There is much wisdom to be found in the stories of our spiritual ancestors. As a church historian, I may be expected to say that, but it is true. We aThere is much wisdom to be found in the stories of our spiritual ancestors. As a church historian, I may be expected to say that, but it is true. We are the product in some sense of the traditions that have been handed down to us.
"Distant Voices" was written by a Churches of Christ historian and theologian who understands the value of biography. I had the opportunity to hear Leonard Allen speak in the fall of this year (2015) about some of the contributors to our collected stories. While I am a Disciple and Leonard is Church of Christ, we share a common heritage. Many of the stories recounted here speak to all streams of the Stone-Campbell tradition, and even those that don't speak directly can be instructive.
I was especially interested in the chapters on Robert Richardson, a colleague and close friend of Alexander Campbell, who challenged Campbell's rationalism and called for greater attention to the role of the Spirit in our lives. Richardson could be an important conversation point for those of us who embrace the Spirit.
The point here is that there are distant, often neglected voices that bear attending to. For instance, while we honor both Alexander Campbell and Barton Stone, Stone's influence is often placed behind that of Campbell. We've told ourselves that while there were differences, none were all that important. They agreed on the important things. What has happened is that Campbell has had the ascendancy and Stone has been politely set aside. Perhaps that's not a good thing!
This is written for the general audience -- there is a study guide -- and while pitched to churches of Christ I think it has much to offer persons in all three branches.
Leonard is a thoughtful, gracious, and irenic voice in our larger movement. I'm grateful to have made his acquaintance and have opportunity to read this book....more
By the time Mr. Rogers came on the scene I was already well into my elementary school years. I grew up with Captain Kangaroo. Over the years I've caugBy the time Mr. Rogers came on the scene I was already well into my elementary school years. I grew up with Captain Kangaroo. Over the years I've caught snippets of his children's show that appeared on PBS stations for decades. I knew him to be a gentle fatherly figure who wore a cardigan sweater, taught children to be gentle and let loose of their imaginations. Along the way I learned that he was an ordained Presbyterian minister who saw his show as a form of ministry, even if the the religious element wasn't explicit. What was present in his message was an ethical vision that was formed at least to some degree by his faith.
Michael Long's book "Peaceful Neighbor" introduces us to a man who was both compassionate and committed to forming generations of children to be compassionate neighbors. Long's book helps us understand Fred Rogers' commitments to social justice -- showing us where he put his emphasis and where he shied away from controversy.
What we learn right up front is that Fred Rogers was a pacifist of a somewhat radical kind. His radical pacifism, which was formed in part during his seminary years as a student of William Orr at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, helped form everything else he did and believed. As a seminarian he felt a call to work with children, and this calling eventuated in his TV show, which was launched nationally in 1968, at a time when the nation's streets were being turned upside down by protests and calls for change. It was a time of war, when nightly newscasts updated us on the fortunes or lack thereof in Vietnam. From the beginning he tried to teach the children the importance of peacemaking and nonviolence.
But he was not just a pacifist. While Part one of the book, comprising six chapters focuses on peace, and his message of peacemaking, Part Two, again comprising six chapters, shows how Rogers' vision of peace played out in other arenas, including race and diversity, hunger, gender stereotypes, homosexuality, animal rights, and ecology. In some areas, such as race, gender stereotypes, and animal rights (he was a vegetarian) he was explicit in his message. One area where he was not outspoken was the rights of LGBT persons. He hired a number of gay persons on the show, but neither spoke out on it nor did he encourage his gay employees to do so either. He was supportive but quietly.
What we learn from Long's book is that Fred Rogers was a complicated person. He was deeply religious and committed to social justice. He also had his blind spots, not always understanding the realities of the world. Thus, with regard to hunger, for instance, he emphasized charity while not advocating for systemic change.
The question is -- how influential was Fred Rogers in forming the two generations he touched (Gen X and Millenials)? It is a question that the church itself faces!
I have been fascinated by the story of Aimee Semple McPherson since my days as part of the denomination she founded. I've read the many biographies, aI have been fascinated by the story of Aimee Semple McPherson since my days as part of the denomination she founded. I've read the many biographies, and even written an article about her understanding of restorationism. I've been fascinated by the way in which she overcame gender restrictions to become one of the twentieth century's great religious figures. How did she enter what was a male dominated profession and make such a big impression? At the heart of the question is gender and how it is understood and used.
