1/07/2015 Christian Century PDF

January 7, 2015
Thinking Critically. Living Faithfully.
When a
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the Word
The Curse of Literacy: Most Christians in every age have
either been unable to read scripture or have not had access
to a Bible. Yet these people have much to teach us about
scriptural literacy.
with John Bell
In this series of talks, John Bell will go beyond a
Protestant preoccupation with “what the Bible really
means,” focused on a “right answers” mentality. Bell
will open up a more holistic appreciation for the Word
of God that values its intentionally diverse character
and is informed by his interactions with scripture in
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John Bell, from Scotland, is a member of the
Iona Community. He is a liturgist, preacher, and
collector and composer of church music. His
work takes him frequently to Eastern Europe,
Asia, Africa, and Australia. He is well known in
North America from numerous speaking tours
and musical compositions published by GIA.
Retell Me the Old, Old Story: Some of the most familiar
biblical texts fail to excite, incite, or bless us because the way
they’ve been commonly read and expounded owes much to
the cultural norms of a previous era.
Missing Women: Finding a monogamous Jewish patriarch
requires almost as much work as finding a virtuous woman
in the Hebrew scriptures. Why is this and can the situation be
The Importance of the Imagination: The imagination
is sometimes seen as the bogus gift of the Holy Spirit.
Without it, our understanding of scripture will most certainly
be diminished.
What Shall We Tell the Children? Are there other pertinent scriptures to teach young people besides Moses in the
bulrushes, Daniel in the lion’s den, and the Baby Jesus
asleep in the hay?
For more information go to wichurches.org and look under “events.” Or call Wisconsin Council of Churches at (608) 837-3108.
by John M. Buchanan
What the church is made of
FREDERICK BUECHNER has been my companion and mentor over the years without even knowing it.
I’ve learned a lot from him and have thoroughly enjoyed reading his graceful, descriptive, and imaginative writing. I suspect
that I’ve read almost everything he wrote, and I continue to
pull his books from the shelf: The Sacred Journey, The
Magnificent Defeat, and The Clown in the Belfry: Writings on
Faith and Fiction.
Buechner is an ordained minister in the Presbyterian
Church (U.S.A.), but as far as I know he doesn’t pay much
attention to denominational affairs. Yet when he writes about
church I listen. In a chapter in Secrets in the Dark titled “The
Church” he writes, “Jesus made his church out of human beings
with more or less the same mixture in them of cowardice and
guts, intelligence and stupidity, of selfishness and generosity, of
openness of heart and sheer cussedness as you would be apt to
find in any one of us. The reason he made his church out of
human beings is that human beings were all there was to make
it out of. In fact, as far as I know, human beings are all there is
to make it out of still. It’s a point worth remembering.” In my
own experience of the church, I was grateful for the reminder
many times.
Two sentences at the end of his essay pop into my mind
everytime I hear that the nones are the only religious category that’s growing, that denominations are running out of
money, or that another congregation is leaving its denomination over this or that issue. “Maybe the best thing that could
happen to the church would be for some great tidal wave of
history to wash it all away—the church buildings tumbling, the
church money all lost, the church bulletins blowing through
the air like dead leaves, the differences between preachers and
congregations all lost too. Then all we would have left would
be each other and Christ, which was all there was in the first
In this issue Angie Mabry-Nauta makes the startling
announcement that nine U.S. churches close their doors for
good almost every day (see p. 22). Those who are left in oncethriving congregations love their church deeply and have
important lifelong memories. They often believe that if they
simply hang on, the good old days will return. Mabry-Nauta
describes congregations in Tucson, Plano, and Chicago that
were declining. She lists three criteria for judging their viability: critical mass, adequate finances, and vision. She reports that
all three churches made the difficult decision to close.
Adam Joyce adds to the conversation with his article on
how institutions can die well and makes fascinating parallels to
the role of hospice in the process of human dying.
There’s a monumental amount of hand-wringing and blame
that goes with all of this. I’m convinced that our energy would
be better spent on dealing honestly with the realities we face.
We are holding on to a model of church that doesn’t work for
everybody in every place. Small, aging congregations are trying
desperately to raise enough money to fix the roof of a crumbling building and to pay a full-time clergyperson. Yes, there
are large urban and suburban churches that are thriving and
growing. But many neighborhood and rural congregations
require courageous new thinking if they are to survive—new
thinking on the part of denominational executives, pastors
brave enough to walk into challenging situations, and people
willing to let go of a church model that no longer works.
In the meantime I’m glad for Buechner’s reminder that we
have Christ and one another—and that is quite a lot.
Christian Century January 7, 2015
January 7, 2015 Vol. 132, No. 1
John M. Buchanan
Executive Editor
David Heim
Senior Editors
Debra Bendis
Richard A. Kauffman
Associate Editors
Amy Frykholm
Steve Thorngate
News Editor
Celeste Kennel-Shank
The busy Sabbath
Contributing Editors
Martin E. Marty
James M. Wall
Dean Peerman
Trudy Bush
Jason Byassee
Rape on campus
The Editors: Beliefs and facts
Poetry Editor
Jill Peláez Baumgaertner
Editorial Assistant
Janet Potter
Rehabilitating fighters, resettling refugees, etc.
Advertising Manager
Heidi Baumgaertner
Hope for hurting bodies
Katherine Willis Pershey: Making sense of chronic pain
Art Director
Daniel C. Richardson
Production Assistant
Diane Mills
The war within
Michael Yandell: A veteran’s moral injury
Maureen C. Gavin
The last Sunday
Angie Mabry-Nauta: When it’s time for a church to close
Marketing Consultant
Shanley & Associates
Editors At Large
M. Craig Barnes
Ellen Charry
Lillian Daniel
Beverly R. Gaventa
Belden C. Lane
Thomas G. Long
Thomas Lynch
Kathleen Norris
Lamin Sanneh
Max L. Stackhouse
Miroslav Volf
William H. Willimon
Carol Zaleski
26 Final gifts
Walter Brueggemann
Martin B. Copenhaver
William F. Fore
L. Gregory Jones
Leo Lefebure
Robin W. Lovin
Bill McKibben
Stephanie Paulsell
Donald Shriver
Barbara Brown Taylor
Grant Wacker
Ralph C. Wood
Adam Joyce: How institutions can die well
30 Texas tough
Kyle Childress: Religion in a rough place
Cover photo © Aleksejs Jevsejenko
Interfaith couples choose ‘both/and’;
Caught between two worlds, Druze in Israel right for their
Vatican ends inquiry of nuns in U.S.
Philip Jenkins: Heirs to Forgotten Kingdoms, by Gerard
Lawrence Wood: Curious, by Ian Leslie
Amy Frykholm: Found Theology, by Ben Quash
Gerald J. Mast: Sorry About That, by Edwin L. Battistella
Me dia
Kathryn Reklis: Trial by podcast
Heidi J. Hornik and Mikeal C. Parsons: Jonah and the
Whale, from an early Christian sarcophagus
Editor’s Desk
John M. Buchanan: What the church is made of
20, 21 Living by the Word
Diane Roth
Faith Matters
M. Craig Barnes: Lesser-known heroes
Church in the Making
Carol Howard Merritt: Sharing the peace
Greg Huteson: Plastic Santa
Paul Willis: Oregon grape
Sarah Klassen: Incarnation
Shari Wagner: The farm wife muses upon her Miracle Tree
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Christian Century January 7, 2015
The busy Sabbath
he war against rest,” by Benjamin
Dueholm (Nov. 26), is spot on
with one exception: no mention is
made of the institutional church’s role in
eroding the Sabbath by creating environments of busyness. If 40 years of pastoral
leadership has taught me anything, it is
that a “busy parish” is not necessarily a
spiritually healthy one. In fact, teaching
people to say no to a variety of activities
designed to raise money, create fellowship, or just generate social capital is a
perennial challenge.
Congregational efforts to make space
for quiet contemplation, prayer, teaching, and spiritual renewal often experience competition from activities that
more often resemble those of the
Kiwanis or country club. In and of themselves, those activities are fine, but when
families come to church and find themselves inundated by things to do instead
of opportunities to just be, then the
church colludes in eroding the Sabbath.
Michael Tessman
Wakefield, R.I.
hanks for this important refocusing
of the issue. I’d like to point out,
however, that churches are very much in
the game of destroying Sabbath. Sundays
at church, Wednesday evenings, Thursday
mornings, and midday weekdays have
become bonanzas of busyness, meetings,
conference calls, and the like.
Kathleen Hirsch
christiancentury.org comment
his war against rest is quickly becoming the tragic flaw of our consumerist society. The very thing we want
is taking away the thing we most need. I
highly recommend Walter Brueggemann’s Sabbath as Resistance, which
speaks of God’s desire for us to use the
Sabbath to be free to reconnect with
God, promoting wholeness not only for
ourselves, but for our families and communities, especially those in need.
Chris Bright
christiancentury.org comment
Origin stories . . .
t is always interesting to see how different religions intertwine, especially
the big three (Islam, Judaism, and
Christianity), because it offers a bit of a
background as to how they began (“The
other woman,” by Debbie Blue, Dec.
10). For example, studying Judaism
offers a way for people to understand
Christianity a little better, because
Christianity came from Judaism. It is
very interesting to wonder whether Islam
would have been created if Ishmael were
welcomed into the family instead of
being sent out. It’s by faith that we as
believers continue to pray and believe in
what we know to be the true faith.
However, we should not disparage the
other religions, but accept them as being
H. Hwang
christiancentury.org comment
A time to compromise . . .
he editorial “Is compromise always
good?” (Nov. 26) was timely. But
incremental changes can be brought
about through responsible compromise
in the legislative process. Surely there
are “something is better than nothing”
scenarios, always with a plan to move
forward in the next session. Compromise
in the legislative process does not mean
you have given up what you truly
believe. Patience and a little wisdom are
Bill Holmes
Louisville, Ky.
January 7, 2015
Rape on campus
mong advocates for victims of sexual assault, it has become a truism
that victims’ stories should be believed. Sexual assault is habitually
underreported, and victims’ accounts are often dismissed because
they are inconvenient. The National Victimization Survey found that 80 percent of college women who say they were raped did not report the rape to the
This approach seems to have shaped the November Rolling Stone article
about rape at the University of Virginia, which opens with a vivid account of
a gang rape at a fraternity party in 2012 that was not reported at the time. The
alleged victim, a woman named Jackie, had been reluctant to tell her story—
to friends, police, college administrators, or the reporter from Rolling Stone.
She told journalist Sabrina Rubin Erdely that she would tell her story only if
the alleged perpetrators were not contacted.
It is difficult to know why a reporter would consent to a request not to
investigate the facts. As it turns out, nearly every detail of Jackie’s story
crumbled under scrutiny. Rolling Stone was finally forced to declare: “We
should have not made this agreement with Jackie and we should have
worked harder to convince her that the truth would have been better served
by getting the other side of the story. These mistakes are on Rolling Stone,
not on Jackie.”
In the aftermath of Rolling Stone’s apology, many commenters insisted on
the importance of believing Jackie. The Twitter hashtag #ibelievejackie gained
a following. People feared, perhaps rightly, that the Rolling Stone case would
generate more disbelief of those claiming to be victims of a sexual assault.
But as Slate writer Amanda Hess points out, a crime like sexual assault is
not a question of belief, it’s a question of facts.
The term belief, she wrote, “suggests faith in something that lies outside the
bounds of human knowledge. To put claims
of rape in this category is to buy the idea
that rape reports are by nature ambiguous,
and that feelings override facts.”
Erdely’s article, much like those who
dismiss victims’ claims, is interested only
in the facts and feelings that supported its
version of truth. But attaining justice for victims of sexual assault cannot be a
matter of belief or disbelief. Victims of assault are individuals, not symbols of
a cause, and each case must be heard and weighed.
To that end, under pressure from the White House, student groups, and sexual assault victims’ advocates, universities are beginning to change the way that
sexual assaults are handled on campuses. They are creating support services for
victims, aligning college policies with state and federal laws that define sexual
assault, adopting clear reporting procedures, and developing models for investigation. Such efforts are needed to serve both justice and truth.
Sexual assault is not a question
of belief.
Christian Century January 7, 2015
Dr. Ian Crozier contracted Ebola while treating patients at
a government hospital in Sierra Leone.
He nearly died from the disease. His
family feared that if he survived he
would suffer severe brain damage. But
he pulled through, thanks to aggressive
treatment at Emory University
Hospital in Atlanta. Afterward he
talked about the excruciating experience of treating patients with Ebola.
He also reported moments of grace:
mothers who fed the babies of other
mothers who had died, and three
young brothers with the disease who
stuck together after their mother had
died and their father was absent.
Crozier hopes to return to West Africa
in February or March (New York
Times, December 7).
SECOND CHANCES: European countries are asking how to deal with hundreds of young Muslims who went to
Syria to fight and then returned home.
Denmark is experimenting with rehabilitation rather than incarceration.
Returning fighters are treated not as
criminals but as troubled youth who lost
their way and need a second chance. The
program, first used with neo-Nazi youth,
is voluntary and includes counseling,
mentoring, opportunities for more
schooling, and meetings with parents. So
far the program seems to be working.
Denmark has the second highest number
of foreign fighters per capita. They “only
become ticking bombs if we don’t integrate them” back into society, said a
Danish psychologist (New York Times,
December 13).
States has been criticized for its slow
response in resettling refugees from the
Syrian civil war crisis. So far only 300
have been accepted out of more than 3.2
million who have fled from the Syrian
conflict. The State Department is expecting a surge of thousands in the next few
years and is now considering 9,000 resettlement applications. The vetting process
to screen out potential terrorists can
take up to two years. Only those in dire
need are considered—the very young,
the elderly, the sick, and those who have
been persecuted by their government
(Chicago Tribune, December 11).
Ministries, based in Plano, Texas, is the
nation’s largest provider of workplace
chaplains, a growing service industry. It
has an annual budget of $14 million and
sends thousands of chaplains into workplaces around the world. Although
almost all workplace chaplains are
Christian, their job is not to proselytize,
and they relate to employees of any or
no faith. Their job is more to listen than
to speak. Company executives are discovering that productivity goes up when
stress goes down (NPR, December 11).
EDIFICE COMPLEX: Construction of
religious buildings is at its lowest level
since record keeping began in 1967.
Declining participation and financial
funding and a shift away from megachurches are cited as reasons for the
decline. Congregations are also deciding to put more money into ministry
rather than structures. The building of
religious structures peaked in 2002 and
has been decreasing ever since, though
there are signs that it may have bottomed out in 2013. Mormons and
Christian Century January 7, 2015
Muslims, both with growing populations, are exceptions to this trend (Wall
Street Journal, December 4).
Do you want me?
UP NORTH: Muslims in Anchorage,
Alaska, have been working for 15 years
to build a mosque—the first ever in the
state—but they need another million
dollars to complete the project. The
mosque sits next to a Presbyterian
church with which it will share a parking lot. Alaska’s Muslim population is
extraordinarily diverse, including people
from African, Eastern European,
Middle Eastern, and Asian countries, as
well as from the lower 48 states. One
challenge for Alaskan Muslims is deciding when to hold prayers, since they typically are timed according to sunrise and
sunset. In summer in Alaska, the sun
never sets entirely. The congregation is
currently using a storefront in a strip
mall (Al Jazeera, December 5).
Achcar, author of The Arabs and the
Holocaust, believes that Holocaust denial
in the Arab world would go away if the
Israeli-Palestinian conflict were resolved.
The higher the tension between Israel
and Palestinians, the greater the amount
of Holocaust denial in the Arab world,
he maintains. Likewise, the greater the
Israeli-Arab tension, the more Israelis
tend to deny what the Palestinians call
the Nakba, the catastrophe in 1948 when
many Arabs were driven from their
homes. Mahmoud Abbas, president of
the Palestinian Authority, has acknowledged the Holocaust, saying it was “the
most heinous crime against humanity.”
Denial of the Nakba is the official stance
of the Israeli government. Achcar notes
that Arabs had nothing to do with the
Holocaust, whereas Nakba was caused
by Israelis (Center for Middle East
Studies Occasional Paper Series, No. 3,
University of Denver).
Christians who have chosen celibacy are
increasingly coming out from the shadows. A blog titled spiritualfriendship.org
draws thousands of visitors a month.
Leaders in this movement of conservative Catholics and evangelicals emphasize
the positive side of developing relation-
— Four-year-old Sweetie Sweetie, an Ebola orphan in
Sierra Leone, speaking to a visitor at the group home
where she is living (New York Times, December 13)
It is now time to take action. The individuals responsible for the criminal conspiracy revealed in today’s report
must be brought to justice, and must face criminal penalties commensurate with the gravity of their crimes.
— Ben Emmerson, the United Nations’ top special investigator for
counterterrorism, calling for the prosecution of senior U.S. officials who authorized and carried out torture as part of national
security policies (USA Today, December 10)
ships that don’t involve sexual intimacy.
Celibate gays elicit varied responses:
other gays and lesbians often criticize
them, saying celibacy is untenable and a
denial of equality and authenticity, while
some conservative Christians affirm celibate gays for their commitment to celibacy but are uncomfortable with their
openness about their sexual orientation
(Washington Post, December 13).
ROADSIDE CHAPEL: For nearly 75
years, travelers on the Pennsylvania
Turnpike could pull off the highway and
walk up the steps to St. John the Baptist
Catholic Church to pray or attend mass.
