Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Topsy-turvy Theological Arts -- Sightings (Martin Marty)

When religion hits the news, it's usually focused on bad news -- a scandal of some sort. But with Christmas just behind us and the New Year right in front of us (tomorrow), Martin Marty shares some good news. The news concerns the actions of LaSalle Street Church in Chicago, which recently received a considerable sum of money, a portion of which was given to members ($500) each to use as they saw fit. They could keep it or use it to fund causes or projects of their choice, or even reverse the reverse and sign it back to the church. This unique act was highlighted in a Chicago Tribune article, and Martin Marty thought it worth sharing with us -- so take a read and remember that religion isn't completely evil!! 

Topsy-turvy Theological Acts
Monday | Dec 29 2014
Laura Truax (r. center), LaSalle Street Church, Dec. 2014   Image: Nancy Stone / Chicago Tribune
We did not have to squint or wear spectacles to sight this top-of-the-front-page headline on Christmas-past (four days ago!) “Tithing in Reverse” (Chicago Tribune). If something in the world is going the wrong way, putting or viewing it in reverse can be a good option. This story was an instance. It told the story of a place called LaSalle Street Church, a non-denominational congregation in Chicago, and its pastor, the Rev. Laura Truax.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

A Short World History of Christianity (Robert Bruce Mullin) -- Review

A SHORT WORLD HISTORY OF CHRISTIANITY, Revised Edition. By Robert Bruce Mullin.  Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2014.  Xiv + 349 pages.

                The story of Christianity is incredibly complex.  It is a religion with roots in Judaism, but quickly evolved from those roots as it moved out across the globe engaging new contexts and cultures.   As it expanded the center moved from Jerusalem to Greco-Roman cities such as Antioch and Alexandria, which became centers of theological formulation in their own right.  We cannot forget Rome, though its influence came later.   While it quickly found a home in the Roman Empire, it also followed trade routes to lands as far off as China and India.  Eventually, as theological rivalries weakened the eastern heartland, the center would move west to Rome, France, Germany and Great Britain and north to Russia.  While vital churches emerged in places like Armenia, Persia, Ethiopia, and India – many the result of missionary efforts by churches deemed heretical by Constantinople and Rome – the later expansion of Christianity across the globe would come from Rome and the West.  First Catholic missions and much later Protestant ones, often following European colonizers.

                Telling this story can be daunting.   Historians such as Kenneth Scott Latourette have devoted thousands of pages telling the story.  In recent years we have witnessed the publication of Diarmaid MacCulloch’s A History of Christianity, a wonderfully written comprehensive history that comes in at just over 1000 pages, and Diana Butler Bass’s A People’s History of Christianity, which offers a social history less focused on persons and doctrines and more on practices.   Robert Bruce Mullin, a professor of History and World Mission at General Theological Seminary (Episcopal), offers us a more concise narrative history (just over 300 pages) that hearkens back to that written a generation earlier by Martin Marty. This new volume is a revision of an earlier edition published in 2008 – a volume that I have not read.  According to the author, this new edition allowed him to correct errors in the first edition, and add a chapter on twenty-first century trends in world Christianity.  

Monday, December 29, 2014

Close to the Father’s Heart -- Lectionary Reflection for Christmas 2B

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.

10 He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. 11 He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him.12 But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, 13 who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.

14 And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth. 15 (John testified to him and cried out, “This was he of whom I said, ‘He who comes after me ranks ahead of me because he was before me.’”) 16 From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. 17 The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. 18 No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.

                No one has seen God.  So, how do you know that God exists?  All manner of effort has been undertaken to answer that question, often using philosophical speculation to find the answer, from Anselm’s “Ontological Proof” to Aquinas’ “First Cause.”  But what does philosophical speculation get you?  Consider Anselm’s proof:  “So true is it that there exists something than which a greater is inconceivable, that its non-existence is inconceivable: and this thing art Thou, O Lord our God!”  [“Proslogion,” Bettenson, Documents of the Christian Church, 3rd ed., p. 151].  God is that which none greater can be conceived, and this, according to Anselm requires existence.  But surely there is more to God than this.

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Refreshed With Praise -- Sermon for Christmas 1B

Psalm 148

Just a few days ago many of us opened presents that were laid out under a tree or perhaps hanging in a stocking.  So, here’s my question – when you were opening gifts did you show proper gratitude?  Were you exuberant in your declarations or did you mumble a word of thanks, even as you were thinking – “I'm not sure what to do with this sweater? There is a reason why it’s easier to give a gift card than pick out a gift.  Even if you have a list, you could come home with the wrong thing, and that doesn’t lead to much happiness on the part of the recipient!  

