The Charles Marsh interview on Dietrich Bonhoeffer and ‘Strange Glory’

Charles Marsh biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer Strange Glory by Knopf front cover

Click the cover to visit the book’s Amazon page.

From Left to Right and all around the world, Dietrich Bonhoeffer is everybody’s hero. This courageous young pastor stood up to the Nazis in the 1930s, eventually took part in a plot to kill Hitler and finally was hanged in a prison camp before the war ended. Nelson Mandela talked about the inspiration he drew from Bonhoeffer’s example. But Bonhoeffer supporters cross the entire political spectrum. In American right-wing politics, Glenn Beck considers Bonhoeffer such a hero that his online store sells wall-size posters of the bespectacled pastor’s face over Bonhoeffer’s famous lines:

“Silence in the face of evil is itself evil: God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.”

Glenn Beck tells his listeners: “This is a guy you should teach your children about!” And then Beck engages in what commentators from Left and Right like to do when they speak, write or preach about Bonhoeffer: hold him up as a mirror for each side’s approach to courageous defiance of authorities.

Within several years of Bonhoeffer’s death on April 9, 1945, at the age of 39, his books began appearing in English. However, according to Google tracking of trends in American publishing, Bonhoeffer did not become hugely popular in American culture until the mid 1960s. His most widely read book, The Cost of Discipleship, which was first published in 1937 in German, struck a chord 30 years later among young Americans working for change in the turbulent 1960s. In the book, Bonhoeffer tells readers: “Cheap grace is the mortal enemy of our church. Our struggle today is for costly grace.”

When Glenn Beck talks about his hero, Beck scoffs at activists who claim that Bonhoeffer was “a social justice guy.” Beck says: Not so! Beck recommends a different biography of his hero: the 2010 book Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy, written by the journalist Eric Mataxas and published the conservative Christian publishing house Thomas Nelson. That book does the best job of emphasizing Bonhoeffer’s evangelical purity, Beck argues.

Today, ReadTheSpirit online magazine recommends Charles Marsh’s new biography, Strange Glory: A Life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer published by Knopf. Marsh compellingly tells the story of Bonhoeffer’s deep Christian faith, but he also more clearly describes Bonhoeffer’s life-changing experiences while studying for a year in the U.S. Most crucial to his transformation was his regular attendance at worship in a famous black church in Harlem—and a road trip Bonhoeffer took through the American South around the time of the infamous “Scottsboro Boys” trial.

Once Bonhoeffer returned to Germany after his year in the U.S., Mataxas’s book makes it seem obvious that any Christian leader with a spine would oppose Hitler from the beginning. From the first page of his biography, Mataxas describes Hitler and his “legion of demons” as ushering in an “evilly contorted and frightening” era in Europe. Marsh’s book, in contrast, explains how very difficult it was for religious leaders to understand the extreme danger during Hitler’s rise to power in the early 1930s. In fact, Bonhoeffer comes across as a much more remarkable prophet in Marsh’s book for clearly seeing the danger in the Nazis’ first tentative steps that would lead to the Final Solution.

ReadTheSpirit Editor interviewed Charles Marsh. Here are …

HIGHLIGHTS OF OUR INTERVIEW
WITH CHARLES MARSH ON
‘STRANGE GLORY’ AND DIETRICH BONHOEFFER

DAVID: Most Americans recognize Bonhoeffer’s name, but most of us don’t know a lot about him. Recently, when I’ve visited various groups, I’ve asked people what they know about him. Usually people say: He defied Hitler and the Nazis killed him. Some of them know that he could have moved away from Germany, but made a conscious decision to stay. In general, people don’t know much more than that. I think lots of our readers will find your book absolutely fascinating.

Charles Marsh University of Virginia author of Dietrich Bonhoeffer biography Strange Grace

Charles Marsh

CHARLES: Well, those details you just mentioned are true. That’s what makes Bonhoeffer’s life so compelling, but it’s also true that the facts of his life create misunderstandings. He was a theologian on a restless journey.

DAVID: In reading about his childhood, I was reminded of other famous religious figures who began life with great privilege—St. Francis, the Buddha and others—but later gave that up to follow their vocations. Your book describes Bonhoeffer’s childhood as living in the lap of luxury and opportunity. His family lived in Berlin’s well-to-do Grunewald district, since the late 1800s an area known for its big homes and elite families.

CHARLES: He was a golden child, raised in privilege and yet, as an adult, very early in the 1930s he was able to see with great clarity and prescience that the appointment of Hitler as chancellor of Germany constituted the emergence of what Bonhoeffer would call the great masquerade of evil.

He was restless in his studies, his travels and his conversations. At one point, his long journey led him to reach out to Gandhi in correspondence to see what Gandhi advised about creating intentional communities for peacemaking.

He was a pacifist, but later he also was part of a conspiracy to kill Hitler as he served as a pastor and theologian to the resistance. He was clear, at that point, that killing the madman was a responsible course of action, his principled pacifism notwithstanding.

Just as you’re describing it, I am fascinated to find so many people interested in Bonhoeffer: evangelicals, liberals, conservatives, believers, nonbelievers, humanists, activists, Jews, Christians and Muslims. They all find inspiration in aspects of Bonhoeffer’s life and work. In this book, what I’ve tried to do is invite readers along on this journey of Bonhoeffer’s life, trying to show how vivid and complex a person he was.

DAVID: Some of the other books on the market portray him as a pure saint from start to finish, almost glowing on every page.

CHARLES: In my book, I wanted to move beyond that kind of hagiography to respectfully probe his character, which had so many complex dimensions.

BONHOEFFER IN NEW YORK AND THE SOUTH

DAVID: My advice to readers is to enjoy the opening chapters about Bonhoeffer’s youth—then, I think most of our readers will really start turning pages in the middle section of this biography. I read your section on Bonhoeffer’s year in America twice. He shows up in New York City to study at Union seminary in 1930 under the great Reinhold Niebuhr, who had just arrived from Detroit two years earlier. Niebuhr was teaching “practical theology,” based on his experiences in the urban crucible that was the city of Detroit. Niebuhr’s church had been in what is today called Detroit’s New Center area.

They collided in New York—Niebuhr and Bonhoeffer. As a hot young German scholar, Bonhoeffer thought Niebuhr was a theological lightweight, compared with the world of German academia.

CHARLES: That’s true. He arrived as a straight arrow academic with no sense at all that America had lessons he might want to learn. Initially, he was quite taken aback by the way theology and ethics were taught at Union Theological Seminary. He once asked Reinhold Niebuhr after one of his lectures, “Is this a seminary or a training center for social activists?”

DAVID: But your book shows that Niebuhr and Union and New York City had a profound impact on Bonhoeffer’s life. Among other things, Bonhoeffer began attending the church led by the Rev. Adam Clayton Powell Sr., who boasted the largest Protestant congregation in the U.S. with 10,000 members: the famous Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem.

He became angry over the infamous Scottsboro case in which a group of young black men were framed on charges of raping white women on a train. Bonhoeffer called it a “terrible miscarriage of justice.” He got back to Germany and summarized what he had seen of white Americans’ treatment of black citizens as so fundamentally unjust that it was “darker than a thousand midnights.” As Bonhoeffer described this evil system, he mentioned American policies on “blood laws, mob rule, sterilizations and land seizures.”

CHARLES: His travels abroad gave him a different sense of his own country’s problems. I also point out that Bonhoeffer met with officials from the American Civil Liberties Union while he was in New York. Remember that the ACLU formed partly over concerns with deportations and abuses heaped on resident aliens in this country. Bonhoeffer wrote to his older brother to say, “We will need an ACLU in Germany.”

When I was reading Bonhoeffer’s papers in the archives, I was amazed at how thick his files were from his year in America and how attentive he was to groups like the ACLU that focused on human rights and social dislocation. Bonhoeffer read news reports on lynching, on homelessness. He looked into the whole constellation of human rights organizations while he was there at Union.

