Remembering Bible scholar Marcus Borg (1942-2015)

Marcus Borg speaks to a groupBy DAVID CRUMM
Editor of ReadTheSpirit online magazine

Our worldwide circle of readers shrank by 1 last week with the January 21 death of Bible scholar and best-selling author Marcus Borg.

In addition to his tireless work and travels, Marcus found time to look at his weekly edition of ReadTheSpirit. Occasionally, he would send an encouraging email to the editor’s desk, usually expressing thanks for discovering a new author through our coverage. Every now and then, he also would share his latest discoveries among mystery writers with my wife Amy, who shared with Marcus a passion for murder mysteries featuring well-crafted, character-rich sleuths.

The two of them discovered this connection a decade ago when we were enjoying dinner with Marcus before a public talk he was to deliver at the First United Methodist Church of Ann Arbor on the campus of the University of Michigan. When this online magazine later was founded in 2007, one of the first stories was an interview with Marcus about his love of well-crafted mysteries.

In that interview, he explained in greater detail what he saw as a connection between mystery novels and the vocation of a religion scholar: “We are all living within a mystery, in a sense. Now, the difference between detective stories and religion is that in detective stories you typically find out in the end what happened, so the mystery is neatly solved. But that sense of living within a mystery touches something deep inside of us and, in religion, things do not get resolved so easily.”

‘Things do not get resolved so easily …’

Marcus understood that final phrase on a spiritual level, on the level of intellectual inquiry—and, most importantly, in the lives of countless Americans who remain inside a church, today, because of Marcus Borg’s books and public teaching. For decades, Marcus tirelessly barnstormed the country with his message that Christianity is not the enemy of rigorous intellectual inquiry. Both spiritual and academic disciplines are searches for truth and, he would tell crowds: People of faith know that we have nothing to fear from the truth.

That’s not to say it was easy. One of the most memorable experiences I shared with Marcus was literally being burned by enraged evangelical Christians in Indiana in 1993. The incendiary protest was covered by long-time New York Times religion writer Ari Goldman under the headline: “Burning Rage in Indiana”

Ari’s story said, in part:

An article about the Bible in a Gary, Ind., newspaper has so enraged some local evangelical churches that their members are planning to publicly burn copies of the paper after Sunday services on the day after Christmas. The churches are protesting the publication by The Post-Tribune of a front page article with the headline: “Biblical Scholars Take Words Out of Jesus’s Mouth—New Book Claims Jesus Didn’t Say 80% of What’s Attributed to Him.” The article … was published on Dec. 12. It reported on a book “The Five Gospels” that is the result of six years of work by a committee of liberal Christian scholars who tried to determine the authenticity of the more than 1,500 sayings attributed to Jesus in the Gospels. …

Jerry Kaifetz, the organizer of the protest, said the decision to publish the article less than two weeks before Christmas was a “calculated attempt” to “insult and injure the faith of Christians at their most sacred and precious time of the year.”

As a religion writer for the Detroit Free Press, I had written that article, which then was carried in other newspapers nationwide. And one the most prominent voices in that “committee of liberal Christian scholars” was Marcus. It should go without saying that Kaifetz’s charge was flat-out wrong. Neither Marcus nor I were trying to “insult and injure” anyone.

Nevertheless, the Indiana Baptists went ahead and carried out their burning. News photos from the incident show angry men in dark suits torching newspapers in oil drums.

Marcus loved the church

What critics failed to understand about Marcus was that he loved the church. No, not the church of the Inquisition or the church of Fundamentalist hellfire condemnation. He saw those as tragic distortions of the truths that were sitting there just waiting to be discovered in the pages of the Bible—and in the compassionate interaction of people that truly, he believed, was the church at its best.

He worked toward this goal in so many ways! Just read this interview about Marcus’s book Speaking Christian and his public campaign to “reclaim” the powerful words of Christian tradition. Or consider his campaign to rethink the way adult education programs should explore the Bible. He even re-envisioned his own teachings in the form of a novel—because he was convinced that some men and women who didn’t like to read non-fiction would understand his ideas in that fictional form of storytelling.

Since 2000, Marcus has largely been lionized by his fans nationwide. He appears forever, now, in so many documentary films about religion, the Bible and the early church that it would be pointless to try to list them all. He and his good friend John Dominic Crossan (and often their wives as well) loved to travel together. In a series of educational tours to “Bible lands,” the two scholars would lead travelers into sun-baked settings that were crucial in the early Christian era. They might get down on their knees to examine an ancient artifact and, in the process, awaken in their travelers a fresh appreciation for the dawn of Christianity. (In 2009, for example, we published an interview with both Marcus and Dom about their collaborations.)

‘Take this with you …’

Through the decades, we crossed paths many times and I also got to know and admire the work of Marcus’s wife, the Rev. Canon Marianne Wells Borg. Certainly my warmest memory of Marcus and Marianne centers on the couple of days we spent together at their home in 2010 as part of the ReadTheSpirit American Journey project. I was traveling for 40 days and 10,000 miles with my son Benjamin, reporting for our online magazine as well as the Detroit Free Press and radio stations.

In their home along the Pacific Ocean, the four of us talked for hours, but we also found time to walk along the booming shoreline. Marcus enjoyed exercising his dogs along the shore and appropriately, the dogs are mentioned by name as part of the family in the official obituary from Marcus’s publishing house, HarperOne.

Marcus announced that he was staffing the kitchen during that visit—and he cooked as an evangelist. He wanted to show off to his visitors from the Midwest the good news of products produced by the Tillamook cheese company, which also is based in Oregon. And of course, the sharp Tillamook cheddar was as terrific as Marcus promised. He served some of the cheese with black-and-white Holstein-patterned knives that he had bought at the Tillamook Creamery.

