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Heresy: A History of Defending the Truth by Alister McGrath, HarperOne, 2009, 282 pp.

This follows a series of five book reviews on the Christian creeds, which I read in preparation for a sermon series entitled, “I Believe: Christian Creeds in Context.” Those sermons can be found here.

HeresyAlongside reading five books and preparing six sermons on the Christian creeds, I had to read up on the controversies that sparked many of the creedal formulations—the debates among early followers of Jesus trying to sort out the basic beliefs required to remain within the Christian fold, tracking the groups labeled “orthodox” against the groups labeled “heretics.” It was one of the most interesting and helpful things I read.

McGrath begins with a sense of eye-rolling impatience with the current fascination with heresy. He blames scholar Walter Bauer for the idea that heresy is nothing more than “suppressed orthodoxy,” the evidence of historical losers who may offer more radical or inclusive ideas. He eschews the contemporary claim that “heresy is radical and innovative, whereas orthodoxy is pedestrian and reactionary.” (2) Instead, he offers his own definition:

Heresy is best seen as a form of Christian belief that, more by accident than design, ultimately ends up subverting, destabilizing or even destroying the core of Christian faith. … Heresy represents certain ways of formulating the core themes of the Christian faith—ways that are sooner or later recognized by the church to be dangerously inadequate or even destructive. (10-11)

Having been influenced by Bauer’s ideas about heresy and subject to the intrigue McGrath criticizes, I found his position compelling. Orthodoxy, he argues, is not about exercising power over one’s detractors—it is about protecting Christianity from easy answers and demystification. He uses the metaphor of dead ends. Heresies are theologies that do not lead anywhere, that result in pat conclusions and a God that can too easily be known and understood. This angle made a progressive, mystic Christian like me sit up and take notice.

[One point, out of order: McGrath makes it clear, especially toward the end of the book, that his definition applies only to theological sects during the patristic period. Once Christianity reached the Middle Ages, the Roman Catholic Church turned to heresy as a tool to punish any individual or group that sought to subvert its power. These groups were not necessarily heretics by McGrath’s definition, and should not be seen as problematic because of their views of the Christian faith. McGrath’s understanding of heresy requires that it is a threat to the whole of the Christian faith–not to individuals or institutions. (208)]

McGrath’s opening chapter on “Faith, Creeds and the Christian Gospel” was one of the most helpful things I read in preaching about the historic creeds of the church. He frames the creeds after William James, as the church’s “working hypotheses” about how to see and comprehend the world. (17) They represent the “consensus of the faithful, rather than the private beliefs of individuals.” (28)

An intellectual scaffolding needed to be developed to preserve the mystery, to safeguard what the church had discovered to be true–a process that entails both discernment and construction. (28)

Doctrine, then, preserves the central mysteries at the heart of the Christian faith and life. … But what happens if a particular doctrine turns out not to protect such mystery but in fact undermines it? What if the theoretical framework intended to shield and shelter a central insight of faith is found to erode or distort it? These questions point us to the essence of heresy. A heresy is a doctrine that ultimately destroys, destabilizes or distorts a mystery rather than preserving it. (30-31, italics original)

I found this insight into heresy made orthodoxy far more compelling that it had been since I stepped away from conservative, evangelical faith. When the creeds are guardians of mystery, their goal is not to explain and codify, but make sure that each new generation is provoked into questions and engagement. Heresy is not unbelief, but unbelief can be the outcome of heresy because it undoes the need to believe in the mystery. (33) Heresy is also not an attack from outside. It emerges from within the church itself. (83)

McGrath continues this line of thinking in his chapter on “The Early Development of Heresy,” where he argues that innovation is required for orthodoxy. It is heresy that wishes to limit or calcify Christian doctrine. He traces this theological claim back to Athanasius in the third century, and follows its progress through a series of orthodox theologians who all emphasize the need for Christianity to evolve.

