New Music for Troubled Times by Carrie Newcomer: ‘Within us and between us there is everything we need.’

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There’s light in the night
From stars long gone
A half-formed thought becomes a song
We rise from our grief and go on
It happens all the time
There’s a lake you cannot see across
A way through the woods
That I thought I’d lost
Clearing out everything that it’s time to toss
It happens all the time.
It’s impossible.
Impossible.
Impossible—until it’s not.

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By DAVID CRUMM
Editor of ReadTheSpirit magazine

Longtime readers of our online magazine are familiar with Carrie Newcomer, the singer-songwriter who was dubbed the “Prairie Mystic” by a journalist from the Boston Globe. But, we haven’t heard from Carrie since the dawn of the Trump era—at least not with a full-scale album. Only those of you who have caught Carrie’s various tour dates (she keeps her online schedule here) have gotten wind of her fresh forms of encouragement in the 11 songs she now groups into the album, The Point of Arrival.

Heavily influenced by her ongoing collaboration with Parker Palmer, Carrie devotes the centerpiece of the cardboard cover for this new album to display the 9 words they so often use to summarize their collective message: “Within us and between us is everything we need.”

What do these 9 words mean?

Click on this photo of Carrie to visit her website.

Well, whole volumes of teaching flow from those words. If you want to understand much more about Carrie’s new album—read Palmer’s latest book On the Brink of EverythingThat’s also the title of the wonderful final song on Carrie’s new album. This duo’s teaching, writing and music weaves back and forth as they collaborate and address the world in various forms of media. In a very real way, Carrie is a co-author of Parker’s new book and he’s a co-creator of her new album. Together, they model creative community.

Get it? “Within us and between us is everything we need.” They are showing us the kind of spiritual community where wisdom flows in all directions drawing upon all of our talents.

The nine words also refer to Carrie’s firm footing in her Quaker tradition that all will be well in this deeply troubled world—if only each one of us remains firm in our compassionate commitment to community. We do that, her tradition teaches her, by discerning our vocation within a community of friends. Together, we help each other clarify our callings.

‘IT’S NOT JUST MY STORY—IT’S OUR STORY’

“In this album, I’m telling very human stories,” Carrie said in an interview this week. “In my songwriting, I’m never putting my personal journals to music. My songs aren’t my diary—I have my own journals for that. When I’m sharing a song, I’m sharing something that’s really our story, our human story. I hope listeners will meet my songs with a sense of recognition. It’s not just my story—it’s our story.”

Throughout her more than two dozen albums are many that represent collaborations of various kinds. She’s an activist in the sense that she’s always building new forms of cooperative vocation with her audiences.

“I’m always asking: In times like these, where do we find our grounding?” Carrie said. “I believe that even in the darkest times, we can be met by unexpected light, grace and hope. We can move through these times with honorable companions—always keeping an eye toward the miracles that can surprise us.

“I’ve been an activist all my adult life. But anger only gets you so far. And fear only gets you so far—then you burn out or you get immobilized. What we need to ask is: Were is my true compass? What’s true north? As we walk through troubled times together—whether they’re politically troubled times or our own personal troubled times—how do we keep walking with a strong center and a spiritual grounding?”

‘AN UNBALANCED PICTURE OF REALITY’

One of Carrie’s constant words of encouragement is telling the people she meets that life isn’t as bad as we may fear. She’s not a Pollyanna. She bases these encouraging words on her first-hand experience crisscrossing the continent week after week after week.

“It’s easy to feel overwhelmed right now, partly because of the way we consume information every hour of every day,” she said. “There’s this never-ending news cycle of salacious, scary stories that focus on the very worst that human beings can do in this world. It’s so easy to think that’s all there is in the world. But the gift I receive as a traveling musician, always moving across the country, is my first-hand experience with individuals and communities who are trying to make our world a better place.

“One of the biggest problems we face is that we’ve got this unbalanced picture of the reality in which we’re living. We think that things are the worst they can be everywhere we look. But that’s just not the case. Over and over again, I’ve seen real people out there with courage to step across all kinds of boundary lines they never expected to cross—and discovering true miracles on the other side! My music is an encouragement to see these other possibilities, to consider these other stories of hope.”

