For The Someday Book

Posts Tagged ‘faith

Christianity After Religion: The End of Church and the Birth of a New Spiritual Awakening by Diana Butler Bass, HarperOne, 2012, 294 pp.

Christianity after ReligionThe ever-wise Diana Butler Bass continues her quest to root out the spiritual lives of contemporary Americans and the ways that local churches are helping, hurting, or just left out of them. Christianity After Religion unfolds the next chapter of the work she began in The Practicing Congregation (2004) and continued in Christianity for the Rest of Us (2006). Those books examined what was happening among mainline congregations in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Christianity After Religion moves beyond what’s gone wrong and what’s going right in churches, and starts to posit what comes next after the rapid upheaval of the last several decades.

Bass describes a radical transformation underway in the practice of Christianity, triggered by a crisis in legitimacy. The crisis in legitimacy means that “large numbers of people question basic aspects of meaning and life.” (47) The basic questions–What do I believe? How should I act? Who am I?–are not being answered in a meaningful, satisfactory way by religion as it has been known and practiced. The compelling sense of believing, behaving and belonging has slowly eroded from contemporary Christianity. Bass traces the ways that believing, behaving and belonging have faded, leaving us with a faltering religion and the rise of the “spiritual but not religious” segregation.

While the decline and crisis of legitimacy have been unfolding for decades, the first dozen years of the 21st century have been especially brutal. Bass identifies this as the “horrible decade” with a precipitous decline in religious participation and a “religious recession.” She cites five triggers for this horrible decade:

  1. September 11, 2001 Terrorist Attacks: When religion was blamed for the attacks
  2. Roman Catholic Sex Abuse Scandal: When religious leaders went from most trustworthy to least trustworthy professionals
  3. Protestant Conflict over Homosexuality: When Christians were mean to each other and especially mean to LGBT people
  4. Religious Right Win in 2004 Election, but Lose a Generation: The reelection of George W. Bush felt like a victory for the right, but it alienated an entire generation of young people who associated Christianity with ugly politics, power and exclusion
  5. Religious Recession: Studies document that only 20% of Americans have a “great deal of confidence” in “organized religion.” Participation declines rapidly. (76-83)

These have been the exact years of my ministry. I was ordained in the spring of 2001, and I have never known another decade of ministry. This is what it’s always been like. However, when you add it up like Bass does, it looks pretty bleak.

However, Bass is not bleak in her outlook. Not at all. Instead, she pronounces that this discontent is actually “a deeper longing for a better sort of Christianity.” (87)

What the world needs is better religion, new forms of old faiths, religion reborn on the basis of deep spiritual connection–these things need to be explored instead of ditching religion completely. (96)

The root of religion is “religio,” to reconnect–to claim the “and” of faith and practice.

What I appreciate most about Bass in this book is that she doesn’t stop there. In fact, she’s just getting started. She begins to chart the course of the new Christianity that might emerge–what it will look like, how it will feel, what it will embody. She returns to each of the fundamental questions of believing, behaving and belonging and offers a perspective on how they will be redefined and how we can begin to engage that work. For the work of believing, she shifts the question from “What do I believe?” to “How do I believe?” and “Who do I believe?” Those changes make room to explore issues of authority, meaning and authenticity. The work of behaving shifts attention to practices of faith. While habit used to be sufficient, we must now return to bigger questions of “what” and “why” we engage in worship, prayer, service and other practices. Bass writes,

Practices are the connective tissue between what is, what can be, and what will be. Spiritual practices are living pictures of God’s intentions for a world of love and justice. (160)

Our attention to behaving must focus on intention (the practices that will intentionally give shape to my life in faith) and imitation (the practices that imitate Jesus and the saints). The work of belonging, then, is the fundamental work of identity. Who am I? Where am I? Who am I in God? Our sense of identity is in flux, moving away from old familial and geographic identifiers and toward a more fluid understanding that “I am my journey.” (178)  Our spiritual journey then becomes a sense of discovering who we are in God and through God, in relationship to God and one another.

