Resurrection City

ResurrectioinCityI approached Resurrection City: A Theological Improvisation with some skepticism, I admit. The message of Jesus seen through the eyes of jazz? Somehow it seemed rather implausible and frankly a bit gimmicky. After all, I guess one could do the same with weather or baking a cake if one tried hard enough, but would one actually learn anything?


Professor Heltzel has in fact not only pulled it off, but offered us a truly meaningful way of looking at the ministry of Jesus, the message of God, and how we as mortals upon this flawed earth can bring forth true justice amongst ourselves.

I have indeed listened, during one portion of my life, a fair amount of jazz. I am not a musician and thus I can only say that I liked a good deal of it, and found some of it harsh and difficult. My expertise is sorely lacking.

Such is not the case with Heltzel, who obviously knows his stuff. He uses the idea of jazz and how “good jazz” works as metaphor for how we must approach the fractured world we live in, in hopes of resurrecting our lives to reflect the mishpat envisioned by God.

We are taken on a tour of the Hebrew Scriptures wherein we are reminded that throughout the pages of Isaiah and Jeremiah God’s people are continually called to do justice and to care for the weak, the dispossessed, the widow, orphan, and the stranger. We are reminded of God’s call for Jubilee, a time reserved to “re-balance” the scales of economic inequality.

Jesus, Heltzel tells us, was the improviser, taking the old laws, the old prophetic calls to justice, and re-imagining them in new ways. Jesus in effect gives us a new way to see and interact with God. The Jesus Way, the way of love, which moves beyond love of neighbor to love of enemy, replacing violence with loving resistance to inequity in the world.

This is what jazz is all about, improvisation. It is taking the old, well-known song, and changes it, probing and altering, tinkering, imprinting one’s own voice upon it, making it anew. We still hear the strains of the old, but we are revived in this new way of hearing.

As examples of the Jesus Way, Heltzel focuses of John Coltrane as his Jazz improviser, and Sojourner Truth, and Martin Luther King, Jr. as theological improvisers. Each made a seminal and world-changing offering to the “old” way of seeing, listening, and doing.

Heltzel maps out how the Christian Church has been, over the centuries, molded into something far removed from God’s loving call to mishpat. It has strayed into a patriarchal, white seat of power, that justified slavery, and the oppression of women throughout the ages. What is required is a “new way” of being church, one that returns us to the radical Jesus Way, and calls us to improvise in order to achieve that social justice that God desires.

In that social justice, all of us are freed as we learn the truth of our past, while we gain the tools to begin the process of building our resurrection cities, where communities operate for the benefit of all their people. We must start that process, as he points out, by looking clear-eyed at our past. Through the stories of Sojourner Truth and MLK, Jr, we examine with honesty the past that still haunts us, and how both of them improvised solutions to the problems before them. Each surrendered totally and followed the call for justice.

Perhaps the most striking image for me was his reference to the famous theologian James Cone, who writes:

“Theologically speaking, Jesus was the ‘first lynchee’ who foreshadowed all the lynched black bodies on American soil. He was crucified by the same principalities and powers that lynched black people in America.”

This is a powerful metaphor, and comes at the beginning of our journey through the ugly past of American slavery. It informs our thinking, in a deeply powerful way when we juxtapose that against the determination of Martin Luther King, Jr., to maintain a non-violent resistance to Jim Crow in the South. How does the anger and hatred that the Cone statement engenders get translated into the sedaqah (righteousness) of the love-based non-violent resistance of King, or his mentor Gandhi?

Heltzel steps forth with his jazz references. The “blues” of slavery meld into the spirituals that both bespeak that evil and pain while yet pointing to a better time and a better life. These are grafted by the jazz musician into the new music of a world to come, one infused with power and new directions.

We see the Poor People’s March on Washington and in our own time, the Occupy Movement, as similar jazzy improvs–people joining together in their pain and anger, and forging a loving yet determinedly non-violent response to the powers that oppress and dehumanize us all.

Heltzel informs us, and then calls us to action in our place and in our time to create the new songs that God calls forth from us to build a new world, one of justice and for all.

Read this book. You will be transformed.

**This book was sent to me for review. The opinions contained within this review are mine and mine alone. No other agreements exist between the writer and anyone connected to the book or its dissemination.

Letters to Pope Francis

LetterstoPopeFrancis-cover-224x359One might start with the premise that this book, written by a former priest and Dominican to the Roman Catholic Church’s new pope, Francis, and about what is wrong with the institutional church, would appeal only to Catholics. One would be wrong, quite simply.

