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Brian's Blog

  • July 29, 2014

    Israel, Gaza, Sanity, and Insanity (Part 2)

    In a previous post, I tried to address an important issue: that we need to address our precritical approaches to the conflict. If our line of approach is misguided, we will find it easier to be unhelpful. If we repeat conventional polarized/paralyzed rhetoric about the conflict, we will intensify misunderstanding and contribute to the descending spiral of violence … violence that escalates in nightmarish ways.

    People on each side of the conflict tend to see their counterpart as intellectually inferior (using words like "insane" or "irrational") and morally flawed. Religious people frequently use the Bible to justify this kind of pre-judgment. (In my most recent book, We Make the Road by Walking, I offer a way of reading the Biblical story that undermines prejudice and leads towards peacemaking.) Thus God is brought in to accuse one side and protect the other.

    Any conflict that is addressed from such premises has little chance of being resolved.

    Is there another alternative - to consider at least - in the pursuit of a resolution that doesn't involve mass killing?

    If we begin with this starting point:
    Israel and Palestine are acting more or less sanely if one understands their respective goals.

    And if we proceed to ask this question:
    In the pursuit of what goals would the actions of both Israel and Palestine make the most sense?

    I think we could consider two hypotheses:

    Hypothesis 1: Israel is traumatized and determined. The Jewish people have suffered so much oppression at the hands of anti-Semitic Christians and others through the centuries, culminating in the Holocaust, that they are determined to create a lasting homeland where the Jewish people will be safe forever. In order to achieve that goal, they must accomplish two objectives:
    A. To continue the occupation long enough so that settlements can continue to spread, thus rendering impossible any hopes of a Palestinian state that has refused to accept their existence.

    B. To preserve their status - in their own eyes, and in the eyes of their main benefactor, the US - as a morally-superior nation. Doing so requires justifying the occupation and the expansion of settlements, minimizing any errors that are made in doing so, launching campaigns to overcome threats, and maximizing the impression that the Palestinians deserve what they're getting.

    Hypothesis 2. Palestine is desperate and determined. They have lived under varying degrees of occupation, oppression, invasion, surveillance, and un-freedom for decades. They are utterly out-gunned by Israel, and well-funded Israeli lobbies out-spend them in molding public opinion in the US as well. Their prospects for freedom, dignity, and an improvement in their basic life conditions are slim even if they pretend that the taking of their homeland never happened. The international community is likely to tacitly allow their situation to continue to deteriorate.

    Faced with such bleak prospects, the Hamas party routinely launches rocket attacks. The objective of these attacks is not to "win" in a military conflict. The objective is two-fold:

    A. To be sure the world doesn't simply forget them and normalize their oppression, which tends to occur whenever they are not firing rockets.

    B. To tempt Israel to over-react, so that Israel's moral superiority would then be questioned, thus opening the possibility that world public opinion will shift and their situation may change.

    In light of those two hypotheses, the actions of both nations seem to follow a certain kind of logic, rendering each side sane and moral in its own eyes, and insane and immoral in the eyes of the other.

    By that logic, every action of each party is paradoxical. On the one hand, the rockets fired from Gaza help Hamas be sure that the Palestinian occupation won't be normalized and their suffering forgotten. But those same rockets help Israelis defend the occupation, justify the expansion of settlements, and demonstrate the moral inferiority of their opponents.

    Similarly, the killing of civilians by the Israeli military can be used by Israelis to display the moral inferiority of those who use their wives and children as human shields, while helping the Gazans by demonstrating Palestinian victimhood and undermining the claim of Israeli moral superiority.

    Where will this lead? Nowhere good, I would say, unless and until some other logic - the creative logic of nonviolent peacemaking and conflict transformation - enters the equation.

    That is why those of us outside the region should defect from the predictable, conventional logic and rhetoric that sustain the status quo of violence, hostility, and death and seek another approach … a higher logic of shalom/salaam/peace and justice, which a Palestinian Jewish teacher named Jesus called "the reign of God." Seek it first, he said, and everything else will fall into place. (Part 3 will follow in a day or two.)

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  • July 28, 2014

    Q & R: Why not Hinduism?

    Here's the Q:

    Thank you for writing "Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha and Mohammed Cross the Road?" In it I think you address one of the most important issues of our day. Why did you not include Hinduism, the other of the five major living religions?