Parents often require their children to say thank you for gifts received.  Call Grandma, we tell them, and tell her how much you love that sweater she knitted for you.  You know, the sweater you wouldn’t be caught dead wearing outside your bedroom.  But whether you liked the gift or not you have to muster enough enthusiasm to thank the giver. 

Saying thanks for gifts seems to be something of a lost art in recent years.  Maybe that’s because we don’t send as many cards and letters as before.  But gift givers do enjoy receiving a word of thanks – especially if they’ve gone to some trouble in picking out just the right gift.  It could be an email or a Facebook message or even a text – but some word of thanks is greatly appreciated. 

Saturday, December 27, 2014

The Mystery of the Incarnation

This is the mystery of the incarnation.  Though we may try, no one has been able to completely understand how God could become a human being.  It is beyond human comprehension, but it is true nonetheless.  Pope John Paul II described this event in sacramental terms, with Jesus being the "Sacrament of the Invisible God  -- a sacrament that indicates presence.  God is with us.  God, infinitely perfect, is not only with man, but he Himself became a man in Jesus Christ" [John Paul II, Crossing the Threshold of Hope, (NY:  Alfred A. Knopf, 1994), 7].  If Jesus is the sacrament of the invisible God, then in his life and work we see the invisible God revealed.  This is what Christmas is all about.

Matthew doesn't tell us anything about stables or shepherds.  We must turn to Luke to find these details.  Matthew does, however, show us how scandalous this birth really was.  Joseph was on the verge of putting his wife away, since they were not yet married and she was pregnant.  This isn't they way you would expect God to reveal himself.  Even if God didn't choose to make a grand entrance, you would at least expect him not to cause a scandal.   Yet, as William Willimon points out, "when  God is with us, God is not with us in placid, nondisruptive ways.  God's intrusions among us cause consternation and difficulty"  [ William Willimon, "Unto Us a Child," in Pulpit Resource, 26 (Oct., Nov., Dec. 1998): 47.]   Yes, this was a most unusual birth, but it was a birth that changed history.    

Friday, December 26, 2014

God in Flesh and Blood

It's the day after Christmas.  After a month of non-stop activity you might be sitting back and doing not much of anything today.  Of course you might be out taking advantage of the after-Christmas sales (or returning gifts that simply don't suit you very well (that's the beauty of gift-cards).  So maybe it's time to turn our thoughts to other holidays, except that the liturgical year still demands that we keep focused on this Christmas story.  

The New Testament is largely mute on the question of Jesus' origins.  Just two canonical gospels share infancy narratives, and Paul  says nothing about a birth.  The Gospel of John doesn't have an infancy narrative per se, but he does declare that the Word of God became flesh and dwelt among us.  That seems good enough for me.  God became flesh and dwelt among us and we have seen his glory, the glory of father's only son (John 1:14).

So this morning as we contemplate the meaning of Christmas -- that God is somehow present in Jesus, so that we might see in this person of flesh and blood the fullness of deity -- I leave you with a word from Karl Barth, a theologian of the Word.

Thus the reality of Jesus Christ is that God himself in person is actively present in the flesh.  God Himself in person is the Subject of a real human being and acting. And just because God is the Subject of it, this being and acting are real.  They are genuinely and truly human being and acting.  Jesus Christ  is not a demigod.  He is not an angel.  Nor is He an ideal man.  He is a man as we are, equal to us as a creature, as a human individual, but also equal to us in the sate and condition into which our disobedience has brought us.  And in being what we are He is God's Word.  Thus as one of us, yet the one of us who is Himself God's Word in person, He represents God to us and He represents us to God.  In this way He is God's revelation to us and our reconciliation with God.  (Church Dogmatics The Doctrine of the Word of God, Volume 1, Part 2: The Revelation of God; Holy Scripture: The Proclamation of the Church, 151).    
The mystery of the incarnation is the revealing of God to the creation in flesh and blood, sharing our existence, feeling our feelings, suffering our pain and anguish, that we might be drawn up into union with God.  Yes, the Word of God has become Flesh and Blood and dwelt among us.  

Merry Christmas!