Yesterday’s attempts to conceptualize the essence of faith need improvement, the need perhaps arising through their being too closely tied to the prevailing assumptions of the day, or perhaps through their focusing excessively on one aspect of a complex question. Doctrinal development is the inevitable and proper outcome of the theological watchfulness demanded by the church. There is thus a sense in which Christian orthodoxy is something that is made as succeeding generations inherit ways of speaking about God and Christ that they rightly respect yet equally rightly wish to subject to examination. … This is most emphatically not being disrespectful toward the past; rather, it is about maintaining the dialogue that began in the past, continues today, and will not end until the close of history. (70)

This accords easily with our United Church of Christ Constitution, which “claims as its own the faith of the historic Church expressed in the ancient creeds and …affirms the responsibility of the Church in each generation to make this faith its own.” However, I did not expect this to be defined as the practice of orthodoxy for all Christians. It raises serious questions for contemporary fundamentalist traditions that demand an unchanging, unquestioning faith.

The remainder of the book offers a deeper look into several prominent heresies, including Ebionitism, Docetism, Valentinism, Arianism, Donatism, and Pelagianism. Other heresies, such as Montanism and Marcionism, make brief appearances from time to time. McGrath does not offer an exhaustive catalog of heretical thought, but takes representative examples.

One chapter explores what motivates heresy, then and now, which McGrath places into a typology of “pressures” that pull against orthodoxy:

Cultural norms: A perception that Christianity is significantly out of touch with contemporary cultural values…

Rational norms: The belief that certain Christian ideas are contrary to “right reason”…

Social identity: A means of religious self-identification of marginalized social groupings

Religious accommodation: Pressure to modify certain aspects of the Christian faith in order to facilitate coexistence

Ethical concerns: The perception that religious orthodoxy is excessively morally permissive or anarchic on the one hand, or restrictive or oppressive on the other. (180)

One of the most interesting things I had not previously recognized was the extent to which heresies are more, rather than less, morally demanding and restrictive than orthodoxy. The Donatists are a chief example, but I am also reminded of movements such as the Shakers.

The concluding chapters address the rise of Protestantism and Islam, and how both movements relate to both orthodoxy and heresy. McGrath then ends with a final plea for the beauty of orthodoxy:

The pursuit of orthodoxy is essentially the quest for Christian authenticity. The relentless attempt to find the best formulations of Christian truth claims reflects the insight that Christianity is capable of stating and understanding its ideas inadequately and inauthentically. … Defective and damaging forms of the Christian faith–in other words, heresies–will limit its survival prospects. The quest for orthodoxy is above all a search for authenticity. (232)

I found McGrath’s defense of orthodoxy very compelling, because it offers a breathable, evolving faith that preserves mysteries rather than forcing them closed. It offered me a much different approach to the historic creeds of the church that unlocked them in new and compelling ways, and engaged my often-skeptical faith in a richer conversation with orthodox ideas.

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“I Believe” Exploring the Apostles’ Creed by Alister McGrath, InterVarsity Press, 1997, 120 pp.

This is the fifth of five book reviews on the Christian creeds (and a book in heresy), which I read in preparation for a sermon series entitled, “I Believe: Christian Creeds in Context.” Those sermons can be found here.

I BelieveAlister McGrath is a darling of the evangelical movement, because he is a Christian apologist willing to argue with leaders of the New Atheism movement with the authority of his academic credentials at Oxford. He is generally a conservative sort, but I enjoyed his books on the development of the King James Version of the Bible and his biography of John Calvin. This book on the creed was not as uniformly helpful as some of the other resources, simply because other resources (including his own book on heresy) covered the topics with greater depth and interest.

McGrath’s take on the creed divides it into six sections, each of which gets a chapter in the book. Each chapter begins with a segment on “The Ideas Explained,” followed by a parallel on “The Ideas Applied.” He emphasizes the scriptural background of each section of the creed, providing a list of biblical citations at the end of each chapter, without commentary. His best contribution to the conversation about the creeds was his logical, critical analysis of each element of the creedal theology.

For example, his section on the importance of Jesus’ suffering and death addresses the problem of evil. He lists four answers that have been given in the history of religious thought (suffering is real and alleviated only by death; suffering is an illusion; suffering is real and we can rise above it; and the Christian response that God knows our suffering). The idea that God suffered in Christ, with us, is Christianity’s unique contribution, and places us in an intimate relationship. McGrath’s analysis in placing the creed in a wider context of religious history adds an interesting dynamic to the discussion. However, he also gives us powerful turns of phrase from time to time. In the same section, he writes,

God is not like a general who issues orders to his troops from the safety of a bomb-proof shelter, miles away from the front line, but one who leads his troops from the front, having previously done all that he asks them to do in turn. If God asks us to suffer on his behalf, it is because he has already suffered on our behalf. (67)

McGrath was most helpful for his ability to be clear and concise in his descriptions, but the brevity of this work leads to few new insights or ideas. However, I was simultaneously reading his book on heresy, which covered much of the same territory in a richer and more interesting way.

