Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Jews in "The Economist" -- Sightings (Martin Marty)

Jews are often in the news.  It can be good or bad, but even though the population isn't large (under 14 million worldwide) they continue to make their presence felt.  We who are Christians consider ourselves connected to them -- their Bible is part of our Bible.  Our founding figures were Jewish.   So, you could say -- I'm interested.  
Martin Marty writes in this post about the issues facing the Jewish people and Israel, as recounted in an article in The Economist.  I would like to share it and invite comment.

 Jews in the Economist

-- Martin E. Marty
Jews receive and merit attention, in this case twelve pages of it in a “Special Report” in the Economist. According to the report, there are 13,580,000 Jews in the world, which is fewer than there are Southern Baptists (15-16 million) in the United States, where there are 5,275,000 Jews. Both of the two “populations” choose to make news and do make news, so Sightings could not overlook them when sighting public religion. Picking out a few high spots in the magazine is difficult, but we’ll point to some which have a bearing on controversies in American life. First of all, in the United States Jews currently share the fix or fate of moderate or liberal faith-groups of all sorts; namely, they experience decline. Compare “mainline” Protestantism and non-Mexican-American Catholicism.          
All three suffer from membership bleeding into another religious group spotted by demographers, namely “Nones,” as in “None of the above.” The magazine quotes Stephen Cohen of Reformed Judaism’s Hebrew Union College: “The unchurched are growing, the religious surge has peaked. The winds of America are blowing in a more secular direction, especially in the blue [Democratic] states, where Jews live. Blue states are Jew states.” Sightings pointed out recently that Southern Baptists and other conservative churches are also seeing some seepage to the “Nones.” But the Economist focuses on another topic, especially when it comes to Israel. That is, on Orthodoxy, and especially hyper-hyper-Orthodoxy, nurtured by Russian Jewish migrations to Israel and New York. It prospers in Israel which is suffering economically by the growth of the haredim, most of whom do not choose to be employed, so that they can devote themselves to Torah study, and also from social unease, thanks to growing resentment of the draft-free status of young haredim. The system which allows both causes great stress in Israel, and something has got to and is going to give, Economist writers and others say.           
Many American Jews continue to support Israel, but the numbers who are disaffected and critical here as they are in Israel, grows. “As their attachment to Judaism weakens, so does their commitment to Israel,” but they find other ways reflexively and reflectively to be and feel somehow Jewish. Meanwhile, strongly pro-Israel politicians command media and political attention. Arnold Eisen of Jewish Theological Seminary: “Honest discussion about Israel is largely shut down. . . Some rabbis will speak their minds, but people don’t want to fight and there is a disinclination to argue about Israel.”           
The editors see reactionary Orthdoxies still winning over moderate movements. No surprise here. In the six-year five-fat-volume study of militant fundamentalisms I co-directed (with R. Scott Appleby) for the American Academy of Arts and Sciences,we found everywhere, in all religions, that it was not conservatism that was growing but extremism based less in history-based traditions but in fear, reaction, and aggression. As I read the Economist and other such literature I think of an observation by Harold Isaacs which we paraphrased as we looked at Muslim, Jewish, Hindu, Christian and other militancies: “Around the world there is a massive convulsive ingathering of peoples into their separatenesses and over-againstnesses to protect their pride and power and place from the real or presumed threat of others who are doing the same.” To its credit, the Economist does justice to the many things in Judaism which are other-than-extreme. 
For a rounded picture, read it. 

Martin E. Marty's biography, publications, and contact information can be found atwww.memarty.com.


Editor's Note: Sightings will be on hiatus in the month of August.  We return in September.


This month’s Religion & Culture Web Forum is entitled "Give me back my Children!": Traumatic Reenactment and Tenuous Democratic Public Spheres by Mark Auslander. Every year, thousands of Americans re-enact Civil War battles, while tens of thousands more witness these restagings. But recent years have seen the rise of a different type of historical reenactment--the reenactment of "traumatic historical events related to slavery, race and power in American history." Mark Auslander draws from fieldwork to describe three such reenactments: "the annual reenactment of a horrific 1946 mass lynching in Walton County, Georgia; the daily mounting of a 'historical experience' of slavery in Selma, Alabama; and a reenacted slave auction in St. Louis, Missouri." Invoking a distinction formulated by Claude Levi-Strauss, Auslander proposes that traumatic reenactments can be understood as rites, which "produce sameness out of fundamental difference," rather than as games, which produce difference out of sameness. Ultimately, however, traumatic reenactments according to Auslander engage "the classic problem of managing the unquiet dead ... The living must labor to help relocate the wandering interstitial dead--to help move them along towards their proper place." Read "Give me back my Children."

Sightings comes from the Martin Marty Center for the Advanced Study of Religion at the University of Chicago Divinity School.

Monday, July 30, 2012

From Pain to Power

As I spend time this week at the PICO Network's National Training, I've been struggling with how to use principles of community organizing in my congregation and in coalition with others in organizing in suburban congregations.