Matthew Fox delves into the rot at the center of the Catholic Church with the precision of a surgeon, and cuts out the cancer with deft sure hands. Yet what he speaks of, with slight alteration can be laid at the doorstep of much of Christendom. If I were more familiar with other faith systems, no doubt his criticisms would also find purchase.

Fox starts with charging that the two previous papacies, that of John Paul II and Benedict XVI were schismatic. He makes this claim since both quite obviously tried to roll back the progress of Vatican II, and as he rightly suggests, “a council takes precedence over papal directives.” In other words, to the degree that both worked to ignore or undue reforms of the Second Vatican Council, their work was illegal and should be ignored.

Fox goes on from there, and he leaves no area of the church’s dirty little secrets left unaired. From the utterly disgusting coverup by church hierarchy of the pedophilia scandal, to the Vatican bank, to the vile treatment of religious women under Benedict, they are all unmasked. Curia members buy “sainthood” and known fascists find canonization while true martyrs of the church such as Oscar Romero are “held up” due to false charges of Marxism.

Matthew Fox who is now deeply involved in his own spiritual enterprise of bringing people to the Cosmic Jesus, urges Pope Francis to return theology to true theologians, replace suspect organizations such as Opus Dei from their powerful positions, stop the war on women, end required celibacy, and the simple end of Catholic obsession with sexual matters. It is a call to recognize the basic intelligence of lay people. It is a recognition that if the Church is losing adherents at an astounding pace, it is largely because the church is failing to be relevant to today’s problems and the needs of its people.

With tenderness but with firmness, Fox employs the Pope’s own words and is relentless in drawing the parallel between today and the Pope’s chosen namesake, Francis of Assisi, who, Fox makes out the case, would dismiss the great wealth of the Vatican, converting it to food for the poor, and would speak out loudly and insistently on issues of income inequality, working conditions for workers, and our rape of the environment.

He offers real solutions, the obvious and those which deal more with the inner workings of the Vatican, a subject that many lay persons are unfamiliar with. Indeed, it is these revelations that so shake the reader. How could such evil and behavior be tolerated in the Church?

This is a call to justice. It is a call to the Pope and the Church to return to its beginnings. It is a call to return to Jesus. Relentlessly, Fox recounts that Jesus was about the poor. He was about justice. He was about speaking truth to power. He indicts the Church as becoming the very things that Jesus gave his life for, and that if we can drop the mantra of individual salvation and return to demands for justice, work for justice, this church and others like it can be saved.

This a call to recognize that religion is the not same thing as faith. Fox sees faith as alive and well, and it is religion that has lost its way. It has become part of the ruling portion of humanity. It no longer serves people. Moreover he makes it quite clear that the only way for religion to continue must come through a recognition that ecumenism is the solution. We must get off this crazy notion that there is only One way to salvation, which each and every (or most) faith traditions claiming that they are that ONE.

This is a disheartening book if you are a Catholic, but refreshing too, as we recognize that the movement to re-vision what it means to be “church” is being led, not by hierarchies within institutional structures, but among common every day people. They are the true leadership and those institutionalized “leaders” had best get on board, or be left behind to burnish their gold and buff their Prada slippers in empty cathedrals everywhere.

Read this. Read it and join the growing legions who seek Jesus and His Way, the one that was intended.

Where the Conflict Really Lies

Perhaps no where is there more controversy than in the United States over the alleged conflicts between science and religion. Most of that controversy is conducted by folks who are woefully uneducated when it comes to either subject.

Alvin Plantinga, noted philosopher, attempts to bring some systematic thinking to the dispute. His basic premise is that apparent differences between science and theism are largely superficial and the two are actually deeply in agreement. His second basic premise is that the true disagreement lies between science and naturalism.

First let me say, that this is all quite heavy reading for the average person. If you are untrained in logic, statistical analysis, and philosophy, you will probably, as I did, struggle to follow the train of argument. However with patience, you will certainly tease out the main arguments.

It is most important that one understand what evolution is. It is not as is popularly thought, how life arose on planet earth. It is how existing life became increasingly complex over time moving from the more simplistic to the more complicated. In other words, from amoeba to human. The basic scientific explanation for this is commonly known as “Darwinism” or the random genetic mutation which drive evolutionary change.

Plantinga, as I understand him, doesn’t say that this process is inaccurate, but he does say that there is nothing to stop God from using his own laws to “cause” this or that mutation, thus “directing” the movement of otherwise benign processes.

