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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Categories: Author InterviewsBibleGreat With Groups

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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Categories: Author InterviewsBibleChristianGreat With GroupsPeacemaking

The Bart Ehrman interview on ‘How Jesus Became God’

Cover of Bart Ehrman How Jesus Became God

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

In Jesus, God became human.

That belief unites more than 2 billion Christians around the world. But it’s repeated so often that the astonishing nature of the affirmation ceases to produce the—”Wow!”—that such a universe-bending idea should evoke.

How did this affirmation of Jesus’s divinity first arise? How did it spread like wildfire among early Christians? Perhaps in answering those questions, readers may rediscover some of that original: “Wow!”

In his new How Jesus Became God: The Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher from Galilee, Bart Ehrman asks those provocative questions—the fresh approach that has made him a best-selling author. With each new book, he goes out into the field as “our” investigator, then he writes up his findings in books we can understand as general readers. He did this two years ago in his book, Did Jesus Exist? (Click this link to read our in-depth 2012 interview on that book.)

Let’s clear up a misunderstanding: Bart also is famous, now, as a religious skeptic or agnostic in his personal life. Some of his harshest critics argue that he shouldn’t dare to write about Jesus because he isn’t a true believer. In fact, as Editor of ReadTheSpirit and as a lifelong journalist, I regard Bart’s complete neutrality in his personal faith as his greatest asset. He has no personal interest in tearing down religion. On the contrary, he’s simply and honestly neutral on matters of belief as he unearths and assesses the ancient evidence.

Think of him as your favorite detective—perhaps Sherlock Holmes or the Bones forensic anthropologists or one of those CSI teams—digging into questions that deeply matter to billions of Christians around the world. He’s “our” detective, pursuing the truth wherever it leads through the dusty layers of evidence. Proof of his neutrality is that earlier book using historical evidence to prove Jesus’s existence. These days, critics of Bart’s work take nasty swipes at him as someone who is out to ruin Christianity—and that’s simply a misunderstanding of Bart’s work.

In fact, for Christian men and women who welcome probing questions, Bart’s new book is a fascinating look at early Christian evidence. Think of it as another “case” in the Bones series with all sorts of intriguing new bits and pieces laid out before us. (Except, in this case, you won’t have to cover your eyes at all the Bones gore!)

In this investigation, Bart asks a question that we all should explore: How did Jesus’s early followers (men and women who the Gospels say were often confused and fearful) finally reach their belief that Jesus—”Wow!”—really was God! Their growing awareness of this belief—and disputes about what this belief actually means—is the dramatic storyline that spans the New Testament. It’s a question central to the lives of Christians—and non Christians who care about global culture.

Regular readers of books by Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan will find some similarities in the historical evidence described by Ehrman. One example is the way ancient Christians powerfully affirmed their faith in the divinity of Jesus by borrowing sacred phrases that had been reserved for the cult of the Roman Emperor. (John Dominic Crossan talks about this era of Christian history in our 2011 interview.) In the course of his research, Bart Ehrman diverges from Borg-Crossan in many ways. Overall, though, we can say: If you’re already a fan of Borg-Crossan, you’ll enjoy reading Ehrman’s new book.

HIGHLIGHTS OF OUR INTERVIEW
WITH BART EHRMAN
ON ‘HOW JESUS BECAME GOD’

Bart Ehrman author of How Jesus Became GodDAVID: Traditionalist critics can get quite passionate in denouncing you—much as these critics do with other historically rigorous Bible scholars. So, let’s clear up a misunderstanding about your recent work: Contrary to what critics may claim, you’re not trying to convince readers to abandon Christianity. In this new book, you’re looking at a specific issue: How did ancient Christians come to believe that Jesus was divine?

BART: Communities of faith have theological beliefs that are at the heart of how they understand Christianity and that’s perfectly legitimate. But in addition to these sets of theological beliefs, Christianity is also a historical religion. It’s open not only to theological reflection but also historical investigation. This book is not a theological look at whether Jesus really was God. I’m interested here in understanding historically how and when Christians became convinced that Jesus was God.

In this book, I’m not taking a stand on whether Jesus is God or not. That’s a theological question that, of course, is deep at the core of Christianity and theologians continue to debate that question. I’m a historian. I’m not doing theology here; I’m doing history.

DAVID: From your critics’ perspectives, one big difference in their way of “doing history” is that they start by believing that the text of the Bible is an accurate account of history, covering exactly what happened thousands of years ago. You also study the biblical record, but you don’t regard everything in the Bible as literally documenting facts like we might expect from modern journalism, right?

BART: That is fair to say. It’s certainly my position that the Gospels need to be treated as historical documents. I also see discrepancies and conflicts between the Gospels. Our Gospels are not 100 percent accurate representations of everything that was said and done at the time.

The usual dating of this period is that Jesus is thought to have died around the year 30 and most scholars date the writing of the Gospel of Mark to around 65 or 70. Matthew and Luke are from about the years 80 and 85 and the Gospel of John is the last Gospel written around 90 or 95. Some scholars may disagree, but those are commonly used dates. What’s important to realize about this is that these Gospels were written many decades after Jesus walked the earth, and they almost certainly were not written by eyewitnesses. The stories in the Gospels had been circulating by word of mouth for all those years, before they were written down, and that affects how the Gospels tell the stories.

