The quest for the historical Jesus has tended to devolve into an act of looking into a well and seeing one's own reflection. That was Albert SchweitzeThe quest for the historical Jesus has tended to devolve into an act of looking into a well and seeing one's own reflection. That was Albert Schweitzer's analysis more than a century ago and it still remains true to this day. The way in which this reflection is cast will change, but not necessarily the truth involved. Christians like a Jesus who is in sync with their vision of reality. John Spong is no different than the rest of us.
In this book the former Episcopal bishop of Newark, NJ seeks to demonstrate that biblical literalism is a Gentile heresy. I find it ironic that a person who has been called a heretic by his opponents seeks to turn the tables on them. Of course, I've long found it ironic that Spong has gleefully flouted his own denomination, even as he embraces his status as bishop.
In this book, which I found to be at points sad and at others simply out of step with current scholarship, Spong seeks to take down biblical literalism. Of course the concept of biblical literalism is a bit ambiguous. Are we talking about reading the bible in its plain sense or are we talking about a wooden literalism that assumes that every statement must be historically accurate? In recent years it has been fashionable to say that one takes the Bible "seriously but not literally." Such a blanket statement suggests that there is nothing of historical value to be found in the Bible. Everything becomes metaphor. Few go that far, though at points it does appear that Spong goes in that direction.
I'll admit that I've never been a fan of Spong's. This book did nothing to convince me otherwise. I have no desire to separate him from the Christian community, but I do find his attitude toward those with whom he is at odds to be disappointing. Many of us seek to read the Bible in a critical but appreciative manner. We struggle with texts that espouse violence and oppression, at the same time many of us have found the Scriptures to be a place where we encounter a word from God. Thus, to say of those who speak of the Bible as the Word of God as being "illiterate" or to suggest that the use of the phrase "Word of God" in worship in reference to the Bible as perpetuating "religious ignorance and religious prejudice" is unnecessary. I'm not sure how biblical literalism is a product of a Gentile reading of the Scripture. In other words, we didn't start off well.
So let me address central point of the book. Spong wants to undo what he believes to be an unwarranted and even dangerous atonement theology. It is true that the idea of atonement is a subject of deep debate in the present era (and really always has been). Nonetheless the cross remains central to the Christian faith. The question is -- what role does it play? In order undo the harm he believes is perpetrated by an atonement theology that denies human worth, he wants to recast our reading of the Gospels.
Those who have studied the Gospels likely know that they emerged late in the second half of the first century, decades after the death of Jesus. The only New Testament texts that predate the Gospels are the letters of Paul, which say very little about Jesus' earthly life. The cross and resurrection are central, though there is little narrative given to these two key points. It is true as well that there is divergence in the Gospel narratives that must be accounted for. Scholars have been busy seeking to explain the points of agreement and disagreement.
In this book Spong offers his take on the origins and message of the Gospel of Matthew. In doing so he seeks to popularize the theory offered in the 1970s by the British biblical scholar Michael Goulder that the Gospels are liturgical texts. Goulder suggested that while Mark is the earliest Gospel, he rejected the idea of the existence of a sayings source (Q) that was later used by Matthew and Luke. Spong takes up Goulder's view and suggests that we should reject Q and assume that Matthew was written in the context of the synagogue liturgy. He then suggests that Luke took Matthew and revised it for a different synagogue context. Spong suggests that this allows us to read the Gospels through Jewish eyes.
The problem as I see it is that we simply don't know much about how synagogues of the first century structured their gatherings, and Spong does little to prove his point. He goes to great lengths to lay out his vision, but unless I'm blind I don't see his point. Nonetheless. he imposes this supposed Jewish liturgy on the Gospel and explains the Jesus story in its context. Jesus then becomes mostly a reconfiguring of Old Testament figures, especially Moses. While it's clear that Matthew did use Old Testament stories to help tell the Jesus story, and we don't know which texts reflect the Jesus of history and the Jesus of Matthew's imagination, to say that the whole Jesus story is simply a reflection of Jewish liturgical work seems to push things too far. Besides, I'm not clear why Jesus would even be part of the synagogue story. Where is this synagogue and why we would they tell the Jesus story? That question never gets answered. In essence Spong did nothing to convince me that the long rejected Goulder thesis should be resurrected.