He addresses the issue of miracles by claiming that those who think there is a conflict claim that miracles are antithetical to a universe operating under “laws” which ours seems to be. Indeed, some theologians would agree,  and claim that the biblical references to miracles are nothing but fairy tales used to make more consequential arguments, but not reflecting reality. Dr. Plantinga points out that this no-miracle scenario is only compatible with a “closed system”, and whether it be Newtonian physics or quantum physics, modern science no where posits the idea of a closed system. Therefore when God effects a miracle (if indeed God does) it cannot by definition violate any “law”.

He goes on to explain that certain scientific truths are not “defeaters” to theistic belief, such as the interpretation that the earth is flat from a reading of Genesis, and our scientific understanding that the earth is round. Plantinga would argue that this doesn’t defeat belief in God, but merely informs us that our interpretation of some parts of the bible may be faulty.

Generally speaking his finds Bebe’s intelligent design to be flawed in its thinking which I think is basically in accord with most of the mainstream scientific community.

As Plantinga moves into this arguments involving why science and naturalism are really at odds, the going gets quite a bit more tough and only someone with some basic background can make solid sense of the arguments. He finds that we as humans can be assured that our senses are reliable because God, he claims helps us to see truth. This is our compass in discerning the value of our senses and memories and reason. Naturalism only works for survival and reproduction and truth is not part of that equation, though one could argue I would think that a properly functioning memory, sensory apparatus and reasonable faculty do aid in survival in the end.

I’m ill-equipped to make a judgment here as to whether Plantinga has made a compelling case or not. I find his arguments persuasive in large measure, but then I am a believer and carry that foremost into my reading. I hope that I am open-minded enough to see obvious flaws, and were I trained in philosophy, perhaps I could.

However, I will say that I too, like Dr. Plantinga, feel ill-served by the so-called New Atheists who tend to substitute more insult than actual substance to their arguments. It is impossible I find to hold a decent conversation with their followers, well-versed or not, when all you get is snide “santa claus in the sky” retorts when you try to make cogent arguments.

I think this is an important contribution to the discussion, and one that all believers and non-believers need to read and discuss seriously. In the end, if properly understood, I don’t think we have all that much to argue about. Thinking believers are not anti-science and never were.

I am grateful to Oxford University Press and their publicity department for providing this book to me free of charge for review. There are no agreements with them as to the contents of this review, and all the remarks made are mine.

Alone with a Jihadist

I recently had an opportunity to read Aaron D. Taylor’s book, Alone with a Jihadist. Now I was skeptical in the beginning, learning as I did that Mr. Taylor is a Pentecostal and someone I would normally define as a fundamentalist in his approach to scripture.

I have spoken out on many occasions about my reservations of the fundamentalist approach to scripture. Basically it comes to this: I don’t think literalism is at all sound from an exegetical point of view, but beyond that I pretty much think people have the right to believe as they wish. I draw the line when such beliefs are the basis for political action to impose that belief system upon me and others. Most fundamentalists I find do wish to impose a theocratic rule of law upon the American system of government and to this I object.

So, given that I didn’t expect I would care for what ever Mr. Taylor had to say.

I was wrong.

Oh certainly I don’t think that Taylor would disagree that he was raised and began his missionary work as a thoroughgoing fundamentalist with all the baggage I assign it. But something happened that changed his entire perspective.

He answered an ad and became involved in the making of a documentary which ultimately led to his having a one on one debate with a radical Islamist. During that conversation, the point was made to him that nowhere does Jesus set out a form of government that would be called “Christian”, whereas, Mohammed did, from his point of view set out  a way of living that was godly. He argued that the Koran set out God’s law of human community, where the New Testament did not.

After a good deal of thought and much study, Mr. Taylor agrees. Jesus did not define a Godly government. He referred only to a heavenly kingdom. There is no government instituted by men (and all are) that can claim to be the government that God ordains as the Godly. No democracy, no socialist, no communist edifice can claim that it draws its structure from Jesus.

What Mr. Taylor finds though his long search is that Jesus had nothing good to say about governments at all. He considered them by definition flawed because they exerted power OVER people rather than raise people up to assist each other. He calls us to live “differently” in the manner of love and service to each other which is anathema to government which is always about obtaining and maintaining power over others. It always, inevitably leads to violence and war.

Taylor can find no evidence in the New Testament for violence toward another being sanctioned by Jesus. He explains how violence in the Old Testament (Hebrew Scripture) is largely a stopgap measure allowed by God for a people who were unable to grasp the higher calling of pacifism.

I would argue, that in some respects Mr. Taylor’s exegesis of various passages is somewhat strained and still reflects a (what I might term naiveté) less than fully mature methodology vis-a-vis biblical meaning. Some of his arguments are based on a too-literal acceptance of the scriptural passages he uses, ( his belief that the OT references prefigure Jesus in various places as an example) but by and large I think he is correct in his conclusions.