JESUS ‘IS NOT AN INVENTION OF MODERN TIMES’

DAVID: Your books actually can be read as a strong defense of some aspects of Christianity. Your last two books, read together, are a rebuke of some neo-atheists who claim that Christianity was a fraud and that Jesus may never have existed at all. Your research shows: Yes, Jesus certainly did walk this earth. And in this newest book, you write: “The idea that Jesus is God is not an invention of modern times. … It was the view of the very earliest Christians soon after Jesus’s death.”

BART: That’s absolutely right. It’s almost certainly not the case that somebody set out to make something up and invented all of this. Some of Jesus’s followers genuinely came to believe that Jesus was raised from the dead. What produces their faith is that the disciples see Jesus after the crucifixion. The interesting question, I think, is: What led them to believe this? And I think that historians can agree—whether they are Christian historians or secular historians—that what started this powerful belief in Jesus’s resurrection was experiences of his followers believing that they saw him, or visions of him, after his death.

My own conclusion is that probably what happened is that some of Jesus’s disciples had these visions of Jesus among them and they told others and most of the others came to believe on the basis of these reports. Eventually, as the stories were told and retold, we get these stories of Jesus appearing to all of the disciples at one time and even the story of his appearing to hundreds of people.

JESUS VS. CAESAR

DAVID: Your book covers a lot of territory, so I want to ask you about some of the other really intriguing chapters of early Christian history people will discover here. You take us into the turbulent history of the Roman Empire. In this section of your book, readers of Borg and Crossan will recognize some points that they make, as well. For example: The early Christians dared to take phrases that Romans used to describe the emperor’s divinity—and began using them to describe Jesus Christ to make the point that Christianity was a radically different pathway than Roman ideology.

BART: This is something that I had known about intellectually for a long time, but it really nailed me between the eyes when I was traveling in Turkey, looking at the various archaeological sites and I was reading the ancient inscriptions calling Caesar Augustus a god. The reality was that, when Christians began using these same words about Jesus, this became a competition between Christians and the Roman Empire. The Christian God was being set over against Roman beliefs about the emperor.

CHRISTIAN VS. CHRISTIAN

DAVID: The early Christians weren’t just competing with Rome. The faith spread so rapidly—and took on so many different forms—that Christians were competing among themselves in describing Jesus’s divinity. You write about this dramatic push and pull. Early Christian leaders struggled to decide, among themselves, which Christian teachings would be considered orthodox and which teachings would be considered heresies.

BART: There absolutely were a lot of arguments! The Christian idea caught on very fast. It wasn’t a slow development, as we hear some people describing it. You’ll often hear people saying that Jesus, as the son of God, was something first enacted by a vote of the Council of Nicea in the year 325. That’s absolutely wrong.

Christians were calling Jesus God as early as there were Christians. But the moment people started making this claim, there were all sorts of questions: Was he a human who was elevated to divinity? Or, was he a pre-existent divine being who became human? Or, was he somehow both?

By the second Christian century, almost every Christian agreed that Jesus was a pre-existent divine being who became human. But then the debate became: If you have God and you have Jesus, then why don’t you have two gods? Christians insisted they were monotheists. So the debate went on and people looked for solutions to that question.

One solution was modalism, which insisted that God is one—but we perceive God in different modes just like I, myself, am a son, a brother and a father all at once. So, too, God is the father and the son and the holy spirit all at once. For modalists, God is just one, but God has these three different relationships with us.

DAVID: If readers are looking for more information on this Christian dispute, Wikipedia lists the entry under Sabellianism, which comes from the name of a popular preacher of this idea. This debate gets very tricky. How tricky? Consider this: I’ll bet that readers who think about the description you just gave of modalism may be thinking: Hmmm, that’s not a bad way of describing Christian beliefs, right? God is one—we just have three different relationships with God. But, modalism caused a big problem, right?

BART: Modalism ended up being declared a heresy because it didn’t allow for the distinctiveness of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. The opponents of modalism asked: When Jesus is praying, then is he just talking to himself? That’s the kind of common question that arose about modalism.

DAVID: There were lots of other questions, too. Like: So, if God is just one being, then did God leave heaven to become Jesus? Was there no God “up there,” while Jesus was walking around “down here”? The debate got very contentious. And one of the loudest critics of modalism was a giant of early theology: Tertullian, who lived in Africa. We meet him in your book, as well.

He’s sometimes called the founder of Western theology, partly because he tackled “modalism” and developed the idea of “the trinity.” Talk about bitter debates today!? Terullian’s pen dripped acid!

BART: He didn’t just disagree with people—he skewered them! He had an acerbic wit and was rhetorically very powerful in attacking pagans and heretics and whoever was at the wrong end of his pens. No holds barred with Tertullian!

The traditional way of describing Tertullian is that he was trained as a lawyer and became a Christian and he certainly does have a legal kind of mind. Today, historians are less certain that he was a lawyer. He lived in Carthage in Africa and he is known as the father of Latin theology. All Christian theology up through the Middle Ages was done in Latin and he was the first church father who wrote long theological treatises in Latin.