After describing the new questions of believing, behaving and belonging, Bass proclaims that there needs to be a “great reversal.” For the last 500 years, since the Enlightenment and Reformation, we have put belief first in the order of faith, followed by behaving and then belonging. It is time to return to the original order: belong, behave, believe. First we belong to a community, then we take on the practices of faith. The sense of belonging (identity) and behaving (practicing) are what evoke believing. (203-204) The final section of the book outlines this transformation as a Fourth Great Awakening, and draws some of the outlines taking shape.

Christianity After Religion is one of the best books I’ve read in a long time. I’ve read dozens of books about the decline of the church, the need for transformation, the causes of the collapse and what we should be doing about it. None of them compare to the depth of insight, wisdom, description and prescription found here. I finished reading it about six weeks ago, and I’m already feeling the need to read it again. It is a book to study, revisit and use as a lens for seeing contemporary ministry and religious life. I think every religious leader should be reading this book, talking about it, and finding ways to interact with it in their ministry. This book contains what may seem like depressing information about the demise of religious life as we’ve known it in our lifetimes. But it rings with hope at every page. There will be death, to be sure–but God holds out the promise for a resurrection, more beautiful and brilliant that we could have imagined. Thank you, Diana Butler Bass, for helping to roll away the stone.

Women, Food and God: An Unexpected Path to Almost Everything by Geneen Roth, Scribner, 2010, 211 pp.

women food and godI don’t even know how to start talking about this book. Geneen Roth is the non-diet expert, who speaks to women of their food issues by telling us it is about issues first and food second. This book is the summary of all of her other works, the one that puts her philosophy and worldview together in one place. As always, it just makes sense to me, even if I am not ready or able to change my life to conform to it entirely.

The basic premise of the book is that women who struggle with their relationship with food are using food to deal with their emotions, either by exercising control through denial or indulgence through regular binges. I find this to be true to my experience–I eat to celebrate, eat to grieve, eat to decompress, eat to be happy, eat to be sad. My relationship with food has far more to do with my emotional life than my body or my belly.

Roth urges us to be present–to  listen to our bodies when they ask for food, but to listen to our feelings when they are doing the talking. Food should not be a substitute for our feelings or a suppressant for them. Food should not be a tool to keep the feelings at bay. She writes, “With awareness (the ability to know what you are feeling) and presence (the ability to inhabit a feeling while sensing that which is bigger than the feeling), it is possible to be with what you believe will destroy you without being destroyed.” (92) Further, she instructs her readers to “eat what they want when they’re hungry and feel what they feel when they’re not.” (101)

The central part of Roth’s philosophy is summarized in her guidelines for eating. Simple, whole, and reasonable–yet still a challenge for those who struggle against emotional eating. The guidelines include eating when you are hungry, stopping when you are full, sitting in a calm environment, being free from distractions, eating what your body wants, and eating with “enjoyment, gusto and pleasure.” Finally, eat (with the intention of being) in full view of others. Even if change is slow, I try to be mindful of these guidelines and take small steps as I am able.

Roth’s books have been a help to me, and this one has too.

The Hour I First Believed by Wally Lamb, HarperCollins, 2008, 740 pp.

hour i first believedOh, Wally Lamb! He knows how to plumb the depths of brokenness and healing, sin and forgiveness, estrangement and relationship. I have read both She’s Come Undone and I Know This Much is True, so I knew what to expect from his latest tome–a deep, searing, introspective novel with haunting sadness but always hope.

The Hour I First Believed maps the personal and psychological devastation of Caelum and Maureen Quirk, who were both teachers at Columbine High School in the 1999 mass shooting. While Caelum was away tending to his aunt after a stroke, Maureen experienced a trauma that broke her apart. Both of them unraveled, in their own ways, because of the shooting and its aftermath. They return to his aunt’s farm to recover, and Caelum gains access to his family’s long history and discovers information that discloses secrets that cause him to question his own identity. (I thought the long excursions into the past did not add much to the quality of the novel, and even detracted from its power. They could have been much shorter, or omitted altogether and the book would have felt stronger to me.)

