sake of the church and the state!

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Thoughts for the Day after Christmas

It's the day after Christmas, which this year fell on a Sunday.  I write this late in the afternoon, having shared in worship (read the story of Barrington Bunny from Martin Bell's Way of the Wolf)  and watched a Lion's football game (the won the game at Miami, by the way).   It's a day to sort of sit back, relax, and reflect.  But, even as our culture has now moved on to the next "holiday," which is Valentines Day, we shouldn't let the Christmas season go quite yet. 

I probably needn't remind everyone that the 12 days of Christmas don't end on Christmas Day, but actually begin there.  I say, I shouldn't have to remind folks, but perhaps it is required.  So, what should we do with these 12 days?  How do we keep alive the message of the incarnation in all its mystery?

I recognize with Borg and Crossan that there is much in the infancy narratives that is parabolic, but what does this mean?  Does it mean that the entire story is mere metaphor?  At the same time, do we have to become hung up on proving every aspect of the story for it to be true?  Is there not something more here, something in between metaphor and factuality?  That is, in what way should we understand the church's historic confession that in this person we call Christ we meet both a truly human person and the living God?

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Gloria in Excelsis Deo -- A Sermon for Christmas Eve

Luke 2:8-20

Shepherds are tending their sheep in the hills near Bethlehem, when to their surprise a choir of angels gathers in the heavens and begins singing Gloria in Excelsis Deo. What a treat that must have been! After all angelic visits don’t happen every day, and it can get a bit boring sitting out there in the fields in the cold of night.

In the spirit of angelic visits, J.B. Phillips tells a wonderful story about the day when a senior angel takes a new recruit on a tour of the cosmos. This rookie angel is quite impressed by the grandeur of the cosmos – who wouldn’t -- but then, as they walk through the multitude of galaxies and stars, the older angel points out a small insignificant star and the planet that orbits around it. To the young angel, this "small rather insignificant sphere turning on its axis . . . looked as dull as a dirty tennis-ball.” Why would this senior angel point out this plant? It seemed so insignificant and unimpressive in light of what she had just seen in her tour of the cosmos. In spite of his first impressions, the guide leaned over and said, look closely because this is the "visited planet."

"You mean, visited by . . ."
Yes, the senior angel replies, it has been "visited by our young Prince of Glory."

Now this news made no sense to the young angel. Why would the Prince of Glory stoop to visit this little planet?

The senior angel replies: it's not for us to know the reason, but remember, God isn’t impressed by size or numbers.

"Do you mean to tell me," he said, "that he stooped so low as to become one of those creeping, crawling creatures of that floating ball?" Yes, said the senior angel, but God would prefer that you not call them "creeping, crawling creatures."

The increasingly skeptical rookie angel, couldn’t see the wisdom of this, and so the mentor takes the recruit back on a little tour of the past so that the younger angel could witness the glorious event described for us by Luke. As they watched this scene from above, they saw a tiny, but intensely bright, light shine in the midst of the darkness, and then they watched as the light was extinguished. The younger angel turned to the older one and asked, why would these creatures do such a stupid thing as to kill the prince of glory? But, then to his amazement, a bright blazing, radiant point of light emerged on the planet. That, said the senior angel is the resurrection of the prince of glory. What a glorious sight it was to behold, but the story isn’t over yet.

Watch said the older to the younger.

As they looked, in place of the dazzling light there was a bright glow which throbbed and pulsated. And then as the Earth turned many times little points of light spread out. A few flickered and died; but for the most part the lights burned steadily, and as they continued to watch, in many parts of the globe there was a glow over many areas.

"You see what is happening?" asked the senior angel. "The bright glow is the company of loyal men and women He left behind, and with His help they spread the glow and now lights begin to shine all over the Earth."

"Yes, yes" said the little angel impatiently, "but how does it end? Will the little lights join up with each other? Will it all be light, as it is in Heaven?"

His senior shook his head. "We simply do not know," he replied. "It is in the Father's hands. Sometimes it is agony to watch and sometimes it is joy unspeakable. The end is not yet, But now I am sure you can see why this little ball is so important. He has visited it. He is working out His Plan upon it."