The Life We Claim: The Apostles’ Creed for Preaching, Teaching and Worship by James C. Howell, Abingdon Press, 2005, 173 pp.

This is the fourth of five book reviews on the Christian creeds (and a book in heresy), which I read in preparation for a sermon series entitled, “I Believe: Christian Creeds in Context.” Those sermons can be found here.

The Life We ClaimJames C. Howell wrote the excellent commentary about the creeds for the Narrative Lectionary series that inspired me to preach my sermon series on the topic, so his book was among the first I sought.

The Life We Claim lives up to its subtitle as a resource for preaching, teaching and worship. The book is structured in 35 short “lessons,” which includes both a line-by-line breakdown of the Creed and introductory materials. Each small group of lessons is followed by a sample sermon on that section, 14 total. The appendix even includes suggested hymns, songs and anthems to accompany a related sermon series.

The most helpful part of Howell’s book, for me, were the sample sermons. I struggled to find ways to preach on the components of the Apostles’ Creed that was more than theological instruction. Howell’s contribution was to move beyond teaching into preaching, a way of telling the good news and challenge in each section of the creed. He offered ways to see the lines of the creed as an invitation to spiritual connection in daily life, including many helpful illustrations and metaphors.

For example, his sermon on God as Father imagined God’s experience of fatherhood based on his own. He describes his experience of fatherhood, then imagines God’s.

I have been dizzied by unanticipated delights, and my heart has been broken in places I didn’t know were there. Question: is it like that for God? If God is our Father, our “Abba,” does God look down at us and at one moment it’s an unexpected delight, and then the next moment God’s heart is broken? (20-21)

Later, his discussion of Jesus’ suffering on the cross urges us into places of suffering in God’s name.

The Creed mercifully reminds us that Jesus suffered under Pontius Pilate. It’s not that suffering is over there and God is over here, and we must rush away from suffering to get back to where God is, because where God is there can be no suffering. If you want to find God, look into the face of suffering; visit the place of suffering. Wherever there is human anguish, loss and pain, God is there. (67)

One of the most controversial lines in the Apostles’ Creed is about Jesus’ “descent into hell.” Howell’s succinct argument was the most persuasive and accessible of any of the authors I read.

Because Jesus descended into hell, we know there is no such thing as a godless place. Whenever we as the Church go to hell, we find that Jesus is there ahead of us, and we discover that we at long last are actually close to the Jesus for whom we long. (78)

Howell writes with a pastoral heart. This book offers just what it promises–tools for teaching, preaching and worship focused on the Apostles’ Creed. I recommend it highly for that purpose.

The Creed: What Christians Believe and Why It Matters by Luke Timothy Johnson, Doubleday, 2003, 325 pp.

This is the second of five book reviews on the Christian creeds (and a book in heresy), which I read in preparation for a sermon series entitled, “I Believe: Christian Creeds in Context.” Those sermons can be found here.

The CreedLuke Timothy Johnson’s work is richest, deepest and most scholarly of the various books about the creeds I have read. All other sources after 2003 refer to his work as foundational. It is also the only resource that focuses on the Nicene Creed more than the Apostles’ Creed.

Johnson begins with more than 60 pages of background on the origins, history and importance of the creed. He provides the most detailed account of the origins of the creeds, beginning with the initial professions of faith that named Jesus as Christ, Lord, Messiah and Son of God. Johnson then offers an extensive but manageable review of the patristic letters and writings that show traces of the creed’s formation and development before explaining the dynamics of the Council of Nicea.