Aimee wasn't the only woman to break through the barriers. Marie Woodworth-Etter was an important predecessor to Aimee, and among the founders of the Assemblies of God. Their lives and careers overlapped, with Aimee coming on the scene as Woodworth-Etter was closing out her years of ministry.
Leah Payne has done a marvelous job in this relatively brief, but densely packed book, on the relationship to gender and Pentecostal revivalism. The period of her focus is the 1890s throuh the 1920s, a time when America was emerging from the Victorian era and new understandings of gender were emerging. The idea that a woman was fragile and needed to be protected was transitioning to a new role. In this new era the emphasis would be on the "manly man," (think Teddy Roosevelt), and the "womanly woman." Each would have their own arena of activity -- the woman was to be educated and strong, but keep engaged in the home (at least for middle class white families).
Both of these women sought to enter the realm of the "manly minister," but did so by making use of aspects of expectations of women. Interestingly both women were married more than once, had to overcome scandal, as well as gender expectations. Making this more difficult for them was the perception that ministry was feminine-like (caring, visitation, home focused), and so the leading clergy of the day, including revivalists like Billy Sunday emphasized their virility and manliness.
So, how did they do it? Well, there were two visions of women in the day -- the educated mother and the companionate wife (the wife as the husband's best friend). Each of the women took up one of these personas -- with Woodworth-Etter taking on the role of the "mother of Israel." Her dress and persona was matronly. Aimee on the other hand took on the persona of the companionate wife -- of Jesus! She made great use of bridal imagery. Yes, the church was the bride of Christ, but the church was personified in her own life. Whereas Woodworth-Etter emphasized simplicity and matronliness, Aimee over time took on the imagery of a bride and even that of a beautiful Hollywood starlet. Interestingly neither woman sought to campaign for women's ordination or even women's rights. Instead they subverted or used existing visions to gain authority over men. Interestingly, Woodworth-Etter was accused of using hypnotism to control men, while Aimee was accused of hyper-sexuality.
This is a fascinating look at two women, whose star has faded, but whose influence was great -- as seen in the legacy of the denominations they helped found or did found. Aimee's influence has been felt in other ways including the use of media for religious use. If you're interested in gender and religion or in the early days of Pentecostalism, you ought to take a look at this book! ...more
Dietrich Bonhoeffer is almost a figure who transcends history. He was a theological genius, a theological provocateur, a participant in the twentiethDietrich Bonhoeffer is almost a figure who transcends history. He was a theological genius, a theological provocateur, a participant in the twentieth century's most trying moment, seeking to defend Christianity against the inroads of an alien philosophy, while lifting up the humanity of his Jewish neighbors. He was involved in the conspiracy to overthrow Adolph Hitler and establish a new government that could negotiate with the allies. He was deeply involved in the ecumenical movement, a pastor, a teacher of pastors, and more.
Bonhoeffer has taken on an almost mythical aura. His death at the hands of the Nazi's just days before the camp he was being held in was liberated, stirs the imagination. Many stories have been told about his road to death, and his final moments (the later in the realm of speculation). Because he wrote so much at such a young age, and because much of his later work -- written while in hiding or in prison -- is fragmentary, he has almost become a Rorschach test. We see in him what we want. So there is a conservative evangelical version, a liberal version, a spiritual but not religious version, a God is Dead version, and more. The reality is -- Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a complex individual living at a unique moment in history.
I have read many of the biographies of Bonhoeffer, including Eberhard Bethge's magisterial tome as well as the more recent biography by Ferdinand Schlingensiepen's Dietrich Bonhoeffer 1906-1945: Martyr, Thinker, Man of Resistance. I've also had the unfortunate experience of reading Eric Metaxa's book. Both the Bethge and Schlingensiepen books are necessary reads for those wishing to understand Bonhoeffer's life, but this new book by Charles Marsh is also a necessary read.
Marsh rehearses many of the same stories as previous biographies, but what I found unique here is how he deconstructed the myth of martyrdom. That is, he helps us see Bonhoeffer as an individual, one who could be arrogant, needy, self-absorbed, privileged, and in some areas of life as immature emotionally as he was mature theologically. Many will find intriguing the intimate relationship he had with Eberhard Bethge. The closest analogy I could think of biblically was that of Jonathan and David. In many ways Bethge was Bonhoeffer's soul mate, with whom he shared the deepest elements of his life. Was there a sexual component? That is, was Bonhoeffer gay? It is possible, but if we make that the focus then we'll miss the deeper meaning of his personhood. My sense is that he was gay in orientation, but (spoiler), he remained celibate to the end of his life.