When my son and I said our goodbyes, Marcus pressed a rectangular, gift-wrapped box into my hands.

“Take this with you as a memory of our time together,” he said.

A Bible perhaps? One of his books? As my son drove our van down the road, I tore off the wrappings. It was a boxed set of the Tillamook knives.

And that was a full circle in Marcus Borg’s remarkable life.

In our interview during that visit, he had told us this story about his feelings for America: “For me the two biggest holidays as I was growing up in the 1940s were Christmas and the Fourth of July. Christmas obviously is a big holiday when you’re a child, but the small community of 1,400 where I grew up was Park River in northeastern North Dakota. In that corner of North Dakota, the 4th of July was huge. There always was a parade with bands and color guards of veterans going back to the Spanish-American War at that time. I can still see in my mind the carnival that would come to town and food booths in the city park. My Dad was a creamery owner and ice cream maker so we always had a big tent in the park selling ice cream. I was too young to have to work in the tent, but I got to eat whatever I wanted all day long.”

Today, our circle of ReadTheSpirit readers diminishes by 1. But please help us remember Marcus Borg by sharing this story with someone you know might enjoy it—and, in doing so, send another little gift down the road to one more traveler.

2010 American Journey Marianne and Marcus Borg in their Oceanside Oregon home

(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: Bible

Marcia Falk interview on ‘The Days Between’

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

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

Whatever your faith and whatever the season, Marcia Falk has blessings, poems and spiritual guidance to help you through a time of reflection and renewal. Her new book is called, The Days Between: Blessings, Poems, and Directions of the Heart for the Jewish High Holiday Season.

As the subtitle indicates, this is a series of reflections, readings, blessings and prayers appropriate to each day from Rosh Hashanah through Yom Kippur. But this book also is full of timeless spiritual wisdom, eloquently signaled in these concise lines. Consider this eight-line reading that Falk calls “Turning the Heart.”

Slow spin of earth
against sky—

imperceptible yet
making the days.

One stone tossed
into the current,

and the river, ever-
so-slightly, rising.

.

ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm interviewed Marcia Falk. Here are …

HIGHLIGHTS OF OUR INTERVIEW WITH MARCIA FALK ABOUT ‘THE DAYS BETWEEN’

DAVID: Your website, MarciaFalk.com, describes you as “Poet, Painter, Judaic Scholar.” We will include a photo of your book’s front cover, which features your watercolor-and-pencil work, called “Gilead Apples.” Your career is so varied. How do you describe your overall body of work to audiences, when you tour and talk about your new book?

Marcia Falk, photo used with author's permission.

Marcia Falk, photo used with author’s permission.

MARCIA: I would say that I am a creative artist, a poet and a translator with a strong scholarly background in the work I do. I’ve brought together the literary world and the world of scholarship in my work interpreting and recreating Jewish liturgy from a non-hierarchical perspective. I don’t just sit down and write liturgy. Everything I do is based in the tradition.

DAVID: Evidence of your very thoughtful process is that your books take many years to complete. Probably your most famous book—at least one that has been on my own reference shelf for many years—is your rendering of The Song of Songs.

MARCIA: That has been in print for almost four decades and it has migrated through a number of publishers over the years. It is available today from Brandeis University Press. I began that work when I was a graduate student in English and comparative literature at Stanford, independent studies in three different areas at once: I was in a poetry translation workshop and I was doing an independent study in American poets and then—and this is the most important thing—I had decided to go back and study the original Hebrew Song of Songs, which of course I had known since childhood in my Jewish background.

I remembered The Song of Songs as very musical and lyrical and I already loved the book but I had never studied it. It is an extremely different book linguistically. I worked with a Bible scholar, sitting together and reading this book. I researched every word and phrase and never thought about translating it. I was just absorbing the book. And then one night my translation workshop had an evening when we were sharing our work. When my turn came, I said, “I don’t have anything to show. I’ve spent all my time studying this wonderful book and it’s completely taken over my life.” I began to talk about The Song of Songs and how they couldn’t understand this aspect of it from the King James Version or they would miss this aspect in the Revised Standard Version. I was talking to them about what’s in the original Hebrew.

That’s when I realized that I really should translate this book that had become such a big part of my life. And, that took me years. I went to Israel. I wanted to study at the feet of the great Bible scholars there. I wanted their approval that I was on the right track. Eventually my translation became my doctoral dissertation, the translation accompanied by a commentary.

DAVID: That’s a terrific story because it conveys to our readers the great care and the long years you spend on your work. Let’s point out that I’m certainly not alone in praising The Song of Songs. A very long list of great literary lights have praised that book, including Nobel Laureate Isaac Bashevis Singer who wrote about your book, “I thought until now that the Song of Songs could not be translated better than the King James Version. Marcia Falk really managed to do an exceptional poetic job. She has great power in her language.”

So, then, leaping forward to the mid 1990s, you produced the big Book of Blessings.

MARCIA: I actually began writing that book in 1983. It was a 13-year project; The Book of Blessings finally came out in 1996. That book is a recreation of prayer for Shabbat, the Sabbath, and for weekdays. My impetus for doing that book was a deep frustration with the patriarchal focus of traditional prayer that was so unsatisfying to the point of being painful for many Jewish women and, it turns out, many Jewish men as well. When it was published, that book created a pretty big stir in the Jewish world.