Johnson’s second chapter, “What the Creed Is and What It Does,” was incredibly insightful and helpful in explaining why the creeds matter. His claims answered my inner skeptic and the skeptics in my congregation, and helped me formulate my own response to their importance. He writes,

In a world that celebrates individuality, they are actually doing something together. In an age that avoids commitment, they pledge themselves to a set of convictions and thereby to each other. In a culture that rewards novelty and creativity, they are words written by others long ago. In a society where accepted wisdom changes by the minute, they claim that some truths are so critical that they must be repeated over and over again. In a throwaway, consumerist world, they accept, preserve and continue tradition. Reciting the creed at worship is thus a counter-cultural act. (40-41)

No one of us individually believes as much or as well as all of us do communally. The church always believes more and better than any one of its members. … We choose to stand together under these truths, in the hope that our individual “I believe” someday approaches the strength of the church’s “we believe.” (46)

When believers stand together in the liturgy after the readings from Scripture and recite the words of the Christian creed, they affirm that the world as imagined by Scripture and constructed by the creed is the world in which they choose to live. (61)

Johnson divides the creed into six major sections, and writes extensively about each one. He begins by tracing scriptural precedents for each, then offering a theological analysis of every piece of the creed. His Roman Catholicism, traditionalism and orthodoxy shine a little to strongly for me in his outdated critiques of liberation theology, but he surprised me with his insistence that we question all-male God language and recognize all forms of the church as holy and godly.

Many times in the course of the book, he makes a theological claim or description explaining the creed that is simply beautiful. He is able to articulate the importance of these basic theological claims in ways that leave me wanting to affirm them more deeply and more passionately. In his reflection on the resurrection, he writes,

The strong sense of salvation as a participation in God’s life, remember, depends on the strong experience of liberation and power, not as something hoped for in the future, but happening already in present-day lives. The reality of the resurrection was convincing because people acted freely and powerfully through the Holy Spirit. … The greatest miracle supporting the claims of Christians was the transformation of their lives and the creation of transforming communities. (151)

This is but one small example among many, in each section of the Johnson’s writings about the creeds, where he makes the ancient words come alive and reinforces their importance in the Christian life and faith.

The Creed is valuable not only because of the depth of its history, explanation and focus in the Nicene Creed, but because Johnson constructs a beautiful, holistic theology of the Christian faith. While I may disagree from time to time, I learned an enormous amount and my heart was warmed again and again throughout his reflection on the creeds.

The Cross and the Lynching Tree by James H. Cone, Orbis Books, 2011, 202 pp.

Cross and Lynching TreeAlthough it was published in 2011 and represents many of the theological arguments Dr. James Cone has been making for more than 40 years, The Cross and the Lynching Tree feels like it was a direct response to the #BlackLivesMatter movement that has arisen in the last year. As usual, though, James Cone was just a step ahead, leading the way with new ways of thinking theologically about the experience of black people in the United States.

The Cross and the Lynching Tree is exactly what its title implies: a theological analysis and comparison of the cross and the lynching tree. As always, Cone draws deeply from both traditional (white European) theological training and African-American theology and faith practice, including music. The cross, he asserts, offers black people courage to stand up to injustice and hope in the face of death. His case is summarized in the first chapter.

Just as Jesus did not deserve to suffer, they (black people) knew they did not deserve it; yet faith was the one thing white people could not control or take away. … Because of their experience of arbitrary violence, the cross was and is a redeeming and comforting image for many black Christians. If the God of Jesus’ cross is found among the least, the crucified people of the world, then God is also found among those lynched in American history. … The final word about black life is not death on a lynching tree but redemption in the cross–a miraculously transformed life found in the God of the gallows. (22-23)

The cross places God in the midst of crucified people, in the midst of people who are hung, shot, burned and tortured. (26)

Cone demonstrates that power of the cross in the theology and faith of black people is precisely because it demonstrates that God is allied with them in their struggles and suffering at the hands of white oppressors.