Even if Q is hypothetical it remains the best explanation for the similarities. In addition Spong's rather creative retelling of the story, seems to not taken into consideration the role of oral tradition. We are not an oral society and so we find it difficult to give credence to the oral passing on of stories. We think in terms of "playing telephone." But oral societies take great care in passing on the stories from one generation to another. Thus, we need be more attentive to those differences. So yes, we do need to read the Jesus story through Jewish eyes. Jesus was a Jew. His earliest followers were Jews. I'm just not sure John Spong is the best guide. He has lengthy bibliography at the back of the book but he shows little engagement with an of these resources, most of which support the current theories of transmission.
I know he'll get lots of attention. And that's okay. The tent is broad. The Episcopal Church for that matter has always had different wings. Before Spong there was James Pike. I just think there are better places to go if one wishes to find a balanced picture of the Gospels. It would appear that Spong is just not my cup of tea!
I remember the first time I heard the Reverend William Barber II speak. It was right after the Trayvon Martin verdict came in. George Zimmerman was f I remember the first time I heard the Reverend William Barber II speak. It was right after the Trayvon Martin verdict came in. George Zimmerman was found not guilty of murder. I was in Orlando for the General Assembly of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), which was meeting in the same venue as the NAACP national convention. Rev. Barber came over to speak to us as a representative of the NAACP. His message that evening was powerful, calling for us to embrace the cause of racial justice. We still had a speaker to hear that night, and he was good, but it was Rev. Barber, a Disciple pastor himself, that caught my attention. I've had several opportunities to hear him speak since then, and I also was able to read his previous book Forward Together: A Moral Message for the Nation. I have found his message of a Third Reconstruction to be a powerful one, and one that is needed at this moment in time.
In this book, Barber with the assistance of Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, introduces us to the New Justice Movement that forms what he calls the Third Reconstruction. This is part memoir, part sermon, part history, and part call to action. Barber is the President of the North Carolina chapter of the NAACP, a Disciples pastor, and founder of the Moral Monday Movement. His vision is one of a fusion politics that builds coalitions across racial, ethnic, political, religious lines. In his analysis this is the third such effort to emerge since the end of the Civil War.
The first Reconstruction was that effort to build a new society in the South that would enable former slaves to enter fully into society. A fusion politics emerged that elected numerous Black candidates to office, including the US Senate and governorships. This first Reconstruction came to an end beginning in the 1870s, with a final fall in the 1890s as Jim Crow emerged, segregating black and white, and putting an end to full participation of Blacks in the South. The Second Reconstruction was the Civil Rights Movement that emerged in the 1950s and led to monumental changes in American social policy, including laws that banned overt segregation and gave voting rights to Blacks. Jim Crow had its match. Then came a reaction, the Southern Strategy that found a new way of disestablishing African Americans. This time it was more covert, but it was just as effective in limiting the advancement of people of color. It was a divide and conquer effort that resegregated the South through private schools, reduced funding for public schools, diminished health care and so-called tough on crime legislation that impacted African Americans more than other community. This has led to what is known as the "New Jim Crow," or mass incarceration, often on disproportionate sentences on drug offenses.
The Third Reconstruction is now underway. Expressions of it include the election Barack Obama, which in turn led to new forms of reaction. The Moral Monday and Forward Together Movements are expressions of what Barber calls fusion politics. It is for him deeply rooted in his faith, but the partnerships cross faith lines. This isn't any set of victories. Political extremists on the right have found an effective way of obtaining power by playing fears of the other. Dividing and conquering people of color and whites, especially the poor, has allowed this to occur. We're seeing it in current politics, with attacks on Muslims and immigrants. Building walls rather than bridges is the politics of the day. In response, Barber is calling for the creation of new fusion alliances. What is important to note here is that he has no interest in helicoptering in as the "national voice." Success requires indigenous coalitions that build bridges. While class is part of the equation, we must not lose sight of the role race plays in the conversation.
This is a powerful book Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove has done a wonderful job transmitting Barber's vision of a Third Reconstruction. This is a must read book. It is prophetic! So take and read so that we might move into a new day, where fear no longer divides!...more
There are books you would like to put down, but know you shouldn't. This is one of those books. Cody Sanders and Angela Yarber have written a powerfulThere are books you would like to put down, but know you shouldn't. This is one of those books. Cody Sanders and Angela Yarber have written a powerful book that will open your eyes to the presence of a myriad of microaggressions in daily life. You may be wondering what a microaggression is? Before I read this book I hadn't heard of a microaggression either.