‘WRITING A BETTER STORY’

I’m writing a new ending
With a better storyline

Turn the page and leave the blanks
With a plot that’s less defined.
And though I won’t get back
A day of stolen time
I could go to bed at night
With a better storyline.
There are stories shaped like stones,
The ones our hearts have always known,
The ones we finally call our own,
Down where the spirit meets the bone.

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“On this album, there’s a song about choosing to write new stories that we will live by,” Carrie said. “We’ve all been told stories by people around us. We all tell stories. These stories shape our lives everyday.

“But, at a certain point, we need to stand up and decide the kinds of stories we’re going to choose to tell ourselves—and that we’re going to share in our communities. We have to recognize that some old stories aren’t good for us—perhaps they are stories that keep us in a place of helplessness and fear. That song on my album is about assessing: Which stories can we tell that are life giving and sustaining? This can be a very personal question—and it can be a question we consider as a community.

“In this new album, there are a couple of songs that are about the grief we feel—certainly many of us are feeling grief in these troubled times. That’s just a natural part of the human experience—and it’s always been that way. Grief is a part of life. I think one of the most unhelpful things we like to tell ourselves as Christians is: We’re always supposed to be joyous. The problem with that is, when we don’t feel joyous—and sometimes we don’t—then we feel there’s something wrong with us, something wrong with God. I think it’s a real disservice to other Christians to keep insisting that we’re supposed to be joyous all the time.

“There are moments of sadness, moments of anger, moments of fear—and as we live through those troubled times—there also will be moments of awe and wonder and joy. I absolutely believe in miracles. I’ve seen so many miracles happen, but you know what? Sometimes miracles happen in an instant. One day there’s snow that chills your bones—and the next morning there are crocuses blooming! But most miracles? Most miracles take a long time and a whole lot of work. Yup, there are hard parts in that long journey toward seeing some miracles.

“What I hope people will hear in this new album is that, if we find our grounding, then there is real hope in the world. I want people to realize that we’re standing together, looking toward that horizon line—and the miracle of it is that we’re really standing on the brink of everything.”

I can’t see past this horizon,
I can’t say what’s waiting there.
I never sang ’cause I knew something,
I sang because it was a prayer,
The finest one that I could bare. …
And I won’t need no choir of angels,
Just that old song we used to sing.
But for now we’ll stand in wonder,
Here on the Brink of Everything.
Here on the Brink of Everything.

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6 Inspiring Books for Christians on LGBTQ Inclusion

And now, a few words from …
ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm …

If you can’t view the video right here, you could visit our YouTube channel to see this video— and other recent videos about our books.

Here are quick summaries and links to the six books we are recommending:

6 Inspiring Books for Christians on LGBTQ Inclusion

A Letter to My Congregation by Ken Wilson

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This is the first book we published on LGBTQ inclusion, telling the true story of one courageous pastor who wrote a letter to his congregation to help move everyone toward hospitality. Dr. David Gushee calls this book “a breakthrough work coming from the heart of evangelical Christianity. Ken Wilson shows how God has led him on a journey toward a rethinking of what the fully authoritative and inspired Bible ought to be taken to mean in the life of the church today.” The late Christian author Phyllis Tickle called this book “one of the most exquisite, painful, candid, brilliant pieces … that I have ever seen.”

Available in paperback and Kindle from Amazon. Also, available in paperback and Nook from Barnes & Noble. Also available via Apple bookstores, Google Books and other online retailers.

Solus Jesus by Ken Wilson and Emily Swan

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Ken Wilson—along with his co-pastor Emily Swan—went on to write a much more substantial book about the Christian basis for LGBTQ inclusion. What’s special about this book for Christians is that both Ken and Emily come from the evangelical tradition and take a very high view of scripture. They also draw on a range of other theologians as they carefully share what the Bible really says about inclusion. Best-selling christian author Brian D. McLaren says about this book: “Solus Jesus challenges us to see the authoritative Jesus in a fresh light, so that his life, message, death, and rising summon us to live in a new way as individuals and congregations.” The Rev. Susa Bock of Grace Episcopal Church in Michigan wrote: “Ken and Emily’s book is loving and courageous, compelling and convicting, scholarly and personal all at once.”