Then, in 1996, I thought I would dive right into the next volume, which would be for the high holiday season, because that is the time of year when more Jews enter the synagogue than at any other time of year. But The Days Between, which just was published, took another 18 years.

DAVID: I’ve been a journalist covering religion and cross-cultural issues for 40 years now and I am fascinated by this thoughtful, long journey represented in your work. There is a great deal that evolves and matures in us as we go through the years. I talked about this issue, this spring, with the writer Barbara Brown Taylor and asked her why five years had passed between books.

Barbara laughed at that and said: “I envy the writers who can turn out a book every year, but I teach full time, my husband and I live on a working farm, I travel a lot to speak. And, honestly, I think it’s worth taking time to actually live the kind of life that will produce something worth writing about.”

MARCIA: There are many reasons it took me so many years: raising a child, needing to make a living as a professor and many other things. But the main reason was that this needed to evolve in my mind and heart. I needed to really grapple with what this very difficult liturgy was all about. The themes of the high holidays are extremely profound and they are at the core of all of human endeavor.

It took this many years to complete, really, because I needed to live long enough in the world—and needed all of the experiences that come with birth and grief and growth and renewal and all the things that make up a human life through those years. I needed to grow through all of that. My living was seeping into my poetry all that time.

DAVID: I hope that readers of this interview understand that, while your book is Jewish and ideal for Jewish readers, this book also can be appreciated as an inspiring and spiritually challenging reader for non-Jews as well. As I was preparing for our interview, Marcia, I was also balancing hours of visiting my father in hospice care. He’s at the very end of his long life, now, and I found many passages in your book just electrifying.

Let me read one prose passage from the opening of the book that really helped me in my own reflections right now. You write: “Positioned between dawn and dusk, dusk and dawn, we live between past and future because we cannot live in them; we cannot act in them or change their outcomes. In this sense, past and future don’t exist for us: only the time between them—the present time—exists.” And then you continue a few lines later: “How do we live with the knowledge not just of our own mortality but of the truth that we cannot hold on to anything? How do we keep from succumbing to despair?”

I underlined those lines and turned down the corner of that page. That summarizes, so eloquently, the spiritual challenge we all face at times of major life transitions. It certainly was very helpful to me in the midst of hospice care with my Dad. I read those lines aloud to him.

MARCIA: To me, that’s the best reward as an author—to hear that kind of response from a reader. I should also mention that it’s been very interesting to me that, wherever I speak about this book, hospice workers in particular come up to me and I see how engaged they are. I feel very gratified that the book is of use to those in hospice. I think that hospice workers are doing something extremely important in our world world.

DAVID: I think it speaks, even more broadly, about how these timeless truths and insights—these blessings and prayers—can touch many lives whatever one’s faith might be. So, let me close our interview by asking: What do you hope general readers will take away from reading your book?

MARCIA: For my Jewish readers, I hope I’m bringing a new entry into Judaism. I also hope it will reveal something for non-Jewish readers as well. I hope it touches people and enriches their paths through life. We’re all human beings and we’re all in this together.

In this book, I am dealing with big themes that speak to and for all of us. Of course, I’m doing this in Jewish language and metaphor—but ultimately for any religion or tradition to meaningful, it has to be dealing with the universals of human life. No religion works unless it is really talking to the whole community of humanity.

(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 InterviewsBibleGreat With GroupsHolidaysJewish

Phyllis Tickle interview: How The Spirit is transforming religious life

Cover The Age of the Spirit by Phyllis Tickle

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

“God told me to do it!”

These days, that claim is made by everyone from pro athletes and contestants on America’s Got Talent—to saints like the heroic doctors volunteering to help combat Ebola. But, where did people get such a startling idea—that God’s Spirit could direct their individual lives?

Now, journalist and scholar Phyllis Tickle has written a fascinating history of how Christians have come to understand the movement of God’s Holy Spirit. Her new book (written with Jon M. Sweeney) is called The Age of the Spirit: How the Ghost of an Ancient Controversy Is Shaping the Church.

Hearing so many people make this claim (“God told me to …”) may begin to sound like mere wistful thinking. But, we shouldn’t dismiss this, Phyllis writes in her new book. In fact, she argues, we are living in an era of profound change in the way religious motivations are shaping America’s dominant Christian population. (Wondering if the U.S. is still “predominantly Christian”? Pew’s global study says yes—4 out of 5 Americans still identify as “Christian.”)

But, we are witnessing something new in this majority religious group, Phyllis writes. Throughout most of Christian history, this is not how Christians talked—unless they were among the very few men and women who, today, we regard as “mystics.”

Phyllis is not alone in drawing this kind of conclusion. It parallels years of research by the University of Michigan sociologist Dr. Wayne Baker, creator of the OurValues project and author of the new book United America. His ongoing research shows that Americans, as a group, are unique in the world for being both intensely religious and proudly outspoken about our individual opinions.

Phyllis argues that the widespread belief in God directly guiding one’s life reflects a century-long growth of American interest in what Christians refer to as the Holy Spirit. Now, many Spirit-motivated Americans are drawing their own conclusions about centuries-old church rules and doctrines. Some are digging in their heels and rigidly clinging to traditional beliefs—but many are breaking down historic barriers: gender barriers, racial barriers, ethnic barriers as well as barriers against gay and lesbian men and women.

“This is a time of great change,” Phyllis says. “If we really understand what’s happening right now, then our jaws should drop open in amazement!”

ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm interviewed Phyllis Tickle. Here are …

HIGHLIGHTS OF OUR INTERVIEW WITH
PHYLLIS TICKLE ON ‘THE AGE OF SPIRIT’

DAVID: Let’s begin this interview at the end of your book. In about 150 pages, you take us on a 2,000-year tour of Christian thinking about the Holy Spirit. Then, you conclude:

“As this new form of Christianity and this new way of being Church and Kingdom mature, they, like their predecessors in earlier upheavals, soon must come to address the question of authority—to address the question of how now shall we live and by whose definitions of right and wrong, correct and incorrect, holy and heretical. When they and/or we fully engage that dreaded question, it will be in terms of the Spirit and of holy discernment. The center of our new authority will lie, as it did in earlier presentations, not with politico-ecclesial hierarchies, nor even in sola scriptura and inerrancy as it is popular defined. Rather, it will lie within the realm of the Spirit and an awe-filled, discerning intercourse with it.”

In other words: Bishops and other Christian gatekeepers beware! You’re not in control anymore. Millions of individuals feel they’re hearing directly from God. Phyllis, is that a fair summary of what you’re saying?

PHYLLIS TICKLE, photographed by Teresa Hooper. Used with the author's permission.

PHYLLIS TICKLE, photographed by Teresa Hooper. Used with the author’s permission.

‘People who scoffed …
are at the heart of this!’

PHYLLIS: Yes, you’ve got it right. And, if you really think about those lines at the end of my book, then you realize why those are some of the scariest lines I’ve ever written.

Think about this. Not too long ago in our history, our upstanding Christian families in any community would have regarded these claims of the Spirit directing people as foolish. When this first started happening, this was associated with the “holy rollers” who set up tents on the edge of town. This way of talking was regarded by the upstanding folks as contemptible: They called it stupid and definitely regarded it as lower class. It’s true. Our highly regarded Christian families once dismissed these people as laughable.

Now, the landscape has shifted to the point where it is good upstanding folks—many of them middle class and some of them even wealthy now—who are engaging with God on a daily basis through Spirit. Today, we call this Renewalist or Pentecostal or Charismatic—people have various terms they prefer. But this is really a major shift in our American culture. The kinds of people who once dismissed this are now at the heart of it!

What happened in our country is that the Spirit landed on Azusa Street in Los Angeles in 1906 for the first time in a significant way since Pentecost 2,000 years ago—and that Spirit has continued to spread like wildfire throughout Christianity. I believe there’s no way to compare this dramatic shift to anything less than the wildfire that spread in the centuries right after Jesus’s crucifixion and resurrection. In those early centuries, lots of good Jews and good pagans, too, suddenly accepted this radical new belief that God could take on human form and dwell among us. That was the shocking shift in belief that fueled the first two centuries of Christian growth. This change was so dramatic that we wound up counting time differently. We reset the calendar. Now, I think we’re seeing a shift in Christianity that’s as dramatic as that first wildfire.

DAVID: The Azusa Street revival lasted for a number of years. We’re still in the midst of the Azusa centennial and I discussed this at some length with Dr. Tanya Luhrmann when I interviewed her about her book, When God Talks Back.

PHYLLIS: Yes, Tanya nailed this in her work. She got it right. The Azusa Street Revival sounded this trumpet. Now, millions of Americans are downloading the truth right from God. And, that’s a dramatic change.

AZUSA STREET: ‘The real shock …’

DAVID: And, talk about the potential for breaking down barriers! Reporters who covered what was happening on Azusa Street, a century ago, were stunned to find black and white men and women worshiping together.

PHYLLIS: The real shock was: Azusa Street started with a black preacher! Yes, at the heart of this was the way they were breaking down all kinds of barriers. And it took place in a building that was a converted stable! I love that fact. I think there’s poetic humor in God twice acting dramatically in a stable. And you’re right: Those LA Times reporters found that their mouths dropped open. They couldn’t deny the incredible energy they were witnessing: people speaking in tongues, people claiming to have been healed. What was happening there was so exciting that people simply could not deny what they were seeing.

I mean, women were receiving the Spirit right along with the men. Suddenly you had women preaching. Incredible! And it wasn’t just black and white. You had Asian-American and Latino-American men and women involved over time. Class barriers and economic barriers were thrown out the window. A lot of the preconceptions that had shaped Christianity to date—they just went “Bye Bye!” for these people.

DAVID: As I reached your conclusions in the final chapter of your book, I found your argument running parallel with Dr. Wayne Baker’s work on the World Values Survey. When Wayne looked at the data coming from that global research—giving him the ability to compare Americans with 80 other countries—then he was able to show that our American religious culture is unique in the world. First, we stack up with countries like Pakistan and Iran in the intensity of our religious belief—but we’re unique because we also stack up with Scandinavia in our rock-solid belief that each person’s viewpoint should be freely expressed.

‘A double-edged sword’?

PHYLLIS: That’s the pattern that I believe goes right along with the Charismatic or Pentecostal brand of Christianity. There’s this deep belief that says: “God told me to do it! I’m going to do it!” I may not be able to read. I may not have a dollar to my name. I may not even have a home. But I feel empowered from the inside out. I’ve downloaded truth directly from God. I don’t need any mediator. I don’t need any bishop or any church council.

I’ve talked to people who will go to their graves defending this way of seeing the world. And, if it goes to extremes, this becomes a double-edged sword. It’s inspiring and it can motivate heroes who do incredibly courageous things—but it also can be very dangerous.

Now we’re seeing the ordinary Johnny and June on the street feeling as though they’ve got direct connection with the godhead—and the Spirit can motivate them in powerful ways.

A Letter to My Congregation by Ken Wilson cover on the third way

Click the cover to read more about the book.