"Yes, I see, though I don't understand. I shall never forget that this is the visited planet." [J.B. Phillips, "The Angel's Point of View," in Behold that Star: A Christmas Anthology, edited by the Bruderhof, (Farmington, PA: The Plough Publishing Company, 1996), 2-9.]
The angels sing Gloria in Excelsis Deo that night because the Prince of Glory has visited our planet. In visiting our planet in the person of the babe of Bethlehem, God brought into the open the promise of peace and joy for all of creation. It is as Isaiah declared:
For a child has been born for us, a son given to us;
authority rests upon his shoulders;
and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. (Isa. 9:6 NRSV)
But, the end of this story has yet to be written. As the senior angel said, only God has foresight to know where this story is leading. We don’t even have the same vantage point as the Angel, for we can’t look down upon the flow of history from above. All we can do is join with the Prince of Peace in the work of spreading the joy and the love and the peace that is embodied by the Christmas event. It is our calling as followers of the one whose birth we celebrate this night, to participate in spreading the light of God around the globe.

Tonight we will light our candles and sing "Silent Night" and then go into the world as light bearers with the song "Joy to the World" upon our lips and in our hearts. Like that littlest angel, we may not understand the “hows” and the “whys,” of God’s ways, but let us not forget that this is the visited planet, and that God has chosen to visit us in the one who was born the babe of Bethlehem. Therefore let us join the angels and boldly sing boldly: Gloria in Excelsis Deo!

Friday, December 24, 2010

The Virgin Mary and the Justice of God

Tonight and tomorrow we celebrate the birth of Christ.  We don't know when this took place, and while Matthew and Luke name Bethlehem, only they amongst the New Testament writers speak of Christ's birth.  In both Matthew and Luke, a central figure is Mary, the mother of Jesus, who is said to be a virgin.  Now, as I mentioned earlier today, this is a concept difficult for moderns to deal with.  But as Barth notes in his writings, maybe there's more to this than our moderns are willing to affirm.

In fact, maybe this concept has signficant implications for social justice.  As Brian, one of our regular commenters noted, a little over a week ago Rita Nakashima Brock, a Disciple and a leading feminist theologian, lifted up the doctrine, noting its social/political implications.  In a Huffington Post essay published December 14th, but pertinent for tonight, she writes:
 Actually, it is quite possible as a Christian to believe Jesus had a biological father and believe the story of the virgin conception says something important. It all depends on what you think "virgin" means. I think the most significant meaning of Mary's virginity is Christian resistance to the oppression of the Roman Empire.
But if we are to affirm this idea, then we're going to have to let some of our cherished ideas go and see this doctrine in new light. Part of this rethinking requires us to take into consideration what the title given to Mary as a result of the Chalcedon -- Theotokos -- Mother of God. So, she goes on to write:

Unfortunately, Mary's virginity has been domesticated, as if the point was her innocent chastity or lack thereof, which cost the sponsors of the dueling billboards about twenty grand each. Artist Rich Doty's "logos" of the season, below, capture layers of irony around the domestication and commercialization of a story that is pretty revolutionary, if you think about it a bit. 
It signals a new model of human relationships built on justice for the oppressed, food for the hungry, protection for those endangered by violence, and God's favor on those whom none of the mighty would expect to have any power to do remarkable things for the good of others.  

We might describe the story of Mary as a powerful rejection of patriarchal family systems and imperial powers that oppress everyone subject to them. By blessing her and trusting her with the Spirit in human flesh, God challenges the rich, proud, and haughty, which means those who love her story and follow Jesus ought to be doing the same.
I invite you to ponder the mystery of God that is contained in the confession contained in the Apostles Creed: "Who was conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of the virgin Mary," as you celebrate this Christmas season.

Remembering the Christians of Iraq on Christmas Eve

Yesterday I was visited again by a member of the Iraqi Christian Community -- known variously as Chaldean or Assyrian Christians.  This man has brought me updates on a fairly regular basis and we have prayed together for the Iraqi Christian Community, which is suffering tremendously since the Iraq War began.  Things were never wonderful for this ancient Christian community, whose roots go back to the very earliest days of the church.  But since the war thousands of Iraqi Christians have fled their homeland, their churches, businesses, and homes being burned and bombed. 

While many have fled to America or to neighboring countries such as Syria, Lebanon, and Jordan, the hope should not be that they will need to find safety in foreign lands, but that they might find safety and opportunity in their own homeland.  In fact, my friend has shared with me the desire of the Assyrian Christians to have their own homeland within Iraq -- in the region known as the Nineveh Province.  The biggest opponents of this is the Kurdish community in Iraq that wants to bring that region into their own orbit.  The Christian minority has a stronghold in the area around Mosul, which the Kurds want to bring into their own hoped for autonomous region.

