Friday, February 28, 2014

The Doniger Affair: Freedom of Scholarly Inquiry Takes an Ominous Turn in India -- Sightings

I h ave been watching the debate over the pulping of Wendy Doniger's book The Hindus by Penguin India, with curiosity and deep concern.  I have good friends who are Hindu-Americans.  I understand their desire to have their religion presented in a way that they recognize.  I would want that for my own faith. I also understand the feeling that Western scholars may not understand their faith from the inside and may impose perspectives they don't affirm.  At the same time, I'm concerned that there is within some of this response an anti-intellectualism that I see present in other faith traditions, including my own.  I've not read the book, so I can't comment on it.  That said, Wendy Doniger is a highly regarded scholar, having doctorates from Harvard and Oxford. She is on the faculty of one of America's leading research universities.  She's an expert in Sanskrit.  But she's not a Hindu.  Does the latter preclude her from interpreting a faith tradition not her own?

So, I share this essay from Sightings (published by the University of Chicago's Martin Marty Center).  I invite you to consider what the author has to say.  And to all people of faith, I need to ask -- is it necessary to be a believer to legitimately study a faith tradition?   

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The Doniger Affair: Freedom of Scholarly Inquiry Takes an Ominous Turn in India
by SUNIT SINGH
Thursday | Feb 27 2014
Professor Wendy Doniger                                                                                         Image Credit: Lokvani.com
Last month, the executives on the board of directors of Penguin India made the determination that it was best to settle an anti-defamation case that names the historian of religions, Wendy Doniger, as one of the defendants.

The lawsuit, filed in 2011 by a hitherto obscure conservative group, the Shiksha Bachao Andolan (SBA or the Campaign to Defend Education), insisted that Penguin India withdraw and destroy all of the available copies of Doniger’s The Hindus: An Alternative History(2009), on account of its putatively false and lurid depiction of Hinduism. Although Doniger herself reports, in a statement released online, that Penguin India was supportive behind the scenes, eventually, the board knuckled.

To say that the news of the settlement blindsided those of us who care about the study of Indian religions is to state the obvious. While serious readers will recognize that The Hindus is the kind of learned book that synthesizes a lifetime of concern with translation, comparison, and interpretation; a fundamental issue remains the applicability of colonial-era libel statutes upon which the lawsuit relies.

The news nevertheless left the Indian author, Arundhati Roy, to ask of Penguin India: “What are we to make of this?” Another commentator referred to the settlement as the “pulping of liberal India”—although one is tempted to ask, was there ever a liberal India? For liberal thought, in its classic 18th century formulation, was arguably late to arrive in India.

Part of what makes the situation so exasperating is that it is unclear whether the SBA acted alone, or whether it is a front for a national, caste-based, or local party. With national elections slated for this spring, it is difficult not to see the settlement as another omen portending the election of Narendra Modi as the candidate of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party. Modi, the Chief Minister of the western state of Gujarat, was indicted for his role in the appalling Hindu-Muslim violence witnessed in that state in 2002.

On Valentine’s Day (itself an object of ire for conservative Hindus), an editorial written in the Hindi edition of the newspaper with the widest circulation in India, Dainik Bhaskar, criticized the Indian intellectuals who had come out in support of Doniger. The editorial’s author, Ved Pratap Vaidik, linked Doniger to colonial-era Orientalists, who supposedly had a fascination with the antinomian aspects of the Hindu faith, at the expense of “the objective truth.”

Vaidik, parroting arguments made in fashionable academic circles, criticized the application of “western” categories of analysis and methods of inquiry to the study of India and compared Western academics who write about India to proselytizing Christian missionaries. Instead, Vaidik directs readers to the bourgeoisified or reformed Hinduism advocated by the late 19th century, neo-Hindu revivalist Dayanand Saraswati, and the nationalist-turned-cosmopolitan-spiritualist Aurobindo Ghose.

“Genuine freedom,” Vaidik suggests, requires a balanced stance that mediates the freedom of expression and the rights of those who might take offense. While stopping short of proposing that Doniger’s book be banned, Vaidik asked, “Does the right to express oneself extend to spewing opinions?”— a rhetorical flourish that, sadly, found sympathizers on Twitter.

But can there be a “balanced” stance on the issue of the right to freedom of expression and intellectual inquiry? And are scholars of religion, as Vaidik accuses, simply proffering “opinions” that can safely be ignored?

For what it is worth, the English media outlets in India are equally susceptible to equivocating about this issue of right, as is evident from their treatment of a number of similar cases going even further back than the late 1980s when a fatwa called upon Muslims to kill Salman Rushdie for writing The Satanic Verses. On the whole, by pitting sensitivity and tolerance against the right to intellectual inquiry and scholarly expression, much of the coverage on the Doniger Affair obfuscates more than it clarifies.

What is significant about this case is that the board acted peremptorily, even after Doniger judiciously edited the Indian version of The Hindus, in an effort to fend off “hurt” sentiments.One might metaphorically refer to the creeping self-imposition of this kind of caution by the publishing industry and academics since the Rushdie Affair as “the internalization of thefatwa.”

For the right of expression that applies to Rushdie, Taslima Nasrin (the Bangladeshi novelist forced into exile by Islamist groups after publishing Lajja in 1993), and the conservativeJyllands-Posten (the Danish newspaper that ran cartoons mocking Mohammad), is surely the same one that applies to Doniger and other scholars who venture beyond what the devout might themselves think about their faith.