I can’t say that I enjoy Wally Lamb’s work. I usually find it difficult and painful to read. However, that’s what makes it so valuable. Lamb’s characters are never perfect and they do not conform to expectations or neat categories. They do not behave like we want them to, and they frustrate and confuse. That’s what makes them so rich. What keeps me returning to Lamb’s work, even as agonizing as it can be, is that Lamb wrestles these complicated, broken characters into a place of hope and grace. It’s never easy, it’s never fully wrought or resolved, but he points the way to faith, every time.

Below are a few gems from the story, keys to unlocking the hope at the end of such sorrow.

Words from a pastor at a community meeting organized by local churches after the Columbine massacre:

We need to stare back, without blinking, at the depravity of these boys’ actions and realize that our love is more powerful than their hatred.” (203)

I said something very similar when facing the murder of a young girl in my congregation, with the shorthand “love wins.”

A little process theology tucked in, too, as Caelum quotes a chaos theorist he met on an airplane:

He said maybe God wasn’t Allah or Jesus Christ or any of the other deities that people are always using as an excuse to go to war over. That maybe all ‘God’ was was mutuation. Mutability. The thing that happens when the DNA we’re ‘carrying forward’ from our ancestors suddenly jumps the track. Gets altered in some unpredictable way, and, for better or worse, sets the first domino falling in a different direction. (451)

Caelum gets words about faith and doubt from an unlikely source, a retired chauffeur for a beer company.

Well, let me give you a piece of advice, Mr. I Have My Doubts. Next time you’re in a bad way and you’re asking this god you have your doubts about to help you, just remember that the question you gotta ask isn’t Why? or If? The question is How? You got that? Not why. Not if. How. (519)

When Caelum teaches a class on “The Quest in Literature” at the local community college, they explore the role and importance of myth in healing. The closing assignment is to examine Picasso’s Minotauromachia and discuss what they see in the picture and what it says about modern life. One student responds thus:

“This picture shows us what all the myths we studied told us,” he concluded. “Life is messy, violent, confusing and hopeful.” (685)

That is what any good story will do–an ancient myth, a biblical text, and a good novel. Wally Lamb’s The Hour I First Believed is just such a story. It’s messy, violent, confusing and hopeful, and I recommend it to you.

Talking About Evangelism: A Congregational Resource by D. Mark Davis (part of the Holy Conversations series), Pilgrim Press, 2007, 111 pp.

evangelismD. Mark Davis’ book is designed as study for church groups to use as they consider and reconsider the role and importance of evangelism. Davis begins by acknowledging the tension around the meaning of evangelism. While evangelism is supposed to be simply about sharing the joyous good news of Christ, it has often devolved into a coercive act of persuasion, convincing others that your truth is better than their truth. How can we engage in evangelism that is open-hearted and open-minded, not confrontational and judgmental? Davis reassesses the entire practice and meaning in this short study.

Davis himself grew up in a conservative tradition that practiced aggressive evangelical tactics aimed at convincing other people of their need to “accept Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior.” He shares memorable personal stories throughout the book of his own experiences, both positive and negative, and his changes in perspective along the way.

One keen observation I appreciated was his understanding that good evangelism does not presume that others have no experience of or relationship with God. Instead, we might ask where God has been in their lives up to this point, and invite them to know God’s presence in a new way. It’s the opposite of the traditional conservative approach that takes our human sinfulness as the starting point. Instead, we start with our status as God’s beloved children, always. That one turn changes the entire perspective of evangelism, and the rest of Davis’ book is built upon it. He continues:

What would the practice of evangelism look like if we addressed people, not as fallen sinners, but primarily as children of God, however estranged? … Everyone’s story has real and meaningful significance; it is not just a jumping off point for our monologue. … Everyone’s story is a “faith journey,” in some way, no matter how angry, confused or destructive that journey might be. (41, 43)

Davis’ study is rooted in scripture, with several deep studies of biblical texts about sharing our faith. He also includes a detailed and helpful discussion guide that is an easily executed lesson plan for any church group reading the study. I think this book would be ideal for churches who think of evangelism and faith sharing as something “those people” do, or cannot conceive of a way of sharing faith that is not coercive or judgmental. It is long on explanation and justification, shorter on implementation. It is not a “how-to” book in a concrete, easily applicable way, but it is an important first step for congregations and individuals who are resistant or at a loss for how to begin any kind of conversation about faith-sharing.