He really provides a strong argument that as Christians we cannot participate in acts of violence on behest of our governments because we simply owe first allegiance to God, and God does not sanction the killing or harming of one child of His by another.

Quite simply, as Christians, we are called to pacifism. That does not mean that we don’t speak and act against injustice, indeed we do, but in the best traditions of Gandhi and King, who understood Jesus’ message correctly as one of non-violent resistance.

Aaron Taylor’s book is a surprise. And it is well worth your time to consider it. You may be convinced or simply (as I was) re-enforced in your belief that violence is not the way of the Cross. It is sacrifice to the idea of love and service that is The Way.

** I was sent this book free of charge for purposes of review. I have no other agreements with the provider other than to review and publish said review.  All opinions are my own. This is in compliance with Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255.


(Repost) Divine Transcendence and the Culture of Change

Let me first thank Eerdmans Publishing Company for sending along a copy of David H. Hopper’s Divine Transcendence and the Culture of Change, for review.

David Hopper has set out an interesting premise in his latest book: Namely have we gone too far in tolerance? He essentially argues that statements such as “It doesn’t matter what a person believes just so long as he/she is sincere,” are the product of ill-educated minds who know very little of theological matters. In other words, it’s one thing to be tolerant in a prudent sort of way, but it is wrong to have no standards at all.

He argues that the divine transcendence of God has been lost in this thoughtless attempt to not step on toes.

Many have perhaps come to the same conclusion, but they have done so by laying the blame on the “scientific revolution,” and its concommitant inference that nothing is beyond the mind of mankind.

Hopper argues that the Reformation, in the guise of Luther, Calvin and others of the same persuasion also played a part, perhaps unknowingly, in fostering this climate.

He starts with the model set out by H. Richard Niebuhr in his Christ and Culture. In it Niebuhr posited five expressions of Jesus and culture:

  1. Christ against culture
  2. Christ of culture
  3. Christ above culture
  4. Christ of culture
  5. Christ the transformer of culture.

He places various movements, the monastic, Calvin, Mainstream Protestant, Catholic, Feminist, and so forth within this model at their most agreeing points.

Hopper sees in the Reformation movement and the following Enlightenment, a movement away from a “religious church-dominated culture” to one predominately secular, and one that has largely discarded its timeless orientation to the changeless and divine.

Luther addressed a church largely caught in the medieval concepts of Christ both above and against culture. The Church controlled the life of people by its claim to control their entrance into heaven. Luther of course had no intent to found a new sect, but rather intended to reform from within. And he of course failed, as the Church, seemingly receptive at first, recoiled at his more “heretical” thinking.

Heretical only in the sense that Rome rejected it, and so labeled it. Martin Luther’s “justification by faith” eliminated the idea that salvation was controlled by the Church. Indeed, Luther shockingly argued that it was faith in and adherence to the Scriptures, available to all of God’s people that was above the Church, and where mankind’s salvation was found. Free gift of grace.

Along with Calvin, others joined in and began to see Christ and the scriptures as calling for a salvation that was deeply imbedded within culture. In fact Calvin claimed that each person’s vocation was his opportunity to live out the Gospel message in service to neighbor.

While Luther did not extend his “Christ in Culture” to include much in the way of serious revamping of political institutions, Calvin did.

What is really new in Hopper’s analysis is that he brings Francis Bacon and the English reformation also into the mix. Bacon, in his “idols of the mind” laid the groundwork for a new way of looking at nature. In fact Bacon saw this as God’s will, that man was untruthful to God in leaving all things as mystery in God.

Bacon freed the mind of all the preconceived notions and “worldviews” and brought forth inductive thinking, pursuing a method of critical thinking. He claimed there were “attainable” truths “hidden by God” in nature, and these were open to being discovered.

Whereas Luther’s holy grail was 1Corinthians 1:18-23. The folly of the cross was God’s foolishness, wiser than that of men, Bacon believes that God has created man to discover the secrets of nature and to use them for the betterment of mankind.

Once married to American pragmatism and work ethic, scientific exploration exploded, and as our grip on a transcendent God seems to have slipped away.

In the end, Hopper argues for a return to a solid foundation in that transcendence. We are mired in our “consumerism” spirituality. We are driven by change for its own sake, and no longer see the limits of our own abilities. Only with a return to this foundation in the transcendent he argues, can we realistically address the common problems in our global world.

This is an interesting book, one for the more serious reader of theology and culture. But one that will seriously re-orient your thinking about progress and the price we are paying for it.

(Repost) The Meaning of Mary Magdalene

My sincere thanks to Jennifer Campaniolo at Shambhala Publishing for sending me a copy of The Meaning of Mary Magdalene: Discovering the Woman at the Heart of Christianity.