The church features rich wood and handcarved accents, a beautiful staircase to a
loft, and 14 Tiffany stained-glass windows. But the days of the “Church of the
Turnpike,” 90 miles east of Pittsburgh,
could be numbered. A highway widening
project is under way that will permanently remove the legendary steps in two or
three years (RNS).
DOGGIE HEAVEN? Some people think
Pope Francis opened the door to believing that animals have an afterlife. Speaking of the “new creation” God intends, the
pope said, “It is not an annihilation of the
universe and all that surrounds us. Rather
it brings everything to its fullness of being,
truth and beauty.” An Italian newspaper
concluded that the pope was broadening
the hope of “eschatological beatitude to
animals and the whole of creation.” But a
retired professor at the Pontifical
Urbaniana University in Rome cautioned
against that conclusion, saying that there
will be continuity and transformation
between the new and old creations and
that the balance between the two can’t be
determined (Guardian, November 27).
Religious response to President Obama’s executive action allowing some 5 million undocumented
immigrants to remain in the United States for three years without being subject to deportation:
White evangelical
White mainline
Due to rounding, totals may not equal 100%.
Christian Century January 7, 2015
Ma k i n g s e n s e o f c h ro n i c p a i n
Hope for hurting bodies
by Katherine Willis Pershey
YEARS AGO, I encountered a
graphic crucifix in an old Mexican
church. It was too kitschy to elicit holy
horror; the gashes on Christ’s face and
body looked more cartoonish than
redemptive. I am glad I never pushed the
image from my mind, though. It has
become for me a sort of icon of the
banality of pain—even divine pain. For
all the competing theories of atonement,
there is a singular fact about the crucifixion: it hurt like hell.
I was still in elementary school the
first time I woke up with a stiff neck, and
I have grappled with bouts of severe neck
and back pain ever since. When I was 22,
a chiropractor glanced at my X-ray and
told me I had the spine of a middle-aged
man. I’ve sprained my back by carrying
an amplifier and lifting a canoe. I’ve suf-
fered through postpartum spasms that
were worse than actual childbirth. Once
I ended up on bedrest for days because I
sneezed wrong. I’ve seen physical therapists and pain specialists, gotten monthly massages and an inconclusive MRI.
I’ve swallowed painkillers so strong I
couldn’t hold them down, and I’ve fretted about whether doctors will think I’m
an addict if I appear too desperate for
In her classic essay on migraines—
another excruciating and mysterious
affliction—Joan Didion remarks, “That
no one dies of migraine seems, to someone deep into an attack, an ambiguous
blessing.” There have been times when I
could almost consent to this terrible sentiment. When the pain comes, the only
thing I want—the only thing I am capa-
Plastic Santa
It’s January and plastic Santa
still plays his golden sax
outside a store on Jinhuapu Lu.
His mechanized twiggy legs
are barely hid
as they twitch in tandem
in his thin flannel pants—
Christmas red, of course,
and his lips as brown as tofu
hang a full two inches behind
the sax’s cracked reed.
Poor man! Even the dogs—
Pekingese, Chihuahuas and others—
step around him as they snuffle
for a swatch of sun to jazz their bones
on this cold day.
Greg Huteson
Christian Century January 7, 2015
ble of wanting, it seems—is for it to
“Whatever else it does,” writes
Barbara Brown Taylor, “pain offers an
experience of being human that is as elemental as birth, orgasm, love, and death.”
For this reason I’ve often pondered—not
in the throes of spasms, but before the
last twinges have faded away—the relationship between pain and incarnation.
The story goes that God got a body, a
body that grew in a mother’s womb and
suckled at a mother’s breast. The body of
a boy: a boy who skinned his knees and
got too much sun and went through
puberty. The body of a man: a man who
knew the pleasures of food and wine, a
man who may not have known a woman
but nevertheless knew what it felt like
for a woman to pour precious oil on his
feet and rub it in with her hair. A man
who was beaten and crucified and
pierced with a sword.
ast spring, I was at a conference
when one of my familiar afflictions descended. The constellation of knots that line my neck and
shoulders is uncomfortable and immobilizing—turning my head becomes
instantly impossible—but the knots
aren’t debilitating. I was still able to participate, albeit gingerly.
One night at dinner, a friend noticed
when I winced. I long ago learned that
my aches and pains are boring to other
people (my apologies), so I admitted the
condition and quickly changed the subject. She changed it back. The whole
table listened as she shared a bit of testimony: after years of severe back pain,
she read a book by John Sarno and, upon
fully accepting his mind-body philosophy, had experienced healing.
Sarno’s theory is fairly simple. Some
pain has physiological roots: torn muscles,
broken bones, slipped discs. But other
pain is psychogenic, real pain provoked
by underlying stress: repressed anger, subconscious anxiety. Certain personalities
are more susceptible to psychogenic back
pain. Another factor is a culture that
tends to be more sympathetic toward
When I don’t know where my pain
comes from or what purpose it has, all
that’s left is hope. Hope for healing,
however it comes—through shots,
through prayer, through downward facing dog. But I need a hope that stretches farther, too, a hope that will sustain
me even when the shots wear off, the
prayers go unanswered, and I collapse
When pain comes, the only thing I want
is for it to leave.
physical than emotional pain: it’s safer to
cope with back pain than something as
socially unacceptable as rage.
To treat psychogenic pain the way one
would treat physiological pain is as ineffective as trying to cure osteogenesis
imperfecta with the power of positive
thinking. My friend works the Sarno program, regularly searching for sparks of
anger and anxiety before they can set
psychosomatic fires to the nerves in her
back. And my friend is free of back pain.
I ordered one of Sarno’s books that
night. I wish I could say I’m healed.
Attending more carefully to my spiritual
and emotional health does seem to loosen
the neck and shoulder knots. On the other
hand, I recently chucked the book across
my bedroom—in an entirely unrepressed
expression of rage—during one of the
worst episodes of muscle spasms I’ve ever
experienced. Either the Sarno method
doesn’t always work, or my new chiropractor’s structural diagnosis is correct.
Part of coping with pain is imbuing it
with meaning. But my inability to discern
the reason for my pain makes it all but
impossible to craft a theory of its purpose. Maybe labor really was worse than
the back pain ten days later, but there
was an enormous difference: the labor
pains were going to end with a baby. If
there must be pain, let it not be in vain.
Let it make us stronger, or wiser, or more
compassionate. If the lamb of God must
be slain, at least let him take away the
sins of the world.
on my yoga mat in tears. I need a hope
that stretches me beyond my own small
suffering, that encompasses the great
torment of the whole seemingly godforsaken world. I need an eschatological
There is a case for such hope, even for
aching bodies. God is not in the business
of simply gathering ephemeral spirits in
heaven. N. T. Wright contends that in the
New Testament,
the word soul, though rare, reflects
when it does occur underlying Hebrew
or Aramaic words referring not to a
disembodied entity hidden within the
outer shell of the disposable body but
rather to what we would call the whole
person or personality, seen as being
confronted by God.
To proclaim the bodily resurrection of
Christ is to affirm that his whole person
was restored to life. Paul assures us that
we will be united in a resurrection like
Christ’s. Life is fully embodied on both
sides of eternity, but suffering doesn’t
survive death.
Perhaps it is yearning born of desperation. Yet the hope of resurrection— my
own bodily resurrection, my naked soul
before God—cuts through my despair.
Jesus’ new body bore the scars of what
he had suffered. They were deep enough
for Thomas to wedge his hand into. But I
know the signs of pain, and the risen
Lord wasn’t in any. His agony was finished, just as he said as he breathed his
Oregon grape
(Mahonia nervosa)
Oregon grape, what makes you so sour today—
or every day, for that matter? Your blue berries,
ripe to bursting, look delicious but they’re not.
Some native peoples would not eat them altogether.
Others, only intermixed with sweeter berries
from other plants—huckleberries, for example.
Are you jealous of your upland cousin,
thriving in subalpine meadows,
you stuck down here in the woods?
Listen: your little leaves in bending ladders,
dark green and shining like the holly,
lift me into holiday spirits. I’m serious.
With you it is Christmas in the gloom.
If you could just be happy about it,
I might forgive you for your flavor.
—Ross Lake National Recreation Area
Katherine Willis Pershey is associate minister at
First Congregational Church in Western
Springs, Illinois.
Paul Willis
Christian Century January 7, 2015
A ve te ra n ’s m o ra l i n j u r y
The war within
by Michael Yandell
the army from
2002 through 2006 as an explosive ordnance disposal specialist, including six
months in Iraq. Recently, a soldier from
my old unit, who had been deployed
multiple times to Iraq and Afghanistan,
was in Texas, where I am studying at a
seminary. Eager to see him after nine
years, I drove down to San Antonio and
met him at a shopping mall food court.
We chatted about our new lives, our rou-
place in the world. The spiritual and
emotional foundations of the world disappeared and made it impossible for me
to sleep the sleep of the just. Even
though I was part of a war that was much
bigger than me, I still feel personally
responsible for its consequences. I have a
feeling of intense betrayal, and the
betrayer and betrayed are the same person: my very self.
Calling my experience “disillusion-
What I lost in the Iraq war was a world
that makes moral sense.
tines, our hobbies. At one point he said:
“I haven’t slept much since the wars
I also didn’t sleep much when I
returned from Iraq. I could not sleep
because I was disturbed—disturbed by
the war and by my attempt to reenter a
consumer-driven civilian life. I was bothered by a feeling I could not quite identify that I suspect keeps many from sleeping. “Moral injury” is a name for it.
For me, moral injury describes my disillusionment, the erosion of my sense of
ment” does not describe how I feel about
those with whom I shared military service. Nor have I become disillusioned
with the ability and dedication of the
U.S. military to meet specifically identified objectives.
What began to erode for me in Iraq in
2004 was my perception of good and evil.
What I lost was a world that makes
moral sense.
One of my favorite movies illustrates
this loss. A Man for All Seasons is a
romanticized story about Thomas More,
God is carnal? Yes! God
has got to be flesh and blood. Bones too
like any one of us. A child
can’t go to sleep in a dark room
unless someone is right there beside her.
Someone with some skin.
Sarah Klassen
Christian Century January 7, 2015
a friend of King Henry VIII and chancellor of the realm. At one point More is
urged to arrest one of his enemies, but
More refuses, because the man has broken no law. More’s soon-to-be son-inlaw, William Roper, asks, “So now you
give the Devil the benefit of the law?”
More replies, “Yes! What would you
do? Cut a great road through the law to
get after the Devil?”
Roper, with all the certainty of youth,
exclaims, “Yes, I’d cut down every law in
England to do that!”
More responds:
Oh? And when the last law was down,
and the Devil turned ’round on you,
where would you hide, Roper, the
laws all being flat? This country is
planted thick with laws, from coast to
coast, Humanity’s laws, not God’s!
And if you cut them down, and you’re
just the man to do it, do you really
think you could stand upright in the
winds that would blow then? Yes, I’d
give the Devil benefit of law, for my
own safety’s sake!
This is what moral injury is—the winds
that blow when all the laws, all the
understood ways of relating to other
human beings have been laid flat. For
when we release the terms good and evil
and start applying those terms to human
beings and whole groups of people, we
allow ourselves the capacity to lay flat
any moral qualms in order to pursue the
enemy to the ends of the earth.
I was 19 when I left for war. I did not
know I was leaving a world that made
sense—a world where people respected
one another’s lives and dignity, a world
where violence and murder were understood to be wrong and punished by laws—
DUTIES OF WAR: During a training exercise, a U.S. armed forces technician wearing an ordnance disposal suit inspects the material
remaining from a disrupted improvised explosive device.
and entering a world where all bets were
off. I was a willing participant in this war.
For the sake of pursuit of the enemy,
we started to ignore things that would
not have been acceptable to me in other
circumstances: noncombatants being
pulled from their homes in the dead of
night, with black bags placed over their
heads; people dragged to a prison compound and kept there with no avenue for
recourse or appeal, no law of any kind
Can we heal from that? I am not
sure. I sleep well nowadays. In part, this
is simply because of the space and time
between me and the experiences of the
war. I have become adept at avoiding
thinking about it. For moral injury is
more like a chronic illness than an
acute one. It is something like the pain
of arthritis or an old, bad knee that
someone complains about when it
The war is a part of me, yet who I am
rejects what war is.
determining how long they could be kept
or for what reason. Wartime violence was
no longer a bad thing: it is sought after as
a quality of character.
Such a monumental shift in one’s perception of the world, however, cannot be
temporary. I expected to be able to
return to the solid foundations of the
world I had left, with its understandings
of moral truth. But when I arrived home,
I could not. Everything was laid flat. I
returned, like so many others, to sleepless nights and to the thoughts and memories of war. There is no moral shelter
when all is laid flat.
The pain manifests itself in strange
ways. I have experienced spontaneous
tears of rage while driving to the grocery
store that seem to bubble up from
nowhere. Sometimes I cannot look a
family member in the eye after she has
thanked me for my service. Sometimes
when I see the children in the youth
group with which I work, who are surrounded by loving parents and church
members, who anticipate lives of opportunity, my mind wanders to the streets of
Baghdad and to the children who asked
me for candy, who grew up in the midst
of war.
I know that plenty of civilians feel
terrible about U.S. involvement in Iraq
and Afghanistan. But as a veteran, I
cannot quite clearly distinguish the war
as something “out there” or in the
past—it is like something I own personally. It lives in me. Sometimes I feel condemned not only by my own actions, but
by the war as a whole. I do not mean
condemned by some cosmic force or
condemned by society. I mean that I
condemn myself.
This is a paradox. Of course the war is
a part of me. I cannot avoid it. I cannot
escape my experience. And yet who I am
rejects what war is—and what I was in
the war.
I categorically reject the unleashing of
“good” and “evil” as fundamental ways
of understanding human beings, the
notion that we can place ourselves on a
moral high ground and, having done so,
completely disregard any moral obligation to avoid violence and death-dealing.
I reject the notion that the value of life
can be laid flat to be reclaimed later.
Once war is over, what remains?
Who or what will stop those winds from
Michael Yandell is a student at Brite Divinity
School in Fort Worth, Texas.
Christian Century January 7, 2015
Interfaith couples choose ‘both/and’
ean Tutt was a freshman at Harper
College in Palatine, Illinois, when
she met Brian Saucier. He had long
hair and wore a denim jacket with skulls
on it; she had more the button-down
cardigan style. He was a member of the
College Republicans, while she was a
fairly uninterested Democrat. The fact
that she was Jewish and he was Roman
Catholic barely registered.
Then the two got to know each other
better. Jean liked Brian’s sarcastic sense
of humor and found him to be incredibly
kind. They started dating, and by the time
they graduated, they’d decided to marry.
And then religion did matter. Though
they hadn’t cared much about their faith
differences while dating—an attitude
still held by the majority of Americans
under 35—they wanted to get a better
sense of how their family would work
before they tied the knot. Neither wanted to convert, the standard solution a
generation ago when people of different
faiths wanted to get married. And neither wanted to drop his or her religious
affiliation, which is another typical path
today for the rapidly growing number of
American interfaith couples.
Then they discovered the Jewish
Catholic Couples Dialogue Group—a support network for interfaith couples connected to the Chicago Interfaith Family
School, which teaches both Catholicism
and Judaism. The people involved were
welcoming and said it was possible, even
advantageous, to raise a family that was
actively part of two religions.
Over the past 50 years, the United
States has seen a dramatic growth in
both the number and acceptance of
interfaith marriages. In what scholars see
as a steady progression since the 1960s,
the country has morphed from a society
in which religious intermarriage was relChristian Century January 7, 2015
atively rare (one in ten marriages at the
beginning of the 20th century) to one
today in which it is more likely that couples marrying will come from different
religious backgrounds. And in 2008
about 80 percent of adults age 18 to 23
approved of intermarriage.
On a Sunday morning this fall, in the
cafeteria of the Albert Einstein High
School in Kensington, Maryland, about
250 people arrived for the regular gathering of the Interfaith Families Project.
Led by Julia Jarvis, a pastor, and Harold
White, the former Jewish chaplain at
Georgetown University, the group recited the interfaith responsive reading,
written by members of the Palo Alto,
California, interfaith community:
Leader: We gather here as an Interfaith Community to share and celebrate the gift of life together.
All: Some of us gather as the Children
of Israel; some of us gather in the
name of Jesus of Nazareth; some of us
gather influenced by each.
They also recited the Shema—a core
prayer in a Jewish service—and the
Lord’s Prayer and sang a number of
songs that the spiritual leaders had
picked for this service, such as “Return
Again,” by Shlomo Carlebach, and the
Shaker hymn “Simple Gifts.” Then, after
a short reflection from White, the group
broke up into an adult discussion group
and a bustling Sunday school. The fifthgraders went to their class to learn about
the life and times of Jesus. Next door, a
teacher gave a lesson on the Hebrew
alphabet. The teenagers started debating
the definition of a meaningful life.
Washington’s IFFP started in 1995
with four families. Now, with 300 active
members and more joining every month,
it is one of the largest such organizations
in the country.
“For a long time, I believe people
thought we were just nuts,” said Jarvis,
who joined in 1998. “We’re not so much
an anomaly anymore.”
Jarvis and many in interfaith organizations see themselves as “taking different paths up the same mountain,” putting the truths and beauty of different
faiths over human interpretations.
IFFP “provides a community where
neither spouse feels excluded,” said
Susan Katz Miller, a member of IFFP
and the author of Being Both.
esearch shows that not only are
more Americans marrying people of other religions, but a rapidly growing proportion are choosing to
remain interfaith families. In a paper
released earlier this year, David McClendon of the University of Texas at
Austin crunched survey data and found
that the proportion of interfaith marriages that remain with mixed-faith partners had shot up to 40 percent in the
early 2000s from 20 percent in the 1960s.