DAVID: He didn’t spend much time in the South, but he did make an epic road trip into Mexico and, as you point out, he did pass through the South on his return to New York. So, in addition to reading news reports about conditions there in New York City, he did see conditions in the South for himself.

CHARLES: Bonhoeffer always had a distrust of authority and his experience in the United States showed him some of the dangers that could arise when authority over minority groups was abused.

BONHOEFFER: THE CLARITY OF HIS VISION

Dietrich Bonhoeffer in 1939 from Deutsches Bundesarchiv via Wikimedia Commons

Dietrich Bonhoeffer in 1939.

DAVID: This is the point in your book when I couldn’t stop reading. Bonhoeffer goes back to Germany in 1931 and he begins studying under the famous theologian Karl Barth. He’s right back in the center of the world’s most elite theological circle of scholars—people far more concerned about academia than about the real lives of ordinary people.

Then, in early 1933, Hitler is rising in power and places the “Aryan paragraph” into Germany’s civil service laws. Very soon, this limited ban on Jewish employees is extended to schools. By June 1933, it’s extended to ban intermarriage. But, this is two years before the 1935 Nuremberg Laws appear and, suddenly, everybody is seeing these frightening posters about racial purity. Kristallnacht, the night of broken glass, wouldn’t happen until late 1938.

Here’s what I found fascinating: Immediately in early 1933, Bonhoeffer saw the danger and knew how to respond. You document in your book that his great hero, Karl Barth, was willing to simply ignore the Nazis as a bunch of brutes and idiots. But not Bonhoeffer. You argue that his year in America and his passionate faith let him see what was going to happen years before others in Germany could guess at the danger that lay ahead. In the summer of 1933, Bonhoeffer was helping to draft a manifesto, the Bethel Confession, that warned of the Nazi’s treatment of the Jews.

CHARLES: It is true that there were dramatic differences between the two men. Bonhoeffer was part of the original drafting of the Bethel Confession. (It went through several versions and Bonhoeffer had left for England by the time the final version was published.)

DAVID: Your book points out that Barth refused to openly defy Hitler until 1934, a year later, and when Barth did issue his declaration it was all about the rights of the churches to be free of Nazi control. Barth was mainly concerned about confronting Hitler’s God-like status and Hitler’s authority over Germany’s churches. Bonhoeffer’s early work in 1933 made statements about the Christian defense of Jewish communities that the world wouldn’t see again until Vatican II passed Nostra Aetate in 1965. Talk about a visionary prophet!

CHARLES: That’s right and that’s such an interesting part of this story. Everyone who knows about this era wants to celebrate Barth’s declaration in 1934, but in many ways Bonhoeffer’s earlier work on the Bethel Confession was the more important document.

DAVID: I keep asking myself how he was able to see the larger issue—the Christian need to oppose the Nazi’s treatment of the Jews—so much earlier than Barth or other leaders.

CHARLES: Remember that Bonhoeffer had grown up in this upper-middle-class neighborhood in Berlin that was also populated with Jewish families. His family socialized with prominent Jewish families, so this awareness was part of his upbringing.

Later, after several versions of the Bethel Confession had been revised already and Bonhoeffer was no longer in Germany, the final draft was worked on by two theologians who would become pillars of the Nazi church. They deleted references to the significance of the “Aryan paragraph.”

But you are right in mentioning Nostra Aetate. Bonhoeffer in 1933 was wanting the statement to clearly say that Jesus, who Christians follow, was a Jew. And he wanted to point out all that should follow from that.

DAVID: As I read that section, I thought: The world wouldn’t see this kind of affirmation for another 30 years and, in between, Hitler would carry out the Final Solution. So tragic that other Christian leaders didn’t listen to Bonhoeffer in 1933.

BONHOEFFER: FROM FAITH TO ACTION

Martyrs honored at Westminster Abbey Dr Martin Luther King Oscar Romero Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Martyrs honored at Westminster Abbey in London include (from left) Martin Luther King Jr., Oscar Romero and Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

CHARLES: Ultimately, just as you have been describing this, I hope that readers will find this book a compelling narrative of an amazing life. I hope that I can bring readers into this beautiful and yet heartbreaking world—Bonhoeffer’s world. And, I hope that readers will come away with a different way of understanding the life of faith among those we consider our saints today.

I hope that Bonhoeffer emerges not just as a hero from another century, but as a Christian for our time, as well. The power of his life crosses so many boundaries, bridges so many divides and illuminates so many conflicts and passions—that I believe his life story becomes an extraordinary gift to us today.

DAVID: I want to close our interview by point out that this kind of connection between faith and action is an ongoing part of your professional life at the University of Viriginia. You are part of the Lived Theology project. You’re also part of the really remarkable archive called the Civil Rights Digital Archive, which contains lots of stories about largely unknown figures in the American civil rights era, including links to original documents.

CHARLES: The Project on Lived Theology began as a way to put bricks and mortar on Bonhoeffer’s own response to what he found in America in 1930 and 1931. These were his concerns. When he arrived at Union seminary, Bonhoeffer was shocked to see his professors leading student out of the classroom to take part in lived theology in the throes of the Great Depression. He was amazed to hear students asking: What are faith’s social obligations? And, how can we use our skills as pastors and theologians to make a difference and to relieve human suffering?

Later, Bonhoeffer said that these experiences helped him to turn from the “phraseological to the real.” What was poignant about Bonhoeffer’s return to Berlin is that he tried to find space at the university for this kind of transformative approach to theology and he was not able to do that for many reasons. That’s the vision of our Project on Lived Theology. It’s to create spaces within a major research university where scholars and theologians can work alongside each other and can turn the phraseological into the real.

ALSO NEW TODAY—Award-winning journalist William Tammeus writes a personal column about why he dedicated the time to report a book about Holocaust rescuers in Poland. Tammeus and his Jewish co-author are traveling to spread awareness of their book, as well.

Care to read more?

GET THE BOOK: Click on the book cover, above, to visit the book’s Amazon page.

READ MORE INSPIRING STORIES: ReadTheSpirit also hosts Interfaith Peacemakers, a growing archive of inspiring stories of men and women who often risked their lives on behalf of world peace.

MORE INTERFAITH HEROES: ReadTheSpirit Books publishes books by international peacemaker Daniel Buttry.

(Originally published at www.ReadTheSpirit.com, an on line magazine covering religion, spirituality, values and interfaith and cross-cultural issues.)

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Categories: Author InterviewsChristianGreat With GroupsJewishPeacemaking

Bill Tammeus: Holocaust remembrance takes each of us

They Were Just People cover by Bill Tammeus and Jacques Cukierkorn

Click the cover to visit the book’s Amazon page.

FROM ReadTheSpirit Editor DAVID CRUMM—We must not forget. We must act to prevent future genocide. We are, right now, the people called to these goals.

More than 50 years ago, the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial opened in Israel and Raul Hilberg published his 1,400-page history, The Destruction of the European Jews. But, decades passed before Holocaust education became a standard part of history lessons in American public school and the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum opened in 1993 in Washington D.C. Meanwhile, witnesses were vanishing by the thousands, which is why Claude Lanzmann spent a decade creating his vast documentary, Shoah, and Steven Spielberg followed with his Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation.

Many historians, journalists and other researchers also have contributed to this effort. Award-winning journalist Bill Tammeus and his co-author Rabbi Jacques Cukierkorn, a descendant of Polish rabbis, both call Kansas City, Missouri, their hometown. They decided to contribute to this important body of documentation with their book, They Were Just People: Stories of Rescue in Poland During the Holocaust.

As these co-authors continue to share these stories across the U.S., ReadTheSpirit online magazine invited Bill Tammeus to write about their travels and their ongoing work.