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Responding to Christ’s Glory -- A Sermon for Christmas Eve 2014

Psalm 96

There’s something about Christmas songs that stir the soul.  Although we’ve been judicious here at church with our Christmas songs during Advent, I know that lots of Christmas music has been in the air.  Some of the radio stations have been offering nonstop Christmas songs since before Thanksgiving.  There’s a reason for that – if you haven’t done all your Christmas shopping on Thanksgiving Day, after you've heard Bing sing White Christmas a few dozen times, then you know that you should get busy!  

When it comes to Christmas music, we all have our favorites, from Jingle Bells to Silent Night, from Angels We Have Heard on High to Frosty the Snowman.  When some of us went to Woodward Hills and Chester Street earlier this month to sing carols, we shared the more sacred carols, though we did sing “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” at the end of our time at Chester Street.  Although we did provide songbooks, many of the participants sang at least the first verse of the songs from memory.  That’s because we’ve been singing them all our lives. 

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Post-War on Christmas -- Sightings (Martin Marty)

It is Christmas Eve.  For me and my family the day will punctuated by participation in our congregation's Christmas Eve service. I of course will have a part to play in the service -- being that I am the preacher.  In doing this I will do my part in affirming the "religio" part of the Christmas event.  But as we all know Christmas isn't just a religious holy day, it is also a secular holiday.  Apparently Bill O'Reilly has declared the War on Christmas to be over -- but from all signs it appears that the secular side of the coin may have the upper hand.  White Christmas and Rudolph more likely will grab our attention than the Babe lying in the Manger.  But if that is so, especially for those who have some connection to the faith, well we have only ourselves to blame.  In any case, Martin Marty offers us a postmortem on the post-War on Christmas.  Take a read!  And of course, Have a Merry Christmas!  


Post-War on Christmas
Monday | Dec 22 2014
                                                                                                       Image Credit: Anneka /
Now that the “War on Christmas” is over—its publicist, Fox News Bill O’Reilly, announced this finding last week—we can survey the post-war terrain. We consider it to be one episode in the ongoing unfolding of what Sightings keeps citing as a “religio-secular” culture. The “secular” pole owes less to a-theists Darwin-Marx-Nietsche-Freud or Dawkins-Hitchens-Harris than to the billions of particulars that go into messy daily life. The “religio-“ side is also messy, a fact that needs no documenting here.

So what do we make of the vestiges of religion in one of those billions, our particular local calendar for the holidays? Donald Liebenson in the (Dec. 18, 2014) Chicago Tribune asked a number of “notable Chicagoans and visiting artists” what they turn to “each year to get into the holiday spirit.” Samples: the president/CEO of the Chicago Blackhawks hockey team favors “‘National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation’…a hilarious depiction.” The chief marketing officer of the Walter E. Smithe company: “Unanimously, the Smithe brothers’ favorite is ‘Hardcock, Coco and Joe.’” Move over, Magi.

Actress Lisa Gaye Dixon? “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” etc. Chef Rick Bayless, “The Santaland Diaries.” Actor Scott Jaeck will visit in-laws at a nursing facility on Christmas Day and will screen “that holiday classic, ‘The Godfather.’” A WBBM meteorologist: “We [also] watch ‘National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation’ every year.”

Julia Sweeney, former “Saturday Night Live” star, watches “‘The Shop Around the Corner’…a humanist film about the power of love.” Jarrett Payton, son of “Number 34” football great Walter Payton who tried to sneak in “‘The Miracle on 34th Street’ because of the ‘34,’” “grew up with ‘Home Alone’ and ‘Home Alone 2.’” Several mentioned the film “It’s a Wonderful Life.”

Finally, Bruce Wolf, a co-host on a WLS-AM show brings in religion as conventionally conceived: “I can say that I love all the Christmas songs written by Jews that don’t mention Jesus, ‘White Christmas’ and ‘The Christmas Song,” but continues the religio-secular streak with “Heck, I like the religious ones too.” Wolfe’s was the only response that mentioned Jesus, who is sometimes associated with Christmas.

Christ-mass carols, Hanukah songs, and other celebrations that are anchored in stories of people of faith don’t stand much of a chance, even if they are evocative of vestigial reminiscences of at least marginally religious phenomena. But let’s balance the portrayal I’ve just produced: Our newspapers and other media also advertise, promote, review, and often glory in very specifically faith-based, faith-connected works of art. Calendars in the Chicago papers publicize a score and more of Messiahs and “Masses” and “Ceremony of Carols” performances and broadcasts, which offer those who care about “the stories” behind the above mentioned favorites plenty on which to thrive.