(Those couples who do not hold on to
their differing faiths tend to take one of
three paths: one spouse converts, both
pick a new religion together, or they drop
religion altogether.)
Often partners who keep their own
religions go their separate theological
ways; one goes to church and the other
goes to synagogue, for instance. But
there are studies that suggest significant
numbers of families—like those attending the Chicago Interfaith Family School
or IFFP—are pursuing a joint, intentional interfaith existence. While JewishChristian groups are most common in
the United States, there are small groups
or web forums that focus on Muslim-
KEEPING BOTH FAITHS: Julia Jarvis and Harold White, a pastor and a rabbi, spiritual leaders of the Interfaith Families Project of Greater Washington, D.C., say a blessing during the community’s weekly gathering.
Christian intermarriage, Jewish-Hindu
marriage, and others.
“I have thought about the connections
between Judaism, Islam, and Christianity
more than I ever did before,” said Trina
Leonard, a member of IFFP who is Catholic.
Her family joined IFFP after trying a
number of religious institutions; it was
the first place she, her Jewish husband,
and their teenage son, Daniel, felt fully
welcomed and faithfully embraced.
“I remember going to church, trying
synagogue, and really not liking either,”
said Daniel Leonard, 16. “I actually like
coming [to IFFP because] it’s a community where people care about you, they
understand you.”
Families find commonalities between
doctrines and beauty in difference, they
say. And working through religious quandaries is a good exercise in the sort of faith
searching that many go through as adults.
“I am squarely in the ‘both’ camp,”
Daniel Leonard said. “I love and feel
part of both religions. IFFP has given me
a positive outlook on both.”
A big part of interfaith religious education, say those involved with interfaith
Sunday schools, is providing children
with enough religious literacy that they
can follow their own faith paths.
“At the core of this trend toward
interfaith families is a very American
way of thinking about religion,” said
David Campbell, a University of Notre
Dame professor who cowrote the book
American Grace: How Religion Divides
and Unites Us. “In other parts of the
world, preference is the wrong word.
Religion is not a preference; it is something you are born with.”
Naomi Schaefer Riley, author of the
book ’Til Faith Do Us Part, points out
that Americans today tend to marry at
the most secular part of their lives—in
their twenties, a time when young adults
have moved out of their parents’ orbits
(and churches) but haven’t started families. This is the age group most likely to
tell researchers they have no religious
affiliation. And most couples, Riley said,
don’t discuss religion or the faith in which
they’ll raise their children before they
marry, underestimating “how important
religion is in our lives later,” she said.
Only when a baby is on the way do
previously secular couples focus on the
religious fit, Riley found. Many mixedfaith couples opt out of religious activity,
but this was often an unhappy decision
for those involved, she said.
“A lot of the individuals I interviewed
felt themselves spiritually thwarted,”
Riley said. “They were not able to fully
practice, or not able to fulfill their own
spiritual dimension.”
A number of studies—though contested—show a greater divorce rate among
interfaith couples than same-religion couples. That is why, according to Jean Saucier,
interfaith communities can be so valuable.
It is not always easy to figure out
how to bridge the difference between
her Judaism and Brian’s Catholicism,
she said. She struggled with the idea of
having her child baptized—ending up
with an interfaith ceremony that was
both a Jewish baby naming and a baptism. Other couples may wonder
whether to make plans for both partners to be buried in a Jewish cemetery,
say, or a Christian one. But going
through these decisions with a network
of others helped her and Brian come to
peace, Jean said, and a new faithfulness
that feels more spiritually fulfilling than
either of their religions alone.
“For people who don’t work at it—who
don’t really consciously come to agreement, it really won’t work,” Jean said.
“Someone will feel slighted; someone will
feel disrespected. We wanted both of us to
be comfortable in our home. We wanted
our children to have an identity that makes
sense. I think we’re achieving that, but
it’s not always easy.” —Stephanie Hanes,
The Christian Science Monitor
Caught between two
worlds, Druze in Israel
fight for their rights
Bullet holes pepper the front windows of the old city council office and
paramilitary police in armored jeeps
patrol the main street in the mixed
Muslim and Druze village of Abu Snan
in the Galilee region.
In November, more than 40 people
were injured in a brawl between the two
communities, most of them by a grenade
thrown into a group of Muslims.
Abu Snan, which is about half Muslim
and a third Druze (the remainder Christian), has seen rising tension between
Muslim Arab citizens of Israel and their
Druze neighbors—adherents of a monotheistic religion whose roots lie in Islam
but which today forms a distinct faith.
In 1956, the state of Israel passed a law
mandating military service for the Druze,
and ever since they have served on the front
lines of Israel’s wars. More than 83 percent
of eligible Druze enlist in the Israeli army,
higher than the 75 percent enlistment rate
Christian Century January 7, 2015
Israeli flags flying next to each other in
Daliyat al-Karmel.
for Jews. The Druze say they have a sense of
duty to the state, and they also want to maximize their job prospects and ensure themselves a better future.
The Druze are a small sect almost
entirely based in Lebanon, Syria, and
Israel. They range from 1 million to 2
million people, with several hundred
thousand in Syria, the largest Druze
community. In Israel the population
numbered around 130,000 as of 2011,
according to Israel’s Central Bureau of
Statistics. Most are in northern Israel,
including some 20,000 in four villages in
the Golan Heights, which was annexed
by Israel in 1981. More than 90 percent
of the Golan Heights Druze have
refused Israeli citizenship out of loyalty
to Syria, where most have family ties.
The Druze broke off from the Shi‘ite
sect of Islam in tenth-century Egypt.
Arab in culture and language, they are
for the most part not considered Muslims
by the wider Muslim world, and they do
not follow the Five Pillars of Islam.
Druze service in the Israeli army has
been a point of contention with their
Arab Muslim neighbors, who for the
most part identify with the Palestinians
and see the Druze as fellow Arabs.
Locals in the village were reluctant to
speak on the record or acknowledge that
there is rising tension between the two
communities. Local council head Nuhad
Mishlav, a Druze, said relations are fine
and the brawl was simply a personal dispute between two local men—one Druze
and one Muslim—that spiraled out of
control after one stabbed the other at a
local café. When asked about DruzeChristian Century January 7, 2015
Muslim fights in the local high school,
which have reportedly broken out for
political reasons, he blamed Facebook
and other social media, which he said
students use to spread gossip and insults
among their classmates.
“For generations we’ve had great relations with each other here, but this younger
generation is violent,” he said. “There is
real fear here and more so at night.”
The fear was palpable at the home of
Bilal Taha, a Muslim man whose son Najib
was badly wounded by shrapnel in his legs,
groin, and back after a grenade was thrown
into a crowd of Muslims. Neither Bilal nor
Najib said that there are frayed ties
between Druze and Muslims. One of Bilal’s
relatives was the Muslim man stabbed in
the café fight that sparked the brawl, and
Bilal also said he saw it as personal.
But he added that if police did not arrest
the man who threw the grenade and if the
Muslim man still hospitalized in critical
condition dies, things would again become
violent, possibly worse than before.
“Every day it calms down here more,
but our great fear is that one person dies
and it could all start up again,” he said.
Meanwhile, ongoing violence and
“lone wolf” terror attacks have hit mainly in Jerusalem. In two of these attacks,
one on the Jerusalem light rail and the
other at a synagogue, Druze policemen
were killed in action.
One of the Druze policemen, Zidan
Saif, was first on the scene when two
Palestinians killed four worshipers in a
West Jerusalem synagogue. Saif was shot
by one of the assailants as they exited the
synagogue; he died later that night.
His heroism inspired Israelis across
the country, but a couple of days later the
government led by Prime Minister
Benjamin Netanyahu began pushing forward a law that would officially recognize Israel as the nation-state of the
Jews, drawing the ire of non-Jewish
Israelis, including the Druze.
“I feel that now I have to encourage
[Druze] youths not to enlist in the army,”
said Murad Saif, Zidan’s brother, to
Channel 10. “Either way, they’re going to
treat us as Arabs, so why enlist and fight?”
The spiritual leader of the Druze in
Israel, Sheikh Muwaffak Tarif, said the
Druze are proud to serve as long as they
are assured equal rights.
“We love and respect the Jews and
serve alongside them,” Tariff said. “We
have a blood alliance with the Jews, but
we also need an alliance in life. Our
young people are angry and frustrated.
We are giving a great deal to the state,
and we’re not getting it back. We’re neglected, there aren’t jobs, our young men
can’t get building permits for a house.”
Amal Nasereldeen is a former member of the Israeli parliament who founded a memorial to the 405 Druze soldiers
and police who have fallen in the service
of the state of Israel. The complex also
includes a military preparatory academy
with 38 cadets and sits on a hill atop the
Druze town of Daliyat al-Karmel.
Gunmen who infiltrated from Jordan
in 1969 murdered one of Nasereldeen’s
sons; a second was kidnapped in the
Palestinian city of Jenin in the 1990s and
has never been found. A grandson was
killed in 2008 in the Israeli Operation
Cast Lead in the Gaza Strip.
Nasereldeen said he constantly sends
letters to the government about the
unemployment, poverty, and housing
shortage faced by discharged Druze soldiers, and he said he views the state’s
treatment of the community as a failure.
“The Druze are an inseparable part
of the country, but they want their rights
and rightfully so,” he said. “The Jews
don’t have any friends in the Middle
East or the world like the Druze.”
—Ben Hartman, Religion News Service
Vatican ends inquiry
of nuns in U.S.
The Vatican ended an inquiry begun
six years ago into U.S. nuns with a report
designed to bury their differences and
celebrate their contribution to the
Catholic Church.
Known as an Apostolic Visitation, the
inquiry took place between 2009 and
2012 and included a questionnaire, personal interviews, and visits to approximately 90 religious institutions across the
United States.
The results of the inquiry were released by Cardinal João Braz de Aviz,
who heads the department responsible
END OF INQUIRY: Brazilian cardinal
João Braz de Aviz (left) speaks with Sister
Sharon Holland (right), president of the
Leadership Conference of Women Religious,
at the conclusion of a Vatican press conference to release the final report of a Vaticanordered investigation of U.S. communities of
women religious.
Remembering Chuck Colson,
bipartisan federal panel
aims to reform prisons
Chuck Colson turned seven months
behind bars into an opportunity to start
over. Now the Justice Department is
looking to his example as it tries to
reform the federal prison system.
The bipartisan Charles Colson Task
Force on Federal Corrections kicked off
its work at the Capitol on December 9.
Former representative J. C. Watts Jr. (R.,
Okla.), its chairman, said its aim is to
make the federal prison system safer, less
costly, and more humane.
“His faith encouraged him to believe
that there was no such thing as a lost
cause, in or outside of prison,” Watts said
of Colson, who became a born-again
Christian shortly before he went to
prison in 1974 for his deeds on behalf of
a disgraced President Nixon. The experience inspired Colson to build the nation’s
largest prison ministry during the second
half of his life. He died in 2012.
The task force is made up of nine
experts, including Jim Liske, president
and CEO of Prison Fellowship Ministries,
the group Colson founded. It will meet
five times during the next year and release recommendations in December
2015. The group also includes former representative Alan B. Mollohan (D., W. Va.),
its vice chair, as well as a federal judge, a
criminology professor, a corrections official, a former U.S. attorney, and the head
of a clemency project.
PRISON REFORM: Former representative
J. C. Watts Jr. (R., Okla., left) speaks during
the kickoff of the Charles Colson Task Force
on Federal Corrections. Former representative Alan B. Mollohan is at right.
Christian Century January 7, 2015
for consecrated life, and three senior U.S.
nuns at the Vatican on December 16.
“Since the early days of the Catholic
Church in their country, women religious
have courageously been in the forefront
of her evangelizing mission, selflessly
tending to the spiritual, moral, educational, physical and social needs of countless
individuals, especially the poor and marginalized,” the Vatican report said.
The inquiry was ordered under Pope
Benedict XVI after concerns arose about
a so-called secular mentality among U.S.
While Vatican officials noted that 266
superiors general (or 78 percent of the
total) had participated in the visitation,
they did not say how many of America’s
50,000 nuns or religious institutes
declined to respond to questionnaires.
“We are aware that the Apostolic
Visitation was met with apprehension by
some women religious,” Braz de Aviz
said. “While this was a painful disappointment for us, we use this present
opportunity to express our willingness to
engage in respectful and fruitful dialogue
with those institutes which were not fully
compliant with the visitation process.”
The investigation is one of two Vatican
studies that have provoked widespread
anger among members of the Leadership
Conference of Women Religious, an
umbrella group representing the majority
of U.S. nuns. They feared an attempt to
bring them under the authority of the Holy
See’s male-dominated Catholic hierarchy.
The report noted a closer alignment
with Pope Francis, stating U.S. nuns “can
resonate” with Francis’s insistence that
“none of us can think we are exempt from
concern for the poor and for social justice.”
Mother M. Clare Millea, the nun
charged with overseeing the nationwide
visitation, said it offered many opportunities for reflection, dialogue, and communion among women religious, pastors,
and the faithful.
“Congregation leaders, including
those who expressed resistance initially
to this initiative, have shared that the
process has yielded surprising positive
results,” she said.
Millea fought back tears several times
during a media conference releasing the
“It’s a very moving moment for me,” she
later said. “I deeply love religious life, and I
gave three years of my life to the revitalization of religious life in my country.”
Sister Sharon Holland, president of
the LCWR, who also attended the
Vatican media conference, said her members would be “affirmed and strengthened” by what she called an “honest
report,” while stressing it was not a “document of blame.”
Asked if it defused the differences
between the Vatican and her members, she
said: “It is not a truce. We are not at war.”
She also said Francis was having a
positive effect and that there is a “certain
freshness” in the church.
Nevertheless, the Vatican inquiry
revealed dramatic structural change in
the number and age of women religious
as well as financial hardship within U.S.
religious institutions.
Total numbers have dropped to fewer
than 50,000 this year, according to the
Center for Applied Research in the
Apostolate at Georgetown University.
There were 181,000 nuns in 1966.
The inquiry found that women religious are struggling to attract new
recruits, and aging nuns are struggling
with the rising cost of health care.
Still to come is a separate inquiry into
the LCWR begun by the Congregation for
the Doctrine of the Faith in 2009. The
LCWR, led by Holland, is the main association for the leaders of women’s orders,
representing around 80 percent of nuns in
the United States. —Josephine McKenna,
Religion News Service
The task force intends to study several successful state efforts to reduce overcrowding and recidivism in prisons. The
federal prison population has grown by a
factor of eight since 1980, with 214,000
prisoners at the close of fiscal 2014. The
system costs nearly $7 billion annually, a
quarter of the Justice Department’s
budget, according to the task force.
Representative Frank Wolf (R., Va.),
who heads the congressional panel that
led the effort to fund the task force, and
who accompanied Colson on prison visits,
said he hopes its final report will honor
“what Chuck did with his life and the
bond that he had with people who were
serving, and with people who had served.”
—Lauren Markoe, Religion News Service
Survey finds one in three
in U.S. don’t want clergy
for civil marriages
Christian Century January 7, 2015
Kenyan Christians alarmed
by increased persecution
from militants in region
Church leaders say attacks by Somalia’s
al-Shabaab militants in the northeast
region of Kenya are increasingly taking on
an anti-Christian tenor, including targeted
executions of non-Muslims.
At a news conference in Nairobi in
mid-December, the leaders said Muslims
must redouble efforts to preach religious
tolerance and end youth radicalization.
In what the leaders describe as a dangerous trend, 64 Christians were executed
in or near Mandera, a town on the border
with Somalia, in two incidents in the past
three weeks. In both incidents, nonMuslims were separated from Muslims.
On December 2, militants shot 36
quarry workers. The militants asked
workers to recite the Shahada, the
Muslim profession of faith, and shot
those who refused.
On November 22, al-Shabaab militants hijacked a bus and killed 28 nonMuslims, 21 of them teachers returning
home for Christmas.
“This situation regrettably leads us to
conclude these attacks, perpetrated by
people claiming to be al-Shabaab, are
taking a religious angle,” Anglican archbishop Eliud Wabukala said at the news
Roman Catholic, Anglican, Presbyterian, Methodist, and evangelical African
Inland Church leaders said Kenya had
witnessed more than 20 attacks this year
alone, which had left more than 200 people dead and many others injured. The
attacks, which initially targeted Christian
places of worship, now target Christians
on public transportation and in workplaces, according to the leaders.
“They must move beyond merely
condemning the attacks to initiating
practical steps to reach out [to] the sympathizers of terror and help us build
bridges between faiths and communities,” Wabukala said.
Catholic cardinal John Njue said that
although recent executions displayed
religious patterns, Kenyans should avoid
statements that further divide the country along religious lines. —Fredrick Nzwili,
Religion News Service
PREACHING PEACE: Kenyan church
leaders, including Cardinal John Njue (left),
and Archbishop Eliud Wabukala (2nd from
left), address a news conference at the All
Saints Cathedral in Nairobi.
Two surveys released in December by
LifeWay Research show some support
for separating religious marriage from
civil marriage.
In a survey of 2,000 American adults,
the Nashville-based Christian research
company found the following.
• Nearly six in ten Americans (59 percent) say marriage should not be
“defined and regulated by the state.”