The Preaching Life by Barbara Brown Taylor, Cowley Publications, 1993, 180 pp.

Preaching LifeBarbara Brown Taylor’s writings and reflections are always rich and beautiful. The Preaching Life is no exception. The book talks about her own life and relationship with preaching, which is insightful for anyone engaged in preaching or listening to sermons.

The book is divide into two sections, “A Life of Faith” and “The Preaching of the Word.” The first is her reflection on her own call into ministry, the role of the church, and the task of preparing sermons.  The chapters follow a simple trajectory: A Church in Ruins, Call, Vocation, Imagination, Bible, Worship, and Preaching. The second section includes 13 sermons, mostly on the Gospels. I read the book more for the reflection than the sermons, so I will focus on that in my comments here. Taylor’s sermons are always thought-provoking, as she has a way of drawing us into the intersections between the life-world of the Bible and our own.

I especially appreciated her perspective on preparing sermons that attempt to join the timely pastoral concerns of the congregation and the timeless stories of scripture. Sermons reside in the space between pastor, congregation and God, and they always emerge from the preacher’s reflections on the relationships between all three.

Preaching becomes something the whole community participates in, not only through their response to a particular sermon but also through identifying with the preacher. As they listen week after week, they are invited to see the world the way the preacher does—as the realm of God’s activity—and to make connections between their Christian faith and their lives the same way they hear them made from the pulpit. (33)

Later, she likens the preparation of a sermon to being Cyrano de Bergerac, “passing messages between two would-be lovers who don’t know how.”

What is called for, instead, is a sermon that honors all of its participants, in which preachers speak in their own voices out of their own experience, addressing God on the congregation’s behalf and—with great care and humility–the congregation on God’s behalf… Down in the bushes with a congregation who have elected me to speak for them, I try to put their longing into words, addressing the holy vision that appears on the moonlit balcony above our heads. Then the vision replies, and it is my job to repeat what I have heard, bringing the message back to the bushes for a response. (83)

From the beginning, she speaks about call and vocation as they apply not simply to preachers and clergy, but to all of the baptized—we are all called to live our lives for God through our work and our service. Her approach to preaching echoes that theology throughout.

And finally, just an eloquent word on God and the life of faith:

Then I remember that God’s power is not a controlling but a redeeming power—the power to raise the dead, including those who are destroying themselves—and the red blood of belief begins to return to my veins. I have faith. I lose faith. I find faith again, or faith finds me, but throughout it all I am grasped by the possibility that it is all true: I am in good hands; love girds the universe; God will have the last word.

Amen.

 

Speaking of Sin: The Lost Language of Salvation by Barbara Brown Taylor, Cowley Publications, 2000, 73 pp.

Speaking of SinThis short volume, begun as a lecture series at the National Cathedral, is a powerful meditation on our Christian language of sin, repentance, and salvation. I read it on Ash Wednesday, sitting in a coffee shop for the day with a sign that read “Ashes for Everyone.” In between chapters on salvation, sin and redemption, I imposed ashes upon strangers and church folk alike. It was a powerful day, and Taylor’s book provided powerful words to accompany the journey.

Each chapter moves through a deeper level of meaning for the word “sin.” We mainline Christians often avoid the word these days, but that doesn’t make sin go away, she argues. Instead, we should claim the rich depth of Christian understanding about sin, about the condition of the world as a heart-breaking place, about our human inadequacy to heal it, and our continued sins of omission and commission that allow it to continue. She also explores the difference between sin as sickness (church as clinic) and as wrongdoing (church as courtroom), the various Hebrew words translated as “sin,” and the role of individual and corporate confession. She also addresses penance, righteousness and justice.