One of the words, as I shared yesterday, that we've been working with is "power."  For many Christians, especially Christians living in suburban contexts, this isn't a topic of conversation.  Power is usually seen as having "coercive" tendencies, and we're not supposed to engage in such things.  But how do we engage the world in which we live without making use of power?  If we go talk to civic leaders we address power brokers, so if we don't have our own power, how are we to engage?  As we role-played civic conversations today, we recognized that persons in power will often try to distract or diminish our voice -- so how do we make them listen and take our concerns seriously?  

As you contemplate this question, consider another -- the foundation of our power.   Here's the question -- what is it that moves you to act?  What is it that will take you from being interested, curious, or even concerned, to be willing to commit your time and your life to transforming the situations in which you live?

We've talked about anger, grief, and pain.  As I consider the context in which I live and out of which I work, I have realized that we have a difficult time acknowledging anger, grief, or pain.  We've been taught to suppress such emotions.  We've been taught to just "get over it."  But when we do this, we lose something important -- we lose our edge.  We lose our voice.  So,to those of you who, like me, live in the suburbs, where life might not be perfect, but you're not dealing with life and death issues every day, what is your pain?  

As I listen to those who live in communities of color, communities of poverty, communities where violence is an ever present reality, communities where they face profiling from police and community officials, the pain is very vivid and apparent.  They have much less difficulty in taking hold of the pain and anger to build upon, but what is your pain if it's not nearly so apparent?  

Are you read and willing to name your pain so you can find the power to change things?  

Faith in the Public Square -- A Conversation

Central Woodward Christian Church

A Conversation

August 29, 2012
(Wednesday Evening)
7:00 P.M. -8:30 P.M.

Join us for an evening of conversation about living faithfully in 21st Century America with Dr. Bob Cornwall, Pastor of Central Woodward Christian Church and Convener of the Troy-Area Interfaith Group. The event will include a book signing of his new book Faith in the Public Square (Energion Publications, 2012). Books will be available for purchase.

3955 W. Big Beaver Road
Troy, MI 48084

For More information about the book go here:

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Sunday, July 29, 2012

Is It Okay to Build Communities of Power?

In Acts 1 we read about Jesus' departure from the earth post resurrection.  In his final conversation he makes a promise that though he leave the Spirit will come and with the coming of the Spirit the followers of Jesus are to be witnesses for Jesus of the coming kingdom.  The text reads:

 6 As a result, those who had gathered together asked Jesus, “ Lord, are you going to restore the kingdom to Israel now? ” 
7 Jesus replied, “ It isn’t for you to know the times or seasons that the Father has set by his own authority. 8 Rather, you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth. ”
Note the word "power"  in verse 8.  With the coming of the Spirit the community will receive power (dunamis).  

I think that many of us are uncomfortable with this word "power."  Perhaps it's because with power comes responsibility, and we'd rather not take responsibility.  Maybe we're uncomfortable because people with power have been known to abuse their power.  As Lord Acton said -- "Power corrupts" -- and who wants to be corrupted?  We know that Jesus calls us to be servants, to be humble, to let go of power (or so that seems to be the interpretation of Philippians 2).  But what does all of this mean for us as we engage the world in the 21st century?

These are questions I'm working with as I participate in a national training for faith groups who are involved in community organizing.  The sponsoring organization is PICO National Network.  I am participating in this training because I'm a founding member of the Metropolitan Coalition of Congregations (Metro-Detroit).  I'm here to learn what my power is and how I can use this power to engage in works of transformation in the community.  One of the points raised is that power emerges from anger, or from grief regarding injustice in the world.  We struggled with this idea, because we don't like to be seen as angry, but is simply being concerned about an issue enough?

So, does it make me angry or do I feel grief because young people are being caught up in violence?  Do I care that people are being foreclosed on by banks that misled people into taking on loans the banks knew would likely default?  Do I grieve that children in urban areas are being forced to learn in over-crowded class rooms?  If so,what am I willing to do?  I can give to charity, but charity often does little more than offer a band-aid.  It doesn't change the systems.  Does this bother me? or you?

If I'm going to do something about this, what do I need?  Well, don't I need some power?  

But what is power?  And how much power do I need?  Basic definitions first -- the word power simply means "to be able."  So, what do I need to be able to accomplish that which I have envisioned?

Community organizing seeks to build communities of power -- whether that be congregations (congregations need to be empowered so they can engage the world) or federations of congregations -- that will engage in work that changes the dynamics of our communities.  

So, here's my question:  Is it okay to build communities of power?  And if we do build such communities how should this power be expressed?   

As you think about these questions consider this principle:  Communities of faith have the potential to bring into play a moral compass that engage both political and economic entities.  The question is -- are we willing to go outside the walls to offer this moral compass?  

Saturday, July 28, 2012

What is Shari'a Law in The Contemporary World?