• Nearly half (49 percent) say “religious weddings should not be connected
to the state’s definition and recognition
of marriage.”
• About a third (36 percent) say clergy should “no longer be involved in the
state’s licensing of marriage.” However,
more than half (53 percent) disagree.
• Those most likely to favor a split
between religious weddings and government or civil marriage include 54 percent
of men, 53 percent of Catholics and 45
percent of Protestants.
LifeWay also conducted a parallel
survey of 1,000 Protestant pastors. It
found that one in four favor separating
the religious rites from their signature on
a government-issued marriage license
that makes the ceremony legally binding.
This is how it’s done in many foreign
countries already, but not—so far—in
the United States.
Ed Stetzer, executive director of
LifeWay Research, called it noteworthy
that so many pastors are willing “to stop
saying ‘By the power vested in me by the
state’ during a church wedding.”
Last month, the magazine First Things
launched a campaign for clergy to pledge
to stop signing marriage certificates. So
far, more than 330 clergy have signed the
The “I don’t” campaign to alter the “I do”
patterns has support from liberals as well.
“The state doesn’t tell you how to celebrate Christmas or Ramadan, and it
shouldn’t tell you how to get married,”
Paul Waldman wrote in the American
Prospect in July.
Meanwhile, many brides and grooms
are voting with their feet—away from
involving clergy at their wedding.
For more than a decade, state offices of
vital statistics have not distinguished
between clergy and nonclergy wedding
officiants, so there are no national statistics to prove a trend. However, an unscientific 2010 study by TheKnot.com and
WeddingChannel.com found a shift away
from clergy ceremonies: 31 percent of the
websites’ respondents who married in
2010 said they used a family member or
friend as their officiant, up from 29 percent in 2009, the first year of the survey,
according to the Washington Post. —Cathy
Lynn Grossman, Religion News Service
■ Jonathan Greenblatt, a special assistant
to President Obama, will succeed Abraham Foxman as head of the AntiDefamation League, which was founded
to combat the hatred of Jews and Judaism.
“Since its inception, ADL has had a
tremendous impact
on making America
a more inclusive
society for all people
while defending the
rights of Jews to
freely practice their
faith and be full participants in society,” Greenblatt, 43, said
in a statement. He will take the helm of
the ADL in July when Foxman retires
after 27 years.
Greenblatt currently serves as director of the Office of Social Innovation
and Civic Participation in the Obama
administration’s Domestic Policy Council, where he has worked on gun violence
prevention, among other issues.
Greenblatt, the grandson of a Holocaust survivor, also founded Ethos
Brands, which created Ethos Water, a bottled water company funding global clean
water campaigns.
Greenblatt “brings to ADL an impressive track record of leadership in
both the nonprofit and for-profit sectors
■ In a lengthy interview in the Times,
Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby
predicted that the Anglican Communion
might not hold together because of
strong disagreements over the ordination of women as bishops and full rights
for LGBT people. The interview came at
the end of Welby’s visits to each of the 38
provinces that make up the Anglican
Welby said that although individual
churches remain “strong, resilient, and
thriving,” the differences among them
remain profound.
“I think, realistically, we’ve got to say
that despite all efforts there is a possibility that we will not hold together, or not
hold together for a while,” he said. “I
could see circumstances in which there
could be people moving apart and then
coming back together, depending on
what else happens.”
Rod Thomas, chairman of Reform, an
evangelical network of English and Irish
Anglicans opposed to women bishops
and LGBT ordination or unions, agreed
with the archbishop’s assessment.
“If, as an Anglican, you believe more
or less the same things but you just can’t
reach agreement on something that is
terribly divisive, you do go your separate
ways,” said Thomas, who is also a member of the governing body of the Church
of England. “That will mean that the
heads of various Anglican churches
around the world won’t be able to meet
together and say ‘Look, we’re all united’
in the same way they did in the past.”
Welby said that some churches, particularly in Africa, may find it difficult to
remain in a single global Anglican Com-
and a deep and abiding commitment to
our mission of combating anti-Semitism
and defending the civil rights of all people,” said Barry Curtiss-Lusher, ADL’s
national chair. —Lauren Markoe, Religion
News Service
munion. But he insisted, “It would take a
long time for the latent underlying link
of Canterbury to cease to be an important factor in the way people looked at
life and the Communion.”
Canterbury is regarded as the mother
church in the Anglican world, but its
authority is being challenged by a global
network of conservative Anglican churches known as the Fellowship of Confessing
Anglicans, which was formed in 2008. The
fellowship is made up of leaders in African,
Asian, Australian, South American, and
some North American churches.
The archbishop’s tour took him
around the world—from Brazil to South
Sudan and from Rwanda to South Korea.
In the interview, he spoke about when
to call another Lambeth Conference, the
summoning to Canterbury of all Anglican
Communion leaders typically held every
ten years; the last was in 2008. —Trevor
Grundy, Religion News Service
■ The Senate confirmed David Saperstein
as the State Department’s ambassador-atlarge for international religious freedom,
making him the first non-Christian to hold
the job.
Saperstein, 67,
who led the Reform
Jewish movement’s
Washington office
for 40 years, focusing on social justice
and religious freedom issues, was
nominated by President Obama in
July and confirmed by a 62-35 vote on
December 12.
“Religious freedom faces daunting
and alarming challenges worldwide,”
Saperstein said at his confirmation hearing in September. “If confirmed, I will do
everything within my abilities and influence to engage every sector of the State
Department and the rest of the U.S. government to integrate religious freedom
into our nation’s statecraft and foreign
Saperstein, named the most influential
rabbi in America by Newsweek magazine
in 2009, was the first chair of the U.S.
Commission on International Religious
Freedom, which was created as a watchdog group in the same act of Congress
that created the ambassador-at-large
position in 1998.
The Washington-based Interfaith Alliance applauded Saperstein’s confirmation.
“When David steps into this position
he not only achieves a remarkable capstone to what has been a long and successful career, he brings to our nation’s
foreign policy a wealth of knowledge and
a fierce dedication to religious freedom
and the rights of religious minorities,”
said C. Welton Gaddy, president of the
alliance. “David’s work has always been
guided by the Jewish commandment to
repair the world—he has now been given
an incredible platform to do just that.”
—Lauren Markoe, Religion News Service
Christian Century January 7, 2015
dangerous. This mission drives Jesus back to the wilderness to
wrestle with the devil, and it leads him to places of suffering,
chaos, and despair. When God hears the cries of the creation,
God sends Jesus—armed with the power of the Holy Spirit and
with his identity and mission as the Son of God.
The baptisms where I preside have been orderly and relatively tame. Still, I suspect that the danger of the river is present, that the heavens are again torn apart so that this new child
of God bears with us both Jesus’ name and his mission. It is
both comforting and dangerous. The river with its power is
present, even if we mostly miss this presence.
Sometimes I wonder if we can do more to point out that something powerful is happening at a baptism. Perhaps, like Annie
Dillard once suggested, we should all wear crash helmets and life
preservers. Perhaps we should issue warnings with our baptismal
certificates: “This is a passport to places you never thought you
would go, to be an emissary of the living God in the desert and the
wilderness, to plant seeds of hope and healing and life.”
The young woman’s question haunts me, and not simply
because I have never done a river baptism. It is because I realize that it is in part the dangerous possibility that holds me
back, that makes me want to stay safe in a place with ceilings
and heating, with order and liturgy. And when I wonder what
about a river baptism attracts her, I know the answer: it’s life.
The life of the river attracts her, the idea that a river is flowing,
moving, coming from somewhere and going somewhere else,
Sunday, January 11
Mark 1:4–11
HAVE YOU EVER done a river baptism?” We were
in the church library when she asked it, a large group of us sitting in a circle and talking about baptism. Later at our evening
service there would be two babies and a two-year-old baptized
in the font in our small chapel. But for now, we were sitting
around talking about what would happen that night, why it was
important to us, and what we believed about it.
“I have been reading about river baptisms lately,” she went
on. “I think it would be really powerful to be baptized in a river.”
I had to admit that while I wasn’t against river baptisms, I
had never done one. All of my baptisms have been indoors, in
fonts of one sort or another, in places with walls and ceilings
and central heating. When she first said “river baptism,” I
thought of the Mississippi, which flows not too far from our
church. A baptism in the mighty Mississippi could be dangerous. You have to know what you are doing in a river.
Still, her fascination with river baptisms got me thinking—
about the wildness of rivers, the wildness of creation, the wildness of baptism. Mark’s account of Jesus’ baptism is spare.
There is no description of the people being baptized or of the
scribes and the Pharisees watching. There is no conversation
between Jesus and John. But there is this: Jesus is baptized in a
river, in the wilderness. And when Jesus is
baptized, he sees the heavens torn apart.
Not just opened, as in Matthew and Luke,
but torn apart. Opened heavens might
plausibly be seen as good news. For them
to be torn apart, however, seems dangerous, like the river.
But like the woman attracted to the power of a river baptism, so Israel yearned for a powerful God who would tear
apart the heavens. In Isaiah 64, the cry goes up: “O that you
would tear open the heavens and come down.” It is the heart’s
cry of an Israel subdued, put down, mocked by those who
would deny its God. Israel yearns for God to come and right
wrongs, lift up the poor, set free the captives, bring power to
the oppressed and healing to those who suffer.
When Jesus is baptized, God tears apart the heavens, and a
voice declares the truth of Jesus’ identity: “You are my Son, the
Beloved, with you I am well pleased.” This has, more often than
not, been the focus of the baptisms that take place around our
font (not at the river), these words that I have marked as comforting. But at his river baptism Jesus is given not just an identity, but a mission—and his mission is not just comforting, but
Our baptisms are passports to places we
never thought we would go.
Christian Century January 7, 2015
receiving and giving life. When the heavens are torn open,
something new emerges; a mystery once hidden is revealed, a
presence once absent is now among us.
The heavens torn open mean that God is somehow with us in
a new way. Not that God wasn’t with us before, but that something new is being born—a different kind of relationship, both
dangerous and comforting. The wildness of the river is not tamed
by the font or by the order of the liturgy. God’s words—“You are
my Son, my child. With you I am well pleased”—promise us a
wild ride into the current of God’s justice, passion, and mercy.
Though I eschew the danger of the river, I know that it is where
God leads me, because I bear God’s name. God whispers in my
ear and pushes me out to places I am afraid to go. This is what you
get for having the water poured over your head, for being called
a child of God—whether that water flowed in a river or a font.
Reflections on the lectionary
realize that what he is hearing is the voice of God. And it is
night as well for Israel. The first verse of chapter three sets the
tone: “The word of the Lord was rare in those days. Visions
were not widespread.”
How often might God be trying to speak to us, but we are
not listening? Is it possible that we don’t even recognize the
sound of God’s voice? If so, who can teach us? Is it possible
that the very young and the old among us, those most often dismissed, are the ones with the insight, the wisdom, and the
openness to teach?
“Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening”—Eli knows
these words, but perhaps he hasn’t spoken them in years. He
has long since ceased to expect God’s voice. I used to think that
this was the end of Samuel’s story: he learns to listen to God.
Strangely, I wasn’t curious at all about what God has to say to
Samuel. I didn’t wonder about the particular word that God
has for him. Perhaps I just assumed that it’s something affirming or heartwarming—something like the daily devotions I
usually read that remind me that I am God’s child, that God
loves me even in the midst of adversity, even when the light has
gone out.
Sunday, January 18
1 Samuel 3:1–20
A COUPLE OF YEARS AGO, my congregation decided to do lectio divina as part of our midweek Lenten
worship. After our opening liturgy and prayer, we entered into
this ancient Benedictine practice of scripture reading and
expectant listening. Three times we heard a word from God;
three times we trained our ears to pick out the voice of God in
the silence.
Each week we began our time of lectio divina with words
from 1 Samuel 3:9: “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.”
What more appropriate verse could there be, I thought? Eli
teaches Samuel that God is calling him. He teaches him to listen, expecting God to speak. If we use Samuel’s words, we will
know that God is speaking to us, too.
Our congregation tried this practice specifically during Lent
because we were convinced that one key to revitalizing our
congregation was learning again how to listen—to God, to one
another, and to our neighbors. When we start believing that
God speaks to us—and even more than
that, that God is calling us—this is when
renewal begins.
As for me, I used this verse from 1
Samuel intentionally as well. I have loved
it for a long time. I used to wonder why
“Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening” was not a part of our regular Sunday liturgies. The words
just sounded like they belonged in worship, like a line of poetry. So I grabbed at the chance to make it part of lectio.
I have known the story of Samuel since I was a small child,
when my grandmother gave me a narrow maroon book with
gilt edges called Children of the Bible. It featured realistic pictures of Miriam, Isaac, Joseph (and his coat), 12-year-old Jesus,
and of course Samuel. I remember that Samuel was depicted as
a curly-headed, dark-eyed, and very young child. He is in bed
but sitting up, listening. He is listening for the voice of God, just
as Eli instructed.
“Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.” The verse is a
fulcrum for all that comes before and after. In the stories of my
childhood, the lesson always ended here, when Samuel finally
gets it right, when he finally realizes that God is calling him. It
is a story that takes place in the darkness. It is night, and
Samuel is sleeping in the place where the Ark of the Covenant
is located. (I never noticed that detail as a child.) It is night for
Eli, whose eyesight is dimming and who has forgotten what
God’s voice sounds like. It is night for Samuel, who doesn’t
Is it possible that we don’t recognize
the sound of God’s voice?
These are good messages. They are not, however, the particular message that God has for Samuel. God’s word for Samuel
is a word of judgment on the house of Eli. This must be a hard
word for the young boy to hear, a hard word to tell. Yet ultimately it is a good word, because it is a word about the renewal of Israel.
I can’t help thinking that the lessons of lectio divina and the
lessons of Samuel are similar. In order to hear we need to expect
that God will speak to us, that the word of God will come to us.
But the word we receive is never general, always particular—
and it is a good word but not necessarily an easy one. God will
not just tell us to forgive people; God will send us to forgive a
particular person. God will not just tell us to love people but will
send us on a particular mission of love, embodied.
When we say “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening,”
perhaps we are opening a can of explosives. Who knows where
God will lead us?
The author is Diane Roth, a Lutheran pastor who blogs at Faith in Community, part of the CCblogs Network.
Christian Century January 7, 2015
W h e n i t ’s t i m e fo r a c h u rc h to c l os e
The last Sunday
by Angie Mabry-Nauta
ON AN AVERAGE day in the United States, nine
But how does a group of church leaders come to such a noturning-back decision? How have other churches done it?
churches close their doors for good.
This isn’t often talked about, partly because it’s not exactly
breaking news. Church professionals know the trends: church
membership and religious affiliation are declining. Relatively
few churches are growing.
It’s particularly hard to talk about your own church’s
demise. It’s not easy to say what sometimes needs to be said:
“It’s time for our church to close.”
On the first Sunday of Advent in 2013, the Reformed
Church in Plano, Texas—where I had been a member for 16
years—celebrated the beginning of a new church year as usual:
royal purple and evergreens, a single lit candle on the wreath.
Then, right before the benediction, the two copastors asked
everyone to be seated as the members of the church’s consistory approached the podium. Their somber faces reflected a
decision that the congregation knew was coming.
After much prayer and deliberation, said John Weymer, the
vice president, the consistory had decided that the church
would close at the end of January 2014.
“We made the decision that we felt was best for the church
and its members,” Weymer said. “We had the choice to keep
limping on as a dying church, or to close our doors with dignity while we still can. People need a vibrant faith community,
one that can care for them, challenge them, and disciple
them—all for the purpose of sending them out into the community in mission. We have been unable to provide that for
quite a while now.”
The easier choice would have been to hang on—hang on to
memories of what once was, to the good that yet remained, to
outside chances of survival, to the tightly knit groups that were
like family, to the “what ifs.” A church’s tougher choice, the one
of the narrow gate and the road less traveled, is to recognize
that it cannot shepherd its flock adequately and to avoid
becoming a stumbling block in people’s faith journey. If courageous church leadership includes knowing when a church’s
death is best for its people, RCP’s pastors and lay leaders fit
the bill.
“The church’s bias has always been that you do whatever
you can to keep a congregation going,” noted Wesley
Granberg-Michaelson, former general secretary of the
Reformed Church in America. “This is neither a healthy nor
correct Christian theological approach. Death is never the last
word, and the new is always seeking to break in.”
Christian Century January 7, 2015
hen Rosemont Community Church in Tucson,
Arizona, contacted John Cameron Foster in 2011,
the congregation was worshiping with about 50 people in attendance. Foster is an interim minister trained specifically to help churches in crisis and transition. His task, he says,
was “to give Rosemont one more chance to become viable.”
Foster led the church through a program aimed at helping a
congregation take an honest look at its past, assess its present,
Rather than limp on,
some churches make
brave decisions.
and discern its future. Eventually he asked whether the congregation thought it could make necessary changes and “move
into a positive future.” Many people, however, wanted instead
to continue with things the way they were, maintaining that
they didn’t need a pastor and could get by on pulpit supply.
“The hardest thing for a dying church to do is change graciously,” Foster said. He describes a “three-legged stool of viability”: critical mass, financial viability, and vision.
“Sadly,” he said, Rosemont’s leadership “did not want to
own up to” the church’s lack of viability in all three areas.
Everything changed in September 2013 when, at the RCC
consistory’s request, representatives from the classis—the
RCA middle judicatory—met with leaders. Through a twohour conversation, the consistory came to understand the
breadth and depth of the church’s circumstances. Three
months later, it voted to close the church.