First let me start out by saying, that this was not quite what I expected. I assumed it would be a scholarly biography of one of Christianity’s most enigmatic women. It certainly is that. But I expected it to be along the lines of a general work using the accepted tools of hermeneutics in examining the texts of the Gospel accounts of the New Testament.

That it was not quite, though it certainly examined all the pertinent texts thoroughly. However, much of Cynthia Bourgeault’s work delves into the so-called “Gnostic Gospels” of Mary, Thomas, Peter and Philip. These were more or less known to the powers that decided the canon, but were omitted largely because they spoke of a more transcendent and ephemeral Jesus and his teachings. They were “gnostic” and heretical, having lost the battle to the growing “orthodoxy” of the Roman Church.

Rev. Bourgeault crafts with great care and precision her hypothesis that Jesus and Mary were “soul mates,” certainly lovers, although she doesn’t claim they were physical lovers, although she finds no reason why they may not have been.

She finds in Jesus a Nazarite, much like John the Baptist, but one who gave up the ascetic life, the life of denial, to move to the path of “singleness” where kenotic love became the center of his being. This self-giving or self-emptying attitude was one that he taught Mary and it is what allowed them to transcend his death on the cross. Their unitive love, whether physical or celibate, enabled them to reach the fullness of being human. It is this towards what his teachings point.

It is this message that Jesus sought to teach his disciples. It is what Mary learned, making her the foremost of all the disciples.

It is Bourgeault’s contention that the Gospel of John in the canon is perhaps the most clear about understanding Jesus truest teaching. She argues that the Mary of Bethany is in fact Mary Magdalene, or at least created to expouse upon some of her qualities. She would claim that many of the Marys in the Gospel accounts, or I should say many of the women (the woman at the well for instance) are also created composites of Magdalene qualities.

The reason why the Magdalene is so “hidden” in this way is simply because it became increasingly impossible for a patriarchial and male dominated church to accept that a woman had been the closed companion of Christ. It was unseemly to a church that slowly but surely hide sex behind a heavy door, and made chastity the only possible “pure” expression of “the Way.”

If you have ever read the gnostics, as I have, you undoubtedly were quite puzzled. They read more like Eastern mystical works. We are unfamiliar with the words and their meanings.

Cynthia Bourgeault, with patience and deep care, unravels the intracacies of these passages, explaining their meaning, joining them to the Semitic eastern mysticism of the time of Jesus. She has devoted more than forty years to Mary, and has traveled to parts of France where there is a very old tradition of the Magdalene’s later years there and the mystical veils that surround her.

It will, no doubt be hard for a first time reader, to digest all this “new thinking” about this mysterious woman that we know so little about, yet are still so utterly fascinated with. Bourgeault is both Episcopal priest and part-time hermit. She has studied with many who have lived their lives in these traditions of mysticism. So, her claims are not to be dismissed easily, yet, they remain, reasonable conclusions based on often quite slim evidence.

Even if you are not prepared to “buy” all the conclusions, you will I promise you come away with a vision of both Mary and Jesus that are profoundly different than before. As never before, they become fully human to us, who so desperately need human models to emulate. Bourgeault brings the scriptures alive, and quite frankly, through her interpretation, once difficult or puzzling passages suddenly ring with clarity.

All the Gospels recall Mary as the first to receive the “good news” of the resurrection. Her voice, since stifled, was so powerful to the infant church that this truth could not be denied. Although each writer in some way minimized her importance, she could not be denied her place in the narratives. It is she, Bourgeault contends, who was the source of the “annointing” ministry that she may well have shared with Jesus, and which comes down to us today as a sacrament.

What I came away with, is a deeper appreciate of Mary Magdalene. I have for some time considered her to be an ignored apostle, but I believe now she was much more than that. She was the only one who truly “got it.” As such, she does so much for us as women in the church. She restores us to our rightful place, as integral to the church. She gives us something that a virgin mother never can. She gives us a model of real humanness, fully expressed, fully embodied.

I can’t wait to read more of Bourgeault’s work. I believe she has much to teach me about my journey. After reading this book, I believe you will feel the same way.