By BILL TAMMEUS

In 2004, when Rabbi Jacques Cukierkorn and I began work on, They Were Just People, we knew that in some ways the book would be timeless.

It proved to be exactly that from the time the University of Missouri Press published it in late 2009. Why? Because unlike books about—say, theological trends or how Pope Francis is affecting the Catholic Church—our book contains stories of what individuals went through to survive the Holocaust, and what each person went through is by now as complete a story as any can be.

The book, in essence, shines a light on a small part of the whole bitter Holocaust experience and, in doing that, seeks to honor both those who survived and those who helped them avoid Hitler’s machinery of murder.

So Jacques and I continue to give talks about the book, and we suspect we will do that for years to come.

One of our talks will happen the evening of Tuesday, August 5, 2014, at the Holocaust Memorial Center in suburban Detroit. And we will dedicate that evening to Zygie Allweiss and his family. Zygie is a Detroit-area resident who survived with his brother Sol, now deceased, thanks to help from the Dudzik family, who provided places for the boys to hide on their Polish farm.

Eventually Zygie and Sol came to Detroit and ran service stations there for years.

We are at or near the final years of life for the last of the Holocaust survivors, even many of those who were just children at the time. Indeed, Zygie has had several health issues since I last visited him in 2011, when I came to Detroit for a conference. And several of the 20-some survivors whose stories we tell in our book have died since the book was published. So it was important that we started when we did to spend several years on research, interviewing (in the U.S. and in Poland) and writing. Had we waited much longer some of the stories would have been lost.

It is both an honor and a burden to have become in some ways the voice of the Holocaust survivors in our book—and others as the people in our book in turn represent many other survivors who made it through—because of people whom Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust memorial authority, names as “Righteous Among the Nations” or more informally: righteous gentiles.

If the post-Holocaust phrase “never again” is to have meaning, we must not forget the reality of the German regime’s plan to destroy Europe’s 9 million Jews (more than three million of whom lived in Poland at the outbreak of World War II). Hitler’s “Final Solution” resulted in 6 million Jewish deaths, many of them in the six extermination camps that the Germans built in Poland.

And so it falls to people like Jacques and me, who are by trade simply story tellers—me as a journalist, Jacques as a rabbi who tells sacred stories—to make sure the world remembers.

And this is not simply an act of nostalgia. As Alvin H. Rosenfeld, founding director of the Institute for the Study of Contemporary Antisemitism at Indiana University, notes in his 2013 book, Resurgent Antisemitism, hatred of Jews around the globe is dangerously rising again for many reasons. Anti-Judaism (a theological position) and modern antisemitism (more a racial stance full of character stereotyping) have deep roots in world history. In fact, David Nirenberg, in his 2013 book, Anti-Judaism: The Western Tradition, traces this bigotry back to ancient Egypt.

Bill Tammeus and his book Woodstock a Story of Middle Americans

Bill Tammeus tells his life story in the new book, “Woodstock,” including some remarkable experiences such as living for two years in India, where his father worked in a university agricultural project. That’s where Bill met Jawaharlal Nehru in 1957. Click these images to visit the book’s Amazon page.

In our book, we tell stories of people who for many reasons—a few of them seemingly irrational—stood against that deep tradition of antisemitism and anti-Judaism and risked their lives to save Jews in Poland.

There is, of course, no silver lining to the Holocaust, which at base is a story of death and death and death. But here and there people who found themselves in the midst of it spoke life and life and life into the face of that death. And part of Jacques’ and my responsibility today is to tell the story of such brave people and of the difference they made in the lives not just of individual Jews but also the history of flawed (but sometimes glorious) humanity.

ALSO NEW TODAY—If you appreciated this column, you’ll also want to read a new, in-depth interview with Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s biographer Charles Marsh about how Bonhoeffer so clearly saw the dangers of the Nazi regime before other European Christian leaders.

CARE TO READ MORE?

Order a copy of his book, They Were Just People, now through Amazon.

Bill Tammeus spent most of his career as a columnist for The Kansas City Star and he continues to write columns in his own website, now, called “Faith Matters.” To learn more about his long career in journalism, starting with his boyhood and spanning his career with The Star from 1970 to 2008, you will enjoy his new book-length memoir, Woodstock: A Story of Middle Americans.

Bill also writes columns for The Presbyterian Outlook and The National Catholic Reporter. Contact him at wtammeus@gmail.com.

Rabbi Jacques Cukierkorn, author of Accessible Judaism: A Concise Guide, is the spiritual leader of Temple Israel of Greater Kansas City and founder of Brit Braja Worldwide Jewish Outreach, the world’s first virtual synagogue in Spanish. Contact him at rabbi94@hotmail.com.

This column is jointly published by Faith Matters and www.ReadTheSpirit.com, an on line magazine covering religion, spirituality, values and interfaith and cross-cultural issues.

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Categories: JewishPeacemaking

The Matthew Vines interview on ‘God and the Gay Christian’

God and the Gay Christian by Matthew Vines book cover

Click the cover to visit the book’s Amazon page.

Think of Matthew Vines as a young Gen. George S. Patton. At 24, Matthew Vines is organizing a tough, smart, highly trained force of young evangelicals who are prepared to go toe-to-toe with traditionalist Christians on the issue of whether the Bible allows LGBT inclusion. Through videos, public talks, his new book and a series of national conferences, Vines is determined to martial wave after wave of young men and women, equipped with enough biblical scholarship to crack through the evangelical front still holding that the Bible flat-out condemns homosexuality.

Want to see how he makes this argument? Buy his book, God and the Gay Christian: The Biblical Case in Support of Same-Sex Relationships. We recommend a lot of inspiring books at ReadTheSpirit online magazine, but this particular volume is different. This one is going to be a classic—a milestone at this historic turning point when more and more American churches are welcoming gay and lesbian men, women and their families. (Read the OurValues series this week, which summarizes recent research on this change.)

As Editor of ReadTheSpirit online magazine, I can glance at the shelf in my library where other milestone volumes in this movement are stored. There is Yale scholar John Boswell‘s bombshell in 1980, Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality, which won the National Book Award. Next to it on my shelf is the equally stunning book Boswell published just before his death in 1994, Same-Sex Unions in Premodern Europe. I remember interviewing Boswell about that book, which reports historical evidence of same-sex Christian marriage in the early centuries of the church. Also on my shelf is What God Has Joined Together: The Christian Case for Gay Marriage, a courageous 2005 book by two respected evangelical scholars: Hope College psychology professor David Myers (the man who writes psychology textbooks used in universities nationwide) working with co-author Letha Dawson Scanzoni.

Compared with those giants in scholarship, Vines’ book seems thin. In his detailed analysis of Vines’ book in Christian Century magazine, Tony Jones concludes that Vines’ scholarly sources in this new book are thin enough that evangelicals will try to discount them. But, anyone who dismisses this book misunderstands Vines’ savvy strategy.

If the opening comparison to Gen. Patton in this column seems overblown, consider that Vines already has launched a winning international media campaign. While still in high school, Vines created one of the most successful Harry Potter fan sites and soon found himself traveling the world with the official press corps covering the movie.  His new mission was prompted when he began studying as an undergraduate at Harvard, came out as both gay and evangelical—then decided he should drop out of college to help other gay evangelicals defend themselves. That led to a 2012 talk he gave at a Wichita church that went viral as a YouTube video, shared and re-posted countless times. (Don’t care to watch an hour-long video? Matthew also provides a transcript.)

To be fair to Matthew, he doesn’t call his trained followers soldiers. He calls them “ambassadors” and he urges them to conduct their “discussions” with traditional Christians in “love and compassion.” But—that’s not how evangelical power brokers see his mission. They’re already throwing up barricades against Matthew’s formidable strategy. As Tony Jones put it in Christian Century, they are “incensed” at what Matthew is doing. They’re already firing their biggest guns and are sending their best general, Albert Mohler, after Matthew.