Foster describes closing a church as one of the hardest pastoral experiences he’s had. “Call it a funeral to the tenth
power,” he says.
Edie Lenz closed a church in her first call out of seminary.
When Lenz came to Church of the Good News in 2002, the
RCA mission church near Chicago’s Wrigley Field had already
Angie Mabry-Nauta is a writer, speaker, and Presbyterian Church (USA)
In April 2009, a consultant led a group from Bethlehem in
discussing the congregation’s history and remembering its
accomplishments. She also helped them begin discerning possible scenarios. Three emerged: merge with another church,
share the building with another church, or close. “There was
no blame,” MacPherson recalls, “and there was relative
The congregation tried both merging and sharing, to no
avail. That August, it voted to close. “We felt a sense of freedom
once the plan to close was set because no more decisions had
to be made,” said MacPherson. “Also, the remaining members
formed themselves in a different way as the remnants. Their
mind-set seemed to be, ‘We’re the ones who are left, so let’s be
nice to one another.’”
Each of these three churches suffered long-term membership decline. Each engaged in an assessment process, with help
from judicatory leaders. Two experienced significant leadership challenges. All made painfully brave decisions to close
rather than limp on.
seen urban redevelopment and gentrification begin to scatter
its congregants and partner organizations. Economic and
demographic changes soon brought the church to a crossroads.
Would it make radical changes in its vision and mission to
accommodate what was happening around it? Or would it follow its people out of the community?
In a 2007 classis-wide assessment, church-health experts visited CGN to gauge its health and effectiveness. They suggested
Lenz believes that it was neither the ongoing money issues
When is it time to move
beyond mere survival?
nor this outside recommendation that led CGN to decide to
close. The church’s leaders—those who were left—were overburdened and overwhelmed. “We did not have a full consistory,
and those in leadership on consistory were not all actually leaders,” Lenz recalls. “There were several who did their best, but
they really were not equipped to serve. It is exhausting to keep
going knowing that you carry the load mostly alone.” Church of
the Good News held its final worship service in May 2008.
Nearby Bethlehem United Church of Christ closed the following year. During Wayne MacPherson’s 17-year tenure as
senior pastor, neighborhood changes took their toll, as did a
building in need of renovation. Programmatic ventures—new
worship practices, evangelism efforts—were unable to attract
new interest. In 2008, with giving and membership down and
an aging remnant remaining, Bethlehem’s leadership met
with the UCC Illinois Conference to explore their options.
efore my church in Plano closed, a team of leaders
spent two years researching the church’s situation,
gathering statistics spanning a decade. They visited
other churches to gain perspective. They made themselves
available to the congregation for questions and comments. All
the while they reported to the consistory and the pastors.
The team’s findings were painful. They revealed a church in
long-term decline and in need of radical change if its ministry
was to continue. Yet worship was vibrant, and a faithful band
of 135 members remained strongly committed to their church.
RCP’s leadership discerned the facts, felt the resistance, and
ached for better days. The tension immobilized them.
Christian Century January 7, 2015
Two months later, church leaders hosted three forums in
which members were presented with the hard facts—and with
five possibilities for RCP’s future:
Something had to give, and eventually one member of the
lay team rose to the occasion. A child of the church since sixth
grade, now a husband with children of his own, he sent an email to the whole team.
“It is with great pain but clear vision I write that I believe
RCP needs to close,” he wrote. “Our vitality is all but gone, and
we are merely surviving, rather than thriving for Christ. This
isn’t what church is supposed to be about.”
It was difficult to read. Several church leaders got angry.
But, Weymer says, this e-mail was a catalyst to more open discussion of the issue at hand.
1. Make no change. RCP would continue operating as it
had been. Depleted funds would force the church to
close within six to nine months.
2. Restart. RCP would close its doors and sell its property.
A small, dedicated group would then become part of a
new church—new name, new location, new identity, new
3. Relocate, rename, rebrand—but without actually closing
The farm wife muses upon
her Miracle Tree
4. Make new ties. A different denomination might be better situated to provide local support. RCP could join as
a stand-alone congregation or merge with an existing
Everyone laughed
when it arrived in a legal-sized
envelope and I showed them
5. Close. RCP would set a date to close its doors. A final
sermon series and a closing worship service would celebrate 35 years of ministry and mourn its end. Church
leaders would assist members in finding new church
the ad: “For 19.99, watch it
reach your roofline in a year.”
Just as that stick, plain
as a toothpick, unfurled a leaf
Pete clipped it
with the mower. That’s it,
These options were presented as independent from the
course to be taken by the pastors, who were discerning their
own options. Before the benediction on the Sunday following
the forums, the pastors announced that they’d be leaving. They
would stay to lead worship and provide administrative support
only until they were called elsewhere. The consistory would
assume responsibility for pastoral care and RCP’s remaining
When the pastors shared this news, a deep silence filled the
air. Sniffles and throat clearings sounded overamplified. A palpable awareness of the church’s mortality grew.
The next week RCP’s leadership conducted what would
be the final congregational survey. “Would you be willing to
commit to the next phase of RCP’s ministry without our
copastors leading us? Please specify how you will serve.”
A range of responsibilities was listed: making coffee, leading a small group, inviting friends to worship, serving on the
leadership board, nothing at all. The consistory needed to
know what energy, if any, RCP had for continuing without
a pastor.
The survey’s results were the final nail in RCP’s coffin.
More than 70 percent said to shut it down. The leadership
made the plans, and soon made the Sunday announcement.
I thought, but it grew back
above the red petunias
I added ’round its base.
We could use a miracle here,
with the cows gone
and the house in reverse
mortgage. But when it
spouted slender branches
with narrow leaves
even the Schwan Man
who measured each week
lost interest. I ponder
the name Salix babylonica
and how merchants
traded sprigs of those trees
along the Silk Road. Already
it weeps like a woman,
I write in my diary. Already
hurch closure is painful. Not talking about it is tragic.
Guilt and shame may prevent a church from sharing
the wisdom it has gleaned from the process, wisdom
that instead remains locked behind the shuttered doors. The
following suggestions, gleaned from those quoted above, are
hardly exhaustive but may be useful.
my neighbors dismiss it
as a dirty tree.
Shari Wagner
Christian Century January 7, 2015
For congregations:
For pastors:
• Keep your pastor(s) through the end. Releasing the pastor may seem like an obvious solution to money problems. But struggling churches need a consistent pastoral
presence. RCP’s pastors led and served until the last day,
offering a life vest in an uncharted, turbulent sea.
• Take care of yourself. If you don’t, no one will—and you
will have nothing to give.
• Love and feed your sheep. Be prepared for an increase in
emotional tension after a church decides to close. Some
will blame one another; others will blame you. Tongues
that are typically still might fly with vicious speed. More
than ever, pour out love upon the congregation.
• Keep giving. As Bethlehem UCC grew short on money
and volunteer energy, people felt taxed and unable to give
more. This is common in dying churches, and it’s understandable. Yet 150 people chose to stay and give through
Bethlehem’s end. It’s a gift to savor God’s continuing
activity through a dying yet beloved faith community.
God’s call to worship and
mission never ends.
• Rejoice that the body and mission of Christ are bigger than
your congregation. Your church may be dying, but God is
not. God’s call to worship and mission does not cease.
• Work with your denomination. Judicatories exist to support their member churches. A pastor is not expected to
close a church alone and shouldn’t try to.
“What we need is a real letting go,” commented GranbergMichaelson—letting go “of the past, of our fears, of power, of
tradition. . . . It’s too hard to break through the present when the
church is on life support and the concern is keeping the doors
open.” The alternative: cling to resurrection and to the life of
the larger body of Christ. This may make it possible to allow a
church to die when it is clear that its time has come.
• Preach resurrection. The congregation needs to hear
about life beyond the church that is dying. Death does
not defeat God’s children, and it doesn’t defeat God’s
church. When a church dies, new life sprouts elsewhere
within the body of Christ.
2015 NEW
Sustaining and Enriching
Clergy Leadership for
Congregational Life
Week One: June 27–July 4, 2015
Chautauqua’s interfaith New Clergy Program
is offering one week-long Conference this
summer, and invites applications from
interested clergy in Christian, Jewish, and
Islamic faith communities. During this week,
Chautauqua Institution will provide full
accommodations for clergy and their spouse
or partner. Participants will reside on the
Institution grounds, share meals, and meet
daily with the program’s directors, faculty,
and distinguished chaplains and lecturers
participating in Chautauqua’s Department of
Religion program. Discussions will focus on
issues and experiences relevant to theological
growth, leadership, renewal, and issues specific
to the dynamics of those new to ministry.
Conference participant grants are awarded to
women and men of the Abrahamic traditions
who have been in congregational ministry
between 2 and 5 years, and are made possible
through the support of various Foundations.
These grants cover residency, meals, gate
pass, and access to the full Chautauqua
Amphitheater program. Participants are
responsible for their own transportation
arrangements and expenses.
This will not be a vacation week; the program
is designed for adult professional interest,
interaction and development, and will maintain
a rigorous schedule. As such, Chautauqua’s
New Clergy Program is not conducive to
the inclusion of children; and spouses, while
encouraged to come, will not be included in
some aspects of program interaction.
For further information and for an
application, access
All applicants are asked to submit
application electronically to Nancy Roberts
[email protected]
Application deadline:
February 15, 2015
Dr. Robert M. Franklin, Jr.
Director, Department of Religion
Chautauqua Institution
Dr. Derek Austin
Director, New Clergy Program
Christian Century January 7, 2015
H o w i n s t i t u t i o n s ca n d i e w e ll
Final gifts
by Adam Joyce
the graying of the mainline, and the growth of the nones (people who claim no religious affiliation) have generated lots of
talk about institutional death. The activities of death and
decline in the church happen quietly: endowments atrophy,
sanctuaries are deconsecrated, and church bodies strain to
make the membership losses seem less obvious.
In almost every conversation I have about this phenomenon—especially with ecclesial leaders—the idea of institutional crisis and renewal comes up. A common theme is that crisis—the threat of death—presents an opportunity for renewal.
The language of crisis and renewal (borrowed from the world
of business management) is paired with the theological categories of death and resurrection. The church needs to experience a death in order to experience a resurrection, the argument goes.
For example, Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori
said this in September to the Episcopal Church’s House of
Bishops: “This Episcopal Church is in the throes of creative
ferment, yearning to find a new congruence that will discover
emerging life in new soil and refreshed growth in the plantings
of former years.”
The signs of institutional decline are seen as laced with
promises of new life. Didn’t Lazarus have to enter into the
tomb in order to be resuscitated? It’s comforting to think that
death might be the very thing to bring a church or institution
back to life.
But talk of resurrection in this context may be a way of
denying death, a way to stuff our ears with eschatological cotton balls, refusing to think about where we are and who we are.
The resurrection—God’s undoing of death—is not a church
growth strategy. This easy invocation of the resurrection can be
a way to disregard or avoid the hard work of preparing for
death. We want a resurrection without the dying.
When you ask individuals how they want to die, many
say they want it to be quick, preferably as they sleep. But
many deaths involve a slow decline, punctuated by aggressive and costly procedures enveloped in an atmosphere of
Surgeon and author Atul Gawande, in his 2010 New Yorker
article “Letting Go,” describes the fraught relationship the
dying have with technology: “Technology sustains our organs
until we are well past the point of awareness and coherence.
Besides, how do you attend to the thoughts and concerns of the
Christian Century January 7, 2015
dying when medicine has made it almost impossible to be sure
who the dying even are? Is someone with terminal cancer,
dementia, incurable congestive heart failure dying, exactly?”
This description could easily apply to segments of the North
American church. Institutional deaths mirror our individual
deaths in being expensive, drawn out, and full of fear.
Institutions need to think and talk about how to die well.
Often, both individually and institutionally, we are, as
Gawande says, “unprepared for the final stage.” This lack of
A good institutional death
can be an act of faith and
an act of worship.
preparation leads to either an abrupt ending or what some
have called institutional zombification.
Minister and activist Will D. Campbell once held a funeral
for a town—Golden Pond, Kentucky. It was an odd act but
showed how the practices of death and dying are for more than
So how do institutions die well? Author Andy Crouch says
that “one of the mistakes institutions make is to defer facing
their failure to the point that they have no more resources to
attend to the end. They just collapse rather than exit.”
Surviving is not synonymous with faithfulness, and death is
not failure—unfaithfulness is. If the church is to start thinking
about what a good death looks like, it should draw from the
wisdom and practices of those who provide hospitality and
care to those closest to death: those who work in hospice.
awande reports on the work of a hospice nurse, who
tells him that “the difference between standard medical care and hospice is not the difference between
treating and doing nothing. . . . The difference was in your priorities. In ordinary medicine, the goal is to extend life. We’ll
sacrifice the quality of your existence now—by performing surgery, providing chemotherapy, putting you in intensive care—
Adam Joyce is editor in chief at The Curator and works for Docent Research
holy deaths look like in their remembrance of martyrs. The
death of the martyr bears witness to Christ, typically in the face
of persecution. (However, concepts of self-martyrdom were
present in the asceticism of individuals like the third-century
monk Anthony.) Institutions that are dying may not face persecution, but they can learn from the tradition of martyrdom
that it is possible to lay down one’s life for Christ. As Rowan
Williams says, “Martyrdom affirms that there is something
worth dying for, and it is the grace, the love, the infinite compassion of God. . . . Martyrdom is one form of Christian
A good institutional death may look like a kenotic martyrdom. It involves the institution giving itself away—an excessive
for the chance of gaining time later. Hospice deploys nurses,
doctors, and social workers to help people with a fatal illness
have the fullest possible lives right now.”
Generally, hospitals aim for cures, and hospices aim for care.
However, there is no cure for mortality. Hospice recognizes
that there are times when certain procedures should not be
performed and that a good end of life sometimes means that
not everything that can be done to extend biological life is
done. As Stanley Hauerwas says, “You don’t have to do everything necessary to keep your body alive.”
The same insight applies to institutions. Churches may
spend time and resources bringing in outside speakers and
consultants, going to conferences, purging the bureaucracy,
targeting one interest-based group after another, building
drum cages, buying nicer coffee, and importing a pastiche of
practices and ideas from other industries and communities.
These are not inherently wrongheaded activities, but they may
detract or deflect from real end-of-life flourishing. Flourishing
at the end of an institution’s life involves asking different
questions: What should we grieve? How do we celebrate our
work? How do we give faithful and final gifts with our
resources to those around us? Instead of seeking simply to
extend life, institutions should concentrate on the laments, the
joys, and the giving of gifts.
The second lesson hospice teaches is that the work of dying
isn’t done alone. A good death takes a team, or better yet, a
community. Institutions should die in dialogue and relationship
with other institutions. Dying well involves knowing the needs
that surround you, the opportunities (and risks) that your
resources present, and the legal and financial regulations that
surround an institutional shuttering.
Christians have done a lot of thinking about what good and
ast summer, Tony Campolo’s ministry, the Evangelical
Association for the Promotion of Education, closed its
doors. The EAPE existed to nurture organizations that
combined a concern for evangelism and social justice in working with impoverished communities. In an interview with the
online magazine Faith & Leadership, Campolo said: “The ability to scale down is important. How many organizations exist
when their reason to exist and their ability to get the job done
have long since come to an end? . . . As though there is something ungodly about saying, ‘It’s time to stop.’”
Campolo forced EAPE to ask tough questions, eventually
leading it to consider how to close down thoughtfully. The
process took over a year, with legal proceedings and meetings
and attention to numerous details. Eventually EAPE gave its
resources to some of the ministries it had helped found, and
it asked its donor base to direct support and money to these
other ministries.
Christian Century January 7, 2015
Students receiving their seminary
education without leaving their cities
Theologians and pastors training
leaders together for the renewal of
the city
Partnering in special MA and MDiv
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Spiritual renewal will only happen when “local congregations renounce an introverted concern
for their own life, and recognize that they exist for the sake of those who are not members,
as sign, instrument and foretaste of God’s redeeming grace for the whole life of society.”
– Lesslie Newbigin
not synonymous with Christ. It bears witness to how death
EAPE didn’t fail, or collapse, or lumber along looking for
is not the final word. Good deaths do not deny death, but
new resources to consume. EAPE exited. And it ceased to exist
point to death’s undoing. Christ lives even amidst and after
by thoughtfully and slowly dialoguing with others and passing
our individual and institutional deaths. Humanity has more
parts of its life on to them.
to it than bodily life. There is more to God’s kingdom than
Crouch comments, “Stewards of an institution in the hospice
phase need to ask, ‘How do we send out the image bearers who
Clinging to life is not the same as living. At the end of their
have found dignity, agency, authority, and vulnerability in this
life, institutions should begin the slow and thoughtful process
institution to join other settings where they can flourish?’ There
of public repentance, joyfully remembering their ministry,
is a responsibility to not just throw people out, but to ask what
pointing to Christ, sharing their wisdom, and giving away
is transferable from this institution to others?”
their gifts. Oddly enough, a good death sounds a lot like a
Institutional deaths should be slow, but slow for the right
good life.
reasons. EAPE’s death was slow not because it spent everything—people, time, money, and places—for the
sake of survival. It was slow because it spent
time identifying the needs of fellow institutions
and carefully directing its resources to them.