We hear a lot about racism, sexism, heterosexism. On a macro level, most of us avoid exhibiting language and behavior that overtly appears to be bigoted. We would love to believe that bigotry has been relegated to the dustbin of the past, but many of us know better. If you aren't convinced that such things exist, check out the comments section on a magazine or news site. But what about those of us who try to refrain from such bigotry? Could we exhibit behavior that hurts others?
This is the microaggression, the behavior that isn't blatant, but "assaults the souls of oppressed groups" that "still rage from the pulpit, the pew, the Sunday school class, the hymnal, the seminary curriculum, the ordination process, and in pastoral counseling" (p. 1). The concept of "microaggression" has been around since the 1970s, and has recently been taken up again. The authors build on the work of Derald Wing Sue, who defines a microaggression as "brief, everyday exchanges that send denigrating messages to certain individuals because of their group membership" (p. 12). These aggressions can take a variety of forms, and we all perpetrate them. They may take the form of microinsults (subtle insults such as a transgender person continually experiencing the use of the preferred pronoun). They may take the form of microinvalidations, in which the personal experiences of marginalized groups are not considered valid. As an example the authors point to a third-generation U.S. citizen who's family had immigrated to the US. Despite growing up in the US he experienced people commenting on how articulate he was and wondering where he came from. In other words, he was being cast as a perpetual foreigner. The third form of aggression is the "microassault. While the first two are largely unintentional, a microassault is intentional and is intended to demean the person targeted. These assaults are similar to more overt expressions of bigotry, but have been toned down and are more subtle.
The book is divided into three parts. The first part introduces us to microaggressions. Part two addresses three targets of microaggression -- those targeted due to race, gender, and sexual orientation and gender identity. Part Three looks at how microaggression is exhibited in preaching and education, music, space, and prayer, and finally pastoral relationships.
There were times as I read through the book that I felt like there was a lot of nit-picking. But then, as I read had to ask myself about how it feels to be targeted, even if unintentionally. What is required of us is empathetic listening. That might start be reflecting on ways in which we might have been targeted. For instance, I started wearing glasses in fourth grade. I'm very nearsighted, so I can't do much without them. Growing up I remember being called "four-eyes." Whether done as teasing or not, it hurt.
This book is important because many of our congregations, especially progressive ones, want to be welcoming and affirming of people. But, we may perpetuate stereotypes and behaviors that stigmatize persons. One of the stories told in the book is about a woman invited to preach at a three-day revival. There were two other preachers, both male. There were three chairs in the chancel, along with a pulpit and lectern. On the first night, the host pastor and three guests processed into the sanctuary. The three male pastors went to the chancel and took their places, and so the woman preacher sat on the front row. On the second night she was the preacher. Again she was last in line, which left her on the front row and not on the chancel. When it came time for her to preach, instead of focusing on her awards and achievements as a preacher, she was introduced as a "great lady preacher" and then reference was made to her two sons who were basketball players. Then, instead of inviting her to the pulpit to preach, she was relegated to the lectern. In other words she experienced a microinvalidation. By focusing on her gender in this case, as well as her place at the lectern the impression was left with the congregation that she didn't measure up to the male preachers. Or, think about how we welcome a transgender person. One of the most discouraging experiences for a transgender person is use of a rest-room. If you're a male transitioning to a female, which bathroom do you use? Not being ready for this eventuality is to exclude. The book is full of examples of ways in which, often unintentionally, we create barriers.
I believe this book will open eyes and hearts. You may not enjoy reading it. You may want to set it aside. I did! You may feel like this doesn't apply to you. But do some reflecting and you will find that you are also guilty. The point isn't making people feel guilty, it is finding solutions. The point is bringing and end to microaggressions. The first step is recognizing our complicity....more
Forty prayers and reflections offered up for the Lenten season. The author is Bruce Reyes-Chow, a Presbyterian pastor, writer, and cultural critic (thForty prayers and reflections offered up for the Lenten season. The author is Bruce Reyes-Chow, a Presbyterian pastor, writer, and cultural critic (that from the bio on the back of the book). Bruce is notable as well for being the youngest person to serve as Moderator of the Presbyterian Church (USA) General Assembly. He is also involved with the Center for Progressive Renewal.
