The season of Advent is a most interesting one. It's a season of preparation, where we prepare the way for the one who is coming into the world. It isThe season of Advent is a most interesting one. It's a season of preparation, where we prepare the way for the one who is coming into the world. It is a season of waiting for the advent of the one who brings God's realm into our experience. Unfortunately, we live at a time when the pressure is on to get right to Christmas. The Christmas decorations start going up after Halloween and the radio stations often go all Christmas on Thanksgiving Day. That's before the first Sunday of Advent. I like Christmas hymns and carols, but I also find the songs and hymns of Advent to be spiritually enlivening. These songs and hymns are designed to help us wait and prepare.
In this book of devotions, Magrey R. DeVega offers a reflection rooted in the hymns of Advent for each day of Advent, ending with Christmas Eve. DeVega is Senior Pastor at Hyde Park United Methodist Church in Tampa, Florida. This is his second book of Advent meditations, so he has some experience with the season.
The book is comprised of twenty-eight brief chapters, that take up eleven Advent hymns, most of which I know and love, starting with "O Come, O Come, Emmanuel." Each devotion invites the reader to take up a reading from Scripture and then a verse from an Advent hymn. A reflection is offered, on hymn and text, followed by an invitation for reflection (or a question for discussion). All is ended with a prayer.
DeVega points out that this is an important season, that calls for "patience and attentive preparation." That is because "as pregnancy precedes birth, so does Advent intentionally focus us on the ways to get ready for the arrival of Christ in and among us" (p. xii). So, even as we try to fast-forward to Christmas, this set of daily devotions that reflect on the messages of our Advent hymns, can help us step back and slow down so we can be ready when the Christ child arrives.
Since I wanted to get word out long before Advent, I didn't read this over twenty-eight days, but that's the way it's intended to be used! So, i you're looking for a resource to help you journey through Advent, I think this will be a good companion! ...more
It is always dangerous when religion becomes overly entangled with politics. That doesn't mean that people of faith, including Christians, shouldn't gIt is always dangerous when religion becomes overly entangled with politics. That doesn't mean that people of faith, including Christians, shouldn't get involved in public life, but there is often a fine line between what is appropriate and what is inappropriate. Unfortunately, too often we find ourselves beholden to party, and that party trumps principles (to paraphrase the subtitle of this book by Brian Kaylor).
Brian Kaylor is a journalist and author of several books on the intersection of religion and politics. "Vote Your Conscience" is his latest offering and it is an attempt to give some perspective on the upcoming 2016 presidential election, which poses a number of challenges to people of faith.
Kaylor's major concern, and I think the reason for releasing what is a self-published book, is the embrace by white evangelicals of Donald Trump. Throughout the book, Kaylor throws a barb at Hillary Clinton, but that seems to be more an attempt to be "balanced" than it is a full fledged analysis of her politics and apparent ethical lapses. He does acknowledge that of the two major party candidates Hillary Clinton is more likely a Christian than is Donald Trump.
As someone who has deep concerns about the prospect of a Trump presidency, and as one who supports Hillary Clinton, I found myself at times in full agreement and at other times in disagreement. My concern is that while his analysis of Trump's candidacy, which has been marked by statements that should give Christians pause before supporting him -- his vulgarity, name-calling, anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim rants, embrace of torture, just to name a few issues and behaviors where he falls short -- has received close attention, his analysis of Clinton's ethical lapses seem to be based more on Republican talking points. Like I said, I intend to vote for Hillary, so I'm a bit sensitive to how she is portrayed.
Nonetheless, this book can be a useful primer on ways in which we might approach the upcoming elections. It is important that we keep our allegiances in the proper order. No candidate and no party will completely align with our faith positions and principles, but we should bring our ethical vision into the conversation. Principle should stand above party. Kaylor reminds us that ours is a kingdom vision. This is an important word for churches who can be tempted to become political tools, usually as a result of promises of power and influence.