Tertullian is regarded as the first to use the term “Trinity” in his debate with the modalists to insist that God was three distinct persons who are three in number but are completely unified in purpose. This was the first time we know of someone using the term “Trinity” in this particular way. Later theologians would disagree with some of Tertullian’s arguments, but he was very important in developing this idea.

DAVID: The matter wasn’t even settled by the time Tertullian died around the year 225. I would suggest that, if readers enjoy your book, they should continue by reading Philip Jenkins’ fascinating books The Jesus Wars and then Jenkins’ Lost Christianity. In his books, Jenkins takes us into the incredibly turbulent Christian eras that come after your book ends.

BART: You’re right that this went on for a very long time. I end my book by explaining that even the Council of Nicea didn’t resolve everything in the year 325. It just raised new questions—and the whole process continued through the centuries.

DAVID: So, as you move forward in your own work, what’s next? Despite what critics may say, your books are very popular with readers nationwide.

BART: There’s so much more I want to write. Right now, I’m debating which book to write next. One choice is to write about the question: How did Christians get an “Old Testament”? The Christian Old Testament is made up of Jewish scriptures and how did the development of this Christian Old Testament affect relationships with Jews who saw this as their Bible?

Another option is that I’ve become really interested in questions of memory and how people and entire cultures remember their stories. There’s a big question about how people retold stories about Jesus in the oral tradition. How did they do this? How did they preserve the stories? I haven’t seen any historians come up with a good overall theory for how these oral traditions about Jesus were transmitted.

I’m feeling energized about what I’m doing and how readers are responding. I put a lot of energy into my research and then into writing these books. I intersperse popular books, like this new one, with publishing serious scholarship. If I were just doing one kind of writing, I would get tired. But I do several forms of writing: popular books, scholarly works and also textbooks for college students.

So, I’ve got a lot of energy to move on to these next projects.

Care to read more about Bart Ehrman?

Ehrman uses his personal, online columns to raise money for nonprofit work combating hunger and homelessness. So far, he says, he has raised $60,000 for these causes. You can find his blog at www.ehrmanblog.org.

(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

Our Authors: ‘Out there doing something good for the world’

Hands responding to each other

Click these hands to learn more about our authors.

By DAVID CRUMM,
Editor of ReadTheSpirit magazine and books

“Be the change you wish to see,” Gandhi says on bumper stickers. Personally, I prefer to repeat the words of a pastor friend, the Rev. Marsha Woolley, who ends her telephone voice-mail message with, “I hope you’re out there doing something good for the world.”

Over the past week or so, our authors have been out there doing so much good that we are devoting our Cover Story this week to just a handful of these inspiring examples. Making the world a better place by publishing important new voices has been the core vocation of ReadTheSpirit, since our founding. That mission now is fueling a major expansion this year to bring even more authors and cutting-edge publishing projects into communities everywhere.

Let’s start with the story of David Gaynes, a man who was a complete stranger to us one week ago …

KEN WILSON

‘A PASSOVER FREEDOM STORY’

Click this snapshot to visit Ken's author page.

Click this snapshot to visit Ken’s author page.

Ken Wilson’s A Letter to My Congregation is a landmark book that tries to help the countless congregations divided by evangelical denunciations of gay and lesbian men and women. As a pastor, Ken saw many families divided within his own congregation; he also was heartbroken by the way religious condemnation can fuel teen suicides. So, Ken’s book takes a new approach to reading the Bible—an approach Ken calls “the Romans road.” You can read the three introductions to the book by Phyllis Tickle, Tanya Luhrmann and David P. Gushee here. You can read much more about the book and the controversy it has touched off here. Ken recognizes that many evangelicals vigorously disagree with him and welcomes civil dialogue. However, some critics have crossed over to angry personal attacks.

Down in Asheville, NC, veteran writer and media professional David Gaynes had never heard of Ken Wilson until recently. Gaynes and his family were celebrating Passover with the traditional retelling of the Exodus story and discussion of how we all should defend freedom everyday. At one Jewish community seder in Asheville, Gaynes recalls, the rabbi challenged each person: “How are you helping to make the world more free?”

That was the very day Gaynes’s media agency received a request from an old client. He hadn’t worked for this client for a while, so he did his homework and discovered that the project involved an evangelical publishing group. Then, he discovered that this group had recently published a particularly pointed attack on an author named Ken Wilson. This attack troubled Gaynes, whose family includes a gay son, and he wanted to learn more about this Ken Wilson. So, he dug further, finding a Detroit Free Press profile of Ken and his new book. (We’ve got a link here.) Gaynes was particularly struck by Ken’s words in that story “that being evangelical is about ‘welcoming previously excluded groups … to make the good news accessible to those who haven’t had access to it. That’s my task. That’s what a church is supposed to do.’”