DAVID: In addition to seeing parallels in Wayne’s work, I think these conclusions you’re drawing explain the important message behind Ken Wilson’s campaign to open up evangelical churches to welcome gay and lesbian men and women. The argument he poses in his new book, A Letter to My Congregation, is that no official-sounding Christian gatekeepers can keep Spirit-inspired men and women from welcoming gay Christians into full participation in the church.

In Ken’s view, it’s almost irrelevant to ask for some church council to make an official ruling on this. Churches should simply throw open the doors and be hospitable, recognizing that Christianity is in the midst of change on this issue. It’s all about the authority of individual people, now. And, as I read Ken’s book, that’s the heart of what he calls “The Third Way.” The New Testament letter to the Romans says that Christian leaders should not divide the church over disagreements that amount to “disputable matters.” And LGBT inclusion is one of those matters where the Spirit is in the midst of changing minds, Ken argues. Official gatekeepers just need to get out of the way of that change and default to the deeper Christian value of hospitality and welcoming of everyone.

Am I reading his book correctly? You wrote Introduction to his book. What do you think?

MICAH 6 TRUMPS ALL

PHYLLIS: Yes, that’s what he’s saying. Theologically, I think Ken is making a very strong argument. He’s saying that the wisdom in the 6th chapter of Micah trumps everything on this issue. Micah says: What is it that God requires of us? To do justice, to love kindness and to walk humbly with our God. Ken says that’s the basis on which Jesus acted. And, yes, that’s right in line with this movement of the Spirit that I’m writing about in my book.

DAVID: So, how do you hope your new book will be used? What do you hope readers will walk away thinking after reading it?

PHYLLIS: Well, of course, I hope that a lot of different kind of readers realize that they’re a part of this story: Catholics and Protestants. A strong argument could be made that this whole movement of the Spirit connects with so many Christian leaders down through our history. I see it connecting with the life and work of John Wesley and a lot of others.

So, I hope readers can come away making a lot of connections from this book. I hope that people will read this and have a sense of awe. This is a time of great change. If we really understand what’s happening right now, then our jaws should drop open in amazement! What do I want readers to take away?

Just that, I think: A sense of humble amazement.

Care to read more?

  • GET THE BOOKS—We highly recommend Phyllis Tickle’s new book (click on the cover with this interview) as well as Ken Wilson’s A Letter to My Congregation and Wayne Baker’s United America. All three books explain powerful trends in American life and culture.
  • VISIT PHYLLIS’S WEBSITE—Her website, www.PhyllisTickle.com, is packed with information about Phyllis’s long career, her books and her ongoing work.

(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 InterviewsBibleGreat With Groups

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 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

The Marcus Borg inteview on ‘Convictions’

Cover Marcus Borg Convictions

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

A decade ago, Marcus Borg gave readers his passionate manifesto for renewal, The Heart of Christianity: Rediscovering a Life of Faith, which he described as “scholarship, experience and memory” blended across 200 pages. The book spread like wildfire. To this day, when I travel as editor of ReadTheSpirit magazine, if I ask groups of men and women to name a Marcus Borg book they have enjoyed, I most often hear about that little book with the two out-stretched hands on the cover.

Marcus’s nine books after Heart of Christianity range from books about Jesus and Paul to the first volume in what will be a series of novels. But, Heart of Christianity holds a special place in the Marcus Borg library. That book’s passion allowed readers in communities large and small to recognize in Marcus a friend—a faithful and compassionate companion in their spiritual journeys.

The news today is: Marcus is back with a new book that feels like a follow up to The Heart of Christianity. It’s called Convictions: How I Learned What Matters Most and, in this case, although the book rests on Marcus’s considerable scholarship, this book mainly explores the roles of “experience and memory” in our spiritual journeys.

The writing style in Convictions starts with more than 100 short nuggets about various aspects of faith—each with a bold-faced headline. Then, Marcus organizes these nuggets into 11 chapters with thematic titles, such as “God Is Real and a Mystery,” “Salvation Is More about This Life than an Afterlife,” “Christians Are Called to Peace and Nonviolence,” and “To Love God Is to Love Like God.”

Convictions conveys an overall message that is both simple and urgently needed: Change is a good and natural part of Christian life. (Just in case you question that assumption, right off the bat, Marcus devotes 2 pages to a speed-of-light tour of the dramatic changes throughout Christian history from Jesus’s era to today.)

Marcus reminds us: Change is a normal process in Christianity—but change is more than just history—it’s a personal journey. As millions of Americans are aging, he argues, it’s time to talk openly across the generations. It’s time to talk honestly, he tells us, about how our childhood assumptions concerning faith usually pass through what Marcus calls the “conversions” that are a rich part of becoming an adult—and then can deepen into the “convictions” that form a foundation for a long and meaningful life.

ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm interviewed Marcus Borg. Here are …

HIGHLIGHTS OF OUR INTERVIEW
WITH MARCUS BORG
ABOUT “CONVICTIONS’

DAVID: Change is on our minds. That’s true for millions of Americans and people around the world, as well. Recently, we’ve featured interviews with a number of popular authors writing about dramatic changes in Christianity—Barbara Brown Taylor and Philip Jenkins. In a couple of weeks, we’ll publish an interview with Brian McLaren about his upcoming book We Make the Road by Walking, which opens with these words: “You are not finished yet. You are in the making. You have the capacity to learn, mature, think, change and grow.”

They’re all talking about change. Your book argues that change is a natural part of a healthy Christian life. Why are we hearing so much about change, right now?