This is a helpful book because raises important questions. I would recommend that it be read in partnership with David Gushee's A Letter to My Anxious Christian Friends: From Fear to Faith in Unsettled Times, which is also written first and foremost to white evangelical Christians. While a significant majority of white evangelical Christians seem to have been joined in marriage with the GOP (Brian has an interesting discussion of the use of marriage language to describe the partnership on the part of evangelical leaders such as Richard Land), liberal/Progressive Christians can also become overly entangled with the Democratic Party (though on the left end there is more talk of third party participation). Kaylor, like Gushee, raises the possibility of voting third party, especially if one lives in a state where such a vote won't tip the election in one way or another (that is, if you don't live in a battle-ground state you might want to vote third party, to send a message to the two major parties.)
Perhaps after the election is over there will be room for a post-mortem that will reveal the value of putting some distance between church and party. In the meantime, we can vote our principles, even if there is no perfect choice. ...more
Among the most recognizable Advent-Christmas biblical texts is Isaiah 9:6, which offers up four names that get applied to Jesus: Wonderful Counselor,Among the most recognizable Advent-Christmas biblical texts is Isaiah 9:6, which offers up four names that get applied to Jesus: Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, and Prince of Peace. This is a passage that gets voiced in Handel's Messiah and is read at many a Christmas Eve service. What better way to journey through Advent than to explore these four titles in the company of Walter Brueggemann?
This little book offers a four week study of Isaiah 9:6, one title at a time. The book is composed of four chapters, in which Brueggemann explores each of the titles in its original Isaianic context and then its application to Jesus. In the introduction Brueggemann suggests that the use of these titles in the context of Christmas and Jesus' birth reveal two items. The first piece is a reminder that early Christians used the the "Old Testament 'anticipations' of the coming Messiah," Secondly, "Jesus did not fit those 'anticipations' very well" (p. viii). In other words, it takes a "good deal of interpretive imagination" to make the connection "between the anticipation and the actual, historical reality of Jesus."
With regard to the title of "Wonderful Counselor," Brueggemann suggests that what is meant here is "wise governance." The expectation here is that God has provided a king who will "devise plans and policies for the benefit of the entire realm" (p. 3). So, when applied to Jesus, how is he going to rule, since he doesn't fit traditional understandings of monarchy? That is the question raised by the Advent season.
From wisdom we move to power -- "Mighty God." In using this term for Jesus, Handel and others see Jesus as a carrier of divine power. But, as Brueggemann points out in his usual manner, Jesus' vision of power is very different from that of Rome. His use of power is very different from the coercive, exploitative version employed by Rome. His vision is a transformative one, which has been passed on to the disciples and to us. This vision that is offered is one, as Brueggemann lays out, that involves "healing forgiveness, restoration, and well being" (p. 31).
Brueggemann's discussion of the third title is intriguing. He notes that Jesus is understood to be the Son and not the Father, so how does he embody this title? Brueggemann does a nice job reminding us that God was understood as father in the Old Testament. In part this is a reflection of the patriarchal nature of that society, but the idea is that the king does "fatherly deeds." The king, and Jesus is understood to be the king in this new kingdom, is God's regent or surrogate. As such, he is entrusted with the duty of caring for the poor and the needy, and standing for justice. He is the bearer of God's vision to all generations.
Finally, Jesus is "prince of peace." The king is responsible for the social order, including peace. That is Jesus' vocation -- bringing peace. Of course, Jesus is not a prince in the normal sense. As prince of peace, he is not one who imposes it from a position of coercive power, as is true for empires. His peace isn't the same as the pax Romana. Thus, his peace is not your normal form. It is instead a peace that is "dangerous, subversive, and a contradiction of all that is usual" (p. 66). In his estimation, Brueggemann notes that Jesus contradicts all previous expectations of a peacemaker "who will ensure our advantage in the world." Instead, "the Christ child who is born, coronated, and worshiped is innocent, but he is not innocuous" (p. 66).
This little book could prove to be a most enlightening and invigorating Advent study. The four brief interpretive chapters are followed by a study guide of four weeks. The guide begins with a prayer, continues with questions for reflection that go back to the interpretive work done by Brueggemann, and then concludes with a closing prayer.