The book is rich and full of insight from beginning to end, including many explanations of loaded terms like sin and repentance that sing with Taylor’s gift for beautiful language:

In theological language, the choice to remain in wrecked relationship with God and other human beings is called sin. The choice to enter into the process of repair is called repentance, an often bitter medicine with the undisputed power to save lives. (41)

Of course, the conversation turns to grace as well, and Taylor offers one of the most  powerful descriptions of grace since Bonhoeffer’s famous distinction between cheap grace and costly grace.

God’s grace is not simply the infinite supply of divine forgiveness upon which hopeless sinners depend. Grace is also the mysterious strength God lends human beings who commit themselves to the work of transformation. To repent is both to act from that grace and to ask for more of it in order to follow Christ into the startling freedom of new life. (60)

This book will be my go-to resource every time I want to talk about sin, repentance, grace, redemption and salvation. Taylor’s insights are rich, and I am still thinking about them all the time as I write this review, three months after completing the book.

Practicing FamiliesI want to invite everyone to check out a new blog project that I am a part of called Practicing Families. It’s a resource for families of all shapes and sizes who are seeking to engage spiritual practices and nurture faith in Christ at home. You’ll find ideas for weekly liturgies you can do at home, reflections on parenting and thoughts on experiencing God in the midst of family life, mess and all. I hope you’ll go and check it out!

The homepage is here, and you can follow us on Facebook. My first contribution is called “Family of Faith–and No Faith,” about our family life with a Christian pastor and atheist philosopher.

Come on over and check it out!

Making a Home for Faith: Nurturing the Spiritual Life of Your Children by Elizabeth F. Cardwell, Pilgrim Press, 2000, 118 pp.

Making a homeI bought this book years ago, when it was new, but never got around to reading it. I finally tuned in not simply as a parent seeking advice on how to nurture faith in my child, but as a new contributor to this blog project called Practicing Families. (To be featured in a full introduction in a day or two.)

I was seeking a practical guide with strategies for integrating faith into our home in age-appropriate ways. While this book did contain that information, it was buried in a surprisingly dense, academic style. Caldwell spends a good portion of each chapter providing a literature review, surveying everything from developmental theory to models of faith formation. This is far better suited to religious professionals or academics than parents wondering how to teach their toddler to pray. I like theory, I like academic texts–it’s just not what I was expecting here.

However, if you’re willing to look for it, there is much insight within the book for parents imagining how to pass on their faith to their children. One of the most insightful things she offers are two “top-ten” lists. The first is a list of what every child needs from faithful parents. It includes things like parents who are comfortable living their faith, participation in a faith community, faithful adults outside the family, and help making connections between faith and life. The second is a list of what parents need to know or do in order to pass along faith to their children. This list would make an excellent starting point for parents and church leaders seeking to equip them to be their children’s primary religious educator. It includes things like reading or telling a Bible story, praying, asking and answering questions, maintaining their own spiritual practices, and explaining the sacraments and liturgical year.

Although each chapter comes with questions for reflection and discussion, I would not recommend giving this book to a group of parents for a small group discussion. The tilt toward scholarly sources and away from simple stories would not work in most settings. However, this book would be an excellent starting point and resource for Christian education teams or pastors or religious educators trying to develop strategies to help parents teach faith to their children. The ideas and information it contains could easily be translated into a series of workshops or classes for parents.

I heard an interview on NPR’s Talk of the Nation last week with Louis Michael Seidman, author of a controversial New York Times editorial and forthcoming book entitled On Constitutional Disobedience. Seidman is a constitutional law professor at Georgetown whose editorial was called, “Let’s Give Up on the Constitution.”

The basic thesis is this:

Our obsession with the Constitution has saddled us with a dysfunctional political system, kept us from debating the merits of divisive issues and inflamed our public discourse. Instead of arguing about what is to be done, we argue about what James Madison might have wanted done 225 years ago.

Seidman argues that good government requires that we commit to certain principles (e.g. free speech, equality under the law) not because a document requires them, but because we all agree they are important. Notice he does not attack the Constitution or its contents, simply the obsession we have developed with adherence to the document and its principles, or the principles of its authors.

constitutionAs one might expect, his editorial has elicited a dramatic reaction, mostly negative. At the opening of the NPR interview, Seidman spoke about hundreds of e-mails he had received, the majority of which are abusive. Many include virulent anti-Semitism and some even threaten physical violence. The anger and hatred are clearly disproportionate to the weight of the editorial.

Seidman summarized his argument in the editorial—that we who are current residents of the country should be free to decide for ourselves what kind of country to have, not be beholden to a group of white men who lived more than 250 years ago. Host Neal Conan responded with a question that led to this exchange:

Conan: If you start ditching some parts because you don’t think they’re right, then how do you then make sure you keep the parts that you do think are right?

Seidman: …Over the years we’ve ditched many parts of the Constitution. There are lots of provisions that are not obeyed. And what we need to do is just acknowledge that fact and talk and make decisions for ourselves about the kind of country we want to live in.

Seidman went on to cite examples of sections of the Constitution we disregard, but it was in that exchange that I realized the connection. I have heard that exact conversation many, many times before, with a minor adjustment:

If you start ditching some parts of the Bible because you don’t think they’re right, then how do you then make sure you keep the parts that you think are right?

Over the years we’ve ditched many parts of the Bible. There are lots of provisions that are not obeyed. (Fill in the blank here: keeping a kosher diet, insisting that women cover their heads, mixing fibers, etc.)

I would argue that what Seidman is encountering in the harsh responses to his work is not hyper-patriotism, it is another variant in the wider worldview that is fundamentalism. Instead of fundamentalist interpretations applied to the Qu’ran or Torah or Bible, they are applied to the Constitution. The anger, defensiveness and either-for-us-or-against-us politics of Seidman’s harsh attackers resembles the decades-long rhetoric and practice of fundamentalist movements.

What-is-fundamentalism-300x199Fundamentalism traces its origins to a Christian reaction to modernism, but the term’s use has broadened to incorporate similar trends in other religious and theopolitical movements. To my knowledge, however, it has not been used to describe a non-religious political position or to describe the right-wing movement in the United States that understands themselves as defenders of the Constitution. However, a closer examination reveals that the sentiment represented by Seidman’s detractors, by some within the Tea Party, and by other right-wing coalitions maps on to the characteristics of other fundamentalist groups.

Karen Armstrong, in her landmark history of fundamentalism The Battle for God, does not give a definition of fundamentalism, but follows the lead of Martin Marty and R. Scott Appleby’s Fundamentalism Project and offers a set of characteristics of fundamentalist movements.

They are embattled forms of spirituality, which have emerged as a response to a perceived crisis. They are engaged in a conflict with enemies whose secularist policies and beliefs seem inimical to religion itself. Fundamentalists do not regard this battle as a conventional political struggle, but experience it as a cosmic war between the forces of good and evil. They fear annihilation, and try to fortify their beleaguered identity by means of a selective retrieval of certain doctrines and practices of the past. (xiii, adapted from Marty & Appleby)

Those who seize upon the purity of the Constitution also practice a kind of spirituality. They see central values like freedom, democracy, independence and patriotism (all narrowly defined) under threat from outside forces. Their inerrant scripture is the Constitution, and they appeal to the era of the founding fathers as the authoritative and idyllic.

The most important insight to remember when understanding fundamentalism is that it is a new phenomenon, in spite of its appeals to the past. Fundamentalism is a reactionary move against modernism, a way to fight the cultural changes that threaten former ways of knowing and living. Armstrong distinguishes between mythos and logos. Mythos is the truth that gives meaning to our daily lives. In pre-modern societies, it was the primary form of truth, and never intended to be taken literally. Mythos connects our experiences to timeless, eternal realities larger than ourselves and our era. Logos, by contrast, is the “rational, pragmatic and scientific thought that enabled men and women to function well in the world.” (xvi) Logos looks to control the environment and pursues new ideas and technologies. The pre-modern world placed mythos as the primary form of truth, but embraced logos as well. The modern world has all but dismissed mythos, and taken logos as the primary form of truth.