Getting back to the myth of martyrdom. I think it is appropriate that we place him among the saints of the church. His willingness to stand up against Hitler is to be commended, but he was not the only one to die, with many of his friends being executed long before him. He was able to evade that fate as long as he did in part due to family connections. But most importantly, Bonhoeffer didn't seek martyrdom and didn't see himself as a martyr. He sought to escape his fate. He looked forward to beginning a new life with his fiance Maria and sharing in the depth of friendship with Bethge. He wanted to further develop the insights he had come to in prison, especially the concept of religionless Christianity. But such was not to be.
I will have more to say in a more thorough review on my blog, but let me say here that this is a must read. I would suggest reading it in tandem with Schlingensiepen's book to get a full sense of Bonhoeffer the theologian, activist, and human being.
Typically, today, when the media goes looking for religious commentators they tend to bring on the likes of a Joel Osteen, a Rick Warren, or an Al MohTypically, today, when the media goes looking for religious commentators they tend to bring on the likes of a Joel Osteen, a Rick Warren, or an Al Mohler. There was a time, however, when theological giants played a significant role in public life. Among the giants at the mid-point of the twentieth century were two brothers, whose influence continues to be felt to this day. Would that there were theologians of the public stature of Reinhold and H. Richard Niebuhr today! We’re fortunate, however, that the voices of the two Niebuhr Brothers continue to make themselves heard today – and not just because of the use of the Serenity Prayer by Twelve Step Programs.
The many books that the two brothers wrote, along with numerous interpretive works, allow us to delve into their thoughts on matters theological, religious, cultural and societal. As we engage their work we’re reminded that the Christian faith has a public voice that can and should contribute to the common good.
Among these interpretive works that help us engage with the thought of the Niebuhr Brothers is the recently published contribution to Westminster John Knox’s Armchair Theologians series. These books are designed to introduce important theologians and their ideas to the general public. The books are designed to be introductory, but they are written by first class theologians. In the case of the Niebuhr Brothers, our companion is Scott R. Paeth, associate professor of religious studies at Chicago’s DePaul University. And as with the other contributions to this series, the book includes the wonderfully illuminating illustrations of Ron Hill. These illustrations are not a diversion; they offer visual insights that stimulate the conversation.
A bit hagiographic, but it is an interesting and helpful read of the life of a man whose name is largely unknown to most moderns, and yet we may singA bit hagiographic, but it is an interesting and helpful read of the life of a man whose name is largely unknown to most moderns, and yet we may sing a refrain from his hymns most every Sunday in the Doxology. ...more
David Holmes is a historian who understands religion, politics, and American history. In an earlier book, Faiths of the Founding Fathers, (http://www.David Holmes is a historian who understands religion, politics, and American history. In an earlier book, Faiths of the Founding Fathers, (http://www.bobcornwall.com/2007/08/fa...) he explored the religious ideas and practices of the Founding Fathers from Franklin to Monroe, all of whom were to some degree predisposed to a Deistic vision of religion. In this book, Holmes examines the faith expressions of the twelve post-WW II Presidents, from Truman to Obama. He provides broad context for each President, bringing in family, social, cultural, and political dynamics. What we learn about some might surprise us, but by reading this excellent book, perhaps we will be better understand the nature of presidential faith expressions. It's not easy being President and a person of faith!
Jon Sweeeney tells the story of Celestine V, the first and only Pope to voluntarily walk away from the papacy. Called to the papal chair out of his liJon Sweeeney tells the story of Celestine V, the first and only Pope to voluntarily walk away from the papacy. Called to the papal chair out of his life as a hermit and organizer of eremetic monastaries to lead a church needing reform. Though devoted to the spiritual life, he found himself not up to the administrative tasks demanded of him.
After five months of rule over the church, never reaching Rome, he abdicated. His successor, Boniface VIII tried to assert papal dominance over all of life, including secular life, but ultimately failed. After Boniface the papacy moved to Avingon for nearly 70 years, followed by the Great Schism, leading to the next moment of papal resignation -- though this time three popes were forced to resign.