Marcus Borg courtesy of the authorMARCUS: All of us—all of the authors you’ve just mentioned—are at an age, now, that means we’ve navigated through lives full of change. We grew up in an insular world with a limited view of reality in which we took the conventions around us for granted. I don’t know the ages of Barbara and Philip and Brian, but I know that 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.

This is true for millions of Americans, as well. Perhaps some of your readers can still remember the lyrics of songs on the radio Hit Parade in the early 1950s. I can still sing some of them today (and he begins to sing) …

Heart of my heart, I love that melody
Heart of my heart, brings back a memory.

And I’m sure some of your readers will remember …

Mr. Sandman, I’m so alone
Don’t have nobody to call my own
Please turn on your magic beam
Mr. Sandman, bring me a dream.

And there was that very popular hiking song, The Happy Wanderer:

I love to go a-wandering,
Along the mountain track,
And as I go, I love to sing,
My knapsack on my back.
Val-deri,Val-dera.

I’ll stop right there, but the point I’m making is that many of us, of a certain age, grew up in a world of conventions that were taken for granted by everyone, in a way that we do not experience today.

DAVID: OK, so I’ve been Googling along with you, as you’ve been singing these songs. And, I can confirm that in that trio of songs you just recalled, you’ve just nailed a very precise period of 1953-1954. That’s pretty amazing. Those songs were popular in other recordings, at other times, but you were simply able to reach back into your memory and give us the soundtrack to a specific period when you were 11 and 12 years old. That’s the “childhood” period you reference in your new book. It’s amazing to see how powerfully those early years in our lives stay with us throughout our lives.

MARCUS: That’s my point. And I am not alone in this. Growing up, I thought I knew something about the world; I thought I knew what Christianity was all about when I was just a boy. And yet, our country had not yet fully experienced the civil rights movement, the Vietnam War—I could list so many other major changes in the world that we had yet to experience.

DAVID: You write in your book: “I grew up in the world of denominational division … the great divide was between Catholics and Protestants. In my Lutheran and Protestant context, we were deeply skeptical about whether Catholics were really Christians. When John F. Kennedy ran for president in 1960, a major issue was the fact that he was Catholic. Could a Protestant vote for a Catholic president? The issue was not only political, but local and personal—and eternal. We Lutherans—at least the Lutherans I knew—were quite sure that Catholics couldn’t be saved.  … They were wrong; we were right.”

You’re a bit older than I am, but I can recall that Kennedy era, too. Your point here is that people who claim they want to a version of Christianity that hasn’t changed in 2,000 years—well, most of them don’t know what they’re demanding. As Philip Jenkins has pointed out in a whole series of his books, much of Christian history involved painful conflict and, often, blindness to the world’s most needy people. In fact, the history of Christianity is change.

MARCUS: I like the lines you read a moment ago from Brian’s new book: “You are not finished yet.” This is such an important point. So many of us, as Americans, grew up assuming that our own form of Christianity—what we experienced as Christianity in our family and in our community—was the same, was unchanging and that there really was only our one form of Christianity. We were right; all others had to be wrong.

When you mention Barbara and Philip and Brian, I think that we’ve all lived through so many changes that we’ve moved from our original provincial views of reality and of Christianity to one that is pluralistic. We want to talk and write openly about this journey—because lots of people find themselves on this journey today.

A MODEL FOR EXPLORING
OUR “OWN LIFE JOURNEYS”

DAVID: Online reviews of your book tend to stress two points: One is that this book doesn’t really contain big revelations for readers who’ve followed your writing over the years; the second point is that this book is uniquely inspiring. This book is touching people on a personal level.

MARCUS: I would call it the most consistently personal book I’ve written. Pretty much every chapter begins with what I absorbed as a child growing up in the church, and then I look at the changes that have occurred in the decades since—and then I write about the convictions that flow from those changes. And, because these “changes” are foundational kinds of transitions, I call them “conversions” in the book.

If we were to describe this in three C’s, I go from the Conventions of my childhood through the Conversions of my adulthood to the Convictions I now hold. But this is much more than a personal book, because I’m convinced that there are millions of other people who have experienced these three C’s as well. This becomes a very useful triad for anybody above a certain age to use in thinking bout their life and faith as they read.

I haven’t done a lot of talks out on the road, just yet, about this new book. But when I travel and talk about this book, I’m going to encourage people to try to get in touch with their childhood memories. What did they absorb and internalize about Christianity when they were around the age of 12 or so? Then, I want to encourage people to think about all of the changes in the world and in our own lives. I want to ask people: What were the circumstances that led you to change?

DAVID: And finally, in this process you’re describing in the book, you reach the foundation stones that are described by the title of your book: the Convictions. What does that word mean to you?

MARCUS: I define that as foundational ways of seeing that are not easily shaken. Through this process, I think I am giving people a model for getting in touch with their own life journeys and reaching some of these foundations, these convictions, as I call them.

AN INVITATION TO SHARE THE JOURNEY

DAVID: I really like the way you’re posing the invitation—and describing the process—in this book. Here at ReadTheSpirit, I’ve been working with Dr. Wayne Baker on the rollout of his book, United America, which is based on years of research at the University of Michigan into values that actually unite nearly all Americans. I’ve been involved in a series of small groups with Wayne and, I can tell you, when people gather to talk about American values—they arrive with all kinds of anxieties. I can remember one participant showing up for a first session with United America telling me, “There are going to be fireworks tonight!”

But Wayne surprises people when he presents this material. You and I have just talked about the soundtrack of our lives—our memories of music. Wayne often starts his programs by showing participants famous photographs of America. He’s actually put his “Images of America” photo gallery online. He asks participants to remember when they first saw these iconic images and then he invites them to choose a picture that still holds deep meaning. This transforms these gatherings from potential fireworks to communities of people remembering—and talking about the dramatic changes in their lives.