As for the book, it is designed to serve as a daily point of reflection during the season of Lent, though there's nothing about the book that requires its use in Lent. It can be used at any point as a guide to prayer and reflection. Each day focuses on a particular word (forty in all) that range from commuinity to security. For each day there is a prayer and a reflection. Included in each days prayer sessions are Quick Read codes that can be scanned and used to share the message with others through Twitter or Instaprayer. It took a few tries, but I think I got the hang of it.
In his introduction Bruce writes that there isn't any wrong or right way to pray, for it is "an ongoing conversation between humanity and God" (p. xi). There is, of course, a shadow side to prayer. He notes that this occurs when prayer is used to manipulate others, offer passive aggressive judgment on others, and make the prayer more about the one praying than God. These occassions are generally public n nature.
The prayers are brief, usually no more than eight to ten lines. They're personal and thought-provoking. Because I planned on reviewing the book on my blog, I moved through quicker than one might if they were using it as a guide to prayer.
If you're looking for a Lenten prayer guide then I recommend the book. The fact that it is designed to share, that's even better!...more
St. Paul is an enigma to us. He was a key founder of what became Christianity. He was an apostle to the Gentiles. He helped the faith from Jerusalem tSt. Paul is an enigma to us. He was a key founder of what became Christianity. He was an apostle to the Gentiles. He helped the faith from Jerusalem to the ends of the earth (or at least Rome). Because he wrote letters dealing with theological issues and matters of practical relationships, as well as organization issues, some of what he wrote doesn't sit well with modern views of the world. It is often said that Paul ruined the religion of Jesus. The problem with this accusation is that Paul's letters precede the Gospels by years if not decades. So who is really telling the story of Jesus correctly? Well much ink has been spilled over the years. N.T. Wright devoted 1700 pages to the topic. I've not read it!
Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, has written a much briefer exposition of the life and teachings of Paul. His little book, which is offered as a set of reflections for the season of Lent, comes in at less than one hundred pages. It is very accessible and insightful.
The book is comprised of a set of three chapters, a series of discussion questions focused on these three chapters, and finally Williams offers a Lenten reading guide. For each week of Lent he suggests readings from the Pauline letters. There is also a Sunday reflection and a prayer that goes with the readings for the week.
The first chapter introduces us to Paul's context. We learn what it means for Paul to be a Roman citizen. In the First Century, under Rome, there were essentially three kinds of people: citizens, non-citizens, and slaves. Being a citizen didn't make you rich, but it gave you certain legal rights that Paul made use of along the way. We learn what it means to be a Jew in the Roman world. And Williams gives us a sense of Paul the man. He suggests that Paul was probably of a similar age to Jesus. It appears that he wasn't very attractive, had some kind of physical ailment (possibly an eye disease that may have disfigured his face), and may have lacked some social graces. In describing Paul's social context, Williams notes that religion as we know it really didn't exist. You didn't ask someone their religion. The gods were simply part of life. You didn't want to offend them. Really only Jews seemed to understand things differently than the rest of society. Williams notes that Paul was establishing a new religion. He was espousing a new world order. That meant for Paul traditional religious practices, which were ubiquitous might not be permissible for followers of Jesus. I found this chapter really helpful. It puts Paul in context in a way that makes him human. That's good!
The second chapter offers a look at Paul's vision of universal welcome. The epigraph for the chapter is Galatians 3:28. That passage, in William's mind, captures Paul's vision. Even if he didn't fully understand the revolutionary nature of this vision, he set things in motion that have born fruit over time. Paul's vision of welcome is linked to his vision of freedom. He envisions a community in which slavery no longer defines a person's identity. Indeed, this freedom he envisions is one in which one no longer worries about what must be done so that God might welcome them. How we live together in community should reflect God's welcome.
The third chapter focuses on his vision of the New Creation. He begins by describing how Jesus is the image of God. He is the one who shines forth the glory of God. If Jesus is the image of God, to be in Christ is to allow that image to be in us. To be in Christ is to be part of the New Creation (2 Cor. 5:17). He writes: "We are living in that new creation, that radically different universe: the new city with its new citizenship, where no lone is a slave or migrant deprived of dignity, where we live here and now, but at the same time in the living presence of the future" (p. 79).