Mohler published a lengthy rebuttal of Matthew’s book that argues: “Matthew Vines demands that we love him enough to give him what he desperately wants, and that would certainly be the path of least cultural resistance. If we accept his argument we can simply remove this controversy from our midst, apologize to the world, and move on. But we cannot do that without counting the cost, and that cost includes the loss of all confidence in the Bible, in the Church’s ability to understand and obey the Scriptures, and in the Gospel as good news to all sinners. Biblical Christianity cannot endorse same-sex marriage nor accept the claim that a believer can be obedient to Christ and remain or persist in same-sex behaviors.”

The_Reformation_Project___Training_Gay_Christians_and_Allies_to_Change_the_ChurchMohler and his allies understand that Matthew’s new book really is a field manual for a new nationwide movement. Matthew calls his movement The Reformation Project and the next national “training conference” is in November, 2014, in Washington D.C. Matthew calls these events “training conferences” because they aren’t like any conventions most of us have attended. These are intellectual and spiritual boot camps, drilling participants in close-quarter evangelical debate.

As Editor of ReadTheSpirit, I spent more than an hour interviewing Matthew about his fascinating work. Today, we are publishing …

HIGHLIGHTS OF OUR INTERVIEW
WITH MATTHEW VINES ON
‘GOD AND THE GAY CHRISTIAN’

Author Matthew Vines God and the Gay Christian

Click this photo to visit Matthew’s website.

DAVID: At ReadTheSpirit magazine, we are closely watching the events unfolding around your work and also Ken Wilson’s work with A Letter to My Congregation. In our latest roundup of news items, I see that Southern Baptist heavyweight Albert Mohler is accusing you of not being a Christian, let alone an evangelical.

Despite what he thinks, you do proudly define yourself as evangelical. Explain what you mean.

MATTHEW: My orientation to scripture and the Christian tradition is theologically conservative in line with a lot of the governing norms of evangelicalism today. I grew up in an evangelical church in Wichita—and I imbibed evangelical theology as I was growing up. Today, that term “evangelical” is still pretty accurate in describing my theology. At the same time, that word comes with all sorts of political baggage that I’m not thrilled about. That’s why I tend to say I’m theologically conservative.

On this issue, what matters most to those who identify themselves as evangelicals is the big question: When it comes to scripture, are you saying that we are going to disagree with the biblical authors because we now know better? Are we saying the Bible is wrong? Or, are we saying there is room for a kind of life-long monogamous same-sex relationship within Christianity, a kind of relationship that is not in view in those Bible texts.

DAVID: In other words, as an evangelical, you don’t simply want to say: The Bible is wrong in these half-dozen brief references to homosexuality—just ignore them. You follow the Bible so closely that you’re saying something different: People are incorrectly reading that handful of passages—and, in truth, the Bible doesn’t condemn monogamous same-sex relationships. In your view, you’re not rejecting the Bible.

VINES: Yes, I come down on the side of Christianity that is very much committed to upholding the authority of scripture.

DAVID: If our readers do watch the hour-long video of your now-famous talk in Wichita (or if they read the transcript), give them some context. What are they watching?

VINES: That video captures the beginning of a two-year-long journey. By the beginning of 2010, I had come out to my parents. At first, my parents did not agree with my perspective, but my parents were open to learning more. That’s why I took off a semester from school in 2010 to dive into scripture and study. After several months of doing that, I felt I had a much better grasp of the issues. I came out to more friends including some friends at church.

It was in 2011 that I felt more comfortable talking to a broader audience. I spent eight months that year working as hard as I could to continue to study and to try to engage people on the topic. I tried to talk to people at our church. It was very difficult because nobody had ever come out in our church before and then stayed and tried to engage people in this way. People weren’t rude but that was the first time many people in our church had even been aware that there were other viewpoints on the scripture. Churches operate very locally and our church had simply not been a part of these long discussions in the mainline denominations.

Not surprisingly, most people weren’t willing to go 180 degrees after first hearing this kind of argument.

I felt I needed a platform to be able to speak and get more of a hearing. I was not able to get that kind of open hearing at my own church. At the end of 2011, I began looking around at other churches that might be more receptive to my message. Some were receptive but were reluctant to let me give a public talk. College Hill United Methodist in Wichita said yes.

DAVID: Your family church had been a very conservative Presbyterian congregation, which once was affiliated with the mainline Presbyterian denomination but now has gone off on its own. So why did you give the talk and make the video at this particular United Methodist church?

MATTHEW: It’s one of the more progressive mainline churches in Wichita. And they let me speak one evening. It was a Thursday night, March 8, 2012. We had about 150 people. The goal that night was to give the talk, record the video and post it online. And, as we now know, the response to that video was very inspiring.

TALKING ABOUT THE BIBLE WITH OUR FAMILIES

DAVID: One of the crucial steps in your journey, which readers will learn more about in your new book, is your recommendation that families study the Bible together. Clearly, that’s a core part of evangelical culture. But what you discovered is something that the pollster George Gallup used to say: Faith in America is miles wide and an inch deep. You discovered that even the staunchest evangelicals have big gaps in their understanding of the Bible.

MATTHEW: That’s right. Dad knows a lot about the Bible and studies the Bible regularly. He has throughout his life. But he acknowledged early in our conversations about this: “I’ve never actually studied this issue.” In fact, he couldn’t even identify the main scriptural references. There aren’t many verses and they do seem negative about this.

DAVID: I like Tony Jones’ way of describing this handful of verses that mention homosexuality. He calls them the “clobber verses,” because conservative Christians use them to beat up gay men and women.

MATTHEW: What I learned from studying and discussing the Bible with Dad is that it’s a really important first step we can take: Acknowledging that there might be something we can learn. And if that message is coming from someone who is a fellow believer and has a close existing relationship with the person—then we can come at this with a tone of respect and love and discuss this out of a shared reverence for scripture. That can bear a lot of fruit.

We know that when someone we love comes out, then that person can change a family’s attitude toward this. We’ve seen that over and over again. But, what that process misses is that evangelicals, even if they love people who are coming out, they still feel their hands are tied by scripture. They don’t see how they can change their understanding of same-sex relationships without having their broader faith in the Bible unravel.

So, the ideal reader for my book is a Christian who knows someone who is gay and then the arguments I present in this book can help those readers shift their belief system.

CREATING A NEW FORCE FOR INCLUSION:
THE REFORMATION PROJECT

DAVID: That’s why we’re recommending this book. Tony Jones calls it “a go-to book” for Christians to share with friends who are struggling with this issue. But you’ve also got a much larger force in mind. You’re creating waves of Bible-equipped evangelicals to go toe to toe on this issue. Tell us about the Reformation Project.

MATTHEW: We’re just getting started. Basically what I’ve tried to do in the video and in this book is to mainstream a biblical argument on behalf of same-sex relationships. Then, through the Reformation Project, we are equipping people—we say that we are creating ambassadors—for the widest reach of this approach in congregations.

In September 2013 we had our inaugural conference. We brought together 50 Christians from across the United States and Canada. I had them prepare for this by reading more than 1,500 pages of academic literature about these issues.

DAVID: Wow. A real boot camp. This is heavy-duty training.

MATTHEW: This is a step we need to take. Many gay Christians have been very good about talking about our lives and our relationships and experiences—but when it comes to discussing the Bible, the conversation stalls. We don’t have enough people fully equipped to talk in depth about scripture and the history of this issue in the church. Our conference had a laser-like focus on how to have these conversations about scripture and same-sex relationships. In that first conference, we were building our training model. What we’re doing this year in Washington D.C. is expanding that model. Some of our trained reformers from last year will be helping us.

In November, we’re expecting hundreds of LGBT-affirming Christians to arrive wanting us to help them learn about the biblical tools they need to shift the thinking of families, friends and congregation members on this issue.