For more on the history of Christianity in Iraq see Philip Jenkins'

The situation is not good, so may we, on this Christmas Eve, remember those who are suffering tremendously for their faith. 

Born of the Virgin Mary -- Thoughts for Christmas Eve

The idea of the virgin birth or the virginal conception runs contrary to our modern understandings.  It is, we might say, simply myth and legend, and not uncommon in the day and age in which the idea itself was born.  A child born without a father -- a nice cover for an unexplained pregnancy.  I understand the skeptics take on this -- from a pure historical or scientific sense, it doesn't make sense.  But what about the theology inherent in the confession.  Is there something in this confession that  we need to hear?

As I'm finishing up for tonight's service, at which time I'll be celebrating with the congregation the mystery of the incarnation, it is a good to think about these things.  And so I turned to Karl Barth for a moment.  Barth wasn't afraid to wrestle with issues like this.  And in the  Dogmatics in Outline he writes:

If we wish to understand the meaning of 'conceived by the Holy Ghost and born of the Virgin Mary', above all we must try to see that these two remarkable pronouncements assert that God of free grace became man, a real man.  The eternal Word becomes flesh.  This is the miracle of Jesus Christ's existence, this descent of God from above downwards -- the Holy Ghost and the Virgin Mary.  This is the mystery of Christmas, of the Incarnation.  At this part of the Confession the Catholic Church makes the sign of the Cross.  And in the most various settings composers have attempted to reproduce et incarnatus est. This miracle we celebrate annually, when we celebrate Christmas.

If I to grasp this miracle should will, 
 So stands my spirit reverently still.  
 Such in nuce is God's revelation; we can only grasp it, only hear it as the beginning of all things. (Dogmatics in Outline, p. 96).
The question raised by Christmas concerns our willingness to receive a message that God has truly visited this planet.  We may not understand the nature of this conception and incarnation.  It may go beyond our comprehension of "the facts."  But this need not lead to a denial that the incarnation, the visitation of God in the form of a human cannot and did not take place.  The further question then is this:  if we have been visited by God, how does that message translate into the way we comport ourselves as human beings? 

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Salvation Amidst Suffering -- A Lectionary Meditation for the Sunday after Christmas

Isaiah 63:7-9

Hebrews 2:10-18

Matthew 2:13-23

Salvation Amidst Suffering

As we moved through Advent into Christmas, we focused on the emergence of light into the realm of darkness. Where darkness sought to rule the day, light ultimately won the battle. It is a struggle that is marked by the observance of the Solstice, which while not Christian aspects of this observance have been drawn up into our observance of Christmas. The message of light breaking into the darkness is seen in the greeting given to the Christ child by the Angelic chorus, and we see it in the star that led the Magi to the Christ child. Yes, the message of the season is that a great light is shining into the darkness, and the darkness, though it will try, cannot overwhelm it. Despite the message of the season that we have been blessed by the unconquerable light of God, this doesn’t mean that the darkness has given up without a fight. The one who brings light into the world may have arrived, but the darkness will do all that is necessary to extinguish it.

As a fan of the original Star Wars trilogy, I see this Sunday’s texts, especially the Gospel text, representing the theme of the second film in the series – The Empire Strikes Back. Is that not the message of the text from Matthew? Despite the victory won by the incarnation, when light pushed back at the darkness, the darkness has struck back with a vengeance. This leaves us with a question – shall the empire win? And if not, what resources may we bring to bear to resist the darkness? How will the light prevail? And the answer that these three texts seem to deliver is that this effort will involve suffering. The Incarnate One will suffer, but so will those who are identified with him.

In this set of lectionary readings laid out for the Sunday after Christmas, we find much that requires thought and interpretation. We must wrestle with texts that suggest suffering is the path through which salvation makes it way, and we must also deal with passages that suggest that substitutionary atonement might be part of the deal. There is also the slaughter of the innocents to deal with, along with a passage that emerges from a time of concern about the future, a time when suffering continues to hang over the people. Yes, there is much darkness to contend within these texts – human sin and rebellion and cruelty – a reminder that God’s work of bringing wholeness to our broken world doesn’t come easily. But, there is hope present here in this set of texts. Isaiah 63 reminds us that by God’s presence the people are saved, Hebrews suggests that the one who is incarnate has shared our lives and will wipe away our sins. And despite the attempt on his life, Jesus and family escape so that they may live for another day. Yes, but all of this comes in the midst of suffering.