Fundamentalism is a particular and peculiar reaction to this modernity that seeks to take mythos and turn it into logos. As the mythos no longer matches the logos of science, they shore it up by trying to claim it is logos. For example, the story of a six-day creation in Genesis is a myth. Its primary purpose is to tell us that the world is God’s creation, that it is good, and that we humans were also created by God and reflect God’s goodness. It is a story about meaning. Fundamentalism takes that mythos and makes it into logos by arguing that the story of creation is a factual scientific explanation about the beginning of the universe. It is not even a return to something old (which would be a pre-modern coexistence of mythos and logos, with mythos as primary), it is a creative, novel reaction to modernity.

300px-Washington_Constitutional_Convention_1787One example of this kind of American Constitutional fundamentalism can be found in conversations about the Second Amendment. It has reared up strongly in recent weeks as the country talks about gun control in response to the shooting at Newtown, Connecticut. Many who resist gun control consider themselves defenders of the Second Amendment, and they grow agitated at any suggestion that we might want to control access to certain kinds of weapons or ammunition. Rather than making an argument about how access to those weapons nurtures a free society, they believe themselves to be beseiged, drawing dramatic lines between “us” and “them,” “real Americans” and those who should “leave the country.” Claiming to be standard bearers for the Constitution, this group of gun advocates appeal to the document and the founding fathers, and dismiss any who disagree as unpatriotic, unfaithful to the Constitution, and underminers of liberty.

Just yesterday, a Tennessee man named James Yeager made the news for posting videos on YouTube threatening to “start shooting people” if they tried to take away his guns. His interview with a local television station contains all the characteristics of fundamentalism listed above. Below is the raw interview with the local television station, in which he initially tries to calm his rhetoric, but eventually gets more agitated. (If you don’t want to watch the whole thing, at least watch the section starting around 2:10, where he talks about shooting people to defend the Constitution. You can also watch the edited news story here, which includes clips from his original YouTube postings.) Since that time, the state has withdrawn his gun permit in response to his threats, but as of this writing there has been no attempt to collect his weapons, and we do not know if he intends shoot people if they do.

Mr. Yeager is not unique. The rhetoric he spouts and the appeal he makes to the Constitution can be found throughout right-wing organizations in the United States, including the Tea Party, NRA, and the conservative radio, television and blogosphere. They are another form of fundamentalism, alongside Christian, Jewish and Islamic fundamentalist ideologies. Just as within faith groups, not everyone who is a conservative member of those groups is a fundamentalist, but fundamentalism is a unique segment found within those groups.

Many of us in faith communities have struggled against fundamentalist perversions of our faith for many years, but they persist and even seem to grow stronger. I’m not sure we have much to say that will open up the conversation or create useful common ground to move forward. However, it seems helpful and insightful to identify the parallels between the rhetoric around religion and politics, and to name both as fundamentalist in their reactionary characteristics.

Tonight, just across town, on the campus where my husband teaches, Indiana Senatorial Candidate Richard Mourdock said the following:

Life is a gift from God, and even when life begins in that horrible situation of rape, that it is something that God intended to happen.

My friends, Republican or Democrat, this post is not about politics, even though everything is political and I think this should impact how you think about your vote. This post is not about abortion, even though I strongly support access to safe and legal abortion as a fundamental aspect of securing women’s health and safety. This is a post about theology, and it is written from my pastoral heart, with care and concern for people hurt by misguided, dangerous theology. (Although, as always, posts here reflect my own views and do not stand for the views of my wonderfully diverse congregation.)

Hear this loud and clear:

GOD DOES NOT INTEND RAPE.
RAPE AND VIOLENCE ARE NEVER GOD’S WILL.
GOD DOES NOT DESIRE SUFFERING FOR SOME GREATER GOOD.