Gaynes knew full well that his old client was offering a good-sized payday—but, right away, he sent a long letter to the client, declining to take on the new project. In the letter, he explained his own perspective on Ken’s inspiring book: “I do not believe that my son should repent of his homosexuality any more than I intend to repent of my heterosexuality. Both equally inherent and un-chosen personal attributes arise from the same source: our Creator. Loving my son as I do, and feeling as I do, I respectfully decline the current project with thanks. I am sure that you and your client will be better served by someone and anyone more aligned with your publisher’s viewpoint than I am.”

And then? Gaynes published the entire story, including the letter, on a Jewish blog. The headline? “A Passover Freedom Story

As editor of our online magazine and publishing house, I spotted Gaynes’ column, Googled his office telephone number and soon was talking to Gaynes himself. I told him: “As one media professional talking to another, I’ve got to say: This was a remarkable thing to do. It was courageous that you turned down the contract. It was amazing that you published the story for the whole world.”

“I’m completely OK with sharing my story,” he said. “I’m speaking from both my heart and mind here. My reactions here were instantaneous. There wasn’t any: Wait a minute. Now, if I do X or Y, then … Not at all.”

“Why such a strong response?” I asked, and he said what I’ve heard countless parents and loved ones of gay men and women say over the years.

He said: “I would never want to do anything that would render me unable to look my family in the eye.” And, that’s precisely why millions of younger Americans are staying away from gay-condemning churches—as documented by the Public Religion Research Project.

As a skeptical journalist, though, I pushed Gaynes harder. “Come on,” I said. “Didn’t you have some internal struggle? I know from talking to you, today, that you needed this payday—and it would have been a good-sized check. Didn’t you struggle a little bit?”

And I could hear the smile in his voice as he responded. “No, it wasn’t like that at all,” he said. “It seemed beyond coincidence, uncanny really, that this happened right after the Passover seder. It was as though some Power in the universe was saying: ‘You really feel this way? Let’s find out.’ And as much as that was a needed payday, I think of it as a tiny price to find out beyond any question that my values are not for sale.”

I praised him. “Well, it’s terrific to meet you on the phone here and I’m so impressed …”

But he cut me off. He shouldn’t be praised for doing the right thing, he said. “This is our work as human beings on the planet.”

And to that, I could only say: “Amen.”

LATE-BREAKING NEWS: As we prepared to publish this column, we got word from the well-known emergent-church writer and activist Tony Jones that he has written a new piece about Ken Wilson’s book that will be appearing soon in the widely read Christian Century magazine. Thanks in advance, Tony, for all your good work on the planet!

WAYNE BAKER

PROMOTING ‘POSITIVE BUSINESS’

Click on this snapshot to visit the resource page for United America.

Click on this snapshot to visit the resource page for United America.

Speaking of high praise, as Editor of our publishing house, I learned that—as this school year ends at the University of Michigan—our long-time columnist and author Dr. Wayne Baker was honored among his colleagues at the Ross School of Business. Wikipedia’s tracking of business school rankings says that, in recent years, the Ross school sometimes has been ranked No. 1 in the nation and nearly always in the Top 5. The award presented to Dr. Baker was a major career-spanning honor, partly due to his research on American values.

The Senior Faculty Research Award was given to Dr. Baker “in recognition of his influential research, his stellar international reputation as a thought leader in the study of management & organizations and his dedication to building and maintaining a strong research environment at the Stephen M. Ross School of Business.”

And this week? Dr. Baker is one of the featured presenters at the Ross School’s first annual “Positive Business” conference. All this week, Dr. Baker is writing about the conference in his popular OurValues column. At the conference, his new book United America will be featured.

You can read much more about the nationwide response to United America here. And, you can download many free resources related to the new book in this United America resource page, including two different full-color charts of the 10 uniting values.

LATE-BREAKING NEWS: Dr. Baker just wrapped up a series on Moms for the centennial of Mother’s Day and was featured, for his research on parents’ values, in this Washington Post column. Also, his book was covered by Dick Meyer (a top journalist who formerly headed divisions for BBC, NPR and CBS) in a new Scripps column that is syndicated widely across news sites nationwide. Here’s Dick’s column as it was presented in Cleveland. To all the journalists covering United America—thanks for doing something good for the world!

DEBRA DARVICK

MOM’s 10 COMMANDMENTS OF HEALTH

Click this snapshot to visit Debra's column about her 10 Commandments project.

Click this snapshot to visit Debra’s column about her 10 Commandments project.

This week, we also were pleased to watch author Debra Darvick on television, talking about her ongoing visual project: “Mom’s 10 Commandments of Health.”

If you haven’t read about this unusual project, then click here to read Debra’s story about appearing on TV this past week. Her “10 Commandments” are a re-voicing of the traditional Decalogue or 10 Commandments as if a Mom (or other wise and caring Parent) were voicing timeless wisdom about living a healthy and happy life. Debra had the text printed in poster form, designed by our ReadTheSpirit art director Rick Nease, in a format suitable for hanging on a refrigerator door or bathroom wall.

And—hurray—the idea is catching on!

Thank you Debra for all the good you’re doing for the world!

.