Let us look more closely at our texts, beginning with the selection from Isaiah. Whereas the two Isaiah texts we most closely connect with Advent and Christmas, Isaiah 7 and 9, come from a much earlier period in Israel’s history, a time when Judah is under pressure from enemies north and south, but it remains intact. This text, three verses that emerge from a much longer poem, comes from either the exile, or more likely from the post-exilic period. There is restoration, but this restoration has not come without difficulties. There is a mixture of emotions in the complete poem, but these three verses that lead us into the discussion of salvation in the midst of suffering, calls on us to offer praise to God. As we go forth to resist the darkness, that is itself resisting the light, we must recognize that we go forth in the presence of the one who brings to bear grace, steadfast love, and mercy. Yes, even as God became their savior in the midst of their distress, and saved them through God’s great love and pity, redeeming them and lifting them and carrying them all their days, while things might look bad, God in God’s faithfulness was there to lift them up and carry them. Do you not hear a bit of the Footprints poem in this text?

The Lord replied, "My precious, precious child. I love you, and I would never, never leave you during your times of trial and suffering.
When you saw only one set of footprints,
It was then that I carried you."
If Isaiah holds out the promise of God’s saving presence and offers words of praise in response, the anonymous sermon that goes by the title of the Letter to the Hebrews speaks of the one who has been tested in all things as we have, and therefore is able to wipe away the sins of the people. The passage begins by reminding us that God had thought it fitting that the “pioneer of their salvation” should be made “perfect through sufferings.” This passage seems to suggest that Christ has died in our stead to take care of sins, but it doesn’t define what that means. Perhaps, then, it is better that we stay clear of atonement theory and instead see Christ as the one who, being the pioneer of our salvation, and having tasted life as we experience it, understands that part of experience is suffering. By going through this experience of suffering, indeed, even going through death itself (thought death isn’t mentioned here) we begin to understand the true message of incarnation. This one who came into the world didn’t just make an appearance, but experienced all that we experience, and due to his embrace of God’s mission, faced inordinate suffering. As a result, he has become for us a merciful and faithful high priest before God, representing us before God and as a result wiping away all our sins. He tasted life in the darkness, and brought light instead – but not without experiencing suffering.

The Gospel lesson for this Sunday after Christmas makes us skip over the story of the Magi, which is reserved for the Day of Epiphany. It is a text that offers a story of salvation, but it also offers the most graphic description of the manner in which darkness resists the light. Here is the story of Herod and the “Slaughter of the Innocents.” Herod is the one who builds the grand Temple in Jerusalem, but whose own sins are so great that he stands among the pantheon of history’s cruelest tyrants. As Matthew tells the story, Herod reenacts the story of Pharaoh’s slaughter of the Hebrew male children, by having his soldiers massacre all the male children two years and younger. In the case of Herod, the malevolent despot fears anyone who would threaten his hold on the throne, even a small and innocent child. Although there isn’t any historical evidence that Herod ordered the slaughter of the male children of Bethlehem, such an action wasn’t beyond the capabilities of this ruler, who had members of his own family killed lest they try to supplant him. Yes, because he was cruel and sadistic, such an act represents well his personality. And he does stand forth as a symbol of the empire of darkness.

In this story, the child who would be a threat to his throne escapes due to an angelic vision. A father has a dream, and as a result, takes his family to safety in Egypt, reversing the trip the Hebrews took from slavery in Egypt to the freedom of the Promised Land. Isn’t it ironic that the land of light had become a place of darkness?

And the message here? Could it be that the mission of God often comes with a cost to those involved? In this story, the suffering comes not to the one through whom the darkness is defeated, but those near him. We call this collateral damage. Why, we ask, must this be so?

Perhaps the answer to the question of why suffering is part of the story is that darkness will not allow the light to take root without a struggle that leads to suffering. Yes, the darkness will not give up easily. Jesus may have, according to Matthew, survived this first onslaught of darkness unscathed, but as we continue reading, we’ll discover that darkness, and with it suffering, will not go away without a fight. Yes, even as Rachel weeps for her children, a day will come when Mary will weep for her child. But, darkness will not have the last word. Christmas marks the beginning, but a full orbed gospel includes Good Friday and Easter. There is joy and there is sadness. There is victory and seeming defeat. But the reality here is that in the end, the God who comes to us not with violence, but with peace, will bring us healing and salvation.