If Chicagoans don’t take advantage of these specifically and articulately religious, in this case, Christian expressions, and they are overlooked, side-lined, displaced, or even derided, it’s not mainly because of some trumped up and politically-motivated “War on Christmas.” Credit, or blame, instead, the changes in habits and the choices made by the celebrating public and their select celebrities.

And please don’t write Sightings off as being a Reilly-like crab. Instead, amid stories of flickering lamps, a stable, a fatigued new mother, bewildered wise men, and an angry monarch—in other words, our real world—we will utter a secular benediction, in a line stolen from the title of one of the most favored seasonal songs in the surveys we quoted: Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.


Liebenson, Donald. “Well known Chicagoans name their holiday family classics.”Chicago Tribune, December 18, 2014, Entertainment.

Image Credit: Anneka / shutterstock.

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

To comment, email the Editor, Myriam Renaud, at
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Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Dedication Day -- Lectionary Reflection for Christmas 1B

Luke 2:22-40 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

22 When the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord 23 (as it is written in the law of the Lord, “Every firstborn male shall be designated as holy to the Lord”), 24 and they offered a sacrifice according to what is stated in the law of the Lord, “a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons.”

25 Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon; this man was righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him. 26 It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. 27 Guided by the Spirit, Simeon came into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him what was customary under the law, 28 Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying,

29 “Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace,
    according to your word;
30 for my eyes have seen your salvation,
31     which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,
32 a light for revelation to the Gentiles
    and for glory to your people Israel.”

33 And the child’s father and mother were amazed at what was being said about him. 34 Then Simeon blessed them and said to his mother Mary, “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed 35 so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too.”

Monday, December 22, 2014

Worship with Gladness (Joyce Ann Zimmerman) -- A Review

WORSHIP WITH GLADNESS: Understanding Worship from the Heart (Calvin Institute of Christian Worship (CICW))By Joyce Ann Zimmerman.  Grand Rapids:  Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2014.  Xvii + 163 pages.

                What is worship? That is a difficult question to answer, but it’s a question that those of us involved in worship planning, especially clergy, regularly wrestle with.  The way we approach the question often is determined by the concerns of the hour.  When we deal with the question it is tempting to either through up our hands at say the worship has something to do with spirit (John 4:24) or we jump and focus on the nuts and bolts and the mechanics.

                One who has had to deal with such questions is Joyce Ann Zimmerman, a Roman Catholic theologian and director of the Institute for Liturgical Ministry in Dayton, Ohio.    Besides her work with this Catholic agency, she has a long standing relationship with the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship and its Vital Worship grants provided to congregations.  Applicants in this program had been asked to define "authentic worship," as part of the process.  Reflecting on the answers given to that question, she noticed that one scripture text was referred to quite regularly was John 4:24.  The assumption being that authentic worship must be spiritual, but that only gets you so far.  Once the word “authentic” was dropped, the occurrences of references to John 4 also dropped, and the answers became more varied.  From then on responses included references to thanksgiving, praise, and glory.  Indeed, respondents lifted up God’s presence and encounters of God as being key elements of worship. 

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Reviving Love -- A Sermon for Advent 4B

Psalm 89:1-4, 19-26

We have reached the end of our Advent journey.  On Wednesday evening we will light the Christ candle and celebrate the coming of the Rock of our salvation into the world. The advent of Jesus in the world fulfills the covenant promises God made with our spiritual ancestors.  
God covenanted with Abraham and Sarah, promising that their descendants would be a blessing to the world.  God covenanted with Moses to bring to bring order and purpose to the people of Israel.  God covenanted with David, promising, that his throne would be established for all generations.  Yes, as the Psalmist declares, this covenant is a sign of God’s “faithfulness to all generations”  (Psalm  89:1-4).

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Singing Songs of Justice with Mary

46 And Mary[a] said,

“My soul magnifies the Lord,
47     and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
48 for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
    Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
49 for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
    and holy is his name.
50 His mercy is for those who fear him
    from generation to generation.
51 He has shown strength with his arm;
    he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
52 He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
    and lifted up the lowly;
53 he has filled the hungry with good things,
    and sent the rich away empty.
54 He has helped his servant Israel,
    in remembrance of his mercy,
55 according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
    to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”

I am preaching from the 89th Psalm on this the Fourth Sunday of Advent. I have already shared my thoughts concerning the story of the annunciation to Mary.  The alternative to Psalm 89 in the lectionary is the Magnificat -- Mary's song of divine triumph over the powers of this world.  