For an institution, kenotic martyrdom
involves more than giving away resources and
wisdom. It also involves the dual act of public
Prospects and Perils
repentance and joyful celebration. Every
Thomas M. Crisp, Steve L. Porter,
church, school, denomination, or nonprofit has
and Gregg A. Ten Elshof, editors
wounded others. Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s theoTen eminent scholars offer deep and thought-provoking
logical equation in Life Together, “Confession is
discussions of the habits and commitments of the Christian
discipleship,” holds true for institutions at the
scholar, the methodology and pedagogy of Christian scholend of their lives.
arship, the role of the Holy Spirit in education, Christian
Repentance of institutional sins requires the
approaches to art and literature, and more.
truthful exercise of memory. While the capacity
ISBN 978-0-8028-7144-2 Ɣ 208 pages Ɣ paperback Ɣ $22.00
for truthful memory escapes many institutions
during their lifetime, perhaps an impending
death can provide the opportunity for it. A
good death means that institutions take responAntonio López and Javier Prades, editors
sibility for past (and current) wrongs, publicly
Preface by Angelo Cardinal Scola
naming them, and asking for forgiveness.
“Antonio López and Javier Prades merit high praise for this
Public confession and repentance are possifascinating volume. . . . The distinguished contributors
ble only if an institution enters into its demise
represent diverse Euro-American standpoints, but all wish to
thoughtfully, reflecting on its history and how it
re-propose a transcendent and lasting vision of cultural diverhas interacted with others. Confession paves the
sity. . . . I cannot think of a more necessary or creative project
way for the institution to remember and gratethan the one undertaken in these pages.”
fully celebrate its ministry. This gratitude should
— Peter Casarella
point to and proclaim Christ, recognizing the
ISBN 978-0-8028-6990-6 Ɣ 208 pages Ɣ paperback Ɣ $29.00
grace that allowed the community to participate in God’s redemption of all things.
God’s gifts to us are not “fully realized until
Emory University Studies in Law and Religion series
they are given away,” writes Lewis Hyde in
Ira C. Lupu and Robert W. Tuttle
The Gift: Creativity and the Artist in the Mod“For well over a decade now, the scholarly team of Ira Lupu
ern World. Just as Christ reveals that there is
and Robert Tuttle has been a valuable and distinctive voice in
something worth living for, he also reveals that
conversations about religion, law, and government. Secular
there is something worth dying for. InstituGovernment, Religious People reflects the mature, comtions can die for the larger church, for Christ,
prehensive culmination of that collaboration. . . . This is a
for the mission of God, and for the flourishing
formidable book that will have to be reckoned with.”
of others. When it comes to institutional death,
— Steven Smith
the holiness is in the how. A good death is an
ISBN 978-0-8028-7079-7 Ɣ 279 pages Ɣ paperback Ɣ $25.00
act of worship. A good death teaches other
institutions how to die. A good death can be
At your bookstore,
or call 800-253-7521
A church’s kenotic martyrdom bears witwww.eerdmans.com
ness to how the church (or any institution) is
Christian Century January 7, 2015
Texas tough
by Kyle Childress
Rough Country: How Texas Became America’s
Most Powerful Bible-Belt State
OUTSIDE THE LARGE First Baptist Church in
the small West Texas town where I grew up, a handful of men
gathered every Sunday morning to smoke one last cigarette
before going in to worship. They were ranchers and farmers
mostly, and their conversation consisted of three things: how
dry it was, the prospects of the high school football team, and
how dry it was.
Before going inside, one of them loved to repeat an old
Texas saying: “It’s 250 miles to the nearest post office, 100 miles
to wood, 20 miles to water, six inches to hell.”
Sociologist Robert Wuthnow seeks to show how living in
such an unforgiving and challenging land has shaped the perspective of its people and especially its religion. This rough
country has been observed and experienced and often written
about in letters and diaries by the settlers of the Texas frontier;
in it, Wuthnow says, “nearly everything is rough: the land is
rough, earning a living is rough, the people are rough, even the
preachers are rough.” He goes on, “What to make of this
roughness, and how to overcome it, are the most basic questions of everyday life.”
Mixing historical anecdotes gleaned from newspaper
accounts, memoirs, and diaries with demographic studies and
sociological analysis and using historical narrative as a framework, Wuthnow shows how this rough state with its rough religion and its rough relationship with race became such a powerful force in Bible Belt politics.
During the formative history of the state, people living “at
the margins of civilization existed in daily fear of attack from
hostile Indians, outlaws, and renegades.” One person wrote
about life in the city of Galveston, “Nobody who cares for his
life ventures out after dark.” Men there “shoot and cut up each
other on the least provocation” and “bowie knives and pistols
are conspicuous ornaments.”
At the same time, there was fear of slave insurrection and
fear of Mexico with its threatening Catholic religion. Slaves
were treated roughly and Texans of Mexican descent were mistreated. With so much “evil” out there, efforts at resisting it,
restraining it, changing it, and even destroying it were paramount. Either attack it or convert it and civilize it through the
building of towns, roads, schools, businesses, churches, and
other institutions.
According to Wuthnow, religion was preeminent in affirming the social order and combating evil. Texas seemed to have
more Baptists than people and, as one Roman Catholic said,
Christian Century January 7, 2015
By Robert Wuthnow
Princeton University Press, 664 pp., $39.50
the place seemed to be “crawling with Methodists and ants.”
Wuthnow says that a heavily Baptist and Methodist version of
Christianity provided a language to express worries and fears,
gave strength and solace in the face of enormous difficulties,
and offered hope for a better future both in this life and the life
to come.
And because Baptists were such a powerful force in Texas,
religious liberty of conscience with its concomitant emphasis
Religion in Texas is
shaped by life in an
unforgiving land.
on separation of church and state was a major aspect of religious and political life. “In practice, liberty of conscience
deterred clergy and lay leaders from bringing their faith in an
official or organized way into the political arena.”
All of that was fine and dandy, especially with Texas’s own
version of civil religion. As Texas writer Robert Flynn remembers, it was hard to keep all those Texas heroes separate when
he was a boy: Sam Houston, King David, Davy Crockett,
Robert E. Lee, Moses, Samson, and Stonewall Jackson. These
martyrs and founding figures combined with a minimalist
understanding of God formed Texas’s civil religion, says
longside and mixed in with the generalized civil religion were the more particular Baptist and Methodist
types with emphasis on the spiritual: individual sin
and salvation, personal morality and regeneration. And as
long as all this religion along with other social institutions
were all going in the same direction of civilizing the rough
world and fighting evil, liberty of conscience was carefully
Kyle Childress serves as the pastor of Austin Heights Baptist Church, Nacogdoches, Texas.
1970s and 1980s, and on to today’s battles over homosexuality, immigration, and taxes. Wuthnow brings this story up to
date through the governorships of George W. Bush and Rick
Perry, the rise of the Tea Party, and the election of Ted Cruz to
the U.S. Senate.
Wuthnow touches also on the rough dissenting and
reforming stream in politics, religion, and race. For example,
during the height of Jim Crow and the Progressive Era the
figure of Jessie Daniel Ames emerged. She was a Methodist
woman who, because of her faith, became involved in suffrage and active in the anti-lynching movement—mostly led
by women. There was also the East Texas judge “Cyclone”
Davis, a Populist one-term member of Congress who, in old
age during the Depression, denounced social injustices and
plutocrats, quoting scripture. And there were others, tough
and scrappy and as unrelenting as the powerful figures they
observed. Clergy kept to preaching on the spiritual life which
undergirded the schools, organizations, and institutions that
built society. The problem arose when society and the churches felt threatened.
What is interesting is what was considered threatening and
what was not. Racism was not. Wuthnow says that from the
black perspective, religion gave hope and courage in the face
of extraordinary hardship and indescribable violence, but for
whites, religion supported the racist status quo. Wuthnow tells
Unlike other Bible Belt states,
Texas has oil and the money
that goes with it.
shocking stories of lynchings, often witnessed by hundreds,
sometimes thousands of local townsfolk, most of whom were
o what makes Texas different from any other Bible Belt
active churchgoers. Often the lynchings were privately critistate? Other states have more Baptists than people, are
cized by clergy, who rarely condemned the actions publicly.
suspicious of the federal government, have a history of
Indeed, many white clergy felt that though lynching was regretracism and violence, and more than enough rough people to go
table, it served the interest of law and order.
around. What makes Texas different?
Since racism and violence did not seem to challenge white
Oil. And the money that comes from oil. Wuthnow says the
religion and society’s view of combating evil and spreading
greater resources of Texas, along with its large size and popucivilization, what did? Wuthnow says that white clergy’s first
lation, have given it a power beyond other states. For example,
real challenge to the social status quo
was the fight for Prohibition. About the
same time, evolution also threatened
the social order, and with Democrat Al
Smith’s nomination for president in
1928, the assumed social order was furBringing Poetry into the Life of Your Church
ther upset since Smith was Roman
Catholic and was for the repeal of Prohibition. All this served as precedent for
political activism on the part of churches and clergy.
Conference with Yale faculty
Wuthnow continues his story through
organized by David C. Mahan,
the Depression and Dust Bowl and the
director of the Rivendell Institute at Yale
clergy’s response to the New Deal,
which though greatly needed, raised
Inspiration and practical guidance for
many people’s fears of federal governchurch leaders in the many uses of
ment’s intrusion into areas of charity
poetry for worship, liturgy, meditation,
and service perceived to be the exclusive
and education to shape the minds and
responsibility of churches and civic
hearts of contemporary congregations.
organizations. In 1930s Texas, memory
stretched back to the frontier when
christian wiman, keynote speaker
there was little or no federal government close enough to do any good and
Maggi Dawn · David C. Mahan · Janet Ruffing
to Reconstruction, in which the federal
Thomas Troeger
government was perceived by whites as
the villain. By the 1950s these old habits
and doubts coalesced into outright fear;
social order was threatened again and
Susan Sohl: “Polyhymnia”
again—by communism in the 1950s, civil
Information and registration at ism.yale.edu/poetryconference2015.
rights in the 1960s, the role of women
Presented by Yale Institute of Sacred Music
and the debate over abortion in the
“Love bade me welcome”
may 12–14, 2015 · yale university
Christian Century January 7, 2015
with more school districts than any other state, Texas is highly
influential in the textbook publishing industry.
During the Depression a few Texans grew wealthy from oil
and its related industries. Some of those Texans used much of
their wealth in supporting churches and evangelists, their
organizations, and their use of media such as publishing, radio,
and television. Oil wealth was also used to support politicians
with the same goals in mind.
I found myself wishing throughout the book for more on
one or another aspect of Wuthnow’s story, and he confesses
that there is much beyond the scope of his study. Wuthnow is a
careful sociologist and his research is meticulous; he is a master of telling what happened and how it happened. The why is
for others to explain.
Why is much Texas religion heartfelt and at the same time
racist, hostile to difference, and at ease with violence? Why the
affinity between corporate money and religion? Why does
such a religious state have so much inequality? Why does this
Texas version of Christendom—the intertwining of religion,
politics, and culture—persist?
Why should anyone in another part of the country read this
book about Texas? Wuthnow says that while “it was never possible to regard Texas as a microcosm of
America—or indeed any way of being
small,” there is a great deal that parallels
with America. This Texas story is America’s story, albeit refracted through a specific locale. And with so much conflict and
division in American politics and religion,
perhaps we can better understand the
whole while looking at the particular.
Molly Ivins, a longtime Texas journalist, used to refer to Dallas as a city with
“Big Buildings, Big Hair, and a Big
Jesus” (she also said Dallas would have
pulled for Goliath in the contest with
David). The same can be said for Texas if
you add Big Oil, Big Money, and Big
Texan Bill Moyers tells the story of a
fellow who saw a fight out in the street.
He ran over and shouted, “Is this a private fight or can anyone join in?” Maybe
we Texans just like to fight. I don’t know.
I used to think that the fights of our past
were clearly defined. Rough Country
reminds me that most of the fights were
more complex than I thought. The one
thing that hasn’t changed is that there are
some things worth fighting for.
If you would like to write an article for
the Century, please send a query to
[email protected] or
to Submissions, the Christian Century, 104 S. Michigan Ave., Suite 1100,
Chicago, IL 60603. Allow four to six
click on “admissions”
weeks for a response from our editors. We do not consider unsolicited
manuscripts for our regular columns
or book reviews.
Christian Century January 7, 2015
by M. Craig Barnes
Lesser-known heroes
HE HAS an unpretentious name—Ralph Hamburger. If
Pastors spend every day of their ministries behind an iron
curtain that is determined to separate us from the splendors of
holiness. Those in the pews on Sunday morning have been bullied by the screaming call to succeed in a futile exercise of selfconstructing a life that will be fulfilling, whole, or at least not
hurt so much. And all the pastor has is a still small voice that
suggests there’s another way.
Into this dangerous terrain the pastor subversively claims
that self-construction only leads to self-destruction. “We have
a Creator for our lives who is not done,” the pastor keeps saying. “We have a Redeemer for all of the tragedy we have created by acting as if we were gods. We have a Spirit who will not
abandon us to the mess we’ve made of ourselves and the
The pastors who say this are mostly just as ordinary as they
can be. They are unheralded, ordinary Ralphs who sacrificed
the comfortable options to live on the other side of the secular
curtain. Instead, they live in beat-up parsonages their churches
cannot afford to repair—for the sole purpose of using their
lives to say, “Behold.”
At the end of long years of service there’s a small reception
in a church fellowship hall adorned with a few balloons and a
hastily hung banner with “Good-bye” scrawled across it. A
couple of people say kind words of appreciation. Someone presents a gift and plaque. After the receiving line runs out and the
tablecloths are being taken away, the old pastor’s spouse whispers that it’s time to go.
There were so many middle-of-the-night phone calls that
sent the pastor to an emergency room, so many heartbreaking
funerals, so many babies held in the pastor’s arms as the waters
of covenant were placed on another tiny forehead. There were
fancy weddings where the pastor fought through anxieties
about the dog and pony show to proclaim something about
holy covenants, and there were harsh words and conflicts
offered as a reward for every effort at leadership. So many
times the pastor climbed behind the pulpit to try again to
reveal the holiness on the other side of the curtain.
Through all of those unspectacular days the pastor was
always a subversive outlaw to a secular society. But for Ralph
it ends by quietly heading off to an unimpressive retirement
Where is the distinction in such a life? Only heaven knows.
That’s the good news. Heaven knows.
you heard him say it at a party, you would be tempted to smile
and look over his shoulder for someone else to greet. But the
name fits him well. There’s nothing about Ralph that pretends.
He grew up in Holland, where his family was part of the
resistance movement. They hid Jews. After the war he came to
America, received a college education, and attended Princeton
Seminary. He was ordained as a Presbyterian pastor and
served a congregation here until he could return to Europe,
where he spent the rest of his ministry pastoring underground
congregations behind the iron curtain. There were very few
days when he was not an outlaw, always in danger of being
thrown in jail.
His life sounds similar to that of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who
also left this country to enter the fray of a culture dangerous to
his convictions. Everyone is ready to bow a knee at the mention of Bonhoeffer’s name, but precious few of us have heard
of Ralph.
I learned about him when his daughter nominated him to
receive our seminary’s Distinguished Alumni/ae Award, which
we bestowed upon him in October. I will never forget the high
honor of surprising the audience with his story. Then I watched
this 91-year-old man walk to the podium under thunderous
applause to receive our inadequate award for a life of unpretentious heroism.
At the podium, hunched over toward the microphone,
Ralph said a few tender words about his wife, who is confined
to an assisted living facility. Then he made us all want to take
off our shoes as he described the holiness he found in the dangerous ground upon which he lived his life.
How did we miss such heroism along the way?
One of the things about Ralph’s life that makes him distinguished is the reminder that there are many unpretentious,
undistinguished pastors in the world who are quietly doing
heroic things.
Most of my Sundays are spent on the road as the guest
preacher for a congregation. When the worship service is over,
the host pastor accompanies me to the doors of the church
where people greet us before leaving. For some reason I am
always placed ahead of the pastor. When the parishioners get to
me they typically say, “Thank you for being with us today,” or
maybe “That was a lovely sermon.” But then they move past me
to their pastor and say things like, “Marge’s surgery is scheduled
for Thursday. I hope you can stop by the hospital to pray for
her.” They need to believe their pastor believes God is with us.
M. Craig Barnes is president of Princeton Theological Seminary.
Christian Century January 7, 2015
Endangered faiths
by Philip Jenkins
erard Russell has written a wellcrafted and readable book in
which an acute observer tells an
intriguing and significant story, drawing
heavily on personal observation. Yet the
book’s subject matter makes it difficult
to read.
A hundred years ago, travelers regularly reported their travels among the religious and ethnic minorities of the Middle
East, endlessly fascinated by the wonders
they encountered. Today, though, most of
those groups are on the verge of extinction in the region, and in some cases
Russell may be describing the last of
their kind. The elegiac quality of his
account makes it heartrending and often
Russell’s book successfully walks the
thin line between reportage and academic scholarship. Throughout, his accounts
are based on firsthand encounters that
he experienced during his years as a
British diplomat. Russell has a sharp eye
for telling details, for surprising quirks of
speech or dress. He has also read widely
in the relevant scholarship on often
arcane religious traditions, and he presents his findings accessibly. Even his
useful chapter on sources and further
reading is highly user-friendly. Russell
makes an excellent travel companion
and guide. Even if you know the history
of the region, you will learn much.
Most of the now-disappearing groups
he describes have very deep roots, and
their continued existence seems astonishing. To give an imaginary Western
example, we would have to think of a
remote province in western France, say,
where a group of Valentinian Gnostics
still maintains a church they founded in
the second century, complete with its
original scriptures and liturgies. Or imagChristian Century January 7, 2015
ine coming across a surviving Essene
monastery in Spain, founded as a direct
offshoot of Qumran.