(Repost) Thomas Merton: A Life in Letters

My deepest gratitude to Ave Maria Press for sending along this book for review. Thomas Merton: A Life in Letters, is quite simply divine. It was pure joy to read and deeply enlightening. Merton, as some of you may know, was a Trappist monk who lived his religious life at Gethsemani Monastery in Kentucky. He was a prolific writer, but even more so when it came to letter writing. His correspondence included more than two thousand individuals and comprised over his life ( he died tragically in 1968) more than twelve thousand pieces. This book, edited by William H. Shannon and Christine M. Bochen, attempts to collect the best of those letters around common themes. They include his vocation as a monk, his life as writer, his contemplative experience, his views on culture, war, and the Church, and his deep commitment to finding unity with other faiths especially Asian systems. In some sense, it is difficult to review such a work, since it is not really a “work” at all but, rather Merton’s responses to various letters written to him. In that respect, we might find ourselves in a bit of a fix similar to when we encounter St. Paul–we have only half of the story. Yet, it is not much of a fix at all, since the letters stand on their own, and usually are quite explanatory of the initiating material to which he is responding. What strikes one most clearly in reading Merton’s thoughts is how very human he was. As the editors point out, he was complicated, in some ways two men. One was, as they put it, conservative, traditional, while he was also revolutionary, active, and pushing the envelope of his calling as a monk. It seems best, in order to give you, the reader, a flavor of his thoughts and ideas, to give you some enticing tidbits of his thinking on various subjects: Although Merton spent his entire monastic life at Gethsemani, he often thought about moving to other monastic houses, seemingly in the hopes of attaining a more perfect situation. He was always drawn to the more hermit existence, and in the end, at Gethsemani was allowed to live in a small cabin on the property where he spent most of his day and night, coming to the monastery only for a single meal and mass. Of the solitary time he spent he says:

“I am never less alone than when I am alone. When people are around I find it a little difficult to find Jesus. As soon as I am away from others, Jesus is there and all is at peace.”

Yet, to be sure, Merton’s enormous correspondence and his writing in general, served to powerfully connect him to the world about him. However, he was conflicted in some sense about writing:

“Writing is deep in my nature, and I cannot deceive myself that it will be very easy for me to do without it. At least I can get along without the public and without my reputation! Those are not essentially connected with the writing instinct.”

On revolution and nonviolence:

“I believe that those who have used violence have betrayed all true revolution, they have changed nothing, they have simply enforced with greater brutality the anti-spiritual and anti-human drives that are destructive of truth and love in man.”

Thomas Merton was much troubled by the superficiality of American life (he was born in France and became a citizen of the US as an adult). He, even the early 60’s, had a firm grasp on the consumerism that plagued the country. He was deeply concerned about the Cold War and “the Bomb” and was in the end ordered to stop his anti-war writing. Lesser men or women might have become disillusioned, however Merton concluded:

“For one cannot truly believe in God if one does not believe in mankind as well; . . .”

Much of his writing about the Vietnam war and the stand-off between the US and the USSR is still timely today, the players have only changed. He speaks truth about America in 1962, and indeed today:

“The illusion of America as the earthly paradise, in which everyone recovers original goodness: which becomes in fact a curious idea that prosperity itself justifies everything, is a sign of goodness, is a carte blanche to continue to be prosperous in any way feasible: and this leads to the horror that we now see: because we are prosperous, because we are successful, because we have all this amazing “know-how” . . .we are entitled to defend ourselves by any means whatever, without any limitation, and all the more so because what we are defending is our illusion of innocence. . .”

On racism:

“. . .there is not one of us, individually, racially, socially, who is fully complete in the sense of having in himself all the excellence of humanity. . . .I am therefore not completely human until I have found myself in my African and Asian and Indonesian brother because he has the part of humanity which I lack.”

Much as he loved the Church, he was deeply supportive of the work of Vatican II. As we face in some sense a deconstruction of that work today, Merton’s words echo meaningfully:

“I personally think that we are paralyzed by institutionalism, formalism, rigidity, and regression. The real life of the Church is not in her hierarchy, it is dormant somewhere.”

In a letter to Zen Buddhist scholar, Daisetz T. Suzuki, he quotes Suzuki on God’s creative hand:

“God wanted to know Himself, hence the creation.”

Merton sees original sin as:

“Each one slaved in the service of his own idol–his consciously fabricated social self. . .This is Original Sin. . .But yet we are in paradise, and once we break free from the false image, we find ourselves what we are: and we are “in Christ.”

There are hundreds of other examples in the pages that comprise this wonderful book. His partners in letter writing are from the average person, to personages such as Pope John XXIII, Coretta S. King, Thich Nhat Hanh, Boris Pasternak, to various Latin American poets, to nuns, and bishops in the Church. His interests were broad, his knowledge deeper than most. Truly, there is so much to be learned and pondered over. Do yourself a favor, and pick up this excellent source of Thomas Merton’s thoughts. You will, I suspect, then start collecting all his writings.