You likely have heard about efforts to ban Sharia law in America.  These efforts are expressions of fear that somehow Muslims will gain a foothold in America and implement/impose Muslim forms of law on the American people.  Proponents of these laws suggest that Sharia will bring draconian forms of punishment such as beheadings and cutting off of hands and the like.  And, with daily reports from places like Afghanistan in the news, it's easy to see why this is true.

But, is this really what Sharia is all about?  Could it be that Sharia is really an overarching vision of justice and even salvation?  Is it, therefore, more a spiritual concept developed to organize life in a Muslim context than a legal code focused on rules and punishments?  Indeed, is it more akin to Jewish laws that guide diet and marriage and the like, laws that are considered without concern in American courts?

The reality is -- we who live outside the Muslim context simply don't understand Sharia in all it's complexity.  There are rules and punishments that have no place in American life, but then again I oppose capital punishment in all its forms, including American forms, which many conservative Christians are very happy to support.

Well, my friend Saeed Khan, a professor at Wayne State University in Detroit, who was filling in for Craig Fahle on his local public radio show, raised the topic in a most interesting and informative conversation with Sadakat Kadri, the author of a new book entitled Heaven on Earth: A Journey Through Shari'a Law from the Deserts of Ancient Arabia to the Streets of the Modern Muslim World.   As Mr. Kadri, an attorney practicing law in England, suggests, that these bans are contrary to the 1st Amendment because they focus on protected religious rights, and they will ultimately serve to alienate a growing segment of the American population.  

So, I'd like to invite you to check out the show and listen.  I'd love it if you would return and offer your thoughts.  But here's the key -- first listen to the show, then offer your responses.  

Here it is:

Saeed Khan: What is Shari'a Law in The Contemporary World?: Sadakat Kadri, Author of "Heaven on Earth: A Journey through Shari'a Law From Deserts of Ancient Arabia to the Streets of the Modern Muslim World" joins Saeed Khan to talk about Shari'a Law in today's world.

Friday, July 27, 2012

THE PRAYER OF THE APOSTLE -- Reflections on Ephesians 3:14-21

The chapter closes in a prayer that can be broken into three parts. The letter begins by proclaiming to the world the majesty of God (vs. 14-1 5), Then the prayer moves on to three related petitions: 1 ) That they might be strengthened in their inner being as Christ dwells in their hearts through faith; 2) That they might comprehend the love of Christ; 3) That they might be filled with God’s fullness (1 6-1 9). Finally, the prayer closes with a doxology, declaring praise to the God who is at work in the believer, “accomplishing far more than all we can ask or imagine.” 

Focusing on the three petitions that form the middle of the prayer, we notice that the author is making a request of God, that God would strengthen the believers internally so that they might be prepared for the tasks ahead. In making this petition the author recognizes that faith, or better yet, trust, is needed if the believer is to participate in God’s work. The second petition focuses on the love of Christ, in which they are to be “rooted and grounded.” For this to occur, they must know “breadth, height, length, and depth” of Christ’s love. Regarding the dimensions of Christ’s love, there is the sense that this love is the key to overcoming the barriers that keep Jew and Gentile divided. The final petition speaks of the fullness of God. There is the sense here that in the end, as God’s purpose for the creation is fulfilled, creation, including humanity, will be drawn up into the fullness of God’s presence. In envisioning this future, the author doesn’t look forward to simply exchanging this reality for another reality that mirrors this one. Instead, the author looks forward to being made one with the creator. As a result, this petition mirrors the closing statement/prayer in chapter one, which speaks of Christ‘s fullness filling “all in all” (1 :23). It proclaims the hope and desire that the believer will know the fullness of God’s presence with all clarity, the nature of which the author has yet to define. With this prayer, the author brings to a conclusion what many consider the more doctrinal half of the letter.

The prayer closes with a doxology that lifts the eyes of the reader to the heavens and invites the reader to imagine the possibilities that come as God is at work in the world. According to the writer, God’s abundance stands far beyond anything we might imagine or ask for. There is a similarity to Anselm’s description of God being that which is greater than anyone can imagine. To this God, who has revealed the mystery that brings union between the families of earth with each other and with God, we are invited to lift up words of praise, focusing on the glory of God that is revealed through Christ and the church “to all generations forever and ever.”

Reflections on Ephesians 3:13-21, excerpted from Robert Cornwall, Ephesians: A Participatory Study Guide  Energion, Publications, 2010).

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Sharing God's Bounty -- Lectionary Meditation (Ordinary Time)

Sharing in God’s Bounty

                It doesn’t seem to matter where you’re at these days – you will find people talking about scarcity.  There’s a scarcity of jobs, food, water, money, young people (in church), and more.  Consumer confidence decreases by the day and people are pulling inward, focusing on themselves.  Why?  Could it be that many people don’t think there’s enough “stuff” to go around.  You have to take what you want, even if it’s at the detriment of others.

                In the United States, we have about 5% of the world’s population but we consume about 24% of the world’s energy.  You can see the disparity here.  And then there’s the whole issue of taxation – what is fair and what is just and what is necessary?  Consider that the top 1% of Americans holds 42% of the nation’s wealth – and that is on the rise not the decline, even in a time of economic stagnation.  Why does that 1% need so much wealth?  Is it good for the nation?  Or, I might add, is our nation’s level of consumption sustainable? 

                These are all important questions that require our attention as we reflect on God’s provision.  Is God a God of scarcity or abundance?  What is your vision of God’s nature and character?  The old adage that has governed much American life is thought by many to be biblical – “God helps those who help themselves.”  Although this maybe more information than you really want, the phrase isn’t biblical and seems to have originated as one of Aesop’s Fables and then given its current form by British political theorist Algernon Sydney.  After that Benjamin Franklin picked it up and passed it on.  It has had a certain resonance, but does this statement resonate with the message of Jesus?

                In the texts for Week 9 of Ordinary Time we hear words that speak of God’s overflowing gracious provision.  The reading from 2 Kings features Elisha feeding one hundred with twenty loaves, with leftovers.  John retells the feeding of the 5000, with more drama.  The word from Ephesians doesn’t speak of seemingly miraculous distributions of bread, but it does speak of great breadth of God’s provision.  If we are followers of Jesus, can we be people who dwell with a vision of scarcity?

                The reading in 2 Kings 4 is brief and simple.  A man comes to Elisha bearing twenty loaves of barley bread and some fresh grain.  Elisha asks that this offering be shared with the people so they can eat.  The servant wonders – how can this be?  But Elisha is undeterred.  Give it to them, and they’ll eat and there will be leftovers.  It sounds incredible, and yet, when the servant follows the instructions the bread feeds the crowd and all are satisfied, with leftovers.  It sounds like a typical church supper.  No matter how many show up, there’s always more than enough, even if the crowd is larger than anticipated.  Why is that?   The answer is simple – they acted “in agreement with the LORD’s word.”  God is the provider. 

Does that mean that I should quit my job and expect God to feed me?  Not likely.  I remember right after the 2008 election, critics of the newly elected President, picking up on the near messianic fervor expressed by some fans of the candidate suggested that they were ready to receive their benefits.  That’s not the point, really, as we quickly see in the mirror event of John 6. 

The whole of John 6 provides immense amounts of material to consider.  There are Eucharistic elements present.  There are questions of identity.  But there is also a word here about God’s provisions.  Although there’s clearly a reflection here on 2 Kings 4, there is also a very explicit connection with the Exodus story.  John tells the story a bit differently than the Synoptics.  Jesus climbs a hill above the Sea of Galilee, and when a crowd gathers, he asks Philip – how are we going to feed the crowd?  We’re told that Jesus was testing Philip, who isn’t quite sure how to answer.  It would take six months wages to feed this crowd – not the kind of money the disciples would likely have on them.  Now Andrew, brother of Simon Peter, mentions that a boy has five barley loaves and two fish – but surely that’s not enough (more people and less bread than Elisha had to work with).  Not deterred by the reports, Jesus has the crowd sit down on a grassy hill, and the food is distributed (after he gives thanks -- eucharisto).  When they’re finished, the disciples gather up twelve baskets full of leftovers – God does provide.  Now we could try to figure out how Jesus did this.  We can take a supernaturalist or nonsupernaturalist view, but that would miss the point – God provides.  God is true to God’s word.  And they people recognize something special is in their midst, calling Jesus “the prophet” of God come into the world. 

What happens next should not surprise us.  Jesus realizes that the crowd will want to make him king.  It’s only natural.  He’s provided for them, why not make him king.   The Romans take their food, their land, their money and offer little in return (besides new highways).  Jesus seems like a better option.  Realizing their intent Jesus escapes into the wilderness.  Now, as we read on, we’ll discover that they figure out where he’s at and pursue him, but that’s for another day.  What’s clear is that Jesus isn’t interested or ready for such a turn of events, and so he goes away.  The disciples, after sitting around for awhile, decide to get in their boat and head across the lake.  When a storm arises, they become disturbed, but they’re really terrified when they see Jesus walking across the lake.  John ends the conversation a bit abruptly – there’s no conversation recorded, but when they get Jesus in the boat they will have reached the other side.  Now we’re set up for the next encounter with the crowd, who recognize in Jesus one who can provide for their every need, but John’s Jesus has something else in mind – food for the spirit not just for the stomach.  Still, there is here the recognition that God is the provider.

We now come to the Ephesian text.   The author – traditionally Paul – offers up a prayer for the Ephesians, recognizing that God recognizes and hears the prayers of every ethnic group on earth.  This is a rather universalist start! 

So, what is the focus of this prayer?  Request is made that God will strengthen the inner self of the Ephesian community, “from the riches of his glory through the Spirit.”  God shares the riches, the bounty, and the abundance of God’s glory with the people of God!  He asks that Christ will live in their hearts through faith, and rooted in this love of God, asks that they’ll have the ability to “grasp love’s width and length, height and depth, together with all the believers.”  What are the riches of God’s glory?  It’s clear – it’s love in all its fullness.  And the author asks further that they will know the “love of Christ that is beyond knowledge.”  It’s not just a matter of the head; it’s a matter of the heart.  This is a love that is deeply rooted, deeply felt, and expressed with a sense of wide generosity.  It’s so great that they will be completely filled with the fullness of Christ. 

Then the prayer continues and it’s a clause that we need to attend to as we ponder the question of scarcity and abundance.  We need to ask the question – do we really believe that God is good and gracious?  Do you believe that God is “able to do far beyond all we ask or imagine by his power and work within us”?  Do you believe this?  Do I believe?  Is my God too small?  If I believe it what does it require of me?  While God doesn’t necessarily help those who help themselves, is it possible that God does help those who help others?  Is it possible that when we open our hearts and our lives to others, and let loose of that stuff that gets control of our lives that we can truly experience the presence of God?  Glory to God – in the church and in Christ for all generations!
What is the nature of God’s abundance?  How do we share in it?  And Elisha and Jesus ask us to share the bread with the neighbor.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Dancing with Diana 7 – Intelligence on Ice or Ignorance on Fire

It appears to be a truism that conservative worship is lively and progressive/liberal worship is cold.  One is heart focused and the other head focused.  It's not really that cut and dry, but Mainline Protestant Churches often seem tied to traditional patterns, even as they open up their theology.  Conservatives, on the other hand, don't seem to care as much about style as they do about keeping the theology narrowly focused.  Bruce Epperly in this seventh post inspired by his reading of Diana Butler Bass's Christianity after Religion (Harper, 2012), takes up the question of worship and suggests that progressive worship should engage both heart and head.  Take a read, offer your responses.


Dancing with Diana 7 – 
Intelligence on Ice or Ignorance on Fire
Bruce G. Epperly

Diana Butler Bass recounts a question she received on Facebook: “Why is it that the choice among churches always seems to be the choice between intelligence on ice and ignorance on fire?”  This is interesting dilemma, since many seekers find the music and worship of conservative evangelical and Pentecostal churches lively and entertaining, but the language and theology deadly and the theology of progressive churches engaging but the worship boring and unemotional. 

Can we have both lively worship and open-spirited theology?  Ironically, progressive Christianity has often been theologically innovative but liturgically unimaginative.  As a progressive Christian, committed to emerging and process spiritualities, I am committed to holistic, transformative, life-giving, and world changing theology, spirituality, and worship. 

Progressive worship should be progressive! It should not be hemmed in by lectionary, prayer books, or past liturgical styles.  It should break free of lectionary and prayer book fundamentalism, and should transform both lectionary and liturgy.  Common prayer should not be one-dimensional and commonplace, but exciting, innovative, and adventurous. It should be, as Robert Webber asserted, ancient and future, but more than that global and local, intimate and universal, intellectual and emotional, as it joins head, heart, and hands.  Today, we need spirit-centered, dare I say, Pentecostal progressives, who dance when the spirit says dance and sing when the spirit says sing – well prepared liturgically but also prepared to change as the winds of the Spirit blow through the sanctuary.  As the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead asserts, worship is an adventure of the Spirit.  Who knows where it will take us?  (For more on adventurous worship, see Bruce Epperly and Daryl Hollinger, From a Mustard Seed: Enlivening Worship and Music in the Small ChurchAlban Institute.)

How do we accomplish this?  First, we recognize that lively faith encompasses head, heart, and hands.  It is spirit-centered, grounded in a lively conversation with contemplative practices, prayerful intercession and petition; worship that surprises and transforms; theology that inspires; and mission that energizes.

Second, we embody this spiritual and theological holism in the life of the church.  For example, a coherent worship service can involve times of silence and healing prayer/laying on of hands; lively, inspiring, accessible, and theologically solid preaching; global and local hymnody, embracing traditional, contemplative, and energetic styles as well as familiar and global melodies; an order of worship complemented by moments of surprise; sitting prayer can be joined with moving music.  Christian education for children and adults can involve song, dance, and silence as part of the lesson of the day.

Third, in the spirit of the Psalmist, spirit-centered worship will “taste and see that God is good.” All the senses will be welcome at worship – beautiful sights (banners, videos, icons), pleasing aromas (communion bread baking), healing touch and peaceful embraces, joyful noise, and – why not – good coffee or healthy rolls, including gluten-free alternatives.

Fourth, lively congregational life is grounded in a commitment to pray for every congregational event, inviting the Spirit to move us in new and creative ways.  Lively worship is undergirded by prayer – for the service, the community, the preacher, and lay participants.  When we expect the Spirit to move in unexpected and surprising ways, she does and we had best move with her!

Fifth, Pentecostal progressivism is inspired by prayerful mission.  Contemplation and action are partners not antagonists; deep spirituality nurtures deep listening and life-changing action. 

Sixth, scripture notes that God is willing to give us more than we can ask or imagine.  As we gather for worship, prayer, mission, and program, we can expect great things of God and great things of ourselves.  We can expect that something wonderful will happen – a God-send, a healing, a new path toward freedom – in every congregational event.  This means letting go of control, and recognizing that though we are God’s partners, this partnership is not-scripted but “live” and extemporaneous.  Expecting the unexpected, a way where there was no way, healing in the midst of death, and reconciliation in the midst of hospitality bring life and joy to every congregational event.

We can be lively and intellectual, accessible and theological, and exciting and progressive.  Let’s dance!

Bruce Epperly is a theologian, spiritual guide, pastor, and author of twenty two books, including Process Theology: A Guide to the PerplexedHoly Adventure: 41 Days of Audacious Living, Philippians: An Interactive Bible Study, and The Center is Everywhere: Celtic Spirituality for the Postmodern Age.  His most recent text is Emerging Process:  Adventurous Theology for a Missional Church.   He also writes regularly for the Process and Faith Lectionary and Patheos.com. He may be reached at drbruceepperly@aol.com for lectures, workshops, and retreats.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Episcopal Church Adapting to Culture -- Sightings (Martin Marty)

The fact is, churches have been adapting to culture from day one.  We've translated the message and tried to find points of contact.  Sometimes that has positive results -- sometimes not so much.  There are often unintended consequences.  The growing openness to gay marriage and ordination is seen as an adaptation to culture and a cause of decline.  But was not the evangelical embrace of slavery in the south a cultural adaptation?  Or, we could point to the intertwining of patriotism and religion.  Is it not a cultural adaptation, one that blunts our ability to speak prophetically?
Well, there's been much conversation going on lately between left and right.  Martin Marty picks up on the conversation and gives it some context.  Take a look and a read, and offer your thoughts.

Sightings  7/23/2012 

 Episcopal Church Adapting to Culture
-- Martin E. Marty
 Miracles do happen. They are happening recently in the media world on the church front. Critics are responding to recent attacks on the Episcopal Church. Inspired by reports of the obvious, that that church body has experienced very significant losses of membership and church attendance in recent years, critics in national newspapers and elsewhere beyond the confines of that denomination have gone public with accounts of what’s wrong with that body. Notable examples were Ross Douthat’s “Can Liberal Christianity Be Saved?” in the New York Times and “What Ails Episcopalians?” by Jay Akasie in theWall Street Journal. Most such headlined questions on charges by writers who know the answers, are ignored. Episcopalians, like members of all Christian bodies of which we have heard (since the time of the letters of the Apostle Paul) have been too busy fighting each other to pay attention to snipers from a distance. Or Episcopalians simply yawned, changed the subject, and kept doing what they were doing.           
The frequent and notable recent responses to attacks do not deny documentations of “decline,” but, with their nerves touched, they find the ideologies behind the attacks and the assumptions of the attackers too weighty to ignore. The attacks all come down to the charge that in recent decades Episcopalians have adapted too strongly to “secular liberalism.” We can only signal and touch on a few examples. Thus Bishop Stacy F. Sauls in a letter to the Times turned the attack on its head. The Chief Operating Officer of the Church agrees, Yes, “the church has been captive to the dominant culture, which has rewarded it . . . for a long, long time.” And now the Church is liberating itself by trying “to be a follower of Jesus.” It is now “standing by those the culture marginalizes,” and thus is counter-cultural at last. The Bishop makes brief references to Jesus and to Paul’s writing in Galatians 3:28 to support his claim.           
Sarah Morice-Brubaker charges online that Douthat poses false alternatives for the Church: “Either Unpromising” archaism or becoming “a Secular Den of Promiscuity and Irrelevance.” Like other respondents to attacks, she invokes Jesus and the central Christian narrative in an attempt to show how the Church which the critic dismisses is, on some ground, closer to the Gospel than are the critics, who are bound to other elements in the culture. Diana Butler Bass, an upfront prolific writer on mainline Christian trends sees ‘mean-spirited or partisan” criticism. She finds Douthat and company stuck back in 1974 with a notable book by Dean Kelley, Why Conservative Churches Are Growing, which was astute about life forties years ago. She asks, has he looked lately at decline in Catholicism, Missouri Synod Lutheranism, the Southern Baptist Convention—and, she could have added, non-growth or decline of denominations wanted to be counter-churches to the conservatives? Face it, says Bass: today “liberal churches are not the only ones declining.” She’d prefer to see analysts facing up to that rather than attacking the groups they don’t like. For her the question is not “Can Liberal Christianity be Saved?” but “Can Liberal Christians Save Christianity?”           
In a future Sightings, I’ll take specific note of attempts to provide an interpretive framework by two significant historians, Jill K. Gill and David Hollinger. No more than anyone else do they have answers to all the demographic, theological and churchly issues posed here, but their cautions should make the public take second looks at “decline”and adaptations to “secular liberalism.” So we have a debate? That’s miraculous!


Ross Douthat, “Can Liberal Christianity Be Saved?,” New York Times, July 14, 2012 . 
Jay Akasie, “What Ails the Episcopalians,” Wall Street Journal, July 12, 2012. 
Sarah Morice-Brubaker, “For Douthat, Church Either Uncompromising or a Secular Den of Promiscuity and Irrelevance,” Religion Dispatches Magazine, July 16, 2012. 
Bishop Stacy F. Sauls, “Episcopal Church Is Radically Faithful to Its Tradition,” Wall Street Journal, July 19, 2012.

Martin E. Marty's biography, publications, and contact information can be found atwww.memarty.com.


Sightings comes from the Martin Marty Center for the Advanced Study of Religion at the University of Chicago Divinity School.

Monday, July 23, 2012

A Woman Called by Sara Barton-- Review

A WOMAN CALLED: Piecing Together the Ministry Puzzle.  By Sara Gaston Barton.  Abilene, TX:  Leafwood Publishers, 2012.  220 pages.

       It seems so simple.  The New Testament states clearly that women are to be silent and that they should not have authority over men.  It seems simple enough, except that there are other words from the New Testament that speak a different message, one that hints at, if not always explicitly states, that women were called to ministry and did teach and likely weren’t silent.    But complicating the picture further is the reality of call.  What happens if from your youngest years you have a yearning to preach the gospel and to teach the Bible, not just to women and children, but to every person?  One could, as many have, simply throw away the text, but what if you feel drawn to the biblical message and you don’t want to let it go? 

      Sara Gaston Barton is a woman called to preach.  We should celebrate this calling, but unfortunately she is a member of a faith community that not only takes the New Testament with great seriousness, but, with few exceptions, this communion believes that the New Testament excludes women’s voices from the broader life of the church.   Because she has an inner burden to preach, and has had this burden since childhood, it has been impossible for Sara to cast it aside.  It would be easier for her to ignore the calling or to move to another communion – like mine – so that she could be “at peace.”  These two options have proven impossible for her to embrace, and so she has tried to find ways to use her gifts and calling in a way that honors her God and benefits her communion. 

A Woman Called is a poignant and eloquent memoir/apology.  It is a memoir because Sara tells her own story.  It is an apology in the theological sense in that she demonstrates with great care why the Churches of Christ should honor the call of women like her, so that the churches might be blessed by these gifts.  She writes with grace and care not only for herself, but for other women, especially younger women, who feel the same calling.  Some of these women have decided that the calling requires that they leave the church of their birth and go to ones that, like my own, welcome these gifts.  Others have decided, for now, to stay and pursue their calling within their own tradition.  For those who remain there is need for a sign of hope, a light beacon that points the way to a new day.  Sara’s book is just that beacon.  One cannot read these words with an open heart and mind and not see and hear the message of God’s calling exude from these pages.

Sara is a friend and she often fills the pulpit of my congregation when I’m away.  My congregation is blessed by her messages, and as she shares in the book, she has been blessed by the welcome given her by Central Woodward.   She writes that when she stepped into the pulpit at Central Woodward there was no tension in the room. 
I opened Scripture, and I preached.  It wasn’t spectacular.  It was just a regular sermon . . . It is a significant moment in my life when I used my gifts for the benefit of the church, and I felt joy in it.  They encouraged me.  No eye in this body was saying, “I don’t need you,” and no ear was saying, “I don’t want to hear you.”  (p. 45)
As joyous as this moment was, it wasn’t without a twinge of sadness, because her opportunity to preach meant that she was absent from her own congregation.  She could leave and take a Disciple pulpit – there are churches galore that would welcome her spirit, her energy, her ability to handle the biblical text, but she doesn’t want to leave, though she understands why others in her shoes have done so.  Indeed, she admits that if she didn’t have the opportunity to teach at the college she and her husband serve, she might be looking at things differently.

                A woman called is a deeply personal book.  Because I know her story and have been part of it, perhaps I sense the dilemma facing her in a different way than another reviewer might.  But whether one is personally acquainted with Sara or not, one will recognize a spirit of grace and determination in this book that expresses Sara’s deep and abiding faith and her sense of call that can’t be denied.  It is also a book of biblical interpretation.  Throughout the book Sara picks up the relevant texts, from Ephesians 5 to 1 Timothy 2, and she handles them with great care.  She doesn’t ignore the text or deride them, but at the same time she doesn’t read these texts flatly as if there is no context to them.  She brings out the contextual and cultural dynamics, so that others in her community might see the texts from a new vantage point. 

                Sara interprets the text not only as a biblical scholar, but as one who understands herself as being of the part of the story.  She writes:
As I stepped into God’s story as a young girl and continue to abide there today, I find that it is my calling to teach and preach God’s Word in and outside the church.  The compelling story of God will not let me go, and I don’t want to let go of it.  I join my story to God’s story (p. 17).
With this sense of calling in mind, Sara wrestles with the texts that deal with the question of women in ministry.  In fact, much of the book takes up the biblical text and she reads it in conversation with her own community of faith. 