We’re meeting at the National City Christian Church just a 10-minute walk from the White House.

DAVID: What’s the capacity? Is there still room to sign up if some of our readers care to take part?

MATTHEW: We can accommodate up to 900 Christians at this conference. Even if you aren’t Christian, you can come and experience this—but we are framing this conference specifically to train people who are already LGBT-affirming Christians and have relationships with people who are not affirming Christians. We’ll be focused on giving them a theologically conservative LGBT-affirming framework to go back home and help us all shift this conversation.

CARE TO READ MORE?

LEARN HOW MATTHEW AND KEN WILSON ARE CHANGING AMERICA—ReadTheSpirit magazine also is publishing an overview of news events as our own author Ken Wilson, as well as Matthew Vines, are changing this conversation nationwide.

CAN AMERICAN CHURCHES CHANGE? The simple answer is: Yes. Read this five-part OurValues series that brings together the latest research from pollsters, including the evangelical pollster George Barna, documenting this dramatic shift.

(Originally published at www.ReadTheSpirit.com, an on line magazine covering religion, spirituality, values and interfaith and cross-cultural issues.)

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Categories: Author InterviewsBibleChurch GrowthPeacemaking

The Robert J. Wicks interview on restoring ‘Perspective’

Cover of Perspective by Dr Robert J Wicks

Click the cover to visit the book’s Amazon page.

Millions of souls are in trauma this week. Headlines are heralding: Deadly fighting in the Middle East, Ukrainian troops battling separatists, a mass shooting in another American community, militias killing innocents in Africa. And, next week? Tragically, the headlines will replace these locations with others.

Here is help: Psychologist Dr. Robert J. Wicks is known around the world for helping to restore lives traumatized by such conflicts. He has served in the wake of massive tragedies, such as conflicts that swept across Rwanda and Cambodia. He regularly helps aid workers, medical professionals as well as men and women serving in the U.S. military.

But, this week, as we prepared the text of this interview about his new book, Perspective: The Calm Within the Storm, the author Debra Darvick reminded us of a fresh viewpoint on his work. In her review of the new book, Debra writes from the perspective of a nearly overwhelmed young mother in a typical American home, crying out: “I just want to have perspective! I want to know that everything is going to turn out OK.”

Alas! Perspective is more elusive than ever. In 2014, most of us assume that our powerful global media network allows us to look into any event anywhere. Not too many years ago, Americans were hard pressed to find any news reports out of Africa. Today, Americans can tap on our smartphones to zoom into Africa and—in just one example—we can choose from hundreds of news reports on the Nigerian terrorist group Boko Haram.

But our access to information is not the same as … perspective. In fact, psychologist Dr. David Myers writes this week that many of our daily choices about who we choose to associate with can wind up contributing to a loss of perspective. Myers’ column examines tragic divisions within Islam—but the four principles he outlines can help all of us bridge divisions.

In this time of crisis, we need new perspectives. This summer, Dr. Robert J. Wicks is holding out his hand and offering a small volume that shows a girl on the cover standing on a shoreline. Look at the book’s cover for a moment. Is that girl enjoying a vacation? Or, is she contemplating suicide? Is she a rich American teenager at her family’s summer home? Or, is she a refugee dreaming of a ship that might carry her away and save her life?

What you see in that book’s cover is all a matter of … perspective. In this new volume, Wicks isn’t playing games with readers. This book is built like a Craftsman Tool Chest, inviting you to pull out the drawers packed with the particular kinds of tools you need right now.

In her review of the new book, Debra Davick also writes, “Wicks structured this clear and useful book so that it is rich with bullet points, questionnaires for self-reflection, and carefully honed text bytes that can form the basis for a lifetime of step-by-step personal transformation. In addition to explication, educative text and recollections drawn from his own life and that of other seekers, philosophers, and authors—Wicks shares insights culled from the most up-to-date research in cognitive behavioral therapy and the psychology of optimism.”

ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm interviewed Dr. Robert J. Wicks. Here are …

HIGHLIGHTS OF OUR INTERVIEW
WITH DR. ROBERT J. WICKS
ON ‘PERSPECTIVE’

DAVID: This new book brings together new insights in many fields of research—from psychology and therapy to spiritual direction—on effective ways to survive after we pass through life’s inevitable waves of suffering. I’m going to describe it as a toolbox of ideas for rediscovering a fresh, healthy and hopeful perspective on living. How is that as a summary?

Dr Robert J Wicks author of PerspectiveROBERT: Good! That’s exactly what I wanted to do with this book. The core point in the book is that it’s not the amount of darkness in the world, in your country or your family or even within your own life—it’s how we stand in the darkness. How we view something can be the pearl of great price. There are people in the world who have so little and yet they are able to focus on the world in such a way that fulfills them, and also puts them in a position to share freely with others without expecting anything in return.

DAVID: As a journalist, I’ve covered the ongoing research into Americans’ growing sense of “necessities.” The list of what we think we must have for a happy life has grown extensively over the past half a century. Your book points out that the solution to restoring a healthy perspective doesn’t involve wealth. You can’t buy “perspective.”

ROBERT: There are three illusory pathways in life. One is that we need “more.” Frequently, when people feel they need more, they go out and get more—but then they simply feel they need even more. It’s an illusory pathway.

Others may think they need something “different,” but once they get that different thing—it quickly begins to feel the same. Still others wait for “perfect” to come along. And while they are waiting for this illusory perfection, they allow life to pass them by.

Rather than those three dead ends, I ask people to look at what they already have and how they can access it even more. In doing that, I’m not saying people shouldn’t get something more or something different or something better than what they have right now, but I am saying that the real question for each of us is: How do we access what we already have in ways that will deepen our lives?

DAVID: You describe many kinds of trauma in your book: death of a loved one, cancer, destructive storms, financial disaster, war, abuse and chronic pain. As I finished your book, I understood you to be saying: Some form of serious suffering will come to each of us and, broadly speaking, whatever you are suffering—there are some general principles that can keep our minds and spirits clear and functioning in healthy, hopeful ways.

ROBERT: Yes. What happens is that we think of life as acute. We’re facing one difficult thing right now and we want to solve that problem in front of us. If we face that problem, we may be able to solve it, and then we think that we’re fine. That’s if we think of life as acute.

But spirituality and now psychology remind us that life is chronic. We will always have peaks and valleys, some higher and some lower. It’s what we do with the chronic ups and downs that defines our lives.

When I think of this, I think of the contemplative Thomas Merton who one day was passing a room where he saw an old monk. Merton went in and asked how he was doing.

The old monk said, “I feel awful! I may be losing my faith.”

Merton smiled at the old fellow and said, “Courage comes and goes. Hold on for the next supply.”

We need patience and that’s not really sold to people today. We need perseverance and we need courage. Those three elements come not just out of the air, but out of discipline. This comes from things like carefully planning to take alone time, which is one of the examples I write about in the book.

‘THE PEARL OF GREAT PRICE’

DAVID: I love that Merton story and this message you’re describing is summarized on the opening page of your book, where you first mention this metaphor of “a pearl of great price.” Let me read a few lines from that page:

“When someone gains or regains a healthy sense of perspective, it feels like pure magic. The person sees more clearly and experiences greater freedom. Unforeseen possibility surfaces. New peace and joy are seeded.

“The situation hasn’t changed. Unwanted occurrences aren’t denied or minimized: Instead, they are faced and explored differently—not with unrealistic expectations or the projection of blame, harshness, or self-recrimination, but with a sense of intrigue. There is a realization that whatever ‘darkness,’ suffering, confusion, or potentially addictive attraction may be present in the moment, it is not the end of the story. It is not the last word.

“And so, having the passion and tools to continually seek out a healthier perspective is not simply a good idea. No, it is much more than that. It is actually a determining factor as to how life can be enjoyed more completely and shared more fully every minute of one’s day. Having a healthy perspective is tantamount to possessing the psychological pearl of great price.”

I think millions of Americans could find help through your new book. That especially includes Americans who have served in the armed forces—or have veterans in their families.

‘A LOT OF GHOSTS IN THIS ROOM’

ROBERT: That’s one of the major audiences for this book. I work in an ongoing way with the military. I was a Marine Corps officer myself. I recently got back from a speaking tour on four bases in England where we have stationed some U.S. Air Force personnel. I also spoke to members of NATO and to some of the people who are involved in the troubles in Africa. When I speak to these groups, it’s clear that they have gone through a lot of both acute and chronic suffering. That’s true for their families, as well. When our military personnel are deployed overseas with their families, we need to remember that we are deploying a whole family.

I remember before one speaking engagement, a colonel pulled me aside and said, “Be careful as you talk. There are a lot of ghosts in this room with us.”

One thing that has struck me: I am overwhelmed by the sense of generosity and gratitude from the military people I work with. They have a sense that, when their military service is ending, they want to integrate that service they have been providing into new ways of paying back society. I’m so glad that the president and others are encouraging Americans to hire veterans. When you hire a vet, you’re hiring experience and depth of personality.

‘WE DON’T HAVE ENOUGH TIME TO THINK’

DAVID: I want to ask you about a major theme in the book—to give readers of this interview a sense of the kinds of topics they’ll explore with you in these pages. I was most impressed with your section on “mindfulness.” There’s hardly a more over-used word in spirituality, these days. Yet your book does a great job of defining it in solid ways. One conclusion you draw that may surprise readers: Mindfulness is not religion.

ROBERT: No, it’s not. It’s an attitude that we almost take for granted. We assume that we’re attentive and aware in our lives—but, for most of us, that’s not true. I had the privilege of speaking to some members of the U.S. Congress and their chiefs of staff. A senator talked about the greatest challenge facing Congress today: “We don’t have enough time to think,” he said.

Mindfulness is an attitude that’s really worth trying. We have to carefully think about and find ways to take a breath each day. Maybe that’s in the shower, during a walk at lunch, in a visit to the library. This is essential, especially if you’re involved in intense work. Most people don’t stop to think about how contaminated they are every day and they’re not planning for ways to deal with that contamination.

‘YOU NEED TO DECONTAMINATE’

Wash Your Hands sign in South Korea 2013

U.S. service personnel can’t miss this sign! The huge plywood reminder was set up at Camp Baldwin in South Korea before meals. Photo by Elisandro Diaz, released for public use.

DAVID: I am struck by that word “contamination” and I think it’s a helpful word for readers to consider. So, please talk a little more about how you use that word.

ROBERT: What happens is that, during each day, we encounter a lot of thoughts, emotions and actions in our life that have a negative side to them. We can begin to feel helplessness, doubt, anger, fear, shame—a sense that there is no meaning in life. When we experience these negative thoughts, actions and emotions around us, each day, we need to do something about it so that we don’t remain stuck in them ourselves. If we do, we will carry them around with us and contaminate others.

Think about the sign in a restaurant’s washroom: “All employees must wash their hands.” Those signs hang in hospitals, too, reminding us to sanitize our hands throughout the day.

I like to take that kind of medical metaphor and apply it to the psychological and spiritual. Stop and think about how you go home after a full day of work. Think about this if you’re a caregiver—especially if you’re someone caught in the sandwich generation caring for both your children and your parents. Before you reach home after a hard day, you need to decontaminate. We need to reflect objectively on the peaks and valleys of the day and subjectively on how we reacted to those experiences. Without taking time for reflection, we just move on with our lives and we carry contamination with us as we go.

For me, mindfulness, alone time, time in reflection—these are ways to decontaminate ourselves. When I have intense interactions in my day, I always build time into my schedule so that I don’t take carry these experiences on to the next person I encounter.

‘LOVE IS REALLY AT THE HEART OF LIFE’

DAVID: Compassion is a major theme that runs throughout your book. I want to point this out to readers, because loads of popular books on spirituality and psychology are selling skills that claim to provide a selfish kind of success. Look around and you’ll see book after book promising that you’ll “win” or “make money” or achieve “success” through the techniques the author is hawking.

You’re aiming at a different goal: Compassion.

ROBERT: I believe that people lose their sense of balance, a key element in perspective, if we don’t have a sense of true compassion: giving to others and expecting nothing in return. We might call it a sense of mitzvah.

Even a lot of people who we consider to be religious aren’t really using their prayer time to be alone with God; they’re using the time to be alone with themselves or to try to get something for themselves from God. They lose the realization that they’re part of something much bigger.

Without balance in our lives, we run the danger of hedonism that masquerades as social justice. We think: I deserve this! I should get this!

A lot of publishers today aren’t interested in books that are about serving or helping the other person. They think that people will only buy books to help themselves feel better—or books that will tell them how to go out and get more. Thinking of the other person becomes a counter-cultural message. That’s why I appreciate publishing this book with Oxford, because they’re open to counter-cultural ideas like this.

When we become narcissistic and egocentric, we fail to see that a spirit of humility is key to gaining a healthy perspective. I emphasize this because, when you take knowledge and add humility, you get wisdom. And when you take that very wisdom and add compassion, it becomes love. And, love is really at the heart of life.

People who have love at the heart of their lives can maintain a healthy perspective no matter what is going on around them.

CARE TO READ MORE?

(Originally published at www.ReadTheSpirit.com, an on line magazine covering religion, spirituality, values and interfaith and cross-cultural issues.)

 

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Categories: Author InterviewsGreat With Groups

Dr. David Myers: Psychology of Sunni-Shi’a division is wisdom we all can use

Map of the Islamic World

MAP of THE MUSLIM WORLD: Click on this map to see it in a larger format. The nations colored dark green on the map are predominantly Muslim, illustrating the fact that most of the world’s Muslims are not Arab. According to Pew worldwide research, the largest Muslim countries, ranked in order of Muslim population, are: Indonesia, Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Nigeria, Iran, Turkey, Egypt, Algeria, Morocco, Iraq, Sudan, Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Uzbekistan, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, China, Syria, Malaysia, Russia and Niger.

David Myers

Click the logo to read David Myers’ “Talk Psych” columns.

HOPE COLLEGE Professor of Psychology DAVID MYERS is a household name among college students and teachers, because he is the author of textbooks widely used on college campuses. His scientific writings, supported by National Science Foundation grants and fellowships, have appeared in three dozen academic periodicals, including Science, the American Scientist and the American Psychologist. Myers recently wrote a fascinating column on psychological principles behind Sunni-Shi’a conflict within Islam. He invited us to share his thoughts …

Psychology of the Sunni-Shi’a Divide

Why is there so much animosity
between groups that seem so similar?

This excerpt is used with the author’s permission. The full text originally appeared in POLITICO magazine, where you can read Dr. Myers’ entire column. Dr. Myers opens his column by explaining that Sunni-Shi’a divisions do have deep historical roots—but, he notes, so did the long and brutal Catholic-Protestant conflicts in Ireland. In addition to historical factors, Myers suggests four psychological principles are at work in such divisions. Thoughtful readers will realize that these factors are crucial for understanding a wide range of inter-religious and cross-cultural conflicts. Myers writes …

1) No matter our similarities with others, our attention focuses on differences.

In the 1970s when the Yale psychologist William McGuire invited children to “tell us about yourself,” they zeroed in on their distinctiveness. Those who were foreign-born often mentioned their birthplaces. Redheads volunteered their hair color. Minority children mentioned their race. “If I am a Black woman in a group of White women, I tend to think of myself as a Black,” McGuire and his colleagues observed. “If I move to a group of Black men, my blackness loses salience and I become more conscious of being a woman.” Straight folks sometimes wonder why gay folks are so conscious of their sexual identity, though in a predominantly gay culture the sexual identity self-consciousness would be reversed.

So when people of two subcultures are nearly identical, they often overlook their kinship and become laser-focused on their small differences. Freud recognized this phenomenon: “Of two neighboring towns, each is the other’s most jealous rival; every little canton looks down upon the others with contempt. Closely related races keep one another at arm’s length; the South German cannot endure the North German, the Englishman casts every kind of aspersion upon the Scot, the Spaniard despises the Portuguese.”

2) We naturally divide our worlds into “us” and “them,” ingroup and outgroup.

We inherited our Stone Age ancestors’ need to belong, to live in groups. There was safety in solidarity. Whether hunting, defending or attacking, 10 hands were better than two. Like them, we form social identities.

But the benefits come at a cost. Mentally drawing a circle that defines “us” also defines “them.” Moreover, an “ingroup bias”—a preference for one’s own community—soon follows. In experiments,even those in arbitrarily created groups tend to favor their own group. In studies by Henri Tajfel, Michael Billig and others,people grouped together by something as random as a coin toss or the last digit of their driver’s licenses felt a twinge of kinship with their number-mates, and favored their own group when dividing rewards.

3) Discussion among those of like mind often produces “group polarization.”

In one of my own early experiments, George Bishop and I discovered that when highly prejudiced students discussed racial issues, they became more prejudiced. When less prejudiced students talked among themselves, they became even more accepting. In other words, ideological separation plus conversation equaled greater polarization between the two groups.

So it goes in real life too. Analysis of terrorist organi­zations, for instance, has revealed that the terrorist mentality does not erupt suddenly, on a whim. It begins slowly, among people who share a grievance. As they interact in isolation, their views grow more and more extreme.

By connecting like-minded people, the Internet’s virtual groups often harness group polarization for good purposes, as when connecting and strengthening fellow peacemakers, cancer survivors and rights advocates. But the Internet echo chamber also enables climate-change skeptics and conspiracy theorists to amplify their shared ideas and suspicions. White supremacists become more racist. Militia members become more hostile. For good or ill, socially networked birds of a feather gain support for their shared beliefs, suspicions and inclinations.

4) Group solidarity soars when facing a common enemy.

From laboratory experiments to America immediately after the Sept. 11 attacks, shared threats foster unity. During conflict, we-feeling rises. During wars, patriotism surges.

In one of psychology’s famous experiments, the psychologist Muzafer Sherif, in 1954, randomly split Oklahoma City boy campers into two groups for a series of competitive activities, with prizes for the victors. Over the ensuing two weeks, ingroup pride and outgroup hostility increased—marked by food wars, fistfights and ransacked cabins. Intergroup contacts yielded more threats—and stronger feelings of ingroup unity—until Sherif engaged the boys in cooperative efforts toward shared goals, such as moving a stuck truck or restoring the camp water supply.

YOU MAY ALSO ENJOY reading David Myers’ online columns with Dr. Nathan DeWall in Talk Psych.

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Categories: MuslimPeacemaking

The Brian McLaren interview on ‘We Make the Road by Walking’

Brian McLaren cover We Make the Road by Walking

Click the cover to visit the book’s Amazon page.

For years, Brian McLaren has been writing best-selling books about renewing our faith. He wrote about becoming A New Kind of Christian and compared the process to The Wizard of Oz. Beginning to renew our faith, he wrote in his 2001 book, is “like Dorothy setting out on her journey to see the wizard, invigorated with new hope and passion.”

He wasn’t abandoning the long-held traditions of Christianity, he argued. He was embracing what he called, in a 2004 book, A Generous Orthodoxy, which he defined (in one of the longest sub-titles ever published) as “a missional, evangelical, post/protestant, liberal/conservative, mystical/poetic, biblical, charismatic/contemplative, fundamentalist/calvinist, anabaptist/anglican, methodist, catholic, green, incarnational, depressed-yet-hopeful, emergent, unfinished CHRISTIAN.” He refused to capitalize any of the terms in that subtitle except the final word: CHRISTIAN.

Still in his 40s, McLaren was listed by TIME magazine as one of the 25 most influential evangelicals in America. TIME called him a leader in a worldwide movement to establish “a kinder and gentler brand of religion” and “yet remain true to Scripture.” TIME called him “an elder statesman … of the emerging church.”

Like Dorothy, McLaren found himself riding a tornado. Many friends saw great hope in his message and he logged countless miles to appear before appreciative audiences. Many foes claimed he was abandoning truly evangelical Christianity and he shouldered countless attacks in news media and social media.

Now, in his late 50s, McLaren is retired from parish ministry and is more firmly in control of his own life’s journey once again. He now seems far less interested in playing with labels—or battling his foes—than he is in the core message of his ministry: “The Living God is with us! And with all creation!”

Those are two lines you’ll learn to proclaim if you read his new book, We Make the Road by Walking: A Year-Long Quest for Spiritual Formation, Reorientation, and Activation. McLaren is hoping that you’ll make that proclamation with friends, your family and your entire congregation, week after week for a year. This book is all you need to spend 52 weeks taking a pilgrimage with McLaren through the Bible from Genesis to Revelation.

While a year-long Bible study may seem like a heavy-duty return to McLaren’s evangelical roots, readers quickly discover that he remains steadfastly committed to his original message all those years ago: The Christian journey is always about change.

The book’s opening lines are a challenge: “You are not finished yet. You are ‘in the making.’ You have the capacity to learn, mature, think, change and grow. You also have the freedom to stagnate, regress, constrict and lose your way. Which road will you take?”

ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm interviewed Brian McLaren about his new book. Here are …

HIGHLIGHTS OF OUR INTERVIEW
WITH BRIAN McLAREN ABOUT
‘WE MAKE THE ROAD BY WALKING’

Brian McLaren author of We Make the Road by WalkingDAVID: Readers could begin this year-long journey through the Bible at any point. You don’t have specific dates attached to the 52 chapters. But the book is designed so that, if readers start in early September, they’ll roughly reach the Christmas story in the appropriate season and so on. Can you explain that overall plan?

BRIAN: I’m a big fan of the church year, but as the church year is experienced in most congregations, the entire biblical story isn’t connected very well. People hear little snippets from the Bible read aloud and it’s hard to understand the big connections. So, I wanted to create some way to guide people through the biblical story as if these chapters might be sermons people would hear in church, week by week. In fact, I’m happy if groups want to use this book that way: as a series of sermons.

You’re right, I decided to start this year with the North American school year, which begins each September. So, if readers do start in September and follow the book week by week, it will take them into the season of Advent during the winter and we will follow Jesus’s life to Holy Week in the spring.

DAVID: This was smart. Most of the country’s thousands of congregations scatter during the summer and gear up again around Labor Day.

BRIAN: I was a pastor for 24 years and I know a lot about how resources are used in congregations. Most of us organize ourselves around quarters, so one way to think of this book is: We look at the Hebrew scriptures in the first quarter, starting with Labor Day. Then, the second quarter is the life of Jesus. Then, we take the teachings of Jesus up through the Passion and Holy Week in the third quarter. And we look at what flows from the life of Jesus in the early church in the fourth quarter.

A SPECIAL ROLE FOR CHILDREN

DAVID: Here’s another big selling point for congregations to get this book now—and start using it in the fall: You’ve included things for children throughout the book. If families are reading your book around the table, this is a terrific way to bring children into Bible study. And, nearly all of the growing churches I’ve visited have some kind of vibrant children’s ministry. Your book includes something for children at each stop.

BRIAN: The idea of this book is to spark questions. And if we assume that people will be able to spend time regularly talking about these issues, then we should include all ages. Many gatherings include children. Can we involve our children in this process? I think we should.

My dream is that families will use this book and small groups will use it, too. And I hope that any families or groups with children can include them in the group. I’m not interested in cute little comments for kids on the side. We can do better than that. I’ve actually engaged with children using some of these questions and they can really add to the discussion, if you take this invitation seriously.