    Here's the R:
    You're right. Christianity in its many diverse forms accounts for about 33% of the world's population, Islam for about 21-24%, and Hinduism comes in next with about 17%. (It is about "tied" with secular or nonreligious at this point in history.) So it is truly important, and I wasn't intending to snub the religion in any way by not including it in the title.

    The main reason it's not included is a practical one: there isn't one single historical figure who can be associated with Hinduism as Moses, Jesus, the Buddha, or Muhammed can be associated with Judaism, Christianity, Buddhism, and Islam.

    Second, the main focus of the book, as you know, is Christian identity. It's not an attempt to explain other religions or even assess the state of Christian dialogue with other religions - both of which are topics I'm very interested in. The book's focus is on exploring the roots of religious hostility and violence - both of which are terribly live issues in today's world, as evidenced by this week's headlines.

    I'm always grateful for opportunities to interact with Muslim, Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist, and other religious believers, as well as nonbelievers, over issues of justice, peace, sustainability, and conviviality. At the same time, I'm generally focused on helping Christians deal with the planks in our own eyes, not the splinters in the eyes of others.

    So thanks for your question, and for the chance to affirm that no slight was intended. (I had a similar issue with my book A Generous Orthodoxy. Lutherans wondered why they didn't get a chapter like the Methodists, Reformed, Episcopalians, and others did. Similarly - no slight intended!)

    By the way, I just learned that the kindle version of "Cross the Road" is on sale at Amazon for $1.99. More information here:

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  • July 25, 2014

    Israel, Gaza, Insanity and Sanity (Part 1)

    This is not a post about who is right and wrong in Israel-Palestine.

    This is a post about how the rest of us talk about who is right and wrong in Israel-Palestine.

    Conventional discourse on the subject goes like this:

    X is right, good, values life, wants peace, is a victim, and is sane. Y is wrong, bad, doesn't value life, doesn't want peace, is a villain, and is insane.

    Then, data is selected and presented (and other data ignored or discredited) to prove the proposition.

    I suppose the goal is to prove that whichever is deemed the right, good, life-valuing, peace-loving, victimized and sane party has the right to continue killing the other.

    Which seems ridiculous and tragic, when you think about it.

    Another approach to the issue would say:

    Both X and Y are a mix of right and wrong, good and bad, valuing some life more than others, acting sometimes as victims and sometimes as villains, and a mixture of sanity and insanity. They aren't necessarily morally equivalent, but neither is to exempted from moral assessment."

    What would be the advantages of starting from this alternative perspective rather than the conventional one?

    A further possibility would be to say:

    X and Y are acting more or less sanely if one understands their respective goals.

    That third possibility would raise this question:

    In the pursuit of what goals would the actions of both Israel and Palestine make sense?

    I'd like to offer a few thoughts on that question in a day or two. But for now, I hope people will at least consider defecting from the prevailing good-guys/bad-guys mode of discourse. It gets us nowhere we want to be.

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  • Q & R: Incremental or ???

    Here's the Q:

    I read your article on homophobic zones and was wondering your thoughts on extending that idea to other theological issues. I attend a chuch that believes (in no particular order):

    -Penal Substitutionary atonement
    -The six-line narrative soul-sort
    -premillenial dispensationalism
    -women should be excluded from serving as elders.

    So if you were trying to order those from 1-4, how would you order them? In other words, if I say I think all of those are wrong-headed, folks like me get dismissed all at once, but if someone were to question say the six-line narrative in the context of PSA, ("Sure Jesus died to appease the angry father, but he paid the penalty for *everyone's* sin.") we could help folks move out of the six-line narrative zone, even if they stay in the PSA zone.

    Do you see what I'm trying to ask here?

    Here's the R:
    In many spheres of life, there is a debate between gradualism/incrementalism and more radical, sudden, decisive change. If you're asking whether or not I'm for gradualism in general, I'd actually say no. I'm for all the positive, constructive change toward justice, peace, and compassion that anyone or any group can handle, as fast as they can sustainably handle it.

    But the truth is that few people seem to be ready to handle a lot of change fast … even when they need to. "People only change when the pain of not changing surpasses the pain of changing," the old saying goes, and sadly, it usually seems to be the case.

    As with many things, when the choice is between gradualism and radical change, I think the answer is both/and. Here's why.

    Most if not all of our ideas are held in systems or paradigms. People seldom abandon a paradigm quickly or easily. What most often happens is that they accept minor tweaks or adjustments to the paradigm, trying to save it as long as possible.

    Eventually, they end up with so many amendments that they decide the whole constitution needs to be rewritten, so to speak. They stop trying to patch the old leaky boat and try to construct a new one. (The "Ship of Theseus" parable comes to mind.) At that point, more radical new alternatives come into view.

    So … people may question literal 6-day creation without questioning the 6-line narrative I've written about. Or they may revise their view on women in ministry (or homosexuality) without rethinking the doctrine of biblical inerrancy. I'm for gradual or incremental rethinking that leads people into more just, compassionate, or peaceful ways of life.

    But ultimately, I think the changes we need in the Christian community (and many Jews, Buddhist, Muslims, Capitalists, Communists, and others would say something similar about their various communities) are ultimately on the paradigmatic level. That's the "new wineskin" that is demanded, ultimately, by "new wine."

    It's interesting to think of the four gospels as proposing a radical new paradigm, and then to read the Epistles as various attempts to grapple with what that will mean in relation to any number of individual issues.

    Of the issues you mentioned, the narrative question is the most paradigmatic one. If people rethink that issue (as I tried to explain in A New Kind of Christianity), all the other issues will necessarily be reconsidered.

    My new book, We Make the Road by Walking, proposes a whole new paradigm, rooted in the Bible and flowing out into a fresh vision of just about everything.

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  • July 24, 2014

    On Gaza, Israel, Netanyahu, Moral Superiority, and Being Human

    "And what shall we do, we ordinary people? I pray we can listen to our hearts. My heart tells me that “never again” is not a tribal slogan, that the murder of my grandparents in Auschwitz does not justify the ongoing dispossession of Palestinians, that justice, truth, peace are not tribal prerogatives. That Israel’s “right to defend itself,” unarguable in principle, does not validate mass killing."
    - Gabor Mate, Jewish survivor of Nazi genocide

    Mate says:

    I have visited Gaza and the West Bank. I saw multi-generational Palestinian families weeping in hospitals around the bedsides of their wounded, at the graves of their dead. These are not people who do not care about life. They are like us — Canadians, Jews, like anyone: they celebrate life, family, work, education, food, peace, joy. And they are capable of hatred, they can harbour vengeance in the hearts, just like we can.
    One could debate details, historical and current, back and forth. Since my days as a young Zionist and, later, as a member of Jews for a Just Peace, I have often done so. I used to believe that if people knew the facts, they would open to the truth. That, too, was naïve. This issue is far too charged with emotion. As the spiritual teacher Eckhart Tolle has pointed out, the accumulated mutual pain in the Middle East is so acute, “a significant part of the population finds itself forced to act it out in an endless cycle of perpetration and retribution.”
    “People’s leaders have been misleaders, so they that are led have been confused,” in the words of the prophet Jeremiah. The voices of justice and sanity are not heeded.

    More here: http://www.thestar.com/opinion/commentary/2014/07/22/beautiful_dream_of_israel_has_become_a_nightmare.html

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  • A death, the theoretic, and a poem ...

    My friend Jason Derr sent me this:

    Over the weekend liberation theologian Rubem Alves - founder of the theopoetic - passed away. He was 80. His book 'The Poet, The Warrior, The Prophet' is a beautiful study on language, imagination and religion. I like to say that it is would have happened if Allen Ginsberg (beat poet, writer of 'Howl') were to write theology.

    Here is Alves' poem "Tomorrow’s Children"

    What is hope? It is a presentiment that imagination is more real and reality less real than it looks. It is a hunch that the overwhelming brutality of facts that oppress and repress is not the last word. It is a suspicion that reality is more complex than realism wants us to believe and that the frontiers of the possible are not determined by the limits of the actual and that in a miraculous and unexpected way life is preparing the creative events which will open the way to freedom and resurrection…. The two, suffering and hope, live from each other. Suffering without hope produces resentment and despair, hope without suffering creates illusions, naivete, and drunkenness…. Let us plant dates even though those who plant them will never eat them. We must live by the love of what we will never see. This is the secret discipline. It is a refusal to let the creative act be dissolved in immediate sense experience and a stubborn commitment to the future of our grandchildren. Such disciplined love is what has given prophets, revolutionaries and saints the courage to die for the future they envisaged. They make their own bodies the seed of their highest hope.

    Source: “Tomorrow’s Children” from Hijos de Maoana, by Rubem Alves.
    Salamanca, Spain: Ediciones Sigueme, 1976.

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  • July 22, 2014

    Q & R: How do you respond to N. T. Wright?

    Here's the Q:

    First, let me say how instrumental your work has been for me personally. Books like The Secret Message of Jesus and A New Kind of Christianity have forever shaped my life and ministry, and I'm exceedingly grateful for that.

    Second, I feel "stuck in conservative Christianity" as I watch and listen to you and others like Rob Bell and Adam Hamilton embrace a Christian position that embraces faithful, monogamous homosexual lifestyles. I consider myself fairly open to those biblical arguments that push to legitimatize faithful and love-filled homosexuality. In fact, I even offer to some of my friends better arguments than they have that push in that direction. But alas, I still find myself unconvinced.

    I believe and hope I'm that person that truly loves and values those who are homosexual, wanting always to seek their good. I even know and have family members who embrace this lifestyle, and I truly think they know that I am for them and for God's best in their lives. But still, in the end, I'm one of those Christians that can't seem yet to accept any line of argument that endorses such behavior as God's best or desire for humanity. I really wish I could.

    Like you, I'm hugely influenced by N. T. Wright, who, as you know, also has yet to allow space for God-condoned homosexual behavior. I know your admiration for him remains, but I wonder how you would articulate such respect. On one level, I feel deeply connected with those of the "Brian McLaren ilk"—if I could put it hat way—but on another level, I feel disconnected due to this issue. What would you say to someone like me or Wright on this particular issue knowing there's disagreement but a large degree of affinity? How would you encourage our continued camaraderie as fellow Christians who share so much in common and yet diverge on this particular point?

    Thank you in advance for whatever insights you offer here.

    Here's the R:
    Thanks for your note. I know that many people feel exactly as you do. In terms of a four-zone schema I've written about, you are articulating Zone 3, and you're uncomfortable about Zone 4.

    You're right - I've expressed a lot of admiration for Tom Wright. His work played a big role in helping me see the New Testament and the gospel in a new, brighter, bolder, more expansive light. I'll always be grateful to him for that. I've not paid a lot of attention to his writings or statements on LGBT issues recently, but I wouldn't be surprised if we see these issues differently. That's fine with me. We're in different contexts, prioritizing different goals, balancing and negotiating different limitations and concerns and constituencies. None of us agree on everything, none of us can excel and do everything, and I think we all appreciate others for helping us in some ways, even if we don't agree the others.

    Some of my friends differ with me on this, but I'm glad that Zone 2 people provide a more humane alternative to Zone 1 people, and I'm glad Zone 3 people provide a more humane alternative to Zone 2 people, and of course I'm glad Zone 4 people provide a more human alternative to Zone 3 people.

    One more thing. I want to respond to this statement:

    I even know and have family members who embrace this lifestyle, and I truly think they know that I am for them and for God's best in their lives. But still, in the end, I'm one of those Christians that can't seem yet to accept any line of argument that endorses such behavior as God's best or desire for humanity. I really wish I could.

    First, when you speak of people "who embrace this lifestyle," you are making assumptions that I would encourage you to question. For example, I don't think people "embrace the left-handed lifestyle," nor do I think people "embrace the extraverted lifestyle," nor do I think people "embrace the homosexual lifestyle." I think left-handers, extraverts, and LGBT people can hide who they are - "in the closet." But being who they are isn't "embracing a lifestyle." The fact is, there is no single LGBT lifestyle. I hope you'll give that matter a second thought.

    Second, the idea of "God's best for their lives" is a more problematic concept than you may have considered. When men tell women "what's God's best for their lives," when whites tell people of color "what's God's best for their lives," when married people tell singles "what's God's best for their lives" and so on, I think we should be very cautious. Same when straight people tell LGBT people "what's God's best for their lives." These things don't often turn out well. I'm not trying to be critical - just to respond to your request for feedback. I hope it's helpful.

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  • July 21, 2014

    How (parts of) the Church Will Change on Homosexuality

    I was invited to be part of a panel on LGBT human rights recently. I shared a four-zone schema for understanding religious responses to the reality that something like 3-6% of human beings turn out to be lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgendered.

    1. Promote violence against and stigmatization of LGBT people in the name of God and religion.
    2. Oppose violence but uphold stigmatization of LGBT people in the name of God and religion.
    3. Oppose violence and seek to reduce stigmatization of LGBT people in the name of God and religion.
    4. Oppose violence and replace stigmatization with equality and dignity in the name of God and religion.

    I was remembering in recent days something a little less clinical and a little more personal. For many years I was an Evangelical pastor firmly in Zone 3 on the question of LGBT identity and equality. I didn't know that some members of my immediate family were gay. I hadn't taken any kind of public stand (either way) on the issue. I recall some barely-articulated thoughts and feelings from that time. I'm not proud of these memories, but I hope other pastors and Christian leaders might be helped if I try to articulate them roughly in their order of appearance:

    1. It's fine if gay people want equal rights in the secular world, but why do they have to disturb the church? Why can't gay people just be satisfied with being "out" and accepted in society? Why can't they just be satisfied with civil unions? Why do they keep pushing? Don't they know how hard this is for religious communities? Can't they be more patient? Ministry is hard enough without having to deal with this on top of everything else.

    2. Oh no. This issue isn't going away. My congregation is going to have to deal with it. Let's see … if we stay the same, we'll lose maybe 4% of our people who are fired up about this issue. If we change, we'll lose maybe 40% of the people…. Maybe someday, but we can't change yet. The cost is too high.

    3. The way I've been thinking about this (see #1 and #2) sounds a lot like the way the previous generation dealt - or failed to deal - with race and desegregation. Isn't that why Dr. King wrote "Why We Can't Wait" in 1964? Am I like a segregationist in 1964? In my seemingly daring compromises - "accepting but not affirming," members but not leaders, civil unions not marriages - am I simply creating Jim Crow laws for LGBT people? If discrimination is wrong, and if it's been going on for millennia, and if 3+% of the population is suffering, why wouldn't I be willing to take some risks and take some heat? Instead of asking, "Why can't gay people be more patient?" - I should be asking, "Why can't church leaders like me be more courageous?"

    4. I've changed my view. I now support LGBT equality. But if I go public with that change, my colleagues will simply think I've capitulated to "the world" or "the culture." They'll accuse me of compromise, liberalism, and all that. I'll be completely written off by the people of my heritage. I wonder how long I can stay incognito and quietly work for change from the inside?

    5. Oh well. It was bound to happen. I've been "outed" as someone whose view has changed. Now I'll have to deal with the consequences. But thank God, my conscience hasn't felt this clean and clear for a long time! Why did it take me so long?

    My guess is that thousands of Catholic and Evangelical priests and pastors are thinking thoughts like these. Sadly, self-interest and institutional ego can easily trump humane compassion for LGBT people and their families. Perhaps these words from Dr. King will help stir the conscience of my fellow Christians who share the same background and world view in which I was raised …

    “Perhaps it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say, ‘Wait.’ But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim…when you see the vast majority of twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society; when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six-year-old daughter why she can’t go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see ominous clouds of inferiority beginning to form in her little mental sky…when you take a cross-country drive and find it necessary to sleep night after night in the uncomfortable corners of your automobile because no motel will accept you…when…your wife and mother are never given the respected title ‘Mrs.’…when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of ‘nobodiness’—then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait. There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over, and men are no longer willing to be plunged into the abyss of despair.”

    I'm not trying to say that the struggle for gay equality is exactly the same as the struggle for civil rights or that all who experience discrimination experience the same degree of pain. It's never wise to compare the suffering of one group to another.

    But I am saying there is a common struggle within priests and pastors to acknowledge reality and respond appropriately when they and their congregations are on the wrong side of justice … whether regarding women's equality, gay equality, equality for Palestinians, the atrocities of colonialism, latent racism and white privilege, silence over environmental destruction, carelessness about the poor and systemic economic injustice, and a host of other issues. It's not easy to adjudicate wisely between concerns for personal or professional comfort, the needs of others, institutional survival and health, and justice … whichever side of this issue one is on.

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  • July 20, 2014

  • July 19, 2014

    Q & R: Church recommendation?

    Here's the Q;

    For the last 9 years, my husband and I have been working as youth pastors at a large evangelical church in the Northeast. But as we've spent the last 3 years diving together into the thoughts and writings of a number of progressive and emergent Christian leaders, such as yourself (thank you, by the way!), we've been increasingly interested in experiencing new ways of doing church and thinking about the church's mission. However, as youth pastors, there really hasn't been a way for us to do that. We don't even get to attend our own church on Sunday mornings, let alone experiment with others. :)

    This summer, we are moving to [a new city] to take new jobs in a nonprofit organization. For the first time in our marriage, we won't be working at a local church... which means we have some freedom to explore new expressions of the church. We're really excited about it.

    So. My question. Do you know of any progressive or emergent churches in this area you would recommend for a young couple with no kids? Or do you know of anyone in the area who might? We are coming from a fairly typical nondenominational evangelical church. We're not sure exactly what we're looking for in a church, but we'd love to explore and try new things. :)

    Any ideas? Thanks so much for your time and for your voice!

    PS: I've been mentoring a crew of college-aged girls since they were 10 years old, and they talked with you for a while back in April when you spoke here. Maybe you remember them? They loved your talk and conversation afterward. We'll be diving into WMTRBW together starting in a couple of weeks. :)

    Here's the R:
    First, thanks for the encouraging words. I'm so glad my books have been helpful.

    Your question about finding a church is one I hear often. As more and more Evangelical (and Catholic) churches hold firm or double down with a kind of fierce conservatism, more and more moderate and progressive Evangelicals (and Catholics) feel they don't fit.

    Often they end up in Mainline Protestant churches - Episcopal, UCC, DoC, Presbyterian, Lutheran, Methodist, etc. In addition, some Evangelical and charismatic churches are changing - becoming less fearful and more accepting of science (relating to evolution and global warming and sexual orientation), more committed to social justice, more reflective and less rigid theologically. There are websites that help people locate churches that are committed to LGBT equality, for example … Some of these groups, like The Fellowship, are forming networks that make them easier to find.

    But I think we're all still waiting for a multi-dimensional church locator site that brings together a number of qualifications - welcoming and affirming, committed to peace-making, poverty-reduction, and planet-care, and committed to vibrant spirituality and worship, for example. (Some friends of mine are working on this right now - stay tuned.)

    I hope that general guidance will help you in your search.

    Thanks also for telling me about the group of college students you've been mentoring. Yes, I remember this enthusiastic and energetic bunch … and I'm thrilled they'll be using the new book.

    In the last 24 hours or so, I've learned of two churches that will be using We Make the Road by Walking for their 2014-2015 curriculum, a "learning circle" forming in the DC area, a college class that will be going through the book this semester, and some groups for incarcerated people. It's exciting to see!

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  • July 18, 2014

    Today. Tomorrow.

    Today I read this, about yesterday.
    (My son-in-law is in the picture - part of the AIDs organization to which the victims were traveling.)

    And today I received this, about tomorrow.

    It was accompanied by this:

    Joel the Aussie Red head poet here. Just thought I'd flick you this new film clip of mine as I thought you might be interested and also because it was really you who was able to put into words for me the concept of the coming new creation when I had no words for it. I had grown up in a conservative, evangelical church and the idea of God's holistic redemption was totally foreign. But 'The Story We Find Ourselves In' was the first time, as a late teen, that I really began to see how holistic God's dream for his world is. Anyways- just wanted to thankyou! Hope you enjoy....

    This is where we walk … between yesterday and tomorrow.

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  • A Reformed elder writes ...

    A reader writes:

    I just read book 3 of the NKOC-trilogy.
    The first and second instalment of the trilogy did appeal to me, but more in an intellectual way. Somehow I couldn't connect to the more personal/emotional level within the narratives.

    In the 3rd book, the character Pat wrote some poems that struck me, like lightning. Like a total surprise I was in tears, while not being able to grasp their cause. The poems comforted me, made me pray after a very long time. Asking questions to the one I call God.

    Can I love God again. Can I trust him. Can I truly believe He loves me? Loves my children? Can I really trust Him the life of my children? With all the worries I have about their social and emotional development?

    No answers came, but comfort did.

    I grew up in a strict calvinist/reformed ilk of dutch christianity. My family and I are still part of a reformed church. Allthough I feel a connection to my local church, especially the people. Somehow I seem to have questions about everything we stand for. I'm not able to share them. Everyone seems to get annoyed and/or uneasy when I try to express them. I'm even an elder, so I should confirm everything we stand for. But no brother or sister seems to understand why I find it so hard to pray. Why I'm not on fire for Jesus. It's like I'm always on the road towards answers, never resting.

    Thanks for meeting me 'on the road'.

    Thanks for writing. I felt the character Pat was very important in that book, and you're one of the first readers who have written me about Pat or Pat's poems. It means a lot to me that you noticed this element of the book - and that you felt it helpful. Again, thanks. May you find the Spirit of Christ walking with you on the road.

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  • July 17, 2014

    A 71 year-old reader writes about the Trinity

    A reader writes:

    I just read the post from the young Irish man who said how you have stretched his imagination. I want to give a hearty “second” to that and share something how, beginning with “A New Kind of Christianity” you have stretched my imagination and helped me get out of my “Spiritual Rut”.

    I am 71 years old and grew up Roman Catholic. Having just celebrated Trinity Sunday, my mind went back to the days when I was an altar boy (yes, I had to learn the prayers in Latin). There was a little pamphlet in the magazine rack in back of the church titled “Between Heaven and Earth”. On the front was an illustration. Hovering in the clouds were God the Father (stereotypical – old, long white beard), Jesus on his right side (instantly recognizable because it looked just like the statue of the Sacred Heart), and hovering between them and the dome of St. Peters Basilica was the dove of the Holy Spirit.

    For many years, my idea of “Trinity” was that it was something existing “out there” and totally academic thought up by theologians long ago and far away.

    Upon reflection, I am coming to the realization that our belief in a triune God is a lot more than an intellectual construct, and a lot closer to my everyday life.

    I have started grappling with the notion that God is indeed three – God totally transcendent, totally “other”, totally unknowable; God incarnate, fully revealed in Jesus to be sure, but also incarnate in all of Creation (including you and me); and God relational between transcendence and incarnational – the Holy Spirit. I can’t understand it, I just “know” it. It works for me. I am not sure if I’m onto something or if I’m in a blind alley constructed of my own ignorance, but I did want to share the insight with someone I trust and respect.

    Thanks so much for your encouraging words. I remember as I was writing my new book, We Make the Road by Walking, that I wondered how and where I would address the Trinity. The book is an overview of the Bible, and since the word "trinity" never occurs in the Bible, I could have passed the subject by. But the book is also a "catechesis" for Christian faith, and Trinity is deeply important to Christian history and faith. True, the doctrine has been abused in many ways - not the least of which was to animate hostility to Jews and Muslims who do not believe in the Trinity. And as your pamphlet illustrated, it is often explained or depicted in ways that create more misunderstanding and confusion than awe and worship.

    But like you, I believe there is a deep truth and beauty in the healing teaching of the Trinity. I tried to capture some facets of that truth and beauty in Chapter 45, Spirit of Unity and Diversity, in the new book. Here's a quote from the chapter:

    This all sounds highly speculative but it was a sincere attempt to put into words the radical way they were rethinking and freshly experiencing God in the aftermath of their experience of Jesus. By God's parental love, through Christ's beautiful life, death, and resurrection, and through the Holy Spirit, they felt that they had been caught up into this divine communion themselves. God could never again be for them a distant, isolated One to whom they were "the other." Now they knew God as a dynamic and hospitable one-another in whom they lived, moved, and had their being. The Trinity described how they experienced God "from the inside."

    … This healing teaching began unleashing a revolution that is still unfolding today in at least five distinct but related ways.

    Those five transformations make up the heart of the chapter. Again, thanks for writing.

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  • July 15, 2014

    Q & R: Niebuhr's famous quote - Part 2

    Here's the Q:

    Hi Brian. I continue to appreciate your facebook postings. They are always thought provoking. I also appreciate your efforts to build bridges between different points of view. As I look at theological trends, especially of mainline protestantism, I am reminded of a quote from H Richard Niebuhr, descibing his assessment of liberal theology. He writes, "a God without wrath brings men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through a ministry of a Christ without a cross." I would like to hear your response to this. From what you have seen, do Niebuhr's concerns apply to today?

    (Continued from last week)
    Niebuhr, as I understand him, was trying to forge a middle way between the kind of soft and shallow liberalism exemplified in the quote and the kind of religious conservatism of which he was no friend. He saw Barth, among others, as a trailblazer of that third path.

    I think my work and that of many of my friends has a lot of resonance with this desire for a new path. There are important differences too. Like them, right wing Christianity isn't an option for us, but we also see strengths and values there. Like them, we see that traditional Protestantism suffers from a lack of clarity and energy. Unlike them, we would probably see institutional apathy more the problem in the Mainline Protestant (MLP) world than an excessive commitment to "the social gospel."

    The MLP world has changed a lot since 1937, its "social gospel" leanings being modified by WWII and the postwar suburbanization of America, by women's rights and civil rights, and over the last 40 years, by severe retention problems with younger generations and the rise of the religious right and megachurch.

    So let me respond personally to each of Niebuhr's "withouts":

    1. a God without wrath - The word "wrath" raises two questions.

    First, what kind of wrath? Wrath that leads to eternal conscious torment? Vengeful wrath? Zeus-like wrath - or Christ-like wrath? Many of us believe that among the many conventional understandings Christ came to overturn were conventional conceptions of God's wrath. Which leads to a second question ...

    Wrath at what? Women in leadership? Gay people accepted as equals? Laws to protect the environment from human greed? Immigrants?

    Christ's anger, in contrast, focused on hypocrisy, a lack of compassion, greed, exclusion, and an inability to distinguish "weighty" matters of morality from insignificant matters.

    2. men without sin - Of course, this raises questions about how we define sin. Is sin reducible to law-breaking, or does the New Testament expand and intensify the definition of sin to mean "love-breaking?" Is sin only personal, or only social - or it is an integrated system that includes both personal and social dimensions? Is the primary danger of sin that it elicits God's retributive punishment, or is the primary danger of sin that it is ultimately destructive? Is it something that insults God so God wants retaliation against us, or something that threatens us so God wants to rescue (save) us?

    3. a kingdom without judgment - What is judgment? Is it primarily retributive - punishing wrong, or is it primarily restorative - setting things right? Does it involve God making a list and checking it twice, storing up eternal torment for those who have not been nice? Or does it involve humans reaping the consequences of foolish and hostile behavior that is out of harmony with God's holy melody and rhythm?

    At whom is the spotlight of God's examination primarily directed - at gay people, undocumented immigrants, people on welfare … or at corporate plunderers, war-makers, self-interested politicians, and complicit publics? Is the social purpose of judgment to divide the world into clean and unclean, saved and damned, insiders and outsiders? Or is that tendency to divide humanity in these ways one of the dimensions of sin that are under God's judgment?

    Does our imperfection render God against us? Or is God against what is against us? Is condemnation the last word in God's universe, or does grace get the final word?

    4. a Christ without a cross - Is the cross a reinforcement of conventional notions of wrath, sin, and judgment, with Christ appeasing an angry Father by submitting to the Father's infinite wrath? Or does the cross reveal God as one who identifies with victims of oppression, who suffers with humanity, who forgives when others insult and reject?

    Perhaps I could put it like this: You have heard it said that a God full of wrath condemns men full of sin to a hell full of judgment, unless they avail themselves of penal substitutionary atonement purchased by Christ upon a cross. And you have heard it said that a God without wrath brings men without sin to a kingdom without judgment through the ministry of Christ without a cross. I think both options miss the mark.

    I believe a God full of love calls for radical repentance among human beings who are oppressed (and oppress) externally and internally by destructive systems of sin, so they can increasingly experience the gracious liberation of God's will being done on earth as in heaven, through Christ and his peace-making cross.

    So, those who have read my books know that I believe Jesus came to radically alter our understandings of God, wrath, sin, kingdom, judgment, and the cross. For people who are interested in more … check out my new book, We Make the Road by Walking.

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  • July 14, 2014

    Hatred: Us and Them

    In a disturbing NYT piece yesterday, Seth Stephens-Davidowitz explores a popular website that promotes the kind of strong-hostile identity I described in Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed Cross the Road?

    It seems that certain parts of the human psyche - and human society - are like petri dishes waiting for anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, racism, homophobia, and other forms of scapegoating and hostile-identity-formation to "culture" and infect. If there isn't something even stronger present - an identity strongly and passionately dedicated to reconciliation, understanding, solidarity, and peace-making - then hostility will dominate.

    And we know where that leads.

    This line of thinking was intensified for me over the weekend while watching the new Planet of the Apes film. "I used to think," one of the main characters mused, "that all of 'us' were good, and only 'they' were evil. Now I see there are both good and bad among 'us' and 'them'" (loosely paraphrased).

    That's the beginning of a new way of living … the way, I believe, that Jesus came to teach. Maybe we're almost desperate enough to actually consider that he was right?

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