As we near the Christmas observance, it is good to hear this message of divine justice.  As an avid watcher of the various versions of Charles Dickens' The Christmas Carol, I am quite aware of the message of that story -- that God will bring down the high and mighty and lift up the lowly.  Such is the focus of Mary's song.  So, may we go forward on the journey toward Christmas, with the message of of Mary's song on our hearts.  

Friday, December 19, 2014

Changing Our Mind (David P. Gushee) -- A Review

CHANGING OUR MIND:  A Call from America’s Leading Evangelical Ethics Scholar for Full Acceptance of LGBT Christians in the Church.  By David P. Gushee.  Canton, MI:  Read the Spirit Books, 2014.  Xxiii + 131 pages.

Until recently it was generally believed that one could not be both Christian and Gay.  After all, didn’t the Bible declare homosexuality to be a sin, and besides that doesn’t nature itself suggest that humans are designed for heterosexual coupling?  At least that had been the prevailing opinion.  Things have changed dramatically in recent years.  The status of the Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender (LGBT) community continues to be a vexing question for the church.   Many Christians continue to hold the line on the traditional views, while many others are challenging the traditional understanding.  In part this due to the fact that many good solid Bible-believing Jesus professing Christians have begun to come out of the closet.  As LGBT folks begin to come out of the closet we’ve discovered that they often are our siblings, our children, our neighbors, and even possibly our parents.  To say that the apple cart has been upset is to put it mildly.  The question is – now that the closet doors are opening, where will the church go?  Who will lead the way?

  Of course members of the LGBT community who are Christians are telling their story.  Books by Justin Lee and Jeff Chu are only two possibilities.  But some of the best advocates are evangelical Christians who seek to affirm the authority of Scripture while recognizing that the demands of the hour require that we take a different perspective on questions like this.  Among those who have taken up the challenge is David Gushee, one of the leading evangelical social ethicists in America, and author of my book of the year from a year ago -- The Sacredness of Human Life.  Gushee has a very strong evangelical pedigree, having taught at Southern Baptist Seminary and Union University before moving to McAfee School of Theology (Mercer University).  He has even written a book on marriage that defended traditional view that marriage is the union of a man and a woman (Getting Marriage Right, Baker, 2004).  In recent years, however, Gushee has had a change of mind and heart.  This is due in large part to his encounters with LGBT Christians and the coming out of his own sister.  The latter is an important factor, because many of us have come to the same change of heart due to the realization that one we love (in my case my younger brother) is gay. In Changing Our Mind, Gushee shares how this change occurred and offers his rationale for why the church as a whole should follow his lead. 

Thursday, December 18, 2014

The Authority of Scripture in a Postmodern Age (excerpt)

Over the past few centuries, both those who challenge the value of the Bible as a source of divine revelation and those who defend it have done so with the tools of the Enlightenment. Both sides of the debate believed they could ascertain the truth – either through historical criticism or through assumptions of historicity. As we take our journey of faith into the twenty-first century, many people both inside and outside the church believe that this earlier paradigm no longer works. If there is no certainty, can we still hope to hear the voice of God in an authoritative way in Scripture? That is, if the historical-critical method of biblical interpretation, which emerged during the modern era undermines claims of infallibility and inerrancy, how do we know when we’ve heard the divine voice in these texts we call Scripture? That is, for those of us living on the moderate to liberal side of the Christian spectrum, what authority does Scripture have for our lives?

Many years ago, as I struggled with these kinds of questions, I found help in the writings of Karl Barth. It was during seminary, when I took a seminar on Barth’s understanding of the Word of God, that I found a way between the Scylla and Charybdis of historical criticism and biblical authority. As I read through the first two volumes of the Church Dogmatics, as well as Barth’s more accessible Evangelical Theology: An Introduction Evangelical Theology, I discerned a path to a place where I could look to Scripture for a Word from God even though this Word was embedded within very human and culturally bound words.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Torture in America -- Sightings (Martin Marty)

Martin Marty writes in response to the release of the torture report, inviting us to do a bit of self-examination. Whether we like it or not, all of us need to examine our own motivations and understandings, that we might move forward. Americans have a tendency toward reveling in a sense of moral superiority, but events like this remind us that we too can perpetrate "gross evil."  Listening to some who seek to reconcile these actions with our American identity, it is clear that the only way to do this is avoid the term "torture."  Instead, as I heard one woman on NPR talk, we must carefully cling to the words "enhanced interrogation techniques."  Of course we can't end up wallowing in self-loathing, but we must be willing to recognize that we too are capable of such evil. I invite you to take and read and continue the conversation.

Torture in America
Monday | Dec 15 2014
                                                                                             Image Credit: Walter Kopplinger / shutterstock
A micro-second or two after the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence Report on CIA Torture was released, a maxi-predictable reaction occurred. It was subjected to partisan interpretations and transformed into self-serving weaponry. Is it possible to step back and try to see it in the larger context of American history and policy? Are there efforts to bring some sort of theological judgment to bear on what it revealed about the U.S.?

For me, the strongest effect may be to see what it suggests about the “bad” and the “good” in national life in light of the current controversy. Each of us has his or her own way of dealing with its main themes.

With your permission or, for that matter, without it, let me propose an analogy between personal and national experiences. I’ll start, as Sightings seldom does, by looking not out the window but into the mirror of the self. A story: having engaged in some ornery activity when in theological school, I was typed—I heard this second-hand from a reliable source—as “too immature and irresponsible” to be entrusted with a solo flight into Christian ministry. I “needed seasoning” under some wise, mature, mentoring pastor. One was found, and I was launched with good grounding into a meaningful vocation.

In conversational counsel at get-acquainted time, the wise senior told me that I could never be an effective preacher or pastoral confessor if I was not able to put myself into the position of a confessing person “in the extreme.”  He said, “Know that you are vulnerable to committing every sin in the book.” I added: “. . . . except the really gross ones!” He corrected: “. . . including the really gross ones!”

Now, by analogy, we learned from the Senate's Report that our nation has to confront itself not as the always morally superior country, nor even one that blurred the line dividing “good America” from “bad America.” Now, we know that some in authority representing the United States, with sometimes grudging and sometimes enthusiastic approval, but approval nonetheless, perpetrated a “gross” evil against other humans—grossly, grossly evil though they themselves were seen to be.

Evading the reality of what Senators Feinstein and McCain and others, using a variety of terms, call a “stain” or an evil, will not serve. If we do not recognize the evil, we can learn from other (also often guilty) nations of the world, law, international agencies, people of conscience, religious voices, that we have to face the national depths through self-analysis. But awareness of this does not mean that as a nation we are simply burdened with the grossness of it all. We are not called to be masochistic confessors, virtuosos of self-loathing any more than self-glorying boasters.

Creative alternatives? While there may be theological imprecision in Abraham Lincoln’s image of this nation being touched “by the better angels of our nature,” it can be transformed into the language and expression of any number of religions or moral frameworks. Psychologist and social theorist Erich Fromm decades ago in The Art of Loving suggested that if we are nothing but self-loathers, we are incapable of effecting loving relations: who wants to be loved by such?

The historian of America in me that cowers in front of the mirror of our collective activities also beams to find too many examples of generosity, nobility, and dignity to be content with only one-sided descriptions of our common life, intentions, and record.

One may hope, at least with faint hope, that we will transcend the merely partisan reactions of our new day. If I say more, this will turn into a sermon, and, in my view, using a column in such a turn would be, if not a “gross evil” then at least a more than petty transgression.


Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. “Committee Study of the Central Intelligence Agency’s Detention and Interrogation Program.” New York Times, December 9, 2014, World.

“Reaction to CIA torture report.” USA Today, December 10, 2014, News.

Apuzzo, Matt, Haeyoun Park and Larry Buchanan. “Does Torture Work? The C.I.A.’s Claims and What the Committee Found.” New York Times, December 9, 2014, World Torture Report.

Fromm, Erich. The Art of Loving. New York: Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2006.

In this article, Kathleen O’Dwyer asks, with Erich Fromm, if we can learn how to love: O’Dwyer, Kathleen. “Is Love An Art?” Philosophy Now: a magazine of ideas, Nov/Dec 2014, Philosophy & Love.

Also of interest, philosopher Steven Pinker's book: The Better Angels of our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined (New York, New York Viking, 2011). For a summary of the book, visit:

Image: Walter Kopplinger / shutterstock.

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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

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