Both the cross and the lynching tree were symbols of terror, instruments of torture and execution, reserved primarily for slaves, criminals and insurrectionists–the lowest of the low in society. Both Jesus and blacks were publicly humiliated, subjected to the utmost indignity and cruelty. … In both cases, the purpose was to strike terror in the subject community. It was to let people know that the same thing would happen to them if they did not stay in their place. (31)

The second chapter is a thorough indictment of Reinhold Niebuhr for his failure to address the issue of lynching in his own day. Niebuhr was among the leading theologians advocating for social and economic justice in the mid-twentieth century, yet he never addressed lynching and rarely spoke about racial issues. At first, I wondered at a book dedicating so much time and space to attacking the weaknesses and failures of a theologian who has been dead for 40 years. Then, as the arguments in the chapter unfolded, I began to be convicted by them myself. Niebuhr’s work on love and justice inspired Cone’s own theology, but Niebuhr himself seemed blind to the death and suffering of black people, as if he just did not see. As Cone combs through all Niebuhr’s work searching for evidence of some recognition of black suffering in the context of the cross, I was left to wonder if anyone would find such evidence anywhere in my preaching and writing. Sideways, in the critique of a long-dead theologian, my white silence was equally indicted.

Cone’s third chapter looks at the theological legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. He analyzes King’s speeches and writings for his own theology of the cross and the lynching tree, drawing especially on the impact of the death of Emmett Till. Cone is critical of King’s view of redemptive suffering, but acknowledges that King fought to end suffering, not legitimize it. Cone writes, “We are not what we used to be and not what we will be. The cross and the lynching tree can help us to know from where we have come and where we must go.” (92)

The fourth chapter examines the cross and the lynching tree in African-American literature, especially poetry. He draws upon the works of Claude McKay, Countee Cullen, Langston Hughes and others to demonstrate the myriad ways in which they drew parallels between murdered black bodies and the crucified body of Christ.

The fifth chapter focuses on black women’s particular pain and suffering, and the responses held by the black church. He tells the stories of Ida B. Wells, Fannie Lou Hamer, and Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit,” analyzing the way they respond to suffering with protest and courage. He writes,

Black faith emerged out of black people’s wrestling with suffering, the struggle to make sense out of their senseless situation, as they related their own predicament to similar stories in the Bible. On the one hand, faith spoke to their suffering, making it bearable, while, on the other hand, suffering contradicted their faith, making it unbearable. (124)

The particular challenge, and power, of these black women’s responses not just to survive, but “to survive with one’s dignity intact.” (139)

Cone’s conclusion points to the necessity of connecting the cross to the lynching tree.

Every time a white mob lynched a black person, they lynched Jesus. The lynching tree is the cross in America. (158)

The lynching tree frees the cross from the false pieties of well-meaning Christians. When we see the crucifixion as a first-century lynching, we are confronted by the reenactment of Christ’s suffering in the blood-soaked history of African Americans. Thus, the lynching tree reveals the true meaning of the cross for American Christians today. The cross needs the lynching tree to remind Americans of the reality of suffering–to keep the cross from becoming a symbol of abstract, sentimental piety. (161)

We must see body of Christ in the bodies of Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Tanisha Anderson, Tamir Rice, Walter Scott, Freddie Gray, and (in today’s news) Sandra Bland, contemporary victims of lynching. If you want to understand the theological reasons why Christians should be involved in #BlackLivesMatter marches, read this book. It is profound, thorough, convincing and convicting.

Augustine: A New Biography by James J. O’Donnell, Harper Perennial, 2005, 396 pp.

augustineI picked this up a few years ago to be a refresher on Augustine. I read Peter Brown’s landmark Augustine of Hippo back in seminary, but I wanted to revisit this epic and influential figure, his controversies and his theologies. O’Donnell’s book was on the non-fiction “summer reading” display at the local Barnes & Noble, so I figured it to be a fairly easy go. I was wrong, but I was richly rewarded by the effort this book required.

Augustine: A New Biography is not an appropriate introduction for beginners. O’Donnell is clear to distinguish his project from so many others. While traditional biographies tell Augustine’s story through his writings and the public records of his major controversies–in effect, Augustine in his own words–O’Donnell invites the reader to examine what Augustine’s carefully crafted words leave out. What emerges from O’Donnell is a counter-narrative to the traditional Augustinian biography. It is not an open conflict with the stately portrait of the struggling author of the Confessions and vociferous defender of the faith against heretics, but more like the counterpoint that runs beneath that main melody.