For those persons and congregations looking for an Advent study, this merits close attention and receives my recommendation. Brueggemann has demonstrated through the years that he has a keen insight into the biblical story and how it might speak prophetically to our contemporary situation. As he demonstrates here, the church through ages has reappropriated texts from the Old Testament that may digress from the original purpose, as is true of this passage. Using this one passage and its four titles might require some imaginative interpretation to the make the link, and Brueggemann has the skill and wisdom to help us make that turn in a way that honors the original meaning and its later application. For that we can be thankful to Westminster John Knox for having him create this resource for our spiritual benefit!...more
The current election season is causing a lot of angst among the American people. It's also causing Christians to deal with uncomfortable questions aboThe current election season is causing a lot of angst among the American people. It's also causing Christians to deal with uncomfortable questions about our relationship to culture and nation. There is need for a calm word to Christians so that they might live by faith rather than fear. Of course, there is also a need for Christians to be challenged by their faith to live in the nation with their faith as their guide. To do this, we'll need an expert guide. There are few better guides in our day than David Gushee.
Gushee writes a letter to anxious Christians living in America, a letter that is long enough a book. In this book/letter Gushee covers a multitude of issues. For the most part he urges calm, but at times, as is true with the words about climate change he finds it necessary to encourage his readers to get a better focus on the issue at hand.
Because Gushee's roots are evangelical, his primary audience is the white evangelical community that seems beholden to a particular party that could be acting contrary to their best interests. Whether one is part of that particular community or not, this is a prescient book. It speaks to our times and our anxieties, calling forth from us wisdom and courage to go against the grain.
Gushee is an ethicist and a public theologian. He theologizes about public life in a way that is accessible, thoughtful, and challenging. You're going to find yourself in agreement at points and disagreement at others. That's the way it should be.
The book is comprised of twenty chapters, most of which are relatively brief. The first half of the book focuses on foundation issues, such as American identity, the role of Christians in America, the relationship of Christianity to democracy, political parties, divisions in the country, the role of judges, character, and patriotism (a must read). In each of these chapters Gushee invites us to consider what it means to be Christian and American. He reminds us, much as John Fea does in his books, that the debate over whether America is a Christian nation is a diversion. The fact is, Christians have formed a majority of residents since the beginning of the nation. At the same time, the Constitution never established Christianity. Today the nation is increasingly pluralistic, and so even if were once Christian, we're no longer as dominant as was once the case. While democracy isn't a Christian way of governing, it does reflect certain Christian insights. Thus, the two are compatible.
The remaining chapters focus on specific issues ranging from race to health care. In between he discusses police, sex, abortion, immigration, guns, money, climate, war, executions, education. On abortion he stands on the pro-life side of the equation. On sexuality, he's conservative in one sense, but wants to open the question about inclusion of LGBT folks in church and culture. If you were to judge Gushee's positions according to party, he would probably look more Democrat than Republican, but while he recognizes the role of parties, and that the two party system isn't going away, he wants us to think beyond party.
AS we traverse this difficult season, he would like us to live faithfully. That means looking to faith as a guide and recognizing our responsibility for each other. That is one important reason why he takes such an impassioned position on climate change. As the son of a climate scientist he has a good background on environmental issues. He challenges the "global warming is a hoax" crowd with science, but he also reminds us that it's the poor who are most vulnerable. So, let's get busy.
This is a book for our times. Hopefully in time we'll deal with the issues in a responsible way. In the meantime we need to do some introspection and commitment to doing the right thing. ...more
Sex is generally something Christians don't talk about, at least not very often, especially among my generation of Christians who remain relatively trSex is generally something Christians don't talk about, at least not very often, especially among my generation of Christians who remain relatively traditional in their sexual ethics. We're not as traditional as our parents, but even though there was liberation in the 1960s, by the time I came of age in the mid 1970s, at least in my hometown, we had returned to "normalcy." Sex was something that some people engaged in but good Christians (in my circles) tried to put off till marriage (heterosexual marriage, of course). While, even good Christians pushed the boundaries, we tried to refrain from going all the way (intercourse). Things have changed over the past forty years, even in Christian circles.