Sweeney goes into some detail about Celestine's life, its context, and its implications. Interesting book -- and appropriate to read as we look to the second Pope in history to abdicate of his own free will -- Benedict XVI. Written prior to that decision, Sweeney notes conversations that had been ongoing about the prospect of Benedict's resignation. This is church history that has contemporary implications! ...more
An expansion of an earlier book edited and introduced by Hugh Kerr, John Mulder brings us a collection of conversion stories that run from St. Paul toAn expansion of an earlier book edited and introduced by Hugh Kerr, John Mulder brings us a collection of conversion stories that run from St. Paul to Bono, from Augustine to Fannie Crosby. These stories remind us that conversion comes in many different forms, and that conversion is often a realization of a deeper relationship with God. For preachers this could be a good source of inspiration -- but the same is true for any Christian....more
W.E.B. Du Bois was an important figure in the history of the American struggle for civil rights. Ed Blum offers us an important look at his life and wW.E.B. Du Bois was an important figure in the history of the American struggle for civil rights. Ed Blum offers us an important look at his life and work. My review of the book appeared in the Christian Century in 2008.
I read this years ago, while in college, back when I was still part of Foursquare. This is not the most reliable or appreciative bio. It focuses on thI read this years ago, while in college, back when I was still part of Foursquare. This is not the most reliable or appreciative bio. It focuses on the sensationalist parts of her life, but it is one of the earlier biographies, and needs to at least be taken account of. ...more
Matt Sutton has written a scholarly biography of Aimee Semple McPherson that focuses on her contribution to the development of the idea of a ChristianMatt Sutton has written a scholarly biography of Aimee Semple McPherson that focuses on her contribution to the development of the idea of a Christian America in Pentecostalism. It's an excellent book, well worth reading! ...more
This is simply the best general biography of Sister Aimee. Edith Blumhoffer's book is excellent, but Epstein writes not as a fellow religionist, but aThis is simply the best general biography of Sister Aimee. Edith Blumhoffer's book is excellent, but Epstein writes not as a fellow religionist, but as an appreciative outsider. It's simply a joy to read this life of one of America's most intriguing religious leaders!...more
Abraham Lincoln is an iconic figure. Considered to be among the greatest, if not the greatest President, of the United States. During much of his PresAbraham Lincoln is an iconic figure. Considered to be among the greatest, if not the greatest President, of the United States. During much of his Presidency he was considered by many to be anything but great. After all, he presided over the disintegration of a nation and had placed thousands in harms way. Having no executive experience when he took office he had to learn on the job, and for the entirety of his presidency was consumed by the need to guide the war effort. It wasn't until Grant took over the leadership of the army that he could actually let go of the reins.
This biography is not a short read -- at nearly 700 pages of text plus notes. It takes us on a journey from his birth in the Kentucky Wilderness to his years as a lawyer and budding politician to dark horse candidate for President. Ron White doesn't try to psychoanalyze Lincoln, but instead teases out Lincoln's views from the historical record -- including Lincoln's own letters and speeches.
I thoroughly enjoyed reading this biography, perhaps because it is written by a practicing historian who has made Lincoln's speeches a focus of his research. There is another reason why I appreciated this book -- Ron White is trained as historian of American Christianity, and thus more than most biographers of Lincoln has the capacity to understand Lincoln's theological musings. We discover a Lincoln very different from the one we often are confronted with -- either the free thinker or the evangelical. He was neither, but he was a person who believed and was influenced by the Bible and Christian theology. It is good to remember that during his time in Washington he was a regular attendee of New York Avenue Presbyterian Church, pastored by an Old School Presbyterian who was trained by Charles Hodge.
To understand the American reality, we need to understand its seminal figures. Lincoln is one, and I can think of no better guide than Ronald White....more
Moses writes about Dietrich Bonhoeffer from a unique perspective -- not that of a theologian, but as a historian of Prussian/German culture. BonhoeffeMoses writes about Dietrich Bonhoeffer from a unique perspective -- not that of a theologian, but as a historian of Prussian/German culture. Bonhoeffer as he appears in this excellent book is a reluctant revolutionary, one who felt that he had to challenge and change the basic foundations of German understandings of reality -- including its deeply rooted anti-semitism. ...more