The erosion of this right globally signals a crisis, the effects of which are especially evident in the marked deterioration of intellectual life in India, where The Hindus will simply be another book lost to an audience that is itself getting ever smaller.

Sources and Further Reading:

Roy, Arundhati. “A Letter to Penguin India,” The Times of India, February 13, 2014. http://articles.timesofindia.indiatimes.com/2014-02-13/india/47304287_1_arundhati-roy-publishers-writers.

Vaidik, Ved Pratap. “Freedom to Write Doesn’t Mean This,” Dainik Bhaskar, February 14, 2012. http://www.bhaskar.com/article/ABH-ved-pratap-vaidik-column-on-the-hindus-an-alternative-history-4521489-NOR.html.

Malik, Kenan. From Fatwa to Jihad: The Rushdie Affair and its Legacy, London: Atlantic Books, 2009.

Devji, Faisal. “Changing Contours of Censorship.” The Hindu, February 24, 2014.http://www.thehindu.com/todays-paper/tp-opinion/changing-contours-of-censorship/article5720626.ece.

Editorial Board. “Muzzling Speech in India,” New York Times, February 20, 2014. http://www.nytimes.com/2014/02/21/opinion/muzzling-speech-in-india.html?hp&rref=opinion&_r=0.

Malik, Ashok. “Wendy Doniger Failed Most by Her Publisher,” NDTV, February 12, 2014.http://www.ndtv.com/article/opinion/op-ed-wendy-doniger-failed-most-by-her-publisher-482364.

Shainin, Johnathan. “Why Free Speech Loses in India,” The New Yorker, February 14, 2014. http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/newsdesk/2014/02/wendy-doniger-free-speech-india.html.

Williams, John. “Author Resigned to Ill Fate of Book in India.” New York Times, February 16, 2014. http://www.nytimes.com/2014/02/17/books/author-resigned-to-ill-fate-of-book.html?_r=0.

To read previous issues of Sightings, visit: http://divinity.uchicago.edu/sightings-archive.
Author, Sunit Singh, is a Ph.D. Candidate in Anthropology and Sociology of Religion at the University of Chicago Divinity School. His dissertation focuses on the failed attempt to spark a socialist revolution in India in the midst of the First World War. He is a 2013-14 Junior Fellow in the Marty Center.

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: http://divinity.uchicago.edu/god-theological-accounts-and-ethical-possibilities.
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Thursday, February 27, 2014

We Want to See Jesus

I was reading through a book of sermons by one of my predecessors at Central Woodward Christian Church.  He was a highly regarded preacher in his day -- a national ecumenical leader -- Edgar DeWitt Jones.  I found this closing paragraph in a sermon entitled "Jesus -- an Unfinished Portrait" profound enough to want to share it.  It centers on the question posed to Philip, a disciple of Jesus, by a group of Greeks (that is Gentiles), who ask:  We want to see Jesus"  (John 12:20-21).   In the course of the sermon he speaks of the portraits offered by art, theology, ritual, and institutionalism.  All have offered a portrait, but all are incomplete, and at times obscure the true nature of Jesus.  Jones, closes, with this word:

The portrait of Jesus as exhibited in the character of those who have been captured by his spirit is the only Jesus the multitudes will ever see.  Theology is a closed book to millions; elaborate rituals have slight appeal to host upon host who "the straight, hard path have trod"; organizations, however high-powered, leave myriads cold.  But Jesus-like men and women, human beings who reflect the mind of Christ and possess his spirit, these in all verity are the light of the world and the salt of the earth.  Yet even this portrait of Jesus, yours and mine -- everybody's portrait of Jesus is unfinished.  [Blundering into Paradise, (NY: Harper & Brothers, 1932), p. 49.]
Albert Schweitzer noted that in the search for the historical Jesus, the seekers after this historical picture looked into a well and saw their own reflection.  Perhaps that is the way it should be -- when we look in a mirror, we see Jesus -- that is the making of a Christian.

**Note:  Portrait of Jesus is Holman Hunt's "Light of the World" at Keble College Chapel, Oxford.

Forgive Us Our Anti-Semitism -- Alternative Lectionary for Lent 1 (David Ackerman)


Christianity, unfortunately, has a horrific legacy of anti-Semitic/anti-Jewish activity.  Much of this is justified by appeal to Scripture.  Texts like the ones chosen for these readings by David Ackerman in his Beyond the Lectionary: A Year of Alternatives to the Revised Common Lectionary have powerful messages that can speak to us today, but because they also seem to encourage anti-Jewish sentiment they need to be read with great caution.  Texts like these rarely appear in the Revised Common Lectionary -- and you can see why -- but if we're willing to be wise in our interpretation we can hear a Word from God in these texts and avoid blaming the Jews in the course of our preaching and our study.  These texts require careful handling, and a recognition that we have been complicit, even if inadvertantly in these activities, but then that's part of the message of the Gospel reading from Matthew.

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Lent 1

“Forgive Us Our Anti-Semitism”

Call to Worship:  Psalm 25:16-18 NRSV

One:  Turn to me and be gracious to me, for I am lonely and afflicted.

Many:  Relieve the troubles of my heart, and bring me out of my distress.  Consider my affliction and my trouble, and forgive all my sins.