I see your new book inviting readers into a similar process around their religious beliefs.

MARCUS: You’ve just described the potential of this kind of process very well. This is a journey and I am inviting groups to try a process that follows the three parts in my book: Think about your memories; think about major changes in your life; think about your convictions today. Groups may choose to do all three things in one setting, or they may prefer to begin with the first couple of elements and spend some time talking about their memories and the changes in their lives. They may want to talk about convictions right away, or later in the process. Each group can decide, of course.

The book is very flexible. People could enjoy this book by themselves. Or, they could use this book with a discussion group. Or, they could plan a special program or retreat.

Some readers may find in this book a model for a longer spiritual journey and it is possible to spread out the process of reading and reflecting and discussing over a period of, oh, over an entire year if people choose that route.

DAVID: Let’s close this interview by earmarking our next interview. For the benefit of our readers, what will be talking about in our interview next year?

MARCUS: The second novel will come out in the second half of 2015, if all goes well. I hope to have it done in four or five months and then, of course, there’s a whole process of publishing the book. So, next time, we’ll talk about the second novel.

DAVID: Well, until then … keep writing.

CARE TO READ MORE FROM MARCUS BORG?

ReadTheSpirit has published an almost annual series of interviews with Marcus Borg. Here are some of the subjects we’ve discussed …

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

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The James Martin SJ inteview on ‘Jesus: A Pilgrimage’ to Jerusalem

Cover of James Martin book Jesus A Pilgrimage

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

“Jerusalem stirs the imagination of billions of people and is the beating heart of our world today.”

That’s the conclusion of a powerful new IMAX film, which is narrated by the BBC’s Sherlock Holmes (Benedict Cumberbach) and promotes both tourism and peaceful co-existence in the holy city. (You can watch a preview of the movie here.) That idea of Jerusalem as a life-changing destination also runs through the popular Jesuit author James Martin’s latest book, Jesus: A Pilgrimage.

Martin is famous as America magazine’s Editor at Large, regularly writing about Christianity for a huge audience—but he admits in this new book that, for decades, he rejected the idea of making a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. He resisted for many reasons: It’s just a tourist trap, he told himself. Or, if he did go, then what he would see in the “Holy Land” might conflict in jarring ways with his own fond images of Bible stories.

He admits he was surprised by this journey! When friends all but pushed him onto an airplane bound for Israel, Martin writes that the experience turned out to be “one of the high points of my life.”

Now, he can’t imagine why he waited so long to make this pilgrimage! In the book, he describes the trip as “overwhelming. It was almost unbelievable to visit the places where Jesus had lived. When I first caught sight of the Sea of Galilee, its shimmering blue-green waters surrounded by pinkish sandy hills under a blazing sun, it was like a dream.” He adds, “the pilgrimage taught me things that I had not learned from books.”

The result is an inspirational memoir that stands as a fresh perspective on Jesus. The book starts with Jesus’s birth and follows sequentially through his crucifixion and beyond to Emmaus. Each chapter includes some of Martin’s travel narrative—truly the best parts in this page-turner of a book. Then, in each case, he adds a bit of Bible study that is both scholarly and inspirational, perfectly pitched for general readers. Remember that Martin is popular with his young and old readers, these days, because of his fluid, and sometimes even amusing, magazine-style prose. This book definitely is a “mash up” of styles—but Martin makes it work!

This is a great choice for small-group discussion. The book’s 18 chapters could let you run a series over an entire season of the year, or you could pick favorite chapters for a shorter series. Word of Warning: If you use this book in your congregation, plan ahead to investigate options for participants to take their own pilgrimage. (Consider getting people excited by inviting them to see the Jerusalem movie.)

ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm interviewed James Martin SJ. Here are …

HIGHLIGHTS OF OUR INTERVIEW
WITH JAMES MARTIN SJ
ON ‘JESUS: A PILGRIMAGE’

DAVID: America magazine lists you as Editor at Large. Our Catholic readers are familiar with America, but many of our other readers may not know that this is a century-old publication that combines journalism with Christian inspiration. Tell us a bit more.

James Martin on a New York rooftopJAMES: America is a national Catholic weekly magazine that’s been around since 1909 and I’ve been here for the last 15 years, most recently as Editor at Large. As a Jesuit priest, I live a life of poverty, chastity and obedience; and part of poverty means that everything I earn goes to my religious order. This is true of my work with the magazine, which is owned by the Jesuits, and it’s true of this book. All proceeds from this book go to support our ministry here at America. I don’t get a penny myself.

DAVID: Beyond the pages of America, more than 80,000 people are connected to you through Facebook. I checked on your Facebook stats and they’re very impressive: In mid May, you had 25,000 Facebook friends “talking about” you and your posts. And this is impressive, too: Facebook reports that you’re popular with people aged 24 to 54—so this isn’t a case of a bunch of Catholic senior citizens reading your material. These are lively young adults.

JAMES: A few years ago, a publisher suggested I start a Facebook page and my first reaction was: “Forget about it!” I thought it wasn’t worth it. Now? It’s become a big part of my ministry as a Jesuit priest. It’s a way to share information, videos, photos, meditations and prayers with people all over the world. And I’m amazed at the number of people who respond and tell me they’ve found it helpful.