PRAYERS FOR THOSE WHO’VE LEFT THE CHURCH

DAVID: Obviously, I’m a big fan of this book. So let me raise another selling point: At the end of the book you give readers 12 pages of resources to use either in small-group worship or to use in church services. You’ve got prayers and other pieces of liturgy that people could use throughout the year.

BRIAN: I had two groups in mind when I wrote that part of the book. First, I meet a lot of people who have dropped out of church. Some who have dropped out are gay or they have family members who are gay—and, in many parts of the country, there’s literally no church in their town where they can go without hearing gay people insulted.

DAVID: There’s research to back up what you just said. The Public Religion Research Institute studied this pattern nationwide. Among the millennial generation, roughly 18 to 33 year olds, about 1 in 3 people who’ve left the church say that’s one of the main reasons for leaving.

BRIAN: That’s right. And, it’s not the only reason people are leaving. Many people who work in the sciences are offended by churches that try to cram creationism down their throats. There are a lot of people of faith who just are not comfortable going into the churches near their homes. So if people do want to engage with liturgical resources themselves, then they will find them right in this book. People who may not feel comfortable walking into their local churches can use some of these ideas in that section of the book to actually enjoy some worship and prayer and liturgy on their own.

We should also point out that readers don’t have to commit a full 52 weeks to this. I’ve got a bunch of ideas in the book about how to adapt this material. For example, I tell you how to do this in 13 weeks, if you prefer that length of time. I even explain how the book could be used in a weekend retreat. I put a lot of thought into the design of this book so that it can engage people in as many ways as possible.

A RADICAL IDEA:
IN CHRISTIANITY, CHANGE IS GOOD

DAVID: One of the major themes in this new book is: Change is not only possible—it’s at the core of Christianity. That’s a radical idea. You’re not alone in this, of course. We just published an interview with Barbara Brown Taylor about her new book, Learning to Walk in the Dark, which preaches this same message: Change is good—so, as people of faith, we should be out there exploring new ideas all the time.

This also is a point raised by Philip Jenkins, the historian, who argues that we all should thank God that Christianity can change, because some earlier chapters of Christian history were pretty horrible. And, recently, I asked Marcus Borg about this point in our latest interview with him about his book, Convictions. Part of his answer was: “We grew up in an insular world with a limited view of reality in which we took the conventions around us for granted. … I grew up in a pre-civil-rights-movement era with all kinds of false assumptions about the relationships between Christianity and the church and the world.”

BRIAN: I completely agree with what Marcus said in that interview. Part of this happens when we live long enough to have experienced some regret about things that we once were quite dogmatic about. If you live long enough, most of us discover this on a personal level.

I also think our entire civilization is grappling with the pace of change right now. Our world is passing through such rapid change that a whole lot of people now are trying to turn back the clock to some moment in the past when they like to think “things were right.”

In one of my earlier books, A New Kind of Christianity, I quote Gregory of Nyssa who believed in the idea of eternal progression. He defined sin as a refusal to grow.

DAVID: I know that you’re deeply engaged with the global challenges of our day. You made that clear in the Preface you wrote for the new book, United America. Tell me in plain language, though: Are you afraid right now? There are so many terrible things happening around the world.

BRIAN: Well, we have reached a point in history where the future can be absolutely terrifying if you think about what we’re doing to our climate, or you think about all of the nuclear weapons in the world. These weapons now can fit into suitcases that can be carried around the world! The Fundamentalists may be right: The End might be near. So, as I look at the world, I don’t necessarily see a future full of liberation.

As I said in that Preface I wrote for United America, the truth is: Liberals and conservatives need something from each other. We can find a common ground—and we need to realize that is possible. There needs to be dialogue about the kind of a world we are building. And in this new book, We Make the Road by Walking, I am showing readers that the Bible is full of these points in history when there were dialogues about this same question: What kind of a world are we building?

DAVID: Our publishing house is about to publish a book, later this year, written by eight Christian bishops (six in the U.S., one from Europe and one from Africa) and collectively they have chosen the theme: Be Not Afraid. I think the point you are making in your book, and the resources you are providing, are so timely in that regard.

BRIAN: My testimony is this: If you are not tempted to despair then I don’t think you’ve taken the problems we face seriously enough. But, until you are tempted by despair, the value of faith never becomes clear.

Jim Wallis says, “Faith is believing against the evidence and then watching the evidence change.” I say this: It is in honestly facing our despair that our faith does begin to matter. I often think of Dr. King saying that the moral arc of the universe bends toward justice. Now, I can’t prove the truth of King’s claim through the laws of physics. But, I am willing to spend the rest of my life working from King’s belief.

Care to read more about Brian McLaren?

(Originally published at www.ReadTheSpirit.com, an on line magazine covering religion, spirituality, values and interfaith and cross-cultural issues.)

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Categories: Author InterviewsBibleChurch GrowthGreat With Groups

Interfaith treat for families: Children’s picture book celebrates Jains’ ‘Mahavira’

Mahavira cover by Manoj Jain

Click the cover to visit the book’s Amazon page.

REVIEW by ReadTheSpirit
Editor DAVID CRUMM

Jainism may be a small in numbers, but it is one of the oldest and most influential of the world’s great faiths. ReadTheSpirit online magazine and our books division both include Jain voices. Among our books: Our popular cross-cultural guidebook, called 100 Questions and Answers about Indian Americans, includes some information about the Jain faith—and we also included a Jain story in our collection of real-life friendship stories, called Friendship and Faith. Plus, our magazine’s Religious Holidays department covers the major Jain holiday, each year, known as Mahavira Jayanti (or the birthday of the Jains’ most famous sage Mahavira). Occasionally we cover other Jain festivals as well.

What we have never seen since our founding in 2007 is a Jain picture book for children, published for American readers. Thanks to our friends at Wisdom Tales Press in Bloomington, Indiana, we now have this gorgeous book by Jain physician, writer and peace activist Dr. Manoj Jain. The title is simply the name of the sacred sage Mahavira: The Hero of Nonviolence.

Why should non-Jains care about this figure? As the storybook points out, we all should be aware of the origins of spiritual teachings on nonviolence that would later influence Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

As journalists covering world religions for many years, our staff might respectfully quibble with some details in this book. The book estimates the world’s Jain population at “over 10 million;” most other sources estimate the total at less than 5 million. The book says that Mahavira and the Buddha lived at the same time in India; many historians questions whether the two lives overlapped. But these are minor points and these judgments are debatable.

Pages from Mahavira by Manoj Jain

A sample two-page spread from “Mahavira” by Manoj Jain

What’s most important is the sheer WOW factor of opening these pages with a curious child. The book’s illustrations are colorful and are full of beautiful, exotic plants and animals. Just as important, the book does a masterful job of distilling Jainism’s complex teachings to core principles. One page summarizes three main beliefs of Jainism this way:

“The first belief is nonviolence or love. It is not to cause harm to any living being. It is to have love and compassion for all living things. To do this, a person must avoid anger and learn to forgive.

“The second belief is non-absolutism or pluralism. It is to tolerate and accept another person’s view, to keep an open mind. And if there are disagreements, to understand that the truth has many sides. To do this, a person must avoid pride and learn to be humble.

“The third belief is non-possessiveness or detachment. It is to separate true needs from false desires. To do this, a person must avoid greed and learn to be charitable.”

Not bad for a very short summary! Reading those lines, you may wonder about the age level for this storybook. We say: It’s great for kids. Most of this story is short and exciting and, in this case, the real enjoyment for younger children will be the expansive illustrations. They’re delightful!

We highly recommend this book for your family, school or community reading program.

(Originally published at www.ReadTheSpirit.com, an on line magazine covering religion, spirituality, values and interfaith and cross-cultural issues.)

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Categories: Children and Families