AND SO MUCH MORE …

This is just a sampling of the exciting stories that inspire our colleagues as we wake up each morning and get to devote another day to working for our readers. Among the other recent news …

MSU STUDENTS LAUNCH 3 NEW ETHNIC GUIDES
This ongoing project at Michigan State University School of Journalism now has welcomed dozens of students preparing a half dozen guides under the direction of the school’s instructor Joe Grimm. Learn about the launch of their three latest guides, which combat bigotry by clearing up the real questions that real people ask every day about “the others.”

INTERFAITH PEACEMAKERS
Global peacemaker, author and activist Daniel Buttry continues to circle the world as a representative of American Baptist Churches, the denomination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Not only is Dan organizing the publication of uplifting new stories online in our Interfaith Peacemakers department—but he’s also spreading his collected peacemaking stories around the world. We just got word this week that a new translated edition of one of his books may be prepared for use in a particularly important region of Asia. (Stay tuned for more on that later.) That spread of Dan’s message—and the messages of our other authors—is possible because of the unusual, fast-and-flexible publishing system we have developed.

NORTH AMERICAN INTERFAITH NETWORK
We heard more news, this past week, about the national conference coming to Detroit (at Wayne State University) in mid-August, called the North American Interfaith Network. That’s a wonderful opportunity to come and meet me, as Editor of ReadTheSpirit, and many of our authors as well. Learn more by following the links from this story about our MSU students. (For news on NAIN, read the first item in that story, headlined “Join the MSU Project.”)

 

FINALLY—A WORD ABOUT GANDHI

Did you know that the famous “Gandhi bumper sticker” isn’t directly quoting the Mahatma? In fact, the slogan does express Gandhi’s teachings, but the actual quote is believed to have come from his grandson—also a global peace activist—Arjun Gandhi. About a decade ago, Arjun contributed to a book that summarizes the Mahatma’s teachings—and the phrase, “Be the change you wish to see,” was born. The quotation, usually attributed to Mahatma Gandhi was researched by The New York Times in 2011. Turns out, that line appears nowhere in the 98-volume collected works of Gandhi.

The closest Mahatma Gandhi got to crystallizing that message: “If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As we changes our own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards us. … We need not wait to see what others do.”

And to that word of wisdom, we also say: Amen!

(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 GroupsPeacemaking

The Adam Hamilton interview on ‘Making Sense of the Bible’ while growing the church

Book

TO BUY THE BOOK, click on this image for the book’s Amazon page. At the end of this interview, you will find more links and information on ordering the accompanying DVD and Leader’s Guide.

Adam Hamilton wants to help congregations grow.

Within his United Methodist denomination, he already has proven himself a master of church growth. Now, he is breaking out to a wider audience in his first book for HarperOne (his earlier books are from Abingdon, his denomination’s publishing house).

Now, he wants to show congregations nationwide how to fuel revival and outreach—by starting with the Bible.

But, this isn’t your grandfather’s revivalism. Making Sense of the Bible: Rediscovering the Power of Scripture Today is equal parts an evangelical return to the Bible as the foundation of Protestant Christianity—and a scholarly, inclusive approach to understanding scripture that draws on themes familiar to readers of Brian D. McLaren, Rob Bell and Marcus Borg. Most importantly, for the millions of men and women who have been avoiding churches for years, this is a faithful and intelligent orientation to the Bible.

Adam Hamilton’s congregation was dubbed the United Methodist Church of the Resurrection when he and a handful of families founded it in 1990. “Resurrection” seemed like a good name because the only space they could afford at the time was a local funeral home. Today, the church’s “main campus” is in Leawood, near Kansas City, Kansas, but the church is spread across multiple “campuses,” including some sites in other states with video feeds. Adding to that growing list of physical locations is a rapidly growing online church that attracts thousands each week. The church’s digital team regularly sees men and women logging into online worship from Michigan to Florida and from New York to Los Angeles—often including sites overseas.

How big is the Church of the Resurrection?

Church of the Resurrection lobby

One entryway to just one campus of Church of the Resurrection. Photo by Paul McDonald provided for public use.

Writing as Editor of ReadTheSpirit online magazine with many decades of experience as a journalist covering religion in America, I can tell you: Claims of church membership and attendance are as slippery as eels and there is no regulated national reporting on numbers. Nevertheless, the Hartford Institute for Religion Research is widely respected as a neutral center observing these trends. Based on Hartford’s rankings …

AMONG ALL CHURCHES:
The largest American congregation is Joel Osteen’s Lakewood Church in Houston with a weekly attendance of more than 40,000. Next are about a dozen churches claiming weekly attendance of 20,000 or higher, including two of the most famous megachurches: Rick Warren’s Saddleback Church in California and Bill Hybels’s Willow Creek Community Church in Illinois. Next are more than a dozen claiming weekly attendance of 15,000 or higher and among the famous congregations in that strata are T.D. Jakes’s The Potter’s House in Dallas and Creflo Dollar’s World Changers Church in Georgia. Adam Hamilton’s Church of the Resurrection currently is listed in the next group claiming weekly physical attendance of 10,000 and higher. Hamilton’s online congregation isn’t reflected in these totals and, if counted, would push Church of the Resurrection up into the Jakes and Dollar range.