It’s all about bringing people to God. That’s why I now see it as such an important part of what I do as a Jesuit. I get questions about people’s spiritual lives. I get requests for prayers. I get beautiful comments from people telling me different ways that they’ve met God through what I post. I especially like writing prayers and meditations throughout the day, then posting them there on Facebook. The most moving thing I’ve experienced recently is a woman who came up to me at a religious-education congress I attended. She said, “I’m a mother of four and I’m largely at home all day. And, I can’t tell you how much I look forward to your Facebook posts. They’re a link for me to the Catholic and Christian world.”

A “MASH UP” ON THE LIFE OF JESUS

DAVID: You offer all kinds of things, day by day, on that Facebook page and I suspect that’s why you felt so free to publish this “mash up” of a book on the life of Jesus.

JAMES: I’d say this book is a straight Life of Christ, but written in these three forms. There’s the story of my real-life pilgrimage, but then I do add the latest in Bible scholarship about whatever I am considering in that chapter. And then I try to offer a message for readers about what all of this means for them today in their daily lives.

DAVID: And, when you say “Bible scholarship,” we’re talking about references to some famous scholars: Raymond E. Brown, John Dominic Crossan, John Meier, Elizabeth Schussler Fiorenza, N.T. Wright to name a few.

JAMES: There are a lot of books that just summarize the life and times of Jesus for readers and take the Bible stories at face value, so they ignore the historical research. There are books that just describe someone’s pilgrimage. I think the scholarship is important, too, so I wanted to include that. I’m trying to do all three in one book.

There is something naturally appealing about Jesus and that’s the person I want to introduce to people. This book is for everyone from the doubtful seeker to the longtime church person. I don’t assume readers know anything about Jesus. So, I hope that all readers can gather around this book and find out about the person of Jesus Christ.

DAVID: I agree with you. This is a book someone could enjoy without knowing anything about Jesus or the Bible. You walk readers through the whole story.

JAMES: I was very intentional that this not be just a book for Catholics. I do speak about my own Catholic background because—but Jesus wasn’t a Catholic. The gospels aren’t “Catholic books.” My book isn’t about Catholicism. Frankly, Jesus didn’t come for just one group of people.

“FORMS OF CHRISTIANITY YOU’VE NEVER HEARD OF”

James Martin in the Galilee

James Martin, SJ, in the Galilee.

DAVID: The stories you share from your travels include lots of men and women who aren’t Catholic. Israel-and-Palestine is an amazingly diverse little corner of the world, isn’t it?

JAMES: When you go to Jerusalem, as an American, you see forms of Christianity you’ve never heard of. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre itself is divided into so many parts, controlled by so many different Christian groups, that you realize how frustratingly elusive Jesus’s wish—that they may all be one—has been through the years. It also reminds you that Jesus Christ appeals to all kinds of people, all around the world, not just Westerners. One of the most interesting experiences was our visit to the Church of St. Mark, a Syriac Orthodox church near the Armenian Quarter of Jerusalem.

DAVID: I’ve been there. It’s a bit off the beaten track and pilgrims who sweep through Jerusalem without much time may never find the place. But it’s one of those little wonders you discover on the side streets of the Old City.

JAMES: I end the book with that scene, because our guide at St. Mark’s sang the Our Father in Aramaic for us. It was so unexpected!

DAVID: You write, “She opened her mouth and in a strong, clear voice began singing. Our new friend wasn’t an opera singer, but it was probably one of the most beautiful songs I’ve ever heard—because it was in Jesus’s language. She sang in the lilting cadences of Aramaic, more and more strongly as she went on, and her prayer echoed throughout the ancient church that we had found by accident on our last day of our pilgrimage.”

I’ve got to say, having worked on several reporting projects based in Jerusalem, throughout my career—it’s that kind of amazing little scene that shows your readers the wonders of this city! And, I love it that you also include the surprises that take pilgrims in other directions, as well. One scene that comes to mind is your visit to what scholars believe was the real site of Jesus’s own baptism in the Jordan River. There’s a lovely spot further to the north, where a lot of tour guides tell you Jesus was baptized—but the real spot is pretty, well …

JAMES: It’s “pretty gross.” That’s what my friend told me to discourage me.

DAVID: It’s called Qasr el-Yahud and you describe it vividly in your book. Way back in the year 2000, I was there as a journalist covering an Israeli-government convoy of journalists and tourism officials to take a look at the site that the government planned to finally open up for pilgrims. It was a startling place even at that time. I remember people getting off those buses, in our convoy, and being so moved at the sight that they went into the water and some of them actually drank the stuff!

JAMES: It’s definitely a very unusual holy site. It’s a decommissioned militarized zone in the middle of the desert and it’s very simple. There are some bleachers on the Israeli side, now, that go down toward the water. What’s most surprising is the water itself, which I describe as “neon green, more like Mountain Dew than water.” That’s the result of a lot of pollution and a lot of irrigation further to the north and the lowering of water levels. This was the opposite of the Sea of Galilee, but it was a fascinating experience.

DAVID: Well, I enjoyed reading that section. And, overall, your book already is doing very well in terms of sales and reader reviews on Amazon. I see there’s also an audio version, which readers could get through Amazon.

JAMES: It’s read by Yours Truly—all 18 hours of it. There will be a paperback edition, which I’m working on now.

DAVID: I’ve interviewed you, over the years, about some of your other books. Most recently, we talked about your book on religious humor, Between Heaven and Mirth. I get the sense, though, that this new book is special among the 10 or so you’ve written. Is that fair to say?

JAMES: Yes, I would call this the most satisfying writing experience I’ve ever had. It certainly was the most enjoyable. I loved spending time with the gospel texts as I wrote. That was my favorite part of this book. I learned so much. And, now, I hope readers will, as well.

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

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