Availablein paperback and Kindle from Amazon. Also, available in paperback and Nook from Barnes & Noble. Also available via Apple bookstores, Google Books and other online retailers.

Changing Our Mind by Dr. David Gushee

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This book by the famous Christian ethicist Dr. David Gushee truly is a landmark volume read by individuals, small groups and congregations around the world, today. In 2019, for example, we are planning to release a Chinese-language edition of his book. Dr. Gushee is highly respected by his scholarly peers. He currently heads two of the largest nationwide academic organizations serving his colleagues. Earlier in his career, Dr. Gushee literally wrote the book that evangelicals used to establish the ethical rules by which their congregations should live. Then, Gushee had a profound spiritual experience that changed his mind! This book—Changing Our Mind—tells the deeply inspiring story of how Dr. Gushee came this dramatic transformation in his personal and theological journey. “For decades now, David Gushee has earned the reputation as America’s leading evangelical ethicist. In this book, he admits that he has been wrong on the LGBT issue.” writes Brian D. McLaren, author and theologian. In the definitive third edition of this book, David Gushee issues a scholarly response to his critics.

Available in paperback and Kindle from Amazon. Also, available in paperback and Nook from Barnes & Noble. Also available via Apple bookstores, Google Books and other online retailers.

Blue Ocean Faith by Dave Schmelzer

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In early 2019—following a turbulent United Methodist global conference in St. Louis that narrowly voted to condemn LGBTQ inclusion—millions of people are talking about forming a new denomination. The book Blue Ocean Faith is the story of a handful of evangelical churches nationwide who successfully did that. In this book, founder Dave Schmelzer details six profound paradigm shifts that unlock a depth of connection to God that’s new for many churchgoers—and that’s unprecedented for their secular neighbors. Rather than retreating from our increasingly secular world, people of faith can join Jesus—as followers like Saint Francis of Assisi have done for millennia—in joyfully entering the world around them with profound wonder and renewed inspiration. Dr. Gushee calls this “a riveting book about an exciting new movement of churches emerging out of the ashes of American evangelicalism/fundamentalism. This could be a charter document for a new kind of Jesus movement. Everyone should read it.”

Available in paperback and Kindle from Amazon. Also, available in paperback and Nook from Barnes & Noble. Also available via Apple bookstores, Google Books and other online retailers.

100 Questions & Answers about
by Michigan State University School of Journalism

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We also publish two secular books, researched and published by the MSU School of Journalism. The subject of gender and sexual orientation is so complex that MSU journalists divided the issues into two books in their ongoing series about diversity. Fairness, accuracy and balance are the core values MSU teaches young journalists, so both of these volumes are not only painstakingly fact checked—they also have been peer-reviewed by experts in the field. Considering how many books are available on these issues, why should you buy these MSU volumes? Because, as good journalists, MSU’s students know that that they need to cover issues that affect the lives of ordinary people. Their guiding principle for this series is: “We’re answering the questions everybody’s asking, but nobody’s answering.” These are the books where you’ll find the answers you need to know, everyday. This first volume is about gender identity, because one of the most important topics nationwide, right now, is how we will relate to transgender neighbors.

Available in paperback and Kindle from Amazon. Also, available in paperback and Nook from Barnes & Noble. Also available via Apple bookstores, Google Books and other online retailers.

100 Questions & Answers about
by Michigan State University School of Journalism

The MSU School of Journalism team, then, continued to explore these issues that millions of Americans are discussing every day. After covering gender identity and focusing on transgender issues in the first volume, this second volume is a clear, introductory guide to issues concerning people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual or who have other sexual orientations. The questions come from interviews with gay people who say these are issues they frequently get asked about or wish people knew more about. It has answers about identity, relationships, families, health, safety, school, work, visibility, coming out and civil rights. This guide is for people in business, education, religion, government, medicine, law and human resources who want to learn or teach about gay people.

Available in paperback and Kindle from Amazon. Also, available in paperback and Nook from Barnes & Noble. Also available via Apple bookstores, Google Books and other online retailers.

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The Cost of the United Methodist Condemnation: ‘Deep empathy and sorrow for LGBTQ+ friends’

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EDITOