Monday, March 31, 2014

The Answer to Bad Religion is not No Religion! (Martin Thielen) -- Review

THE ANSWER TO BAD RELIGION IS NOT NO RELIGION: A Guide to Good Religion for Seekers, Skeptics, and Believers.   By Martin Thielen.  Louisville:  Westminster John Knox Press, 2014.  Xv + 160 pages.

            It’s not secret – fewer people are going to church than they used to.  Many give the bad state of religion as their reason for staying away.  People seem to have noticed that there is a lot of hypocrisy among Christians.  They’re too politicized, angry, exclusive, dogmatic, and self-righteous.  They’re simply not pleasant to be around.  So why spend your Sunday’s around such people.  Instead, we can be spiritual without the trappings of religion.  I can understand the sentiment – I’ve known these kinds of people.  I’ve even been counted among them a few times in my life.    But just because some religion is bad, doesn’t mean we have to totally give up on religion!

            Martin Thielen, a United Methodist Pastor serving in Tennessee, and a former Southern Baptist pastor, doesn’t think that we have to give up on religion completely, because some representatives of the faith are not all that attractive.  In other words, he’s asking people to give the church a second look.

            This book follows up on his book What's the Least I Can Believe and Still Be a Christian?  In that book Thielen distinguished between beliefs that don’t represent mainstream Christianity – such as God causing car wrecks or that doubt is unacceptable – and beliefs and practices that better represent mainstream Christianity, such as the centrality of Jesus to the Christian faith and the message of grace.  Like the earlier book, this book is written with a lay/general audience in mind.   As such, it would be very useful for an adult education program (a leader’s guide is available from the publisher).  The perspective represents a broad, middling, moderate understanding of the Christian faith.  Depending on your vantage point you might think he’s too liberal or conservative, but as with the earlier book I found him to be fairly moderate. 

            Thielen offers up the book to the seeker and the skeptic, but I think the primary audience will be Christians who want to respond to the critics in a firm but gentle manner.  If taken seriously, church people might get a better sense of why so many persons pass them by.  The church’s reputation has taken a serious hit, so it will take time to restore the church’s credibility. 

Thielen, like many preachers, is a story-teller.  Each chapter is filled with stories, some of which I’ve heard before.  The book itself is divided into three parts. The first five chapters form Part 1: The Answer to Bad Religion. In this section Thielen addresses expressions of bad religion, including self-righteousness, chronic negativity (after all, who wants to be around someone who is always negative), arrogance and intolerance, partisan politics and nationalism, and nominal commitment. On the latter he decries the tendency to put things like ski trips and youth sports above church.  While I agree with Thielen that too often people don’t give the church the priority it deserves, I think it needs to be asked why that is. 

The second part of the book is composed of two chapters -- in which he suggests that the answer to the above isn't "no religion." In other words -- John Lennon might have gotten it wrong. Abolishing religion isn't helpful or necessary.  Thielen begs to differ, offering significant examples of the contributions made to society by the church and by Christians, from leadership of the civil rights museum to the provision of hospitals and educational entities. 

Finally, we come to the longest section of the book, comprising ten chapters.  In this section Thielen lays out his vision of good religion.  He lists/describes ten good characteristics:  it impacts the way we live; prioritizes love; engages in service; provides a prophetic voice; builds community; is hope filled; keeps an open mind, practices forgiveness; promotes gratitude; and practices evangelism with integrity.   As you look over this list, you might think – well these describe our church pretty well.  Hopefully that is true, but sometimes what we think the world beyond our walls sees and hears may not be what they’re seeing and hearing.   Note that he speaks of providing a prophetic voice as being good, but he also makes it clear that partisan politics makes for bad religion.  It’s not always easy knowing where the line between the two lies – so that is at least on area to keep an eye upon.  As for evangelism – most mainline churches don’t have to worry about venturing into what he considers the bad side, that’s because we’ve tended to avoid evangelism.  He reminds us that evangelism doesn’t have to be filled with fire and brimstone to get the point across!

          As I noted earlier, the target audience is the general reader.  It’s moderate in tone, easy going as a read, and centered in a mainstream Christian context.  I think it would be very useful for a study group (there is a Leader's Guide  for a six week study series available as well).

         While Thielen helpfully points out the problem areas and offers a counter point, I’m not sure it will answer the concerns raised by the skeptics.  It might prove helpful to seekers who are at least open to the faith, but have some negative experiences.  But, if it can help church people get beliefs and practice back in alignment, we’ll be in good shape!   

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Difficult Paths -- A Sermon for Lent 4

Mark 10:32-34

Jesus took the lead on their journey toward Jerusalem.  Perhaps he was in a hurry to get there, but the disciples lag behind.  They seem to be caught up in the moment.  It could be that this was their first visit to Jerusalem.  There in front of them was the big city and the Temple.  They’d heard about this Temple many times, and when they saw it in real life, it seemed even grander than they had ever imagined.  Remember they didn’t have cameras back then.  But it wasn’t just the grandeur of the Temple that grabbed them.  There were also the rumors that a violent fate awaited Jesus in Jerusalem.  Jesus had even brought up the subject himself.  So, it’s no wonder that they wanted to take their time getting to Jerusalem.  Because they didn’t know what lay ahead of them, they were filled with mixed emotions – both amazement and fear. 

When Jesus realizes that a gap was beginning to form, he stops and takes the twelve off to the side.  Then, for the third time, Jesus explains to them that path before them would be difficult.  He doesn’t pull any punches.  Yes, “the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death; then they will hand him over to the Gentiles; they will mock him, and spit on him, and flog him, and kill him.”  If you were a disciple and you heard that message – how would you respond? Would you stay with Jesus or would you walk away?  Amazingly they stay with him.  

Perhaps it’s the glimmer of a promise of resurrection that emboldens them to continue, or it may be that they took comfort in their earlier hopes that Jesus would take power in Jerusalem.  

As Mark tells the story, it didn’t take long before the disciples began to dream big dreams.  Remember what James and John asked Jesus for?  They asked Jesus to appoint them to leading posts in his new administration.  “When you take over in Jerusalem could you put us in charge of the Departments of State and Defense?  We don’t want to be the one who gets left back at the office when you go down to the Capitol to deliver the state of the realm address.”  Of course, when the others hear of their audacity, they want to get into the act also.  After all, no one wants to be the last one picked! (Mark 10:35-45).  Yes, they quickly forget Jesus’ warning – after all who is going to sign up for a mission is sure to fail?  And so they clung to their vision of  God’s realm – one in which they got to have the seats of honor.

As I pondered this text and its message for us as a congregation,  I thought about the many difficult paths that members of this congregation have taken in recent months and years.  

Some of you have experienced a death in the family:  A child, a sibling, a spouse, or a parent.  Whether expected or not, death can be a wrenching experience for us.  

For others of you, this difficult path involves a battle with cancer.  Others of you are undergoing tests to see if cancer is present, and if it is then what treatments can be prescribed.  Then there are the chronic illnesses, like Parkinsons.

Others deal with mental health issues, something that we find difficult to talk about openly.   

For others it’s the daily challenge posed by the aging process – including dealing with chronic pain.  

There are others who have found that reaching mid-life has been difficult.  A rough economy has led to job losses, the difficulties finding a new job, and the fear that retirement will bring unforeseen financial challenges.  Besides these challenges, many “middle-aged” folks live sandwiched between concerns about both parents and children.  

Many young adults have found themselves saddled with student debt and a difficulty launching into their careers.  They have their degrees, but jobs are scarce in an age of economic stagnation. 

I think I’ve covered most everyone in this church.  The challenges may differ from person to person, family to family, but as a community of faith, we have faced housing crises, job crises, health crises, and relationship crises.  Some of our families have dealt with multiple issues.  As a pastor, I often stand in awe of the resilience I see in some of your lives.  The answer you all give is that it’s prayer and the support of the community of faith that keeps you going. 

It is in the context of these difficult pathways that are common to us all that I chose to view Jesus’ own path to the cross.  To put it in the words of a Robert Johns hymn: 

In suff’ring love the thread of life is woven through our care, 
for God is with us:  Not alone our pain and toil we bear.

And then in the final verse of the hymn:

In suff’ring love our God comes now, hopes vision born in gloom; 
with tears and laughter shared and blessed the desert yet will bloom.

In suffering love, God comes to us, bringing hope in the midst of gloom. [Chalice Hymnal, p. 212].

The message that I hear from Mark’s text is that God in Christ understands the challenges we face.  In his own experiences of suffering, Jesus brings healing to our souls.  From the earliest of times the church has interpreted Jesus’ journey to the cross through the lens of Isaiah 53, one of the Suffering Servant songs.

  4 Surely he has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases;
yet we accounted him stricken, struck down by God, and afflicted.
5 But he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed. 
                                                                                          (Isaiah 53:4- 5).

In embracing the way of the cross, this servant of servants shares in our experiences of suffering.  He bears the effects of our transgressions and our iniquities.  And as he does so, he brings us healing and makes us whole.  

As we read the New Testament, it is clear that the early Christians connected the cross to our salvation.  This has led some to believe that God punishes Jesus instead of us – sort of like kicking the dog instead of the child when the child misbehaves.  As I read these texts, I see something different.  I see in Jesus, God working to bring healing to our brokenness.  I see humanity throwing everything it can at Jesus, and Jesus overcoming our resistance to his offer of reconciliation. The key to this interpretation is the message of Easter.  Good Friday will have its say, but it won’t have the last word.   

Yes, there are different ways of understanding the message of the cross.  We find one interpretation here in Mark 10, where Jesus speaks of himself as the ransom.  In traditional ransom theologies, Jesus gives his life to the devil in exchange for our lives.  He does this because we sold our souls to the devil. There is something of this theory in C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.   Aslan gives himself up to the White Witch in exchange for the life of Edmund.  As you might remember, death cannot contain Aslan, who experiences resurrection. There was magic far deeper than the White Witch knew of.  

It’s interesting that in Mark 10, Jesus doesn’t name a recipient of this ransom payment.  Instead, we’re simply told that Jesus has given his life “to liberate many people” (Mark 10:45 CEB).  

There’s another atonement theory that I think fits our conversation this morning.  Back in the second century, Irenaeus developed what has come to be known as the recapitulation theory. In this theory of the atonement, as Jesus goes through life – from birth to death – he undoes the damage we create in the course of our lives.  In other words, by living faithfully in relationship with God, Jesus overcomes our resistance to God’s promises and expectations.  In his life, as well as his death, Jesus perfects our imperfections – bringing us to maturity of faith.  This is a difficult journey, because it will involve a violent death, but death is part of our journey toward God.  It is the last enemy that must be overcome.  So, in Irenaeus’ vision, by dying on a tree, Jesus reverses the disobedience of Adam who ate from the forbidden tree. [In Cyril C. Richardson, Early Christian Fathers, Macmillan Pub., 1970, p. 389].    

As we make our way down the path of life, we will experience times of great difficulty.  But the good news is that Jesus has walked this path before.  He understands our situation. He knows our suffering, and therefore God knows our suffering.  

But the key to this journey is found in the last half of verse 34: “after three days he will rise again.”  It is this promise of the resurrection that gives us hope.  In the resurrection death has lost its sting.  In the resurrection every tear is wiped away and death will be no more (Revelation 21:4).    This is the promise that sustains us in season and out of season.

Note:  The text for this sermon comes from David Ackerman's Beyond the Lectionary
Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall, Pastor
Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, Michigan
Fourth Sunday of Lent
March 30, 2014

Saturday, March 29, 2014

What is the Church?

I have just begun reading A Lover's Quarrel: A Theologian and His Beloved Church, written by Disciples theologian Joe R. Jones -- formerly Professor of Theology (now retired) at Christian Theological Seminary.  I will, of course, be reviewing the book upon completion, but I may also add some posts in the in between times.  As I read the Introduction to the book, I came upon this definition of the church that the author is going to use in the course of the book.  I wanted to share it and make a few preliminary comments.  Before offering his definition, I also should note that language plays an important function in Joe's theological work, as seen in his two volume systematic theology -- A Grammar of Christian Faith: Systematic Explorations in Christian Life and Doctrine (2 Volume Set).
The church is that liberative and redemptive
community of persons
called into being
by the Gospel of Jesus Christ
through the Holy Spirit
to witness in word and deed
to the living Triune God
for the benefit of the world
to the glory of God   (p. xxv).  
It is a community of persons -- not an institution or a building -- that is engaged in liberative and redemptive work.  It is a community "called into being by the Gospel (Good News) of Jesus Christ" --- that is the Word of God -- "through the Holy Spirit."  As you can see from this definition that Jones is clearly Trinitarian.  In reading his earlier work -- and in conversation with him -- I know that he finds inspiration in the work of Jurgen Moltmann and Karl Barth (for Disciples this is unusual) -- both of whom are strongly Trinitarian.  This Church is called to witness to the Triune God in word and deed -- to benefit the world and to glorify God.  It is an activist vision of the church.  It is a call to share the good news that we have received as well as live out this good news in service to the world.  Through this work -- God is glorified.  

I realize that the Trinity is a stumbling block to many both inside the Christian community and outside it, but it seems to me that a Trinitarian understanding of God is foundational to understanding the communal nature of the church -- in that the church mirrors the community of persons within the Godhead.  

I will share more in the future, but I wanted to share this definition to stimulate some conversation.  

Friday, March 28, 2014

The Niebuhr Brothers for Armchair Theologians (Scott Paeth) -- Review

THE NIEBUHR BROTHERS FOR ARMCHAIR THEOLOGIANS.  By Scott R. Paeth.  Illustrations by Ron Hill.  Louisville:  Westminster John Knox Press, 2014.  Xi + 200 pages.

                Typically, today, when the media goes looking for religious commentators they tend to bring on the likes of a Joel Osteen, a Rick Warren, or an Al Mohler.   There was a time, however, when theological giants played a significant role in public life.   Among the giants at the mid-point of the twentieth century were two brothers, whose influence continues to be felt to this day.  Would that there were theologians of the public stature of Reinhold and H. Richard Niebuhr today!  We’re fortunate, however, that the voices of the two Niebuhr Brothers continue to make themselves heard today – and not just because of the use of the Serenity Prayer by Twelve Step Programs. 

                The many books that the two brothers wrote, along with numerous interpretive works, allow us to delve into their thoughts on matters theological, religious, cultural and societal.  As we engage their work we’re reminded that the Christian faith has a public voice that can and should contribute to the common good. 

Among these interpretive works that help us engage with the thought of the Niebuhr Brothers is the recently published contribution to Westminster John Knox’s Armchair Theologians series.  These books are designed to introduce important theologians and their ideas to the general public.  The books are designed to be introductory, but they are written by first class theologians.  In the case of the Niebuhr Brothers, our companion is Scott R. Paeth, associate professor of religious studies at Chicago’s DePaul University.  And as with the other contributions to this series, the book includes the wonderfully illuminating illustrations of Ron Hill.  These illustrations are not a diversion; they offer visual insights that stimulate the conversation. 

                What makes this book unique is the decision – either by Scott Paeth or the editors at WJK Press -- to read the work of Reinhold and Richard together.  Although they followed similar paths to their professional careers, over the course of time they diverged in their perspectives.  Both men focused on social ethics and the role of religion in public life, but they at things quite differently. 

Children of an Evangelical Synod pastor, they both attended Elmhurst College, Eden Seminary, and Yale Divinity School.  At Yale the two brothers studied with theologian and social ethicist D.C. Macintosh.  Although they had the same mentor, their research choices seem to presage their divergent views.  Reinhold chose to focus on William James and pragmatism, while Richard chose to study Ernst Troeltsch and his sociological focus on religious identity.   From Yale, Reinhold went to Detroit to serve as pastor of Bethel Evangelical Church without finishing his Ph.D.  Richard finished his Ph.D., and while he served as a pastor in St. Louis, he almost immediately went into teaching and academic administration – serving as President of Elmhurst College and Dean at Eden Seminary, before moving finally to Yale.  Reinhold, despite lacking a Ph.D., moved from his position in Detroit to Union Theological Seminary.  In many ways it was the years in Detroit that helped frame Reinhold’s activist vision of the church in society.

             The journey continues onward until their deaths and then beyond to their influence on theological conversation today.  Indeed, in his introduction, Paeth notes that “their influence underlies many of the debates  that have taken place in the decades since their deaths, and theologians of every stripe have at one point or another had to contend with some dimension of their thought, either resisting or adopting it, and sometimes adopting it while claiming to resist it” (p. x). 

            While the two brothers will end up taking different paths, both were deeply committed to the premise that the church should be active in the world.  Both men had socialist sympathies, even though Reinhold came to an adamant anti-Communist position after the end of World War II.  Although many Americans have difficulty separating out socialism from communism, he made a clear distinction between the two.  It should be no surprise that the FBI kept a file on him.  Reinhold’s activism can be seen emerging during the thirteen years that he served as a pastor in Detroit (1915-1928).  He became an active supporter of the labor movement and decried the inaction on the part of clergy (that would presumably include the founding pastor of the church I now serve) in support of this movement. 

Labels always break down.  In many ways the two brothers were theological and political liberals, and yet both were highly critical of the liberalism of their day.  This led to their being lumped in with neo-orthodoxy, though neither of them was influenced by Barth and the dialectical theologians.  What they objected to was the overly optimistic vision of humankind that undergirded the Social Gospel Movement.  This was especially true for Reinhold, who grew frustrated with a naïve idealism that seemed to enable passivity in the face of the real challenges facing the people they serve.  Thus, Reinhold develops what came to be known as Christian Realism.  Richard wasn’t nearly the activist as his brother and stood back from endorsing American involvement in World War II.  Still, Richard, in Christ and Culture seemed to favor the vision of Christ transforming Culture.  Both brothers were aware of and incorporated in their work a sense of human sin and frailty.  It’s not that they didn’t believe that humans have a capacity for doing good, but even at our best, we will not achieve the fullness of God’s vision in this life.  This is one of the reasons why they broke with the Social Gospel.  To Reinhold, for instance, the Social Gospel rested on a naïve idealism that assumed that change could simply come from Christian sources appealing to hearts and minds, without coercion.  It is no wonder that Edgar DeWitt Jones, a social gospeler, saw Niebuhr as a radical.  Niebuhr didn’t believe that you could bring change by remaining above the fray.     

                Paeth takes us through the entire corpus of the writings of the two brothers, showing the influences on their work, and more importantly the influences that they imparted to others.  We learn of their differences especially regarding entrance into World War II.  While both were nervous about Hitler, Richard cautioned neutrality, while Reinhold would relatively quickly embrace the war effort, believing that only force could stop Hitler.   We also learn about the challenges faced both brothers as they grew older.  Despite their influence, both dealt with bouts of depression.  And Reinhold dealt with the effects of a stroke during the last decade of his life.  Still, both men kept writing almost to the end.    

                Richard died in 1962 and Reinhold in 1973.  It has been four decades since Reinhold’s death, but the two brothers remain giants – not only in the field of theology but in their witness to the church in its public presence.  Both have their critics.  For instance Richard was criticized for committing “theocide” because his vision of “radical monotheism” seemed to limit creative engagement with the divine. He was also critiqued for failing to develop a method of discerning proper social choices in his moral theology.  Then there was the perception that in his analysis of Christ and Culture he seemed to stack the deck in favor of the conversionist/transformationist model.   As for Reinhold, some criticized him for not being sufficiently Christian – working with a religious naturalism.  Feminists critique his conception of sin as pride.  For feminists this has more masculine implications than for women who have been kept in a submissive position by society.  James Cone, among others, criticized Reinhold for not more fully embracing the Civil Rights Movement, even though his theology and social ethic influenced Martin Luther King. 

                While critiqued by Stanley Hauerwas and John Howard Yoder, Richard’s concept of the church as a community distinct from the worldly order influenced their own conceptions of the church as a distinct community.  As for Reinhold, his greatest influence may be as a model of what it means to be a public theologian.  Interestingly, one who has been deeply influenced by Reinhold’s ideas of what it means to be a person of faith in public life is the current President – Barack Obama. Although some on the right have claimed Reinhold as one of their own because of his anti-communist stands and vision of a robust American presence in foreign policy, his political home was on the left.  He was deeply disturbed by the presidencies of Dwight Eisenhower and Richard Nixon.  He was a strong supporter of labor and opposed the Vietnam War. 

                This is a book whose time has come.  It is readable and thought provoking.  And for its brevity, it is packed with valuable insight into the development of their thought.  Because of the way Scott Paeth wrote the book, this makes for an excellent entrée into the thought of these two influential theologians.  But don't be deceived, this isn't Niebuhr lite.  As one who has found the work of both brothers to be influential on my own theology, I found the book very helpful in developing a fuller picture of their context and visions.   As one who believes that the church should have a public presence – religion is personal but not private (or shouldn’t be in my mind) -- my hope is that this book will be widely read, for the Brothers Niebuhr have much to teach us.  Therefore, we can be grateful to Scott Paeth and Ron Hill for their excellent introduction. 

Demystifying Catholic Sisters in a Digital Age -- Sightings

For Protestants the idea of becoming a nun can seem like an odd life choice, especially if one chooses  one of the more contemplative orders that essentially remove a person from the broader world.  We respect them, but struggle with understanding them.  An effort called SisterStory has been undertaken to put this calling in a more positive -- cheerful light -- especially in an age when numbers of persons choosing this vocation is declining.  Monica Mercado affirms this story, but believes that this is only part of the story.  The story is, she insists, more complicated.  I invite you to take a read and offer your thoughts.

Demystifying Catholic Sisters in a Digital Age
Thursday | Mar 27 2014
                                                                                                                 Image Credit: max_thinks_sees / flickr
Earlier this month, the SisterStory project launched as part of the lead up to the first National Catholic Sisters Week (March 8-14). Organized by Minnesota’s St. Catherine University and funded by a major grant from the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation, SisterStory defines its purpose as a “connection hub and digital resource for women religious and those considering.” More broadly, it serves as a “national campaign aimed at broadening awareness of Catholic sisters.”

Visitors to the SisterStory homepage can read short biographies of “Sisters of Influence” and ask sisters to pray for their special intentions. Visitors are also encouraged to post oral histories of sisters in their local communities or simply to thank the women “who gently guided you.”

From SisterStory and associated websites, which include YouTube videos, one notices the decreasing number of women called to the religious life as well as the increasing comfort with social media among communities of women religious in the United States.

The websites welcome new subscribers with the tagline “demystifying Catholic sisters one tweet at a time.” A photo project called “Sister Shout Outs” asks Catholics to tweet a word that sums up what sisters mean to them. Hashtag #NCSW (for National Catholic Sisters Week) links to the Twitter feeds of women’s religious orders, including the Daughters of Charity and the Sisters of Mercy. Pinterest pages feature “I Love Nuns” logos and black and white images from Catholic archives.

The choice of March—aka Women’s History Month—for National Catholic Sisters Week is no coincidence. The significant work of Catholic sisters, and their lasting influence as institution builders, educators, and social service providers has long provided a fruitful starting point for many scholars researching women and religion.

It is precisely this vast history that makes the profiles featured by SisterStory curiously singular.

When the SisterStory project made a call for “uniquely interesting stories” to share with the media, they went on the hunt for “dynamic” older sisters facing their 80s or 90s, for mid-career sisters who had “unusual” vocations prior to entering the religious life, and for young sisters who could “speak to the joy of consecrated life.” In doing so, SisterStory disinvited stories of doubt, sacrifice, or hardship.

Can narratives emphasizing vitality and inspiration coexist with the real struggles many women religious face in their daily work? To date, the site and its partners have promoted an aggressively cheerful stance, one where sisters’ diverse experiences and leadership is cast in tones emphasizing, above all, a peppy girl power.  

The project’s underlying goal of “connecting sisters with young women” is, in some ways, at odds with the rich histories and sometimes-difficult experiences of Catholic sisters in contemporary American culture.

What else hasn’t been captured by SisterStory? In recent weeks, a number of media outlets have published reports about Catholic sisters in situations that required more than simply “gentle guidance” and kind words. For example, the court case of peace activist Sister Megan Rice, sentenced in February to thirty-five months in prison for breaking into a storage bunker on a nuclear facility in Tennessee, made national news. A profile by Al Jazeera America of another Sister’s secret ministry to transgender Catholics went viral, highlighting the commitment of women to ministry that the Church hierarchy considers far too radical. And historian Shannen Dee Williams’ groundbreaking research on black Catholic women’s vocations noted that her subjects “remain among the most invisible and elusive figures in U.S. Catholic history.”

Undeniably, SisterStory is good public relations for American sisters, particularly in the wake of the still-unresolved Vatican investigations of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious—the Vatican has scrutinized every move by American sisters over the past several years, criticizing perceived progressive and feminist agendas. Moreover, SisterStory, with its embrace of social media and creation of a digital hub for collecting new narratives of an aging population of nuns undoubtedly heralds a new era in the recruitment of younger women.

But there is no single SisterStory. In bearing witness to the “good works and good will of Catholic sisters,” the project masks as much as it reveals.

To celebrate Catholic sisters, we might resolve to tell many stories, not just one.



Capecchi, Christina. "Let’s Hear it For the Nuns!” Huffington Post, March 8, 2014, The Blog.

Schneider, Nathan. "A Nun's Secret Ministry Brings Hope to Transgender Community." Al Jazeera, March 2, 2014, America.

Shannen Dee Williams, "Celebrating Unsung Black Catholic Women in US History." U.S. Catholic, February 24, 2014, Blog.

"Nun, 84, Sentenced to 35 Months for Nuclear Break-In." CNN, February 19, 2014.

Image Credit: max_thinks_sees / flickr

To read previous issues of Sightings, visit:
Author, Monica L. Mercado, is a Ph.D. Candidate in the Department of History at the University of Chicago and a 2013-2014 Junior Fellow in the Marty Center. In July 2014, she will join Bryn Mawr College as Director of The Albert M. Greenfield Digital Center for the History of Women’s Education.

Editor, Myriam Renaud, is a Ph.D. Candidate in Theology at the University of Chicago Divinity School. She is co-organizing a conference, April 9-11, 2014: "God: Theological Accounts and Ethical Possibilities," at the University of Chicago Divinity School (mostly funded by the Marty Center and free to the public). For more information, visit:
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Thursday, March 27, 2014

“Forgive Us Our Xenophobia” -- Alternative Lectionary for Lent 5 (David Ackerman)

As we inch closer to the end of our Lenten journey, David Ackerman in his Beyond the Lectionary materials invites us to wrestle with our place in the world.  The reading from Deuteronomy seemingly provides divine authorization for ethnic cleansing.  In a world where such actions are being perpetrated in the name of religion or national identity, how should we respond.  In the reading from Romans, we're faced with Paul's guidelines for relating to the state -- at a time of increasing anti-government sentiment in the United States, how should we understand the role of the state.  Then finally, in the Gospel reading, Jesus speaks of false Messiahs.  Who in our midst are the false Messiahs?  Can we invest in people expectations that create at least in our mind a false idol?  These are important conversations to take up as we seek to follow Jesus in a complicated and -- can we say -- fallen world?  (My Niebuhrian side is coming out here).  I invite you to consider these readings as you journey through Lent as pilgrim or as preacher. 


Lent 5

“Forgive Us Our Xenophobia”

Call to Worship:  Psalm 141:1-4 NRSV

One:  I call upon you, O Lord; come quickly to me; give ear to my voice when I call to you. 
Many:  Let my prayer be counted as incense before you, and the lifting up of my hands as an evening sacrifice.
 One:  Set a guard over my mouth, O Lord; keep watch over the door of my lips.
 Many:  Do not turn my heart to any evil, to busy myself with wicked deeds in company with those who work iniquity; do not let me eat of their delicacies.

Gathering Prayer:  We continue to come in this holy season to wrestle with some of the most painful realities of our past and present.  As we worship you today, help us to work for a future where love and inclusivity triumph over imagined claims to purity and righteousness.

Confession:  As we draw closer to the cross, God, we continue to repent of the ways that we have misused your scriptures to abuse others.  When we think about the violence that we have perpetrated against others simply because they were different or were not “part of us,” our hearts are grieved to the core.  Forgive us the wrongs we have committed against our brothers and sisters because we were ignorant and too focused on ourselves.

Assurance of Forgiveness:  God frees us from the sins of yesterday so we may work for God’s realm today.  Let us do so, trusting in the promise God gives us of a blessed tomorrow.

Scriptures:      Deuteronomy 7:1-5 – “Destroy Them”
Romans 13:1-7 – “Be Subject to Authorities”
Mark 13:21-23 --  “False Messiahs Will Appear”

Commentaries and sermon ideas are available in Beyond the Lectionary.

Reflection Questions:

  • The author of Deuteronomy 7 calls for the annihilation of the Gentile people who inhabit the Promised Land.  What concerns does the Biblical writer mention that would provoke a commandment like this?  What do we make of such language today?  In a world of terror and ongoing violence, do you think that preachers should speak against these verses in deference to other Biblical values such as inclusivity, justice, and peace?  How may we prevent a “backlash” of anti-Semitism from those who would misuse these verses to justify hatred against Jewish people?
  •  In Romans 13, Paul calls for Christians to “be subject” to civic authorities.  Do you find his justification on behalf of ruling authorities to be convincing?  If Christians are faced with unjust laws, do you think that they should timidly defer because “whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed” (v 2)?  How do you think this passage was used during the Holocaust, and can you see it being used today to justify a totalitarian state?  Should Christians’ relationships to the state be as simple as Paul seems to suggest here, or is the situation really more complicated?
  • How does Jesus’ call in Mark 13 to be on the lookout for false messiahs fit with the other readings for today?  Do you envision the true messiah as a militaristic or political leader who rules by the power of force?  How is Jesus’ ministry different from such an image?
  • In an age of terror, war, and genocide where people are afraid of “others” who are “different” why do you think it is important for Christians to take a long look at passages like these?  Can we look at them honestly in their context before recklessly applying them to our world today?

Prayer of Thanksgiving:  As hard as it is to acknowledge our sins before you, we thank you, God, that in you we find genuine grace and mercy.

Benediction:  As a people assured by the good news of God’s grace, let us go now to do the constructive work of proclaiming the realm of God in our world.  Amen.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

End of Elite Denominational Headquarters -- Sightings (Martin Marty)

Those of us engaged in denominational churches have witnessed downsizing of our judicatories -- national and regional.  Staffs have shrunk and buildings have become more a liability than a help.  There are a myriad of reasons why this happens, some are financial and some are logistic.  In this essay, Martin Marty offers his own insight into these trends.  I invite you to offer your thoughts not only on the edifices but the extra-congregational structures that they represent in relationship to the mission of the church.   

End of Elite Denominational Headquarters
Monday | Mar 24 2014
UUA Headquarters seen from Massachussetts State House grounds     Image: Chris Walton / flickr
Chapels, churches, synagogues, cathedrals and other buildings are often the most visible and stable signs that religious institutions exist. Urban landscapes are still marked by the steeples of downtown churches; suburbs still boast edifices surrounded by green acreage and topped by towers. Change has come to thousands of these because of demographic shifts and changes in ways of life.

Less noticed has been the changing fate of buildings known by the code-name “Headquarters,” which serve denominations, dioceses, synods, conventions, and other religious extra-local agencies.

Thanks to Michael Paulson in The New York Times (March 15, 2014) and the scholarship of James Hudnut-Beumler of Vanderbilt University, we have an update on the downsizing and relocation of these “Headquarters.” Both authors focus first on the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA), whose buildings were edificial parentheses around the Massachusetts State House atop Beacon Hill in Boston. They are being sold, as the UUA replants itself in an “innovation district” in South Boston.

Paulson takes readers (see the source, below) on a tour of many abandonments of strategically situated, prestigious, prime sites as denominations scurry to relocate in affordable, unostentatious practical locations and buildings.

The Times headline says that denominations’ “downsizing and selling assets” occurs in a “more secular era,” and that we must reckon with era-change, ambiguous as it may be. But we can read other things into and out of the change.

Once upon a time, from the UUA on down, “Headquarters” buildings were statements of power: “Look! We are important! ‘Notice us!’” But just as cathedrals don’t tower in an age of skyscrapers, so impressive-looking headquarters no longer draw notice. And “secularization” is only part of the reason for this change.

When we look at secular analogues, we see that newspaper and other publishing empires are down-sizing for many reasons, including digitalization and the demands and opportunities that come with the internet. Today denominational and agency business is largely transacted in ways that permit employees to work from home, committees to meet by Skype, Conference Call, and other digital means. Many in the “secular” public make up their minds about the power and value of religious works and workings not based on images of huge Interchurch Centers or denominational Power Houses, but based on what they do.

The major exception to the “bowl-‘em-over,” dedicated-to-the-religious-service-of-publics approach, is often evidenced in some “megachurch” campuses and complexes. (Christian charity impels me to say that some of the sprawl of these results from the fact that at present much goes on in many of them—who am I to judge?—but as we read the accounts of the rise and fall of empires on this front, we find reason to withhold awe.)

Planners in religious agencies may regret turning the key to close the Big House doors for the last time, but wise planners are using their skills and energies to advance their work through non-elite, less-strategically-located bases of operation.

Readers who support a variety of religious organizations that seek to serve through efficient means are unable to locate the headquarters of most of these. These readers tend to get their sense of beauty and awe from their effective works and their awareness of the lives they change.


Paulson, Michael. “Denominations Downsizing and Selling Assets in More Secular Era.” New York Times, March 15, 2014, U.S.

Deakin, Michelle Bates. "UUA to purchase new Boston Headquarters." UU World, March 15, 2013.

Image Credit: Chris Walton / flickr

To read previous issues of Sightings, visit
Author, Martin E. Marty, is the Fairfax M. Cone Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus of the History of Modern Christianity at the University of Chicago Divinity School. His biography, publications, and contact information can be found at

Editor, Myriam Renaud, is a Ph.D. Candidate in Theology at the University of Chicago Divinity School. She is co-organizing a conference, April 9-11, 2014: "God: Theological Accounts and Ethical Possibilities," at the University of Chicago Divinity School (mostly funded by the Marty Center and free to the public). For more information, visit:
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