                In the course of the book we encounter her as a child, picking up the text and feeling excluded at points, from the life of the church.  She learned early on that there were certain responsibilities, like reading scripture, passing the communion trays, or even teaching boys past the age of twelve, that were reserved for men.  She tried to understood why this was so, but she chaffed at the restrictions.  After she went off to college, she took one of those career aptitude tests and discovered that she was best suited to be an expository preacher – that made her laugh and wonder at the irony of this.  Though she desired to study scripture, she made English her major and Bible a minor.  Career-wise she understood that she would have more opportunity to teach English than the Bible.  During college she meets a young man from Philadelphia who is also called to ministry, and together then head to Uganda to serve as missionaries.  Interestingly enough, this move offered her more opportunities to teach – not just women, but men.   As time passed, she returned to the states with her husband and took up a position as chaplain at the college her husband was called to serve, and today she serves as an assistant professor of English and religious studies at that college.  She looked for opportunities to do more than children’s ministry, but these were not forthcoming.  Preaching opportunities at Church of Christ congregations required that she do so in tandem with a man (a person of authority), and so she preaches at CWCC when there’s opportunity.   

                There will be some who read this book and feel that Sara has mishandled the texts of scripture and will walk away with disgust that someone would cross divinely authorized boundaries.  Others will wonder why bother with such a narrow community?  Why attend to restrictive texts?  Why not just move on?  Many in my communion would offer her that kind of advice, but that’s not what Sara feels called to do.  Near the end of the book, Sara states her vision of the future:
I want a community that makes a place for Amy, a community that makes a place for Maggie, who wants to pass the communion tray, and Abby, who is called to lead worship, and Poem, who wants to preach, for they are heirs in Christ, daughters with jobs to do in God’s new world, here and now (p. 206) 
This is why she stays – God has given her a calling to blaze a trail for others, so that they might have a place to serve and use their gifts in all their fullness.  Having heard Sara preach and knowing her abilities to teach and to preach, my sense is that with patience, Sara’s vision will bear fruit.

                This is a beautifully written book.  Anyone who wonders whether God can speak through a woman, needs to read this book.  Anyone who wonders why a woman would stay put in a community that continues to resist her voice, also needs to read this book.   It is a book that expresses the fullness of God’s calling to use one’s gifts to their fullest extent, and anyone reading it will be encouraged to discern and use their gifts for the glory of God.   Therefore, it is a book that requires our full attention.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

What makes a document sacred? Thoughts on Visit to the National Archives

The National Archives Building in Washington, DC

Most Sundays I go to the pulpit and preach a message that I seek to root in my reading of Scripture.  The biblical text is an ancient document that most Christians consider to be sacred or holy, even divinely inspired.  Some believe they are inerrant or infallible, others don't, but still believe that God can and does speak through them.  Some read the texts flatly, with little attention to critical reading.  Others, focus on their attention on questions raised by a critical reading.  I'm of the opinion that while the text isn't infallible or inerrant, God is in the midst of them.  Perhaps the old Lutheran understanding of the Eucharist applies here -- "in, with, and under."   If you listen carefully and thoughtfully, you will hear the voice of God.  

During my recently completed trip to Washington, DC, my family and I, took a few moments out to visit the National Archives, which are located just off the National Mall, and near both the Capitol and the Supreme Court Building.  We couldn't take pictures inside the building -- the original documents, written by hand by a scribe with a quill pen on parchment, are too fragile.  

As you enter the rotunda where the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights reside behind protective glass, you get this feeling. There's something sacred about these documents. They're not inerrant or infallible.  They're not divinely inspired.  But, they are in a way, sacred.  They are the founding documents.  As they lay before you behind the glass, it's difficult to read.  The ink has turned brown and the signatures on the Declaration have faded.   Still, there's something special about this room and its contents.  You can read these words on line, if you should desire or in a book, but looking at these texts reminds you that something special happened more than two centuries past.  Documents declared our liberty and gave us guidance for how to live together in peace and with justice.  

The documents are not perfect and like scripture parts are time bound and require interpretation if they are to speak to us today.  The Supreme Court reigns as the arbiter of what these texts mean.  The justices, like preachers, are fallible instruments.  They, like me, must make determinations about what these words mean and despite suggestions otherwise, they, like me, bring their ideologies and their biases to the fray.  Not too long in the past, we heard the justices make important rulings with deep political and social implications.  Not every agreed -- indeed, not all of the justices agreed with each other.  And even when the majority agreed, it was clear that they didn't all agree on the same basis.  

So, what makes a document sacred?  Isn't it divine inspiration?  Perhaps, but not necessarily.  Does it have to be perfect or inerrant to be sacred?  I don't think so.  I don't believe the Bible is inerrant, though it is clearly a sacred text that I take great care in reading and interpreting.  There is nothing divine about the nation's founding documents.  They were written by human hands in a particular time for political and social reasons.  The Constitution is especially hallowed, even though it never mentions God once.  The only reference in the Constitution proper is a ban on religious requirements for holding office.  But, if you go into the rotunda and stand before the documents, you get this feeling that something special is laying before you.  You can't help but be moved.  But, having been moved, the question is -- how do you respond?  What are these documents calling out for you to do?