If you are a survivor, God did not send your rapist to hurt you or test you or teach you or punish you or improve you. God did not sacrifice your body and your safety and your security, even to bring the most wonderful child into the world. A human being acted out of violence, power, rage or some other sinful place to hurt you. God did not intend for you to be raped.

There can be no equivocation there. God does not afflict us. So where is God in suffering?

The heart of the Christian story deals with just this concern. The cross plays a central role in our faith, and it is a symbol of suffering caused by violence and power.  Jesus’ suffering and death on the cross showed us that God does not desire our pain to obtain salvation, that God does not require our blood sacrifice, that violence is not God’s way, and that God will pursue justice and peace even unto death.

Three days later, our faith proclaims that something miraculous happened—God took the tools of violence and destruction and transformed them into Easter resurrection and new life. To say that God made new life out of something horrible, whether a rape or a cross, is to proclaim that God can overcome anything. God can take the worst this world has to offer, and God can make hope and new life. God can take a murder on a cross and create resurrection. God can take a violent rape and create a beautiful child.

That does not mean that God intends murder and rape. God does not cause horrific things to happen to us in order to make miracles. That’s not sanctified, it’s sadistic.

That also does not mean that every pregnancy resulting from rape is a gift from God. Not even every non-violent conception is a gift from God. To declare that every pregnancy is intended by God conjures a cruel Master who shows only disdain for the suffering it inflicts.

  • Imagine a woman who becomes pregnant as a result of rape. Forced to carry an unwanted child to term, she is unable to begin her healing until the pregnancy is over. Even if she gives the baby up for adoption, she must live with the physical reminder of her violent trauma every day. Every kick, every contraction, every moment of labor causes her to relive the rape again in her mind. Instead of lasting for a night, her trauma lasts for nine months.
  • Imagine a woman who already has three children. Her fourth pregnancy puts her own life in danger. While her unborn child may or may not survive, she will not. Her older children will be left motherless. The children’s father will be unable to provide for them without her income, and they will likely be separated into foster care.
  • Imagine a woman trapped in a violent relationship. She has a plan to get out, but she discovers that the partner who abuses her has also conceived a child in her womb. She knows she cannot escape if she is pregnant, and that this violent man will have parental rights to the child even if she leaves him.

Some women would claim God’s new life in these pregnancies, no matter the circumstances. They will love and raise the child with joy and faithfulness. Others would claim God’s new life and possibility in the freedom to terminate a difficult pregnancy and claim the value of their own lives as God’s beloved. They will live their lives with purpose serving God in other ways. In neither case does God intend the suffering to get to the new life. In both circumstances, God can heal and redeem the suffering by bringing new life.

Deuteronomy 30:19-20 says:

“Today I have given you the choice between life and death, between blessings and curses. I call on heaven and earth to witness the choice you make. Oh, that you would choose life, that you and your descendants might live! “

I believe that sometimes the choice to end a pregnancy is a way of choosing life—life for the mother, life for other children, life free from abuse. God can make new life out of terrible things, but we cannot always equate God’s new life with an unborn child. We cannot know how God will work in a woman’s heart, nor can we know the path of life in every situation. I stand firmly against the use of speculation about God’s intentions to legislate forced pregnancy.

Above all, this is clear: God does not intend violence. Rape is not part of God’s grand plan. Neither is forced pregnancy part of God’s will. God comes to us in Christ so that we “might have life, and have it more abundantly.” (John 10:10) The prayerful discernment about what it means to choose to “have life, and have it more abundantly” belongs to each woman, her own womb and her own conversation with God—not our legislators.


About Me

I am a full-time pastor in the United Church of Christ, mother of a young child (B.), married to an aspiring academic and curmudgeon (J.). I live by faith, intuition and intellect. I follow politics, football and the Boston Red Sox. I like to talk about progressive issues, theological concerns, church life, the impact of technology and media, pop culture and books.

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