As such, O’Donnell assumes a fairly sophisticated familiarity with Augustine’s traditional biography and catalog. I found myself turning to Wikipedia to remind myself of the various stories and heresies to which he regularly alludes, and even had to chase down a few vocabulary words from time to time. O’Donnell’s writing is an exercise in cleverness, and it does not follow a linear timeline or provide a basic outline. He regularly includes imagined letters, made-up words, and anachronisms as tools of revelation. He invites the reader into a hall of mirrors where he shows Augustine in various reflections and leaves you wondering which one is the distortion and which is the true picture, until you realize that all are equal parts accurate and misleading. Like the end of the hall of mirrors, you leave the biography amused and entertained, but also aware that the reflections have revealed both flaws and beauty marks you had not previously noticed. It is not a place to go for encyclopedic information, but what O’Donnell has created is brilliant and beautiful.

The Augustine that emerges in his portrait is the man behind the curtain of his bold, confident writings. O’Donnell asks, in a postmodern way, why Augustine was so insistent on various points. What was he trying to conceal? Why did he want this version of his story to survive against others? O’Donnell finds answers by quoting more frequently from Augustine’s interlocutors than from the man himself. They offer insight into how Augustine was viewed in his own time, and they interacted with the man himself, not the voice in his writings. The picture that emerges is more changeable than his immutable words, but it is also more pastoral. Augustine’s life’s work was not writing theology for the ages, but holding together a church full of squabbles, attempting to bring about a vision of all believers in catholic unity (a unique contribution from Augustine), all while negotiating imperial politics and the financial stability of the church at Hippo. This version of Augustine is far more human and relatable, in both his strengths and weaknesses.

While I would not recommend this as easy reading, or as an introduction to Augustine’s life and times, Augustine: A New Biography is well worth the endeavor. Its perspective is unique and compelling, and unmasks Augustine in a way that leaves you wanting more of him. I have removed Augustine of Hippo, the Confessions and City of God from my shelf, and added them to the pile of things marked “to be read.” Rather than feeling satisfied with an Augustine refresher, this book revealed just how much more there is to contemplate, and made me want to do so.

 

A History of God: The 4,000 Year Quest of Judaism, Christianity and Islam by Karen Armstrong, Ballantine Books, 1993, 461 pp.

Karen Armstrong’s scholarly intellect and breadth of knowledge is always spectacular, and this book is a masterful example of it. Beginning with the dawn of the idea of monotheim, Armstrong traces the development of God throughout Judaism, Christianity and Islam and their multiple streams of thought. It is an intellectual history that crosses cultures and continents over the course of millenia. It is amazing to witness the way Armstrong can weave together vast and disparate threads into a cohesive whole. Rather than a history of religion, this is a history of ideas—the evolution of a particular idea of God.

While the chapters tracing out the development of God in the Hebrew Bible, Temple Judaism and early Christianity were familiar information, Armstrong’s focus on the history of the idea of monotheism offered a different perspective and different insights. Most insightful, however, was the information on the development of traditions that were less familiar to me–especially Islam, Eastern Christianity and post-diaspora Judaism. Armstrong’s chapter on medieval Islamic philosophy (falsafah) opened a whole new world to me, about the depth and breadth of Islamic traditions far removed from the contemporary divide between “modern/Western” and “traditional/fundamentalist.” These categories reflect a Western European colonialism that is only 200 years old, and give a false story about the true development of Islamic thought.

I especially appreciated learning more about the non-Western traditions of mysticism in Judaism, Islam and Eastern Christianity. Every monotheistic tradition of philosophy eventually reaches a place of profound mysticism, even declaring that God is Nothing. In Judaism, Islam and Eastern Christianity, that mystical understanding has become normative—even dogmatic. It is an affront to God to believe that God’s essence can ever be understood, described or named. Western Christianity stands alone in its obsession with rational theology, its attempts to define and explain God. For Judaism, Islam and Eastern Christianity, this is anathema, because God is found in mystery and nothingness. As someone who experiences God in this mystical way, it was comforting to know that our Western (particularly rationalist, American) version of God is in fact a minority opinion.

This book is not a light or easy read. The scope and depth of ideas it contains make it quite complex to follow, but the writing is accessible and open. Armstrong’s scholarly synthesis impresses throughout, and I finish the book feeling a lot smarter about the place and position of my little corner of monotheistic religion in the wider scope of the history of ideas.


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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