(repost) The Human Faces of God

Seldom have I anticipated a book more than Thom Stark’s The Human Faces of God: What Scripture Reveals When it Gets God wrong (and Why Inerrancy Tries to Hide It) . I can tell you, that the book does not disappoint.

Stark takes on the biblical inerrantists and simply demolishes them. Inerrantists, (fundamentalists) insist that “the Bible is inspired by God, without error in everything it affirms historically, scientifically and theologically.” Stark begins with their own founding document: The Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy, formulated in 1978. In it is found its hermeneutic tool: the historical-grammatical method. Stark shows how this method is used, except when it is not used. In other words, inerrantists profess it, and use it, until it doesn’t accomplish their result: an inerrant text. Stark calls their actual practice one of the “hermeneutics of convenience.”

A series of methodologies are alternated, all directed to reach the result that the bible does not err. This at times involves plain meaning, literalism, scripture defining scripture, fuller meaning, and in the end a resort to throwing up one’s hands and declaring that “God has not as yet seen fit to reveal the meaning to us.”

Stark moves through the troubling passages that allude to a belief in a pantheon of gods. Anyone familiar with the Hebrew scriptures knows that there are odd pieces here and there that seem to suggest that there were other gods than Yahweh. The Psalms are replete with such sayings such as God being mightier than the other gods. Exodus and Genesis make such references as well, as well as mention of the “council of the gods.”

Indeed, Stark’s claim that polytheism was the order of the day in ancient Israel, is nothing new. Yet he explains it to the lay reader perhaps better than anywhere else I have seen. The same can be said of his hard-hitting analysis of the God of genocide, found in and throughout Deuteronomy, and the God who at least condones and accepts human sacrifice. These difficult and troubling texts are explained, carefully, and patiently with excellent reference to archaeology, other relevant texts of the time, and good literary critical exegesis.

Perhaps the area that will cause the most concern is his claim that Jesus, while many things, was most certainly an apocalyptic prophet. Stark points out that his prophecies regarding the end times were accurate, until the last one, the imminent return of himself, ushering in the full kingdom of God. In this Stark claims that Jesus was simply wrong.

This is hard to swallow, but Mr. Stark makes a very convincing argument, one well worth the time to read carefully and seriously. I suspect that if you get to that point in the book, you are trusting of Stark’s careful analysis and will listen with an open ear and heart.

What is accomplished here, in this book, is more than just showing the errors and contradictions of the bible. There have surely been dozens that have done that already. Rather, Stark, explains how the “book” we call the bible, came into existence. Understanding it as a collection of documents written over more than 1000 years, and containing within disparate, and contradictory voices, helps us to see it for what it is: a people’s walk with God.

It is most singularly a human document, written over a long period and containing oral traditions that span even greater times. There are voices within it that argue for opposite things. In some cases, even some of the Hebrew writers attempted to reconcile difficult passages that were at odds. (The stories of David and Goliath are instructional here, and Stark lays out a wonderful explanation for the two different explanations for Goliath’s death, and why another writer, the Chronicler, tried to cover up the contradiction.)

Stark convinces, I think, that having to face up to the difficult and ugly passages in the bible is worthwhile and has much to teach us on their own. Rather than shrug, as inerrantists often do, or try to twist and warp them into some apparent sense, it is much better to accept them as human failings in living and in understanding of their God.

Better to allow God to speak through the hateful and unacceptable passages to us today and allow them to inform us as to our own shortcomings and roads to growth.

Stark is a believing Christian, one who has struggled with scripture and found that facing the unpleasant realities allows one to grow into a mature faith. In fact, he claims, and I tend to agree, that fundamentalism is an adolescent and immature view, clinging to a world that one would prefer, but which simple does not exist.

We would all like certainty. But certainty doesn’t exist. The Bible cannot give us that, no matter how much we might wish it. We can pretend otherwise, but that leaves us mired in a fantasy world and helps us not at all in addressing the troubles of our world.

The last chapter is delightful, giving Mr. Stark’s own reflections on what these hard passages can offer us today.

Speaking of the problematic stories of Abraham and Isaac, of Jephthah and his daughter, and King Mesha and his son, Thom Stark reflects:

Today we denounce such practices as inhuman and reject as irrational the belief that the spilling of innocent blood literally affected the outcome of harvests and military battles. Yet we continue to offer our own children on the altar of homeland security, sending them off to die in ambiguous wars, based on the irrational belief that by being violent we can protect ourselves from violence. We refer to our children’s deaths as “sacrifices” which are necessary for the preservation of democracy and free trade. The market is our temple and it must be protected at all costs. Thus, like King Mesha, we make “sacrifices” in order to ensure the victory of capitalism over socialism, the victory of consumerism over terrorism.