Heatmap of Online Worship

This sample “heatmap” shows the geographic spread of online worshipers at Church of the Resurrection on one Saturday. On Sunday mornings, the heatmap expands further.

AMONG UNITED METHODISTS:
No question—Church of the Resurrection is the largest within the 12-million-member denomination with roots in the movement founded by John and Charles Wesley before the American Revolution. Next in ranking, at about half of Church of the Resurrection’s size, is Windsor Village United Methodist Church in Houston, where pastor Kirbyjon Caldwell has made a name for himself in befriending presidents George W. Bush and Barak Obama. (Adam Hamilton also is dabbling in national leadership; he preached at the Inaugural Prayer Service held at the National Cathedral in Washington in January 2013.) Caldwell’s church is followed by Granger Community Church in Indiana, Ginghamsburg United Methodist Church in Ohio—and then Highland Park United Methodist Church and The Woodlands United Methodist Church, both in Texas.

ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm talks with Adam Hamilton in …

HIGHLIGHTS OF OUR INTERVIEW
WITH ADAM HAMILTON ON
‘MAKING SENSE OF THE BIBLE’

DAVID: On July 12, you’ll turn 50. You’re only six years older than Rob Bell. And, already, you’re a long way toward your life’s goal of leading a revival within mainline Protestant churches, specifically within your own United Methodist denomination.

Adam HamiltonADAM: We care deeply about wanting to see the United Methodist church revived and revitalized.

DAVID: As a journalist, it’s hard to keep up with everything you’re doing with your huge team of colleagues. I hadn’t realized until recently that you’ve got a satellite program called Partner Churches that now lists eight congregations from Maryland to California. This is for small churches, often served by part-time pastors, who want to use Church of the Resurrection resources—including your sermons in a video feed, right?

ADAM: Yes, we know that all of the things we are trying to do won’t work the same way everywhere. There have to be many different approaches to ministry. Remember that the majority of our United Methodist congregations are small. Many of them have local pastors in some cases part-time at the church. Some of our small churches are led by lay people who serve as excellent pastors in their communities in many cases. Some of these men and women are excellent shepherds; they’re great at hospital visitation and other areas of ministry—but perhaps they don’t feel they can preach very well, or at least not every week. So, that program, Partner Churches, provides a high-quality sermon from Resurrection and other resources.

DAVID: Readers may think that sounds like something out of the “prosperity preaching” movement—Creflo Dollar and others have tried video feeds. But what you’re doing here stems from the very roots of Methodism more than 200 years ago. Methodism was an incredible grassroots, pack-it-up-and-move-it movement. Circuit Riders crisscrossed America. Wesley himself was a pamphleteer widely using the latest technologies for rapid print distribution of his texts.

ADAM: The example I use is a 1789 edition of John Wesley’s sermons that was published while he was at his City Road chapel in London. I hold up my copy of that book and I say, “In America, when the Circuit Riders started a church, they would get it going and then they would leave to work in another town and they’d say, ‘Here is a book of Wesley’s sermons; read one each week until I return to you.’ And they would. We’re just adapting Wesley’s model for the 21st Century.

DAVID: That pattern spread like wildfire in the era of Francis Asbury. Wesley’s assistant before the American Revolution and later one of the first Methodist bishops. The more I’ve researched Wesley’s life myself, the more impressed I am with his courageous innovations. The book of sermons reflects his roots in the Church of England where there was a tradition of publishing sample sermons. So, it was natural for him to carry this idea much further. For Asbury and his team, sample sermons were a great help. Most United Methodist leaders, even today, have copies of Wesley’s numbered sermons.

ADAM: We’re constantly testing what we can do to help small- and medium-sized churches, especially those that are struggling. Partner Churches is just one example. We’re trying all kinds of things. In our online worship, last Sunday, we had 3,600 people actually logging in during the worship services. The online participants register their attendance; they can turn in their prayer requests; they can make donations. That’s the fastest growing segment of our congregation.

They visit us from many places. Recently I was out of town, so I worshiped online myself. What’s interesting is that out of 3,600 men and women we have online on a Sunday morning, about 2,000 of them are Resurrection members, but they choose to worship online with us—for many reasons. Many people can’t make it to the church on a Sunday, for example, but this gives them an opportunity to be with us.

FAITH VS. SCIENCE?

Inaugural Prayer Service

Adam Hamilton preaching the sermon at the National Cathedral’s Inaugural Prayer Service in January 2013. Photo courtesy of Washington National Cathedral. Photographer: Donovan Marks.

DAVID: Right now, you’re speaking to a larger national audience through this new book and events like last year’s sermon at the National Cathedral as a part of President Obama’s inauguration. But, many of our ReadTheSpirit readers are meeting you for the first time today. So, I want you to describe this passion that drives you: Your goal isn’t political influence or riches. You’ve said you’re donating any proceeds from this new book back to your church. You really do want to see mainline Protestant churches start to thrive again, right?