Gathering Prayer:  We come together today to turn to you.  We have done much wrong and perpetrated much injustice in your name.  Help us to look to you now so we might change our ways and do what we can to right the wrongs of the past.

Confession:  We confess, God, that we have harmed our Jewish brothers and sisters in so many ways.  We have misinterpreted the Bible to justify our own hatred and bigotry.  The legacy of our violence is painful for us, and we come to you today asking your forgiveness.  Transform us, so that we might work diligently to bring an end to anti-Semitism throughout our world.

Assurance:  God shows steadfast love and compassion to the chosen people of Israel, and out of love for us, God gives us mercy beyond our deserving.  Let us show our thanks to God by working for a world of justice and peace today.  Amen.

Scriptures:      Amos 2:4-8, 13-16 – “Judgment on Judah & Israel”
Galatians 5:2-12 – “Against the Pro-Circumcision Faction”
Matthew 23:27-36 – “Against Religious Leaders”

Commentaries and sermon ideas are available in Beyond the Lectionary.

Reflection Questions:


  • Amos 1:3-2:3 lists a series of judgments on nations.  These judgments rise to a crescendo with the words against Judah and Israel found in Amos 2:4-8.  They are not “G-rated”!  What do you think about these words, especially the indictment against Israel in Amos 2:13-16?  While this is an “in-house” judgment, how might some twist this to emphasize God’s wrath against the Jewish people?
  •  Galatians 5:2-12 contains more “adult-oriented” content.  Should such material be read in worship services?  Why or why not?  While Paul is speaking against people who insist on circumcising men before receiving them as Christians, how might people get the impression that he is speaking against the Jewish people?
  • Today’s selection from Matthew 23 continues a list of woes (see Advent 4) against religious leaders in Israel (who at the time were puppets of the Roman state).  What do you make of Jesus’ anger?  How might a passage like this have fueled the anti-Semitic agendas of Christians who used it to justify bigoted and violent behavior?
  •  How has the Christian legacy of anti-Semitism greatly harmed relationships between Christians and Jews?  How has the Bible been misused to this end?  How might we reinterpret texts like these today in such a way that we truly repent (or turn) from the actions of our ancestors?

Prayer of Thanksgiving:  We thank you and praise you, God, for standing by your people Israel, and for showing all your children the way to reconciliation, peace, and love.

Benediction:  God sends us out into the world to be workers of justice.  Having received mercy this day, let us go out into a world of religious bigotry to be agents of healing, restoration, and grace.  Amen.




Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Invitational Ministry (Laurene Beth Bowers): A Review

INVITATIONAL MINISTRY: Move Your Church from Membership to Discipleship By Laurene Beth Bowers.  St. Louis:  Chalice Press, 2014.  Xv + 144 pages.

                The word membership has a very different sense to it than the word discipleship.  You can be a member of any number of clubs and groups.  You just pay your dues, attend meetings, and maybe join a committee.  The groups we become members of can do good things, and are often worthwhile participating in.  To be a disciple is to be a learner and a follower of one who gives meaning and form to one’s life.  Much more is demanded of a disciple than a member.  Jesus called to himself women and men who would be his disciples, but over time as the church became more and more institutionalized (a natural and normal reality), discipleship was replaced with membership.  Indeed, within a few centuries membership in the church and membership in the nation were essentially synonymous.  This cultural definition of Christianity and the church became the norm and remains the norm today.  To be a Christian is to be a member of the institution called the church.  It is, of course, an institution with many brands, some of which are even generic (nondenominational). 

                In Mainline Protestant circles, which flowered during the height of the linkage between church and culture, the idea of evangelism was largely set aside.  One assumed that one’s neighbors belonged to particular brand, and it would be impolite to impose on them to switch to your brand.  As a result many in the church lost the ability to invite others.  Today, we find ourselves in a post-Christian age.  The numbers of non-churched is growing rapidly, especially among those under forty.  As a result many faith communities are aging and shrinking.  They have lost the ability to extend an invitation to the non-churched people who live around them.  The church has become a club, focused inward, that is member oriented.  But is this the way it should be?

                The alternative is to see the church as a community of disciples, equipped and called to invite one’s neighbors into a life-giving and life-changing relationship with God.  To be a disciple is to follow Jesus’ injunction to make disciples (Matthew 28:19-20).  Laurene Beth Bowers made a discovery a number of years back about what it meant to be a disciple who invited others into the life of discipleship.  She writes from the perspective of one who served congregations as a pastor and who now helps congregations affiliated with the United Church of Christ in Central Pennsylvania make the transition from being member-oriented to disciple-making.  She serves the Penn Central Conference as conference associate minister for congregational life and vitality.  She has a D.Min. degree from Andover Newton and has written to prior books covering similar topics.

                As a pastor who has embraced the “missional” cause and who believes the church should be focused on ministering to not only the members but the community, I dove into this book with a relish.  The idea of invitational ministry speaks to my own sense of call – even if I have been shy myself about making invitations (I was raised not to impose on others).  I want to see my congregation grow and flourish.  I’ve read a lot of missional and church growth books, so I didn’t expect to find anything earth shaking here, and most of what is present here isn’t new.  But, much of what is present in this book is largely untried.  It’s not easy to be an invitational church. 

                To be invitational requires that one be able to say why one is part of a church.  For some it is experiencing God, but that’s not always easy to express.  It might be friendships, but there are so many other places we can make friends, so that won’t be a big draw.  So, being able to share with others, especially the non-churched why one finds church to be central to one’s life experience likely need to be a learned habit – one that not just a select few engage in, but everyone. 