The book is brief and to the point. If you wish, you can always dive into N.T. Wright's two volume tome, or you can gain a new appreciation of Paul and his vision of welcome and new creation by meditating on this offering. ...more
Racism is America's original sin. Racism has been deeply embedded in the American psyche since the first European settlers stepped foot on the shoresRacism is America's original sin. Racism has been deeply embedded in the American psyche since the first European settlers stepped foot on the shores of North America. The Civil War brought an end to slavery, but not racism. The Civil Rights Movement and the legislation that it pursued put an end to most overt forms of segregation, but it did not rid us of racism. The election of the first Black President was a move forward, but it didn't end racism. Indeed, nearly fifty years after the death of Martin Luther King, Jr. the church remains just about as segregated today as it did then.
Jim Wallis, founder of Sojourners and Christian social activist, has written an important primer on America's original sin. In a book that is deeply personal, Wallis, who is White himself, addresses the often unaddressed problem of White privilege that hangs over our national conversation, including the conversation within the Christian community. He admits, as we who are white and male must do, that he is the beneficiary of a system that rewards those who are white and male. He grew up in Detroit, a city that has been deeply affected by racial divisions and white flight. As an adult he has spent much of his life living in communities where is the minority ethnicity. He encounters with his neighbors has influenced his life and vision. He also admits that "no matter what you do to help overcome racism, you can never escape white privilege in America if you are white" (p. xxii).
This is a challenging book, but it is also a hopeful one. It involves a confession of sin, but it also offers a vision of a bridge to a new America. The cover of the book features the Edmund Pettis Bridge in Selma, Alabama. Those who crossed that bridge in the 1965 participated in one of the most pivotal moments in the Civil Rights Movement. That is one bridge that has been crossed, but we still bridges to build and to cross so that we can become the nation that Dr. King and others envisioned.
The book begins with the story of race, takes us to Ferguson and Baltimore. It develops the premise of original sin and its legacy. Being theological, there is also a call to repentance, which is more than saying your sorry. Moving further in Wallis talks about dying to "Whiteness." That doesn't mean we who are of European ancestry must feel guilty about our heritage, but does require that we reject the ideology of whiteness, that is the ideology of white supremacy.
An important chapter takes us into the church, which remains largely segregated -- that includes most liberal/progressive congregations. What does a truly multi-racial church look like? Getting here will require intentionality, acknowledgement that diversity isn't an end in itself, developing a spirit of inclusion, and empowering leadership that is multi-racial. This all requires a great deal of adaptability!
Any conversation about race and America cannot avoid discussion of the role of police in our country. Wallis speaks of moving from envisioning the police as warriors to guardians. Serving and protecting needs to be made a priority! It is important to affirm that both black lives and blue lives matter. All of this requires building trust within communities, and this requires moving more fully toward community policing, ending the school-to-prison pipeline, and mass incarceration. Speaking of that, we need to address what has come to be called the "New Jim Crow." The racial disparity of our prison population must be addressed. Much of the problem is rooted in America's drug policies, which affect African American communities much more than other communities. Along with recognizing the disparities in our laws, Wallis encourages a move toward restorative justice, so that the purpose of the criminal justice system is to repair harm.
It's not just the African American community that faces the impact of original sin. Immigrant communities do so as well. Immigration policy today has become very politicized, and peoples lives are at stake. The system is broken, but there is no political will, despite the fact that both the Roman Catholic Church and evangelicals have been calling for reform. There is, of course, fear in the land that "those people" will come and take over. White America feels threatened. The response isn't pretty. It's also not very Christian.
Racism is our original sin. It affects everything that occurs in our nation. But it need not have the final word. We can build a new bridge. We can cross the bridge to that new America Jim Wallis envisions. We must do so because the demographic shift is leading quickly to a multi-racial country. So will we adapt and embrace the other, or will we dig in our heals. Wallis suggests the former, and I agree.
I believe this is more than an important book. It is an essential book to read. It is important that those who, like me, are white hear from one who is also white calling on us to repent. Repentance is not easy. We prefer a cheap grace that requires nothing of us, but that is not what Wallis offers. So, let us read and consider what it will take to cross the bridge. ...more