ADAM: There were two things I had in mind as I was finishing this new book: One is the person who has been turned off to Christianity because of things they’ve heard or experienced in the past. The most vocal Christians we see in America today are conservative evangelicals and Fundamentalists—and I know those are two different categories, but the two groups do overlap. I don’t regularly watch Bill Maher, but I happened to see him on TV the other day ridiculing Christians because of this new Noah movie. Maher was pointing out that  a large portion of Americans tell pollsters that we need to take these Bible stories literally—and Maher also was pointing out how absurd the Noah story seems, if we have to take it literally. He pointed out that it’s obscene to think that God wanted to kill virtually every man, woman, child and animal on the planet.

The Bible does seem absurd to many people, today. And misunderstandings about the Bible lead to all kinds of confrontations. I think of people in my own congregation: One woman is studying biology at the university level and she told me, “I’m in a Bible-study group and people are telling me I can’t be a Christian if I believe in evolution. Modern biology rests on the assumptions of evolution.”

There are so many issues that arise if we try to take everything in the Bible as literally true. What do we do with all the violence in the Bible? What do we do with the passages in which God seems to be ordering overwhelming violence against men, women and children? There are lots of people wrestling with these issues inside and outside of churches all across America. I write about these issues in the new book.

I want people to know that there is room to interpret scripture in light of modern science and that we don’t have to accept that God intentionally ordered this overwhelming violence we read about in some passages. But we have to properly understand the Bible. I’ve been saying this repeatedly within the United Methodist Church.

DAVID: Now, through HaperOne, you’re saying this to a much broader audience. Clearly, you want to revive “mainline Protestant” churches. You’re also known as fairly evangelical among United Methodists. Crossing over into the national arena now, one big question is: Where do you stand on interfaith relationships? In my own research into your work, I’m finding very positive examples of cooperation with diverse communities. You were honored, at one point, with a B’nai B’rith award in social ethics.

ADAM: We’ve tried hard to develop positive relationships with the Jewish community here in our own area. We’ve shared some worship services together. That’s important here because, in the very area where our church sits today—until the 1960s, Jews were not allowed to purchase homes in this community. We regularly talk about this. I have friends, rabbis, who I bring on the screen with me to share in certain sermons where their insights are valuable. I’ve taken a trip to the Holy Land with a rabbi friend. We’ve also met with and talked with Muslims. We’ve sponsored forums here where we bring Christians, Muslims and Jews together to talk.

‘BIBLE 101′ CLEARING UP MISCONCEPTIONS

DAVID: You point out that, in today’s world, the religious challenge really is not between faith groups—it’s between religion and secular culture. Americans are distinctive in the world because of our intense interest in religion nationwide. In the UK and across Europe, there’s a stark contrast: Very few people go to church anymore. Even in America, people really need a crash course in “Bible 101″ to understand the Bible.

ADAM: Yes, that’s how to understand my new book. There are so many folks out there who know very little about the Bible. If they read my book, I hope it will clear up some of their misconceptions; then I hope it will lead them to read the Bible itself; and maybe they will decide to visit a church where they can find out more. In the first half of my book, I lay out the Bible: how it came to be, the sweep of the Bible and so on. Then, in the second half of my book, I address some of the very difficult issues that still spring from the Bible today.

A lot of times pastors are nervous about sharing what they’ve learned in seminary and through scholarship with lay people in their churches. They fear this might undermine people’s confidence in scripture. So, we end up with a lot of pastors letting unquestioned assumptions continue and accumulate out there. In this book, I tried to put about a year’s worth of graduate study of the Bible into a book that general readers will find interesting. I find that too many people—including Christians inside the church—have an inadequate understanding of the Bible.

DAVID: I know enough about you to tell readers: You love the Bible. Your own daily reliance on scripture is described in the opening page of your new book.

ADAM: I really do love the Bible, yes. The Bible contains the defining story of my life. As you just noted, I do regularly tell people how I wake up in the morning: I drop to my knees and pray and then the very next thing I do is read the Bible. And, before I go to bed at night, no matter how tired I am, I open my Bible and read. I carry a Bible with me everywhere I go; I carry a Bible on my phone, too, but I always have an actual Bible with me. We encourage Bible reading here. We prepare a daily Bible reading for people to encourage them to read more of the scriptures. Every day, I’m doing all I can to encourage more people to spend more time with the Bible.

GENESIS, SCIENCE & ROB BELL

DAVID: Before I left newspapers in 2007 to form ReadTheSpirit, I covered Rob Bell’s launch of his Everything Is Spiritual tour in which he barnstormed the country, talking to people in theaters and clubs about the Genesis creation story and science—and how the two realms are not in conflict. When I read your section on the Creation Stories, I immediately thought: There’s a lot of similarity here between your approach to these issues and Rob’s.

You and Rob both love the Genesis stories and find them profoundly true, but not as some kind of scientific report on creation. As you both describe it: Genesis opens with some of the world’s most famous poetry, talking about God’s ongoing role in our cosmos. There is no reason to regard this as a war with modern science.

ADAM: The Bible represents the people of God coming to understand how the order of creation came to be. Genesis wasn’t intended as a science lesson, as we understand science today. The Bible is making profound claims about the connection between God and the world—and this is profoundly true. It wasn’t intended as a science lecture.

I encourage people to read the opening of Genesis. The first chapter is beautiful poetry with the refrains coming back—”evening and morning” and this beautiful liturgical language about the nature of creation as it unfolds. People need to understand that this is an archetypal story that was repeated down through the generations around campfires and in homes and the Genesis stories do express deep truths. We need to understand the great value of these stories.

If we free ourselves from all this noise from some of the Fundamentalists about this somehow conflicts with science, then we can begin to appreciate again the deeper truths here. Did a snake appear and speak in a garden in the literal way the scene is described in Genesis? That’s not the point. The point is the real truth of such an experience: Who among us hasn’t heard a serpent speaking to us at some moment in our lives? We’ve all faced temptation—haven’t we? And, often, that temptation feels as real as a serpent speaking to us.

HOMOSEXUALITY: ‘WE MUST BE COURAGEOUS’

DAVID: You have organized this book in a masterful way. You begin with an overview of the Bible and, in the middle of the book, you’ll have a vast majority of readers with you when you talk about the hundreds of verses in the Bible that seem to indicate that God wants us to wreak overwhelming violence in the world—or the hundreds of verses in which the Bible seems to approve of slavery—or the many verses in which Bible treats women as second-class humans or, even worse, as possessions.

Christian churches today have completely rejected slavery or mass killing as something God wants us to be doing. Many churches have come a long way toward recognizing women’s rights. Then, you come to the small handful of verses that seem to condemn homosexuality.

Cover A Letter to My Congregation by Ken WilsonYou point out in this section that you are bound, as a United Methodist pastor, by the denomination’s strict rules on this issue. If you tried to bless a gay couple, you’d be brought up on charges and banned from the church. But, in this section late in your book, you make it clear that gay marriage is not a threat to our faith. And you make it clear that you want to see your church move toward inclusion. Your language in this part of the book reminds me very much of the language in Ken Wilson’s new A Letter to My Congregation.

Let me read from page 278 in your book, Adam: “My own views on this issue changed as a result of thinking about the nature of scripture, God’s role in interpreting it, the meaning of inspiration, and how we make sense of the Bible’s difficult passages. As I came to appreciate the Bible’s humanity, I found I could at least ask whether the passages in scripture about same-sex intimacy truly captured God’s heart regarding same-sex relationships. But what really prompted me to look seriously at this issue and to wrestle with it were the gay and lesbian people I came to know and love, including children I had watched grow up in the church I serve.”

That’s Ken Wilson’s story, too. Truly pastoral Christian leaders do seem to be leading this change in Christianity, right now. The major reason, which you point to in your book, is the enormous generational shift going on across America on this issue. You’re focused on reviving the church and, frankly, that’s not going to happen with large numbers of young Americans staying away from church because of the way churches treat their gay and lesbian friends. The Public Religion Research Institute just released a major new study on this. And, Pew just took a look at the trends as well.

ADAM: You’re right: There is a trajectory in this book. Homosexuality is the most divisive issue in mainline churches and it really is the natural conclusion of the book. By the time you reach this issue, we’ve already talked about the era in which the scriptures were written, the way in which they came to be written and we’ve understood the complexity of the canonization of scripture. And we’ve helped people to set aside their overly simplistic views of the Bible.

So once I’ve established that in the first half of the book, I run through these topics that build on each other: the hundreds of verses about violence, slavery, the way we regard women. Finally, we reach homosexuality and hopefully readers will have a much more nuanced understanding of how we should approach these 5 short passages of scripture that seem to talk about homosexuality. We realize that some things in the Bible don’t capture God’s heart as much as they refer to issues that presented themselves in the era when the scriptures were written.

At the very least, I hope that people will realize that thoughtful and committed Christians can come out at different places on this question—and still be committed Christians.

I know this is a very difficult issue for many people. I have had people leave our church over the way I am talking about this issue and so this is painful for me, too. Some of the people who have left us were people I once baptized. But, right now, the spirit is moving. Of course, we all recognize today that slavery isn’t the will of God, even though hundreds of verses in the Bible seem to take slavery for granted and even encourage it. We’ve moved beyond that issue. We will move on this issue, too.

DAVID: There is only so much you can do, right now. You make that clear in your book. You’re bound by your church law. Still, you can talk about this movement toward change. And talking like that is courageous.

ADAM: I have this deep fear that, one day, I’m going to stand before the Lord and the Lord is going to say: “I put you in a position to speak to great numbers of people. Why didn’t you dare to say something courageous on behalf of people who are so marginalized and who so very much need to be welcomed?” I don’t want to face such a question someday.

Hopefully readers will see how deeply I love the Bible and how much I want people to start reading the Bible every day. I’m doing everything I can, every day, to see that this happens. I believe we can revive the church. But we must be courageous.

DAVID: Well, returning to the life of John Wesley, he courageously published a booklet completely opposed to slavery—about a century before the American Methodist church finally settled that issue.

ADAM: My next big project is about the life of John Wesley. We’ve got video segments in which I take people to many of the places that were important to Wesley. What we can learn about John Wesley and his faith can shape our own faith today and can help us in this revival of the church.

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 InterviewsBibleChurch GrowthGreat With Groups