The focus of the book is using special events, to which one invites a non-churched person, as an entree into church.  Bowers reminds us that for many persons attending worship can be intimidating – but a special event (as long as it’s not a fund raiser) can be a more comfortable way of becoming acquainted with the people who make up the congregation.  Invitational ministry also is focused on the spiritual needs of those outside the church rather than those of persons already inside.  Who is it, who will sacrifice their needs the churched or the unchurched?   If the latter, then likely they won’t come in.  As one engages in this ministry, it is important to be clear about motive.  If it’s more workers or givers, then the unchurched will quickly see through this and be turned off.  But numerical growth has spiritual benefits with new spiritual vitality and access to new spiritual practices and experiences.

As a pastor of a congregation that moved from the city to the suburbs, and who counts a significant portion of a relatively small congregation commuting in to the church building, Bowers helpfully delineates the mission field.  A thriving congregation will have, she notes, 80% of its members living within five miles of the building.  It doesn’t mean that those living outside that ring are not welcome or not important, but they aren’t the mission field.  It’s unlikely their unchurched friends and family will make the same trek as they do.  So, it’s important to connect with one’s neighborhoods through prayer walks and canvases – both of which she gives helpful details.  The key is finding out who our neighbors are, what their needs and concerns are, and then planning accordingly.  Another way of putting it is that an invitational church is one that is invested in the local community.

After discerning the nature of the neighborhood, then one can begin to plan the events.  She notes that it’s not always best to have them at the church.  That might be too intimidating – so maybe a park would be better.  These events are not focused on the members, but on the neighbors.  They can be large scale – like a concert – or small scale – a dinner with a few invited guests.  These events will take a lot of energy and commitment.  And this is where things will get tricky.  Small, older congregations are going to struggle to makes this work.  A successful event will likely be “all hands on board,” including the pastor.  Other activities might be put on the back burner – even worship.  I must confess that I struggled with her suggestion that we might take a worship sabbatical to focus on event planning. 

When it comes to the invitations, Bowers makes a rather radical declaration.  For this to work, the members will need to invite unchurched persons to the event.  And, a member can only attend the event if she or he brings an unchurched person.  There are no exceptions.  It doesn’t matter how long you’ve been a member or how big a giver.  You have to bring an unchurched person – and preferably each brings one.  The point is well taken.  If you begin making exceptions then the event ceases to be invitational and simply is another church activity.  Bowers goes into detail as to who to select for the planning team, their duties, and the expectations.  Pastors are called to equip, not do all the inviting! 

With the event planned and on the calendar, then comes the moment of truth – inviting persons.  How do you frame the ask?  People have so many reasons why they avoid church.  So what will be your answer?  Bowers provides some help with this dilemma.  But, while there may be resistance in some quarters, we may discover that there are many people in our lives who are waiting to be invited.  While interest needs to be stirred among some, there are others who are ready but need the invitation.  Because we’re not always comfortable with this task, Bowers provides guidelines for workshops that will help one to do this work.  As for how to do this – there is a place for mass invitations, but the personal ones are the most effective.  People are most comfortable going to new places with people they know.  One way to do this is through face to face connections, but don’t forget social media – Facebook invitations can be very effective.

The key to success is to create a climate where being invitational is deeply embedded into the culture of the church.  For many Mainline Protestants this will be difficult, for they (we) came of age at a time when church attendance was expected.  That is no longer the case.  But, that is not to say that modern people don’t have spiritual longings that can find their fulfillment in congregational life.  We just have to help them make the same connection that we’ve made.  Of course that means that our reason for being part of this community is spiritually rooted.  Church isn’t the same as a club.

Laurene Beth Bowers offers us a helpful, even challenging look at what it means to be invitational.  She offers us guidance and guidelines, along with rationale.  This is a book that clergy and church leaders should read and take to heart.  It is, in my mind, an excellent follow up to, Martha Grace Reese’s Unbinding the Gospel: Real Life Evangelism series (also from Chalice Press).   But here’s the caveat – you have to know your neighbors if you’re going to grow.  Our goal can’t be simply filling seats in worship and raising the budget.  It must emerge from a true love for one’s neighbor.  And as we do this, we move from being member focused to being disciple-makers. 

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Eyes Opened -- Lectionary Reflection for Transfiguration Sunday -- Year A


Matthew 17:1-9 (New Revised Standard Version)

17 Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. Then Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.” And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone. 
As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus ordered them, “Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.”

            “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1).   Faith is something that depends not on empirical proof, but testimony.  According to Hebrews the ancients lived by faith, trusting a vision that God laid before them, even though they didn’t have all the details in place.  Living as we do in a scientific age, when the old ideas about God’s activity are pushed further back into the dust bin of history, we who are followers of Jesus walk by faith and not by sight.  If we are to hear the message of the story of Jesus’ Transfiguration, then we must take a leap of faith.

            The Transfiguration of Jesus is a moment of testimony that reveals the deeper story of God’s presence in the world.   We ask – who is this Jesus?  What is his connection to God?  The disciples have been in the presence of Jesus.  They know there’s something different about him, but they’re still in the dark.  A chapter earlier, Jesus asks the disciples who they believe he is.  Peter responds by making the Good Confession:  “You are the Christ, the son of the living God” (Matthew 16:15-16).  Many of us have made the same confession, only to follow Peter in demonstrating our own lack of understanding of our confession. 

In the story of the Transfiguration, Jesus goes to the mountain to prayer.  He takes with him three disciples, and on the mountain has an encounter with two figures from the long past – Moses and Elijah.  According to Matthew, Jesus begins to radiate light – he experiences a metamorphosis (transfiguration).  The disciples are overwhelmed by this display, and not knowing quite what to do, offer to build shrines to each of these figures.  And as they do so, a voice from heaven declares“This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!”   

The question that face as the season of Epiphany comes to a close is this:  Who is Jesus – today?  The battle lines drawn up between those who emphasize the Jesus of history and the Christ of faith, those who want to emphasize humanity and those who emphasize divinity, may miss the point if they can’t let go of these battles and recognize, with Paul, that we currently only “see in a mirror dimly.”  In moments like this, when we are able to break through the membrane separates us from the divine, we’re put in a place of seeing “face to face” (1 Corinthians 13:12).    

As we dive deeper into this story, allowing it to embrace us and reveals to us the person of Jesus, we need to ask the question – why are Moses and Elijah present?  What role do they play?  Besides being figures of the past they represent the witness of Scripture – the Law and the Prophets.  As I consider this encounter, I’m reminded of Karl Barth’s idea of the three-fold Word of God.  Scripture as Word bears witness or points to the Word that reveals God most fully – Jesus, the Christ.

The voice from heaven needs to be heeded.  “This is my son the beloved . . . listen to him.”  Hearing this witness from above, which hopefully opens our eyes to the one who reveals to us the person of God, what is it that he is saying to us? 

In the weeks prior to this, we have considered a portion of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount.  Is this the word that God is calling us to embrace?  There are, of course, other words and there are his deeds – what do they say to us?  In order to hear these words and respond to them in a way that will transform (even transfigure) us, we need to let this story take hold of our lives by faith.

With theologian Douglas John Hall, I’m loathe to choose between the Christ of Faith and the Jesus of History.  He identifies himself with those who cannot embrace either pole exclusively, feeling “that the historical Jesus and the Jesus Christ of Christian experience must be held together.”  And this is, he believes, “what the account of Jesus’ transfiguration would have us affirm.” 
[I]t intends to confess that these untutored, down-to-earth men and women who left everything and followed him, hardly knowing why – that these same persons, later, knew that they had been drawn to him because, for all his obvious humanity, something radiated from him that spoke of ineffable and eternal truth.   [Feasting on the Word: Year A: Advent Through Transfiguration, Vol. 1, (WJK), p. 454, 456]
Looking back at the life of Jesus, his later disciples began to see more clearly who he was and is and will be. 

            Jesus asked the disciples – who do you say that I am?  Are we ready to answer with Peter – “you are the Christ, the Son of the Living God?”  And if we are, what is the nature of our understanding?  Is it sufficient to enable God to transform us so that we can take a journey that brings glory to God and blessings to God’s creation?   Is it sufficient so that we go forth not in a triumphalist mode, but one full of grace and humility?  Indeed, are we ready to head this voice calling us to follow him to the ends of the earth with a message of divine love?

Monday, February 24, 2014

Religious Liberty No Reason to Discriminate


The number of judicial rulings declaring gay marriage bans to be unconstitutional is growing quickly (Michigan may have an opportunity to add to this collection in the next week or so).  Seeing the writing on the wall -- there's a good chance that a majority of the Supreme Court will finally have the critical mass of decisions to determine once and for all whether the constitution allows states to discriminate against same-gender couples seeking to be married -- a number of state legislatures from across the country have attempted to enact laws that allow persons and businesses to discriminate against LGBT persons on the basis of religious liberty.   

Fortunately in most of these states, enough people realized that passing laws that give license to discriminate isn't good policy.  In Kansas such a law made it through one branch of the legislature but didn't pass muster in the other.    

I understand that not everyone is on-board with  the marriage equality movement.  I know that many people have religious qualms about homosexuality in general and gay marriage in particular. I've been there, so I understand.  The Constitution recognizes the right of religious institutions to decide who they will ordain, marry, and even bury.  So, if churches don't want to ordain LGBT folks, it's within their rights.  If they don't want to hire them as clergy, it's within their rights.  If they don't want to marry them, it's within their rights.  But, that doesn't mean that businesses  have the right to discriminate against persons using their religious beliefs as the rationale.  

But, perhaps we should have seen this coming.  Think about the debate over businesses and other institutions being required to provide contraception as part of their insurance packages.  The law exempted religious institutions like churches, but it didn't exempt businesses or public institutions like hospitals and colleges that employed significant numbers of people not of that religious tradition.  Before we knew it, businesses were trying to get an exemption on the basis of religious liberty.  After all, the Supreme Court had ruled in Citizens United that Corporations are people to.  

Think about the ramifications of this effort to use religion as a reason to discriminate or exclude persons from legally obtainable services.  Think about where this stops.  I'm not given to slippery slope arguments, but if this allowed, it does provide cover for all manner of discrimination.   What about inter-racial marriage?  Or inter-religious marriage?  What if the store owner believes that women shouldn't hold a job, should they be free to discriminate against a two-income couple?  That last one might be a stretch, but maybe it makes the point.  Where do you draw the line?   If I remember correctly, at the heart of the Civil Rights efforts was the belief that if you can discriminate against one, you discriminate against everyone.  Now, in the name of religion we want to start making exceptions.

Back to legislatures entertaining legislation that would allow entities to discriminate against gays and lesbians seeking services on the basis of religious liberty, the state of Arizona has passed just such legislation.  All that's needed to enact this legislation is the governor's signature.  Since this bill is popular with the governor's own party it would seem quite possible that she'll sign it.  But maybe she'll realize that using religion as a cover to discriminate against one group of people might not be good politics, let alone constitutional.  The law if signed will surely get a legal challenge, but more importantly the governor needs to remember that a majority of persons under 40 support gay marriage and a growing number of persons over 40 support this trend.  But perhaps she'll also recognize that discrimination is unjust, even if done in the name of God!  

As a person of faith and as a pastor, I must say that I'm appalled that religion is being used as a cover for this kind of discrimination.  It doesn't represent my faith.  Therefore, I stand with those who protest.  I also stand with those who have fought the good fight to gain the nation's recognition of their right to marry.  I will pray that the governor of Arizona will see the light!

UPDATE:   News in on the evening of February 26th -- Governor Jan Brewer vetoes the bill.  Pressure from national Republican leaders and especially businesses seems to have clinched this.  http://www.cnn.com/2014/02/26/politics/arizona-brewer-bill/index.html?hpt=hp_t1
   
**Note on the flag.  I understand it to be designed by Craig Hedges -- found on Diana Butler Bass's Facebook Page.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

What’s in a Name? -- Reclaiming a Founding Vision Sermon #7

Genesis 17:1-8, 15


How did you get your name?  I’m named after my father, Robert David Cornwall, Sr, who was concerned about the family legacy.  As for Brett, he’s named after the center-fielder from the 1989 National League Champion San Francisco Giants.  This was a compromise choice, after Cheryl rejected my first choice -- Will Clark, who was the Giants’s first baseman that year. Our names reflect the eras in which we were born, our family heritage, and even our cultural climate.  Some names endure and others don’t.   

While we don’t usually think about the meaning of a name, names often have meanings in the biblical story.  In the Gospel of Matthew, the Angel tells Joseph to name the couple’s child Jesus, because he will save the people from their sins. Jacob’s name gets changed to Israel, because “he has striven with God, and has prevailed” (Gen. 32:28).  Then there are names that Hosea gave to his children:  “Not Pittied” and “Not My People” (Hosea 1:2-9).  Those names will never make it to the top of the “favorite baby names” list.     

In the reading from Genesis 17, we have a different version of the story of God’s covenant with Abraham and Sarah.  In this version, God changes their names to reflect their change in circumstances.  In Genesis 12, God tells the couple to leave their home for a new land.  In Genesis 17, they have arrived at the new home.  So, their status changes from nomad to permanent residents.  In this version, God promises that they will be the ancestors of many nations, instead of being a blessing to the nations.  This change reflects the changing circumstances they found themselves in, but perhaps we can hear a word of wisdom about our situation in these stories.  Perhaps that word is this – God is present with us when we’re on the road and when we’re at home.  In both situations, we are called to be a blessing.

    For past the seven weeks the sermons have been reflecting on the theme – Reclaiming a Founding Vision.  Another way of putting this could be “Rediscovering our Spiritual DNA.”  DNA is related to our family heritage.  So, my question is – how does our heritage influence who we are spiritually?  With that in mind, how does the name of this congregation reflect our congregational spiritual DNA?
     
If we break down this name, can we find some clues to our identity as a congregation? 

Take the word “church.”  Does it speak of a building, or does it speak of a community?  The Greek word for church is ekklesia or “assembly.”  Paul describes the church in terms of a body – that is a living, growing organism.  It may have a building, or it may not!  As for the word Christian – it speaks of our connection to Christ.

Then there are the words “Central” and “Woodward.”  When we take these words together, what do they say about our Spiritual DNA?

I think it’s important to remember that our name is the product of the merger – in 1925 – of Central Christian Church and Woodward Avenue Christian Church.  Both churches contributed equally to the identity of the church that would emerge.  Central contributed its pastor, financial gifts, and distinguished leadership.  Woodward Avenue contributed its property and a very active group of young families.  What emerged was a congregation that was well situated to represent the Disciples in one of America’s fastest growing cities.   Under Dr. Jones’ leadership, this new community grew and expanded its numbers and its influence – locally, regionally, and nationally.  But, it had its ups and downs, and by the 1970s it became clear that it could no longer sustain its building, and so it migrated north to our current location in Troy. 

Although the church no longer lived on Woodward Avenue, it kept the name.   There have been discussions about changing the name, but the name has stuck with us.  And with the name comes, this spiritual DNA that helps define who we are as a congregation.

The easiest name change for us would be to drop the “Woodward” from our name.  But, since it doesn’t appear that we’re going to drop this part of our name any time soon, what does this word signify to us since we don’t live on Woodward Avenue anymore?  What spiritual DNA does “Woodward” contribute to our identity?   There’s a heritage attached to the name.  But, I think there’s more to this word than simply heritage.  Over the past five plus years that I’ve been here, I’ve been thinking about what this word symbolizes.  I see in it a call to ministry with the people of Detroit.  This connection is seen in our work with Motown Mission, Gospel in Action Detroit, Head Start of Detroit, and the Metro Coalition of Congregations.  But Woodward Avenue doesn’t end at 8 Mile Road.  Since, it continues on northward to Pontiac, Woodward Avenue is the spine that links the region.  Our broader ministries link us to this spine.    
      
As for the word “Central.”  Here are my thoughts.  First of all, I think it speaks of our center – Jesus the Christ.  Whatever we are as congregation, we find our center in Jesus.  It also speaks of a location – a home base.  In Genesis 17, a nomadic people finds a place to settle down and make a home.  Or as it’s translated in the Common English Bible, God promised Abraham and his descendants “the land in which you are immigrants” (Gen. 17:8 CEB).  Having moved from our Detroit home on Woodward Avenue, we now live on the corner of Big Beaver and Adams in the city of Troy.  We came to this place as immigrants, and we found a home here.  Some of us have come from farther away than others.

If this place is our home, it is also the starting place for our ministries.  If Genesis 12 gives us our purpose – we’re to be a blessing to the nations – Acts 1:8 gives us our game plan.  Jesus told the disciples that they would receive power when the Holy Spirit came upon them, and after receiving this empowerment, they were to take the good news to the ends of the earth, starting in Jerusalem.  I believe that God wants us to have a thriving congregation here in Troy, that ministers to the community of Troy and has a significant part of its membership being people who live within a five-mile radius of this building.  From this place, our ministries move outward to the rest of Metro Detroit, Michigan, and beyond.

   There’s a vision statement that appears on a bulletin cover from Central Christian Church dated 1921.  I’m not sure we’d put it exactly the same way today, but I think it has meaning for us:  “Central Church has a vision and a purpose of usefulness in Detroit far beyond its present location and equipment.”  Now, at the time they were expecting to build a new home, so that’s part of the meaning of this statement, but I like the idea that they envisioned themselves as being useful to the community “far beyond its present location and equipment.”  Isn’t that our calling – to be useful – or to be a blessing to our community far beyond our current location.  
In February 1922 Edgar DeWitt Jones faced a dilemma.  The vision that had drawn him to Detroit seemed to be fading away.  He wondered if he’d made a mistake coming here.  In a letter to a friend, he spoke of his fondness for Central Christian Church, but he believed that the congregation faced a choice.  It could go forward or it could go backwards.  So he writes: I think it has an extraordinary opportunity, but it simply cannot rest upon its oars.  It must go forward or it will go back.  If it chose to go backwards, then he knew he would have to move on.  In the end, the congregation chose to go forward, and as time wore on, in part due to the merger with Woodward Avenue Christian Church, the vision that drew him to Detroit bore fruit. What was that vision?  It centered on offering a progressive Christian voice that emphasized the Disciple value of Christian unity.     

What is the spiritual DNA of Central Woodward Christian Church?  Well, each of us contributes our own spiritual DNA to the life of this church.  Then there’s the DNA contributed by our spiritual ancestors in this congregation, including the vision of Edgar DeWitt Jones.  That vision included openness to differing theological and political views, a commitment to the welfare of the community, the pursuit of Christian unity, and a commitment to world peace.  More about that at a later date!  

Of course there are other elements of our heritage that simply can’t be reclaimed.  They represent a different time and place.  As we consider our heritage as a congregation we should keep in mind this word of wisdom provided to us by Dr. Jones himself: 
 If the church has become institutionalized, bereft of spiritual charm, and in bondage to outworn and discredited methods, the average man will pass it by and find his inspirations and comradeships elsewhere.  
But, as Dr. Jones noted, since the first century, when times have changed, the church has  “adopted methods suitable to the time and the need.”  The key is spiritual vitality, because when the Spirit is moving everything else falls into place  [Edgar Dewitt Jones, Blundering into Paradise, (Harper & Brothers, 1932), pp. 85-86].  

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Selling Scientology at the Super Bowl -- Sightings

I must admit, I've always found Scientology a rather odd religious movement.  It's been around long enough that it has made its mark in the religious marketplace.  In part this is due to its ability to attract celebrity endorsements.  Of course, that can have adverse affects as well.  In any case, Ken Chitwood takes us on a brief tour of this group's attempts at attracting our attention using modern media -- including ads at the Super Bowl.  Like the author, I also hope that next year the San Francisco 49ers will be well ahead by half time in next year's Super Bowl.  Humor aside, this is an insightful introduction to Scientology.



Selling Scientology at the Super Bowl
by KEN CHITWOOD
Thursday | Feb 20 2014
                                                                                                                         Photo Credit: Jasmined / flickr
Suddenly, there it was. Like a spaceship, it appeared and, in a flash, it was gone. It promised a fusion of science and religion, “technology and spirituality combining,” and “that everything you ever imagined is possible.” This was no UFO, but a TV commercial advertising “spiritual technology”—a marketing ploy selling Scientology.

For the second year in a row, The Church of Scientology, a prosperous new religious movement established in the 20th Century by science fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard, invested in a “Super Bowl” ad. Though its 30-second ad did not air during one of the coveted multi-million dollar commercial spots, it broadcast right before halftime in several major local TV advertising markets.

The Church of Scientology likely returned to the lineup of “Super Bowl” ads this year because these ads work. Flying out to California just days later I was perusing the periodicals at an airport newsstand when I noticed a man purchasing Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood and the Prison of Belief by Lawrence Wright. As he checked out, he said, “that Super Bowl ad got me interested. You know anything about Scientology?”

The Super Bowl is not the first time that Scientology has flirted with pop culture to attract new adherents. It has always been a flashy faith with savvy cultural appeal. Following the example of founder Hubbard, who was adept at reading the times and selling fanciful stories, Scientology’s television marketing is faithful to its heritage.

Its success with religious marketing began with the publication of Hubbard’s sensational, best-selling Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health, which sketched out, along with several of Hubbard’s sci-fi novels, the basics of Scientology. Scientology’s greatest growth occurred during the “golden age” of its TV spots, in the 1980s and 1990s, when its leaders were “masters of book marketing” (except for its PR disaster with Richard Behar's TIMEarticle and current leader, David Miscavige's, failed interview on ABC's “Nightline”).

Part of Hubbard’s grand marketing scheme was to attract Hollywood A-listers, not unlike Tom Cruise or John Travolta, and to cultivate them as glamorous icons of Scientology. He deployed movie-star power at a time when American culture was “bending increasingly toward the worship of celebrity,” wrote scholar Lawrence Wright. Indeed, since The Church of Scientology was incorporated as a religious body in California sixty years ago (February 18, 1954), the movement has always had a bit of “star power” and has been able to grab mass attention with careful cultural cues.

The Super Bowl ad is no different. As one commentator put it, Miscavige, “understands what inspires devotion in people these days...the next great gadget, spiritual contentment...” Playing on our desire to be on the cutting edge of tech and to be “spiritual, but not religious,” Scientology offers both: spiritual technology.

Additionally, Scientology’s second “Super Bowl” ad is an example of a small religion punching above its weight and evoking both curiosity and creepiness. As Wright wrote, “Scientology plays an outsize role in the cast of new religions that have arisen in the twentieth century and survived into the twenty-first.” Though the Church reports millions of members, there are probably just 30,000 Scientologists worldwide, 5,000 of whom are concentrated in Los Angeles. There are twice as many Rastafarians in the world as there are Scientologists.

Like a minor league player batting in the majors, Scientology also uses its more than $1 billion dollars assets to market itself via its Bridge Publications Inc. and International Dissemination and Distribution center in Los Angeles. Due to its shrewd sales approach and to its nearly automatic “cringe factor,” Scientology inspires an oversized amount of fascination.

Of course, religious marketing isn’t solely the property of The Church of Scientology. Noting the success of America’s Protestant mega-churches, many religious organizations have realized the importance of advertising their sacred wares in the U.S.’s spiritual economy. According to Peter Berger, the commercials from your local psychic, the billboards of atheists and bumper stickers from the mega-church down the road are all symptoms of pluralism and public indicators of the ways that various faiths are competing with each other in the religious marketplace.

Given the situation described above, we should expect continued, and comparable, marketing from Scientology. With its financial resources, penchant for the cultural zeitgeist, immense influence, impeccable organization and Hollywood flair we should not be surprised with another ad in next year’s Super Bowl. The only difference next year? I’m hoping that my team, the San Francisco 49ers, will have a comfortable lead going into halftime before Scientology sells itself to the crowds of fans sitting at home in select local markets.

Sources and Additional Reading:

Berger, Peter. The Sacred Canopy: Elements of a Sociological Theory of Religion.New York: Anchor Books, 1967.

Creamer, Matthew. “Rewind: When the Church of Scientology Was a Master of Book Marketing.” Adage, September 26, 2012. http://adage.com/article/rewind/rewind-church-scientology-a-master-advertising/237442/.

Edwards, Jim. “How The Church of Scientology Got an Ad in the Super Bowl.”Business Insider, February 4, 2013. http://www.businessinsider.com/how-the-church-of-scientology-got-an-ad-in-the-super-bowl-2013-2.

Jancelewicz, Chris. “Scientology Super Bowl 2014 Commercial: Religious Ad Creeps Us Out Again (VIDEO).” HuffiPost Canada TV, February 2, 2014. http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2014/02/02/scientology-super-bowl-2014-commercial-video_n_4714881.html.

Pangburn, DJ. “Scientology's Super Bowl Ad Preached to the Cult of Apple.” Motherboard Beta, February 6, 2013. http://motherboard.vice.com/blog/scientologys-super-bowl-ad-is-a-rebranding-effort-to-lure-the-techno-elite.

Prothero, Stephen. Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know - and Doesn’t. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2007.

White, Chris. “EXCLUSIVE: Pictured up close for the first time, Scientology's 'alien space cathedral and spaceship landing pad' built in the New Mexico desert for the 'return of followers after Armageddon on Earth.’” Daily Mail, August 16, 2013. http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2395235/EXCLUSIVE-Pictured-close-time-Scientologys-secret-alien-space-cathedral-landing-pad-New-Mexico-desert-return-followers-Armageddon-Earth.html

Wright, Lawrence. Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood and the Prison of Belief.New York: Vintage Books, 2013.

Photo Credit: Jasmined / flickr creative commons.

To read previous issues of Sightings, visit: http://divinity.uchicago.edu/sightings-archive.
Author, Ken Chitwood, is a graduate student at Concordia University Irvine, CA. A religion newswriter, theology and culture commentator, he maintains a blog on religion and culture (Sacred Duty) and contributes to various media outlets including Religion News Service and Publisher’s Weekly.


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: http://divinity.uchicago.edu/god-theological-accounts-and-ethical-possibilities.
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