Bromleigh McCleneghan, the author of "Good Christian Sex" is of a different generation than me. I'm going to guess she's a millennial, which would mean her parents are probably of similar age to me. Her experiences and understandings of things represent that change of generations, especially when it comes to sex outside of marriage. That of course, requires some discussion of what we mean by sex! This book is an attempt to explore this question for Christians who wonder if, as the subtitle suggests, chastity is the only option. McCleneghan, who is an ordained minister, and the daughter of a United Methodist pastor, doesn't believe so, and she makes a good case for her position.
I found the book to be fascinating and enlightening and even a bit frustrating. The frustration is of my own doing. I simply found myself trying to bridge the gap between her experience and my own, and that's not just generational, it also stems from being in different camps. In the end, however, while I struggled with parts of the book, especially the role that alcohol seems to play in the conversation, I think we're at a healthier place today than yesterday.
I should also note that I've been married for 33 years, and so dating my history is nearly ancient! Nonetheless, I'm deeply interested in the topic. I am, after all, a pastor. I minister to people who are single and dating and wondering what is appropriate behavior. I've also recently written my own book on marriage and the Bible - Marriage in Interesting Times: A Participatory Study Guide. In many ways, I wish I had read this book before writing my own. Nonetheless, I believe that these two books can serve to open an important conversation about sex, intimacy, commitment, and marriage.
The book is part memoir and part word of wisdom. McCleneghan shares pretty openly about her own experiences, including her first sexual awakening as a young teen and her first full sexual experience as a college student, and continues on through her journey toward marriage and commitment to one partner.
The book is premised on the idea that pleasure is good and a gift of God. There are, of course, appropriate and inappropriate ways of experiencing pleasure. With that as a foundation, she invites to take a journey from first experiences of pleasure (often self-stimulation) and awakenings of desire, through first kisses and sexual experiences. She raises an important point in the book about definitions of sex and misinformation regarding whether oral and anal sex are really sex. Yes, the book is frank, and that is good.
She speaks of playing fair, the role of sex as a single person, a chapter on vulnerability and one intimacy -- both are important chapters. She speaks of history, and for many younger adult Christians history with exes might be a different than it was for my generation (perhaps). The final two chapters provide important capstones. Chapter eight speaks of fidelity and what that means for Christians. Fidelity doesn't mean one never has more than one partner, but for most people eventually there will be a decision to be in partnership with just one person, so as to make a life. Usually that involves marriage (and for same-sex couples that is a hard won right in our country). Chapter nine is a necessary one because relationships don't always work out. So the question is, does one stay or go if the relationship begins to falter?
We are sexual beings. The question is, how do we live as sexual beings as Christians? What does the Bible say and what guidance does theology provide? To what extent does love connect with sex and sex with love. The author notes that they are not one and the same, but they are often intertwined. Finding the right path is not easy, but Bromleigh McCleneghan offers us a foundation for having this conversation. For that we can be thankful, even if the reader is from a different generation with differing expectations. (I will saying more in a review to be posted on my blog). ...more
There is a tendency to speak of Christianity as being a "Western" religion, by which most people think of Christianity as a European religion. The facThere is a tendency to speak of Christianity as being a "Western" religion, by which most people think of Christianity as a European religion. The fact is, Christianity, like Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism, and a number of other major religions, is in fact an Asian-born religion. Its roots are in Asia and from there it spread south, east, west, and yes, north in the two millennia since its birth in the first century of the common era. Telling the story of Christianity is not easy for it is a diverse religion, spread across the globe. Christianity has ebbed and flowed in different parts of the world, its fortunes often related to other factors including migration, nationalism, as well as nature itself.
As a Church historian I've read my share of histories. Some are long and detailed, others relatively brief. Each has its place and purpose, and such is the case with Derek Cooper's Introduction to World Christian History. Cooper introduces us to world Christianity in a matter of 244 pages. He covers a lot of ground, both chronologically and geographically. He rarely stops in one place for long. Sometimes he chooses to emphasize one particular country to illustrate what is happening in a broader region. For the most part he seems to cover the topics at hand with diligence and forthrightness. He does make an occasional mistake or at least it would seem to me that a mistake had been made (one glaring example concerns the suggestion that explorer Henry Stanley was a disciple of David Livingstone).
What makes this book intriguing and somewhat unique is the way in which he lays out his study. He organizes the book according to the United Nations Geoscheme, exploring the place of Christianity as it exists in each subregion. To give an example, the UN Geoscheme organizes Asia according to five subregions: Central, Eastern, Southern, Southeastern, and Western.
With this as the geographical scheme, the book is divided into three chronological parts. Part one covers Christianity from its birth in the first century to the seventh century. During this period Christianity existed in Asia, Africa, and Europe. It was, of course, in the seventh century that Islam began to make its push across Asia and northern Africa, overtaking what had previously been Christian strongholds. So we watch as Christianity moves outward, finding its earliest successes in Asia, including modern Turkey, and moving across northern Africa, with Egypt becoming a major success. While Cooper doesn't focus on theology, he does note that early Christianity was diverse, and often divided theologically, especially regard to the nature of Christ.
Part two again focuses on the presence of Christianity in Asia, Africa, and Europe. It is in this period that runs from the eighth through the fourteenth centuries that Christianity makes its great inroads into Europe, even as it begins its long decline in Asia and Africa. Even as the former centers of Christianity, including the Holy Land, came under Islamic rule, culminating in the fall of the Byzantine Empire in the fifteenth century, Christianity came to dominate Europe, largely under Catholic influence, through the conversion of Germanic peoples, especially the Franks, which culminated in the crowning of Charlemagne as the Holy Roman Emperor by Pope Leo III in 800 CE. While the Byzantine Empire pulled back during the Middle Ages, Orthodoxy spread north and east, finally taking root in Russia.
There is a tendency to think of the Protestant Reformation in the sixteenth century as being the great divide within the Christian world, and it was a major fissure, but if we're thinking on a global scale, as Cooper wants to do, then it's not the Reformation that is the great chronological marker, it is the beginnings in the fifteenth century of the age of exploration. As Cooper reminds us, Protestantism remained a largely European and then North American phenomena long after Christianity was being spread by Roman Catholics in Africa, Latin America, North America, Asia, including India, and Oceania, long before Protestant missionaries began to go out in the eighteenth century.
For the most part Cooper, who appears to be an evangelical, remains true to his promise not to "arbitrate among rival articulations of what it means to be a Christian" (p. 19). He doesn't place a grid of orthodoxy on the various claimants to Christianity. If you make the claim, he counts you. In doing so, he allows for us to explore the global expansion of Christianity in all its forms. For many Christians reading this book will introduce them to forms of Christianity that have great ancient lineages, and have existed in places like Iraq and India and Ethiopia from almost the beginnings of the Church. It will also be helpful in letting go of the idea that Christianity is a European/American religion.
This last recognition is important because it is becoming clear that even as Christianity is in decline in Western Europe and North America, it is booming in the Global South and in Asia. Failure recognize this reversal of fortune will diminish our own sense of who we are as a Christian community. In many ways, the Christian community is returning to its roots.
Of course a book this brief cannot cover every region in the same way. I wish more had been said about the spread of Christianity in Oceania. In regards to Southeastern Asia, while the Philippines is certainly in need of exploration, I was hoping for something to be said about Christian presence in Vietnam.
All in all, I believe this book will serve nicely as an introduction to world Christianity, as its title indicates!
I am not a union member, nor have I ever been a member. At the same time I have held a variety of jobs over the years, and so I know what it means toI am not a union member, nor have I ever been a member. At the same time I have held a variety of jobs over the years, and so I know what it means to work/labor. I have been involved in community organizing as a pastor and so I know the importance of working together to build power (something we religious folk struggle with) so as to affect systemic change. We are living at a time when wages are stagnant and the gulf between the wealthiest and the poorest is getting larger by the year. Some in the political and the religious world speak of the need for redistribution of wealth. Joerg Rieger and Rosemarie Henkel-Rieger offer a somewhat different vision that focuses on valuing work. To get there requires a bottom-up approach.
The Riegers have written a most insightful book that reminds us of the contributions made by the labor movement, including the 8 hour work day, weekends, vacations, pensions, and more, but since many if not workers are religious, they raise the question as to why faith and labor rarely interact. Indeed, their point is that work/labor are not simply material concerns, they are also spiritual ones. As they note, "in the Abrahamic traditions, no such easy separation exists" (p. 5).
Many of us will spend a goodly amount of our lives working. So the question that gets raised in the book is whether religion deals only with our off hours, and not the many hours each week we spend working. Now, I work for a church, so my labor could be considered "spiritual," but what about the checker at the local grocery store? Is her labor spiritual as well? Is God absent or present from that labor? These are important questions that get raised in this book. But not only are questions raised, but possible avenues of cooperation are lifted up.
The book begins with a chapter titled "basic issues." In this chapter we are reminded about the centrality of labor to our lives and our communities. We're reminded about how organizing is essential to achieving true freedom. Then in chapter two, the authors speak about the challenges posed to labor -- attacks such as wage theft and wage depression. These are abetted by laws such as "Right to Work" laws, like the one recently implemented in Michigan, laws designed to weaken unions and disrupt organizing. They remind us that corporations believe that they are responsible not to workers, but stockholders. Profit is often gained at the expense of workers. As for the complaint about unequal distribution, they suggest that the focus should be placed on valuing work and production: "If work and production are not valued appropriately, that is to say if working people are not compensated comprehensively for their work, no amount of redistribution will be able to change things in the long run" (p. 51).
So, what should we do? We could advocate on behalf of workers, and that is a start, but it's not enough. In chapter three, the Riegers speak about the importance of deep solidarity. This is important as a way of counteracting attempts to divide and conquer. We see this happen all around us, as attempts are made to pit black and white workers, or migrants against "native born" workers. If you can get people fighting each other rather than organizing, you've won. So, instead of simply advocating for change, they call for deep solidarity. That means recognizing that we're all in the same boat. This is where faith communities can be of great support, for most church members are workers, but we often give little support to them in their labors. The good news is that faith communities have rich resources to build solidarity with. There is the story of Mary, who sings of partnering with God to transform the world. There's Moses, who takes up the task of freeing the slaves. There's the story of Jesus, the tekton or laborer. Again, remembering that we're all in this together, Joerg Rieger claims his own white privilege and rather than claim guilt chooses to use this privilege to stand in solidarity and make use of whatever power is accorded to bring change.
This is a book about radicalizing. On one hand labor can help radicalize religion, by drawing it into the struggle. Living as he does in Dallas, he notes that the vast majority of workers in Texas are religious people. But, little connection is made between faith and labor, with many Christians feeling that faith and labor are opposed. But that need not be true, for there are, as we noted earlier many stories within the Abrahamic tradition that brings the two into partnership. They suggest that in the struggle against injustice great themes of the faith can be reclaimed. If labor can radicalize religion by taking it back to its roots, so religion can do the same for labor. To do this, however, labor must not treat religion as a "cheap date." Religious communities can't be just places to "mobilize warm bodies." Faith communities and traditions can provide important resources for valuing labor. The authors note that it is helpful to remember that God didn't start with the elite, but with the lower classes. The stories of faith all point to the fact that the key leaders and founders were working people! Even our key celebrations, like Passover, Christmas, and Ramadan, speak to God's concern for the worker. Indeed, God takes sides, and thus so might the faith communities.
The Riegers close their book with a discussion of organizing and building a movement. They return to deep solidarity and offer some possible directions we can go in building power through strategic alliances. It is important to know that our self-interests are linked with those of others, and therefore we can partner to support one another in the pursuit of justice and the common good. This won't be easy because there is much push back, but good things can happen.
In their conclusion the Riegers write: "If we are correct, religion is not primarily about lofty ideals, flat morality, or merely what people do on weekends. Religion is about building relationships, community, and deep solidarity" (p. 151). If we believe that inequality is something to be addressed, it will take a partnership between faith and labor. For the faith community that means doing the hard theological work of connecting the spiritual and the material. This makes for a most important book. Even if one doesn't agree at all points, there is so much of value to be gained. After all, the biblical story at least offers a picture of a God who works.