If you would learn to understand the bible, and actually get the most out of it, then do read this book. It is about the best I’ve seen at showing us the dangers of inerrancy, and how we can grow in our faith through a truthful, honest and courageous examination of our sacred books.

* I am indebted to WIPF & Stock Publishers for sending this book free of charge for review. The only agreement is an implicit promise on my part to read, review and publish the results.

Repost: Mark: A Commentary

It is with pure delight that I thank Westminster John Knox Publishing for sending me the following selection for review. This is the opening book in a new series entitled: Belief: A Theological Commentary on the Bible.

The first book in the series is Mark, by William C. Placher. It was published along with Luke, which I have also received and will be reviewing shortly.

WJK also publishes the Interpretation series, of which I have long been a fan, but after reading Mark, I suspect this new series may far outstrip that wonderful series.

The idea behind the Belief series is to bring together the latest exegetical work, along with literary, historical, archaeological, and other pertinent advances as they impact how we interpret the bible from a theological point of view.

In Mark, they have certainly attained their goal. Professor Placher, unfortunately now deceased, has written a simply beautiful commentary. Not content to just tell us what the text means, or most likely means, Placher explores how Mark’s “good news” is still most relevant to the world we live in today.

For example, in the opening pages, he writes:

Americans today, therefore, read the Gospel of Mark–this story of a Middle Eastern man tortured to death by the most powerful empire of his time–when we are the most powerful nation of our time, and our forces are torturing people, sometimes to death. What does this imply about our values and the sort of people we have become?

Peppered throughout the chapters are “Further Reflections” on key phrases or words such as Kingdom of God, Miracles, and Ransom. Each of these probes into the historical record and juxtaposing that against our modern notions, finding common ground and points of comparison.

Quotes are boxed throughout the text as well, and are wide-ranging in their authorship, including Luther, Barth, Basil, Tertullian, Philo, Cicero and many others. These highlight themes introduced and explored by Professor Placher.

What is most compelling is the breath of sources. You will meet the likes of Karl Barth, and Luther of course, but also the likes of Calvin, John Dominic Crossan, and Gustavo Gutiérrez. Majority opinions are explained, but plenty of minority opinions are given with their rationales. Of course, Placher gives his choice and the reasons for it in the end.

We are a world more and more polarized along religious lines. Placher offers us, for example, a theological explanation of chapter 12:28-34. Here Jesus is questioned by a scribe as to which commandment is first. Jesus famously says “love God and love your neighbor.” This is all well and good, but in answering, Jesus shows us that even though many of his arguments are with scribes, not all scribes are bad, some come with honest questions. Barth points out that this the Hebrew Scriptures often engage “outsiders” to do the will of God, and thus Jesus shows us that good can often come from those who are not like us. How useful it is to remember that today.

The point always is, that when we read scripture, and Mark in particular, there is much that speaks to our condition today, both individually and as communities and nations. Every minister, priest, and preacher, every teacher seeks to make the scripture relevant to their listeners. This is no more than Mark did himself, in trying to tailor the stories he told to the issues present in his community.

How could Jesus help them? How can Jesus help us? As students of scripture, we have much to gain here in understanding, but if we are also preachers and teachers, we have even more, for here we can find new insights, new interpretations, new connections where we never realized them before. For every minister who has sat late into Saturday evening, still trying to find something “new” to say on tomorrow’s gospel, she or he will likely find help here.

We squabble, some of us in our respective traditions with rules about who can join us, and who cannot join us. We have our own brand of “unclean”. Yet, Jesus did not teach us that. He taught us the opposite. He regularly ate with sinners and those ritually unclean, and he never made it a condition for sitting at table with him that repentance was a pre-requisite. What does that say to us today?

Page by page, Placher explores, teases out, and conjoins text from not only Mark, but from other texts as well both in and out of the bible. The picture sharpens and Mark’s words take on added significance. We see in a new way, hopefully a better one.

I simply enjoyed this commentary more than I can say. I found it easy of explanation, yet profound in its theological depth. Placher has drawn from a broad spectrum of experts, and has intertwined them to make coherent and useful conclusions. He gives us a foundation from which to explore.

As I said, teachers and preachers will find this commentary invaluable as they search for new ways to marry scripture to today’s world. Individuals will see application in their own lives and spiritual journeys.

If the rest of this series can be predicted upon the basis of this opening publication, then we are in for a rich treat indeed. You may indeed want to consider the entire series, as it comes out. I have barely begun Luke, and I can already see that it carries on the fine standards established in the first offering. Do yourself a favor and pick this one up. You won’t be sorry.

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