If those examples seem far-fetched,
look at the Mandaeans, who long flourished in what were once the rich marshlands of southern Iraq. Their religion is
distantly related to Christianity and
Second Temple Judaism, but in highly
Gnostic forms. The Mandaeans’ complex
scriptures have been a gold mine for
scholars of Gnostic and Manichaean
ideas. The group’s obscure origins might
predate the Christian church. Might the
Mandaeans be descended from followers
of John the Baptist who fled threats of
massacre during the Jewish Wars of the
60s? Conceivably, one alumnus of the
movement could have been the thirdcentury prophet Mani, whose new faith
maintained the status of a world religion
for over a millennium.
Just in the past half century the
Mandaeans have been devastated, mainly by a marsh drainage scheme that
Saddam Hussein launched with the
deliberate goal of uprooting and disrupting minority communities. Subsequent
wars and the rise of radical Islamist
movements have made life impossible
for such groups, who scarcely enjoy even
the tenuous protection of being “People
of the Book.” Some 60,000 still survive,
but almost all in diaspora outside Iraq.
As Russell remarks, “Their departure
ends a chapter in human history that was
opened more than eighteen hundred
years ago.”
Similar remarks may soon apply to the
Ezidis (Yazidis) of northern Iraq. Over
the millennia, these descendants of
ancient Zoroastrians have borrowed
heavily from neighboring faiths, and their
angelic hierarchy includes Malak Tawus,
Heirs to Forgotten Kingdoms:
Journeys into the Disappearing
Religions of the Middle East
By Gerard Russell
Basic Books, 352 pp., $28.99
the Peacock Angel, who has misleadingly
been identified with Satan. This theological quirk has long excited Western
observers, who have speculated about the
dark deeds of the “Yazidi devil worshipers.” Like the Mandaeans, the Ezidi
people have the tragic misfortune to live
in war-torn Iraq, where most recently
they have been targeted by the Islamic
State and its ludicrous restored caliphate.
he other groups Russell portrays
include Zoroastrians (Parsis) in
Iran, the Druze of Lebanon and Syria,
and the Samaritans of Israel. Russell’s
most obscure example is the Kalasha, a
mysterious people living in Pakistan’s
border regions, whose historically
recent conversion to Islam has not prevented them from retaining many older
pagan customs. Except for the Kalasha,
all these groups retain vestiges of
ancient faiths that were once much
more widespread than they are today,
making them at least distant cousins of
Jews and Christians.
Samaritans, for instance, are familiar
to readers of the New Testament, and in
that era they constituted a major portion
of the population in the larger Jewish
world. Now, though, they number fewer
than a thousand. The Druze, an Islamic
sect whose beliefs probably draw on an
Philip Jenkins teaches at Baylor University and is
the author of Laying Down the Sword: Why
We Can’t Ignore the Bible’s Violent Verses.
an ancient polytheism, are far more
numerous. Even so, Druze leaders
express alarm over the possibility that
Islamist extremists will expel them from
the Middle East, together with the
remaining Christians.
All these groups are agonizingly aware
of the Jewish experience in the region.
Egypt, Iraq, and Syria were all home to
large and thriving Jewish communities in
recent times. Jews made up a third of
Baghdad’s population in the 1930s. Now
almost no Jews remain in those countries.
If the Jews could vanish so rapidly after a
presence of more than two millennia, can
any other community possibly feel secure?
One jarring moment in Heirs to
Forgotten Kingdoms comes when the
author moves from these obscure peoples and presents a chapter on Egypt’s
Coptic Christians. Surely that inclusion
must be an error? Unlike the Mandaeans
or the Ezidis, the Copts are part of a
mighty global faith, and their numbers,
while difficult to ascertain, might run to 8
or 10 million. “Disappearing” they certainly are not, but the political circumstances in Egypt might ultimately make
their position tenuous. The Jewish precedent stands as a nightmarish warning.
However diverse their beliefs or ideology, such minorities over time come to
share certain common ways of thinking
and acting that are essential to ensuring
their survival. In extreme cases, such as
that of the Druze, adherents maintain
strict silence about their beliefs and
often seek geographical seclusion.
Commonly too, minorities have survived
in well-defined regions that are not easily accessible to the forces of the state and
religious orthodoxy, and their culture
acquires the distinctive ways of those
fastnesses, whether in the marshes,
mountains, or deserts.
It would be unfortunate if readers
approached Heirs to Forgotten Kingdoms
as a catalog of expiring spiritual traditions, of living fossils of faith. The book is
above all a testimony to how minority
movements can survive almost indefinitely under exceedingly harsh and
unpromising conditions, and the degree
to which they maintain their integrity
under those circumstances. It is difficult
to read such accounts without a sense of
awe at human persistence and ingenuity.
Curious: The Desire to Know and
Why Your Future Depends on It
By Ian Leslie
Basic Books, 240 pp., $26.99
Building on its expertise in Islamic
Studies and Christian-Muslim
Relations and continuing the success
of its breakthrough International
Peacemaking Program, Hartford
Seminary proudly announces
uriosity seems to be a word of the
moment. It’s a staple of TED lectures, a buzzword of educational reformers, and an advertising theme of Vanity
Fair magazine. (“Were you born curious?” asks an ad. “Tell us your curiosity
story.”) Now comes this book by Ian
Leslie, full of such stories, and a very
curious book it is.
Almost every page of Leslie’s book
springs a surprise. Stories that sound
inspiring prove cautionary: for example,
a man learns over two dozen languages,
only to rue that he has not chosen one
for deeper study. Stories that sound cautionary—two boys with a loaded pistol—
demonstrate a hunger for knowledge.
In Leslie’s telling, curiosity is far from
a valued quality. It has long been disparaged by schools, businesses, and especially the church. Augustine, he notes, equated curiosity with temptation. Even today
the word suggests something not quite
right. On the other hand, he says, “we
romanticize the natural curiosity of children and worry that it will be contaminated by knowledge, when the opposite
is true. We confuse the practice of curiosity with ease of access to information and
forget that real curiosity requires the
exercise of effort.”
Counterintuitively, Leslie argues that
modern conveniences undermine curiosity rather than encourage it. Because we
can answer almost any question by
checking our smartphones, our mental
muscles have atrophied. Worse still, our
attention has become diffuse. “Unfettered curiosity is wonderful,” he says,
“unchanneled curiosity is not.”
But even as he argues for sustained
exploration of a single field or theme,
Leslie leaps from one example to the
next. His interests take him from
Edmund Burke to Lady Gaga, from
business school to the Kalahari Desert.
Reviewed by Lawrence Wood, senior minister of
St. Andrew by the Sea, a community church in
Gulf Shores, Alabama.
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Scholarships include:
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[email protected], for more
Christian Century January 7, 2015
In the span of two pages, he draws on F.
Scott Fitzgerald, Agatha Christie, The
Wire, Citizen Kane, Shakespeare, physicist Freeman Dyson, inventor Ray
Dolby, Einstein, and the Rubik’s Cube.
Leslie is a diverting writer of the
Malcolm Gladwell school—sometimes
too clever by half.
So it’s not surprising that he appreciates the power of story. We will keep
watching even a bad movie, he says, just to
see how things turn out, because we are so
curious about the experiences of other
people. This empathic curiosity is one of
the distinguishing gifts of humankind. All
the sadder and more ironic, then, that we
can be so lazy in our relations. As one wit
has said, “I possess a device, in my pocket,
that is capable of accessing the entirety of
information known to man. I use it to
look at pictures of cats and get into arguments with strangers.”
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Christian Century January 7, 2015
Leslie is no Luddite; he merely
believes that true learning requires
effort. Curiosity doesn’t deserve the
name without it. Knowledge can’t be
retained without it. But here again Leslie
has a surprising perspective. In one
breath he celebrates the young Abraham
Lincoln, who came from unlettered folk
and had to work hard for his lessons. In
the next breath, he reflects poignantly on
the limits of effort—on why those with
advantages add to them and those without them fall farther behind.
Intellectual curiosity, he decides, is
not enough on its own—it must be planted in the fertile soil of a classical education. Otherwise we miss cultural references and fail to make connections. At
times he takes on a polemical tone as he
defends educational classicists like E. D.
Hirsch and draws the reader into yesterday’s minor controversies.
More often Leslie’s wide-ranging
mind refuses to take sides. The Internet
is not to blame for stupidity: “The only
person or thing that can make you stupid, or incurious, is you.” He refuses to
disparage mundane tasks in menial jobs,
for they can be enlivened by questions.
As part of his tendency toward balance,
we get a retelling of the oft-heard adage
about the fox and the hedgehog, with
Leslie suggesting that what a business
needs is a foxhog.
In a chapter on global conflicts, he
suggests that a sympathetic imagination
can make peace between any warring
parties. He quotes retired general
Stanley McChrystal, who led American
forces in Iraq:
When we first started, the question
was, “Where is the enemy?” That was
the intelligence question. As we got
smarter, we started to ask “Who is the
enemy?” And we thought we were
pretty clever. And then we realized it
wasn’t the right question, and we
asked, “What’s the enemy doing or
trying to do?” And it wasn’t until we
got further along that we said, “Why
are they the enemy?”
At his best, which is often, Leslie
evokes wonder at the world around us.
In the brilliant final chapter, about a
longtime code breaker, he draws a lovely
distinction: “A puzzle is something that
commands our curiosity until we have
solved it. A mystery, by contrast, never
stops inviting inquiry. . . . When we come
across a puzzle of any kind, we should
always be alert to the mystery that lies
behind it.”
Curious brings to mind another
recent book, On Looking, by Alexandra
Horowitz. The eloquence of this book
comes in its limited scope. Horowitz
keeps walking around one city block
near her home, first with her toddler
son, then with a geologist, a graphic
designer, an artist, a physician, and so
on—11 companions in all—and moves
toward a deeper and deeper understanding of a neighborhood she once
thought she knew fairly well. The experience is revelatory.
If Leslie were to slow down from his
brisk tour and walk around Augustine’s
block one more time, he might be surprised to find how much they agree.
“Free curiosity has a greater power to
stimulate learning than coercion,” the
great saint wrote in the Confessions. “Yet
the free range of curiosity is channeled
by discipline under Thy law.”
Found Theology: History,
Imagination and the Holy Spirit
By Ben Quash
Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 336 pp.,
$34.95 paperback
he cover of Found Theology features
the work of British artist Anna M. R.
Freeman, who frequently goes to junk
shops for inspiration for her painting.
There she finds the history mixed with
discovery that fuels her art. She sees junk
shops as places where the past is not just
remembered but re-membered: old
objects are given new contexts and
placed into relationship with new things.
But in and of themselves, the objects do
not mean much. They require the vision
and imagination of the artist to draw out
new meanings.
This is Ben Quash’s theological argument in a nutshell. For Quash, scripture
and tradition are givens. They come to us
without much choice on our part. We
Reviewed by Amy Frykholm, CENTURY associate
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Christian Century January 7, 2015
recite the creed that our ancestors recited. We read the same biblical passages
they read. We inherit our parents’ choices as well as the choices of their grandparents and great-grandparents. But like
the artist in the junk shop, our task is to
discover and reinterpret what we have
been given for new contexts and in relation to new circumstances. This work—
pneumatological at its core—is what
Quash calls “found theology.”
In some ways Found Theology merely
offers a theory for what we as humans do
inevitably all the time: we take what is
given to us in the physical world and
rework it to make meaning for the present
moment. Even theologies that claim to be
orthodox or neoorthodox have the work of
rearticulating orthodoxy for the present,
and in that rearticulation, they inevitably
shift orthodoxy because language and
meaning are constantly shifting. What per-
E v o l u tandi o n
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Fa l l
MARCH 26-28, 2015
Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary
Christian Century January 7, 2015
haps makes Found Theology unique is
Quash’s embrace of that reality and his
search for the work of the Holy Spirit within the ongoing processes of history. Quash
is concerned with connecting theology to
art, science, and interreligious dialogue. He
is interested in a method for Christian theology that allows deep and meaningful
interaction with these critical contemporary forces. As he proceeds, he opens up
large vistas for the future of theology.
Quash works back and forth between
theology and history, scripture, art, and
poetry. In all of these, human imagination is a vehicle for the work of the Holy
Spirit. The scripture that we have
received comes to us with what Quash—
borrowing from Jewish scholar David
Weiss Halivni—calls “maculations”:
flaws, oddities, gaps, and inconsistencies.
Quash points to the moment when
English Bible translators began to undo
the “singleness, univocity and therefore
. . . dream of universality” of the Latin
Vulgate. As they did this work, they
found new ambiguities in the text. They
reached backward for Greek and
Hebrew and found still more difficulties.
The act of translating the Bible into
English uncovered not the “plain meaning,” as Tyndale had hoped, but instead
multiple meanings that were made all
the more ambiguous by the historical
moment of translation itself. Translation
required acts of the imagination, leaps
across the maculations of the texts, new
meanings for old things. It is no wonder
that the Latin-reading establishment
found this activity so threatening.
Drawing on Peter Ochs, Quash argues
that these textual ambiguities are helpful
to the work of the Holy Spirit. God uses
maculation to “beckon” human beings
into the texts to participate in further
acts of interpretation. The text becomes
a source of generative creativity as the
work of interpretation goes on and on,
and God continues to reveal the meanings of the text with the aid of human
agency and human imagination. No act
of interpretation is universal or complete
because every historical moment in
which it is read is different. Quash
believes that the Torah and the Gospels
can both be read as “properly maculate;
properly as a troubled and creatively
troubling text.”
These troubled and troubling texts
obviously have readers, but in the history of Christian theology, the fact that
readers shape texts has usually been neglected. Perhaps this is because reading
is so intensely personal and unstable.
Texts seem to change under our eyes
from one reading to the next. Quash
believes that by paying attention to readers and the reception of ancient texts, we
will be better able to draw those texts
into our present moment—conscious
that drawing them forward is an act of
agency and imagination.
As a guide to our study, Quash offers
a 15th-century work of the Venetian
painter Vittore Carpaccio: a painting of
the body of the dead Christ. Carpaccio
has situated the body of the slain Jesus in
the foreground and his tomb in the background. In the center of the painting an
old man sits under a tree contemplating
the body of Christ. Quash reads that old
man as Job, who, Quash argues, was
found by Carpaccio in his search for
resources to understand his own particular historical moment, particularly the
massive destruction of the bubonic
plague. Carpaccio’s painting is a question
more than an answer—it is created in
what Quash calls the “interrogative
mode”—and Quash believes that this is
why it appeals to contemporary viewers.
The old man under the tree is a puzzle,
and he also appears to be contemplating
a puzzle: the dead Christ.
The questions embedded in the painting require us to be active interpreters,
encountering the painting with understandings of our own. Although Carpaccio’s own context can answer some of the
questions the painting proposes, it can’t
answer all of them. Reception theory, as
Quash wants to use it, does not say that
physical objects exist only in the eyes of
the reader or viewer. Instead it insists on
a relationship between viewer and
object, reader and text. History can interact unpredictably and generatively with
texts, and texts also shape history, in a
reciprocal relation.
To read scriptures, art, and history, we
need a form of human logic that Quash,
borrowing from philosopher Charles
Peirce, calls abduction. This is the capacity of human thought to make imaginative leaps that are rooted in experience
but are not based wholly on facts.
Abduction is the tool we use to “read the
signs” of the world and interpret what
they mean when a reasoner “is faced
with a challenge to her fixed marks.”
For example, when scientists first
encountered marine fossils in a landlocked area, they had to go beyond their
fixed marks to offer theories for why and
how they might have come to be there.
By reading the signs of the landscape,
they reasoned that an upheaval had
taken place and that the land had
changed in some fundamental way.
Gradually a narrative about this change
emerged, as new facts and experiences
were added to old.
Quash sees theology behaving similarly. It can function in interrogative and
narrative modes, instead of imperative
and declarative. It also can think in a
more ambitiously comprehensive way—
drawing on science and art to do its work
rather than narrowing its focus and
building boundaries to keep other discourses out. Art, more often than not,
works analogically, by bringing signs into
relationship with one another and with
the observer. This is what theologians
must also learn to do: use imagination to
draw the given into relationship with the
The Holy Spirit, who makes the
world more known to us through
“unfolding-in-connection,” is fundamentally relational—binding us to God, the
world, history, and ultimately the future.
The Spirit “binds absolute beginning
with absolute end, in the life of a
Godhead that enfolds rather than
opposes difference and time.” Found
theology is the work of linking revelation and reception, as humans “interpret
and re-interpret what has been given,
find and re-find it.”
Quash hopes to make Christian theologians open to the world in front of
them: to art, nature, science, and its various dialogue partners. Theologians who
believe that the Holy Spirit is guiding us
through a changing landscape can become skilled retrievers of the past, inter-
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Christian Century January 7, 2015
preters of the present, and perhaps prescient seers of the future, but always in
dialogue with others, and having the
humility to acknowledge limited vision.
Quash is very clear about who his
main theological dialogue partners are:
Ochs, Dan Hardy, and Rowan Williams
are a few of them. Unfortunately, he is
less clear about who his theological
antagonists are. Found theology, as he
describes it, seems like such a natural
human capacity that it is difficult to imagine any theology that is not found theology. But we can perhaps distinguish found
theology from any theology that imagines a purity of the past, and any theology that imagines itself as a closed system
that need only speak of and to itself.
Church of the Village UMC,
New York City
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Sorry About That:
The Language of Public Apology
By Edwin L. Battistella
Oxford University Press, 232 pp., $24.95
hen the popular televangelist
Jimmy Swaggart was blackmailed
into confessing his sexual liaison with a
prostitute, he cried many tears during the
televised address to his church and said,
“I have sinned.” However, he did not discuss the liaison. Despite his silence about
the details of his sin, Swaggart’s 1988
public confession was regarded at the
time as an effective response that saved
his ministry, even though critics noted
the absence of substance.
The divided public reception of
Swaggart’s confession is a prime illustration of the confusion in American culture
about the meaning and purpose of public
confession—confusion that rhetorical
scholar Dave Tell has described as “confessional anxiety.” According to Tell, in
his book Confessional Crises and
Cultural Politics in Twentieth-Century
America, we experience confessional
anxiety because we swim in a sea of personal stories—memoirs, interviews, and
testimonies—that claim to disclose the
real truth about a controversy or a disputed event. Yet, such disclosures are also
typically partisan speeches designed to
deflect criticism and, frequently, to take
sides in cultural battles over such issues
as sex, race, religion, and violence. The
emotional authenticity that we value in
confessional speech betrays the truth that
we seek from the confessor. Behind
Swaggart’s tears was a calculated silence
about his misdeeds designed to protect
his moral image and maintain the financial standing of his ministry.
The story of Swaggart’s empty confession is only one of numerous accounts of
historic apologies presented by linguistics scholar Edwin Battistella in this
anecdotal study of public apology.
By examining the grammatical and
rhetorical structure of such apologies,
Battistella shows that our anxieties and
confusions about confession are rooted
Reviewed by Gerald J. Mast, who teaches communication at Bluffton University in Bluffton, Ohio.
Christian Century January 7, 2015
in a deeper ambiguity that defines the
genre of apology more broadly: the tension between the culpable self and the
apologetic self. Battistella, who teaches
in the writing program at Southern
Oregon University, draws on the work of
sociologist Erving Goffman to explain
that a successful apology must distinguish the guilty self from the apologizing
self. The latter must disavow the former
and become identified with those whom
the former has offended.
Such dissociation of selves is difficult,
and in the apology process there are many
opportunities for failure—or at least inadequacy. For example, when professional
golfer Frank “Fuzzy” Zoeller made a
racially tinged remark in 1997 about his
competitor Tiger Woods, he apologized
with the commonly repeated refrain: “I’m
sorry if I offended anyone.” Such a statement fails to fully identify the apologetic
self with the offended party. Zoeller also
said, “I didn’t mean anything by it”—denying guilt by invoking purity of intention.
When Dan Rather apologized during
the 2004 presidential election for questioning President George W. Bush’s
National Guard service on the basis of
faulty documentation, he said, “We made
a mistake in judgment.” Such language
refuses to fully identify the self with the
offense by shifting responsibility to the
collective we for what is presented as a
regrettable blunder rather than a morally flawed decision.
Apologies also run into trouble when
they are offered on behalf of a group or
a nation. As a presidential candidate,
Ronald Reagan sided with veterans
groups and other political leaders who
opposed a national apology to Japanese
Americans for their internment in relocation camps during World War II.
However, after Reagan became president, he changed his mind and signed the
Civil Liberties Act of 1988, which included both an apology and reparations.
National leaders presume to speak on
behalf of an entire nation when they support or refuse to support such collective
apologies. Inevitably, not everyone pre-
The worlD
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Christian Century January 7, 2015
fers to be spoken for when an apology is
issued on their behalf.
Collective apologies are also complicated by the fact that they are often
offered long after the death of both the
offenders and the victims, as was the case
when the Massachusetts legislature
decided in 1957 to pardon Ann
Greenslade Pudeator, who had been
convicted and executed for being a witch
during the Salem witch trials in 1692.
Some who opposed the pardon argued
that it might require reparations to
Ann’s living descendants. Others were
concerned that the pardon was an effort
to change history and to avoid its lessons.
Running through most of Battistella’s
accounts of flawed or imperfect apologies is reluctance to completely repudiate the actions of the previous self, even
if one has regrets or is sorry about what
happened. This reluctance seems most
prominent in apologies by men. Accused
of plagiarism in the production of his
book The Wild Blue, historian Stephen
Ambrose at first responded with an apology: “I made a mistake for which I am
sorry.” Faced with evidence of more
extensive plagiarism in other works,
Ambrose turned defensive and attacked
his accusers. “Screw it,” he said in an
interview not long before he died, “If
they decide I’m a fraud, I’m a fraud.”
Ambrose came from the post–World
War II generation of American men who
had been trained to see apology as a sign of
weakness, a lesson gathered from the
strong, silent male hero figures of John
Wayne films. Such a gender code, perhaps
overlearned, according to Battistella, was
visible in then vice president George H. W.
Bush’s famous campaign statement in
1988, after a U.S. missile shot down an
Iranian passenger plane, killing 290 people:
“I’ll never apologize for the United States
of America, ever. I don’t care what the
facts are.” Richard Nixon also followed
this postwar gender code and refused to
apologize for his role in the Watergate
affair, although he did express regret.
It is instructive to compare Stephen
Ambrose’s defensive response to plagiarism charges with the more complex
response by another American historian—
Doris Kearns Goodwin—to charges that
she had plagiarized a significant portion of
her book The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys.
Christian Century January 7, 2015
Like Ambrose, she described her plagiarism as a “mistake.” Unlike Ambrose, she
followed up with actions that displayed
penitence: resigning from the Pulitzer Prize
Board and the Harvard University Board
of Overseers, as well as taking a leave from
her role with PBS. Her actions and her subsequent high-quality work helped to
reestablish her credibility and authority.
Still, even Goodwin insisted that her
past actions were just a mistake, thereby
denying full moral culpability. Like most
of the apologists described in Battistella’s
book, she was caught in the bind of needing to distance herself from her past
actions, but not so much as to undermine
the integrity of her present self—rooted
as it is in her past self.
Battistella is more descriptive than analytical, but he draws on Tell’s work to show
how modern people are deeply shaped by
unreflective patterns of confession exemplified by the writings of the modern
philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau. In his
autobiographical Confessions, Rousseau
described the successes and failures of
both his private and public life with minimal inquiry into his motivations and without apology for his “depravity.” Even a
religious confession like Swaggart’s is
shaped more by the instinctive and emotional reporting of Rousseau’s confessional legacy than by the introspection and
self-disclosure encouraged by the deeper
Christian confessional tradition. In Rousseau’s model, sin and failure are an
inevitable part of the human condition; it is
best to acknowledge that and get on with
your life. In other words, if we accept
Goffman’s definition of apology as a matter of dividing the self, modern people are
very reluctant to completely renounce the
former guilty self and thus typically fail to
actually apologize.
For an example of complete selfrenunciation, Battistella turns to the
ancient Confessions of Augustine. Unlike
Rousseau, Augustine had no trouble probing the depths of sin that lay behind his
youthful misdeeds, providing a public
accounting of his personal motivations
and delusions. Augustine succeeded where
modern apologists fail, in part because he
had no trouble blaming his former self
completely; that unconverted self, as
Battistella points out, was for Augustine “a
person who no longer exists.”
Trial by podcast
he premise of Serial, a podcast
spin-off of the WBEZ Chicago
radio show This American Life, is
that people love stories. The first season,
which is still unfolding, recounts the murder of 17-year-old Hae Min Lee in 1999
and the subsequent arrest and conviction
of her ex-boyfriend Adnan Syed, who
began serving a life sentence for the
crime in 2000. Adnan maintains his innocence to this day.
Telling this story one segment at a
time over many weeks adds suspense
and intrigue. As listeners live with the
story and the questions it raises, its characters become a part of their lives.
But “recounts” isn’t exactly what Serial
does, since no two people interviewed on
the show have the same memories or
experiences of the events surrounding the
murder. The show circles these events, following the trail of fragmented memories
from each new witness to a collection of
old letters that were never used in court
to the unreliability of cell phone records
to inconsistent alibis and an improbable
sequence of events. The result is captivating storytelling with real-life events
becoming stranger—and denser—than
Serial has been described as “the best
television on the radio.” And the best television in recent years has been described as the rebirth of 19th-century
novels in visual form. Serial host and
executive producer Sarah Koenig has
compared the podcast to the novels of
Charles Dickens, which were serialized
before they were collected into bound
There is one significant difference,
however. Serial isn’t fiction. The show
promises to follow the story “until it is
resolved” and “wherever it leads.” But
what does that mean? Until the host and
production team become convinced of
Adnan’s guilt or innocence? Until they
construct a satisfying account of one day
in January 1999? Until Adnan has
exhausted all appeals? The show’s creators don’t know what they mean, and
they’re honest about this. There’s no
genius in the writer’s room figuring out
how to wrap it up.
On the series website, the show’s creators say that their investigations keep
leading them back to two central questions: “How can you know a person’s
character? How can you tell what they’re
capable of?” Koenig is concerned about
being “taken in” by Adnan. It’s easy to
feel sympathy for him and question his
guilt. But what if he is just playing
Koenig, and us?
Like Koenig, I want to know if we can
believe Adnan. But I can know Adnan
only through Koenig’s accounts of him.
The depth and care of the storytelling
that unfolds over a long time period
make me feel like I’m working alongside
Koenig. Just as when I read a good novel
or watch a great TV show, I both feel
sympathy for the characters and pass
judgment on them.
But the genre of nonfiction induces
moral vertigo. Millions of people are listening to this story, concocting whodunit
theories, and passing judgment on Adnan.
When we do that, do we have a moral
obligation to him or to Hae Min that we
don’t have to, say, David Copperfield?
It’s one thing to dismiss a fictional
character because he seems duplicitous
or vile. In fact, recognizing his duplicity
SERIAL TRUTHS: A podcast blends
journalism with compelling storytelling.
might be part of my own moral formation. When the person under judgment is
real—has a life independent of the story
through which I “know” him—what is
the nature of my relationship to him?
Perhaps “not being played” falls under
Jesus’ injunction to be wise as serpents.
But where does that intersect with the
command to love unconditionally, even
our enemies?
Although she doesn’t frame these
questions theologically, I think Koenig
and her collaborators feel this moral burden too. Part of what is so fresh about
Serial is the relationship it creates between Koenig and Adnan and, by extension, between listeners and Adnan.
Koenig is not just reporting a story; she is
crafting one. She is vocal about how her
own emotions and experiences shape the
process. As a result, the show experiments with a new genre at the nexus of
investigative journalism, journalistic
essay, and fictional story.
As I listen, I find myself extending my
question about my relationship to
Adnan to the stories of the people who
cross my path every day. Do I have the
patience to hear them this fully, with this
kind of complexity? Am I willing to
extend that time and patience even if I
might get played? I am hopeful that this
new genre of storytelling might be one
way to help me do that.
The author is Kathryn Reklis, who teaches theology at Fordham University.
Christian Century January 7, 2015
The essay competition aims to inspire theological scholars to
examine our post-2008 economic context and offer solutions
about how best to pursue God’s promise of abundant life against
the backdrop of the global financial crisis.
A public lecture at Trinity Wall Street, publication in
the Anglican Theological Review, and a $10,000 award
Two awards of $2,500
The deadline to submit essays is July 1, 2015
For details about the topic, rules, format, and how to submit
papers, visit: trinitywallstreet.org/tiessay
CHURCH in the
by Carol Howard Merritt
group of peacemakers gathered at
Stony Point Center,
about an hour north of New
York City, where modest living quarters nestle in a circle,
capped by a cafeteria and
meeting space. A chapel, a
labyrinth, and vegetable gardens grace the outlying areas.
I always breathe a little
deeper at Stony Point. The
conference center’s welcome
includes what’s on my dinner
plate. The chef uses the freshest local ingredients to create
amazing dishes and breads. I
know that the food did not
travel thousands of miles to
reach my plate. It did not
waste petroleum nor did it
have to be genetically altered
to endure the journey.
I’m drawn to Stony Point
by the ideas and work shared
there, and by the culture of
the place. On a theological
level, this pastoral nook has
gathered interfaith peacemaking thinkers and activists—people working on
issues of civil rights, gun violence, and the sanctuary
movement. The land vibrates
with the legacies of men and
women who risked much for
their ideals. As someone who
wasn’t alive in the 1960s, I’m
often in awe of what happened during the civil rights
movement and am relieved
when current peacemaking
efforts move beyond acts of
Each time I visit Stony
Sharing the peace
associate director of PPF. “We
wanted people who were
doing vibrant work in particular neighborhoods. We wanted
intentional communities, oriented around peace.” PPF
partnered with seven communities, giving them grants and
gathering the leaders for an
annual meeting. (Full disclosure: my husband is a member
of one such community.)
The seven communities
focus on different aspects of
peacemaking. For example,
Albany Catholic Worker in
upstate New York engages in
urban gardening in vacant
lots. It formed the New Sanctuary for Immigrants, which
serves vulnerable immigrants and those who lack
legal documentation. Hands
and Feet of Asheville, North
Carolina, a yearlong service
program for young adults,
aims to break down power
structures and build up the
reign of God in down-toearth ways—through direct
service, intentional community, and theological reflection. Alianza2638 in Chicago
holds a ministry of prayer in
a lavandería, or laundromat,
and is an ally of the global
work of Christian Peace maker Teams.
Through these organiza-
Point I end up in a conversation with a rabbi, professor, or
international student and
walk away amazed at the convergence of our intentions.
Stony Point Center is
directed by Rick UffordChase, along with his wife,
Kitty Ufford-Chase. He is
also the executive director of
the Presbyterian Peace Fellowship, a network engaged
in God’s nonviolent work of
love, peace, and justice whose
board meets at Stony Point.
The PPF supported conscientious objectors during World
War II, and it continues to
support voices committed
to peace.
Under Ufford-Chase’s leadership, the PPF board realized
it had a couple of choices. It
could invest in full-time staff
and in regional coordinators
to make sure that the institutional structure of PPF
remained strong, or it could
invest in the innovative work
that peacemaking communities were doing on the
ground. The choice was
between building an institution and building a movement. The board decided to
put its resources into the
“We were looking for
newer, diverse groups with a
commitment to nonviolence
and Jesus,” said Fritz Gutwein,
tions, PPF is supporting immigrants, calling for minimum
wage increases, building community gardens, and accompanying vulnerable citizens in Colombia. PPF and
the communities it supports
long to transform the church
and, through the church, the
world. Some of this happens
at the annual meeting.
“When communities come
together,” Gutwein said, “they
look into each other’s lives,
share their stories, and share
their passions. Excitement
happens when you realize
you’re not alone. You realize
that other people have been
doing this for a long time. You
gain encouragement and
insights of what possibilities
are there.” As they meet
together, participants build a
network that takes part in
theological, practical, and cultural work, which marks an
important transition for the
“The Peace Fellowship has
been a bunch of individuals
who have been connected,”
Gutwein explained. Now the
group is asking, “How can we
be a group of communities
that are gathered and connected? How can we transform the world through the
Carol Howard Merritt is author of Tribal Church.
Christian Century January 7, 2015
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Now available from Amazon, FIRST PERSONAL:
Imagination and Scripture, by Br. Matthias O.S.L.
WARFARE at Princeton Theological Seminary, January
23–25. Sponsored by national denominations, conference is
first religious convening on drones. Learn more: www.peacecoalition.org/dronesconference.
YOUR BRAIN ON GOD. Go to www.oqcollaborative.com
for insights to deepen your faith and ministry.
2016—Bridwell Library of Perkins School of Theology at
Southern Methodist University is accepting applications for the
2015–2016 Visiting Scholars and Ministers Fellowships. Six twoweek fellowships, including a $2,000 stipend, will be awarded.
The fellowships are designed to encourage in-depth use of
the library’s collections for study and research. The program is
open to all active scholars from Ph.D. students to retired professors and to religious leaders of all faiths. Deadline for applications is Sunday, March 1, 2015. Awards will be announced
by Monday, March 16, 2015. For more information see:
Fellowships; call (214) 768-3483; or e-mail: [email protected]
St. Paul Lutheran Church (ELCA), Davenport, IA, is conducting a national search to fill the open position of DIRECTOR OF FAITH FORMATION. This position is responsible
for planning and developing imaginative adult learning
opportunities, providing administrative leadership for a large
and high-powered confirmation ministry, managing a range
of existing and new learning and support-based groups within the church, guiding a learning team of colleagues, and
offering spiritual leadership. To learn more about this position and the St. Paul Lutheran Church setting, we invite you
to visit: stpaulqc.org/employment.
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Christian Century January 7, 2015
Jonah and the Whale, from an early Christian marble sarcophagus in Rome (fourth century)
cenes from the story of Jonah were among the most popular in early Christian art. The Old
Testament story of the reluctant prophet who, after a detour in the belly of a whale, travels to
Nineveh to proclaim God’s message was compelling in its own right. This fourth-century Christian
sarcophagus depicts the moment in which Jonah is tossed overboard in an effort to quell a raging
storm that threatens the lives of all those aboard. The story took on additional meaning for early
Christians, who interpreted Jonah’s emergence from the whale after three days as referring typologically to Jesus’ death and resurrection. This interpretation is found very early in Christian tradition
(see Matthew 12:38–42) and grew in popularity over the next several centuries.
Art selection and commentary by Heidi J. Hornik, who teaches in the art department
at Baylor University, and Mikeal C. Parsons, who teaches in the school’s religion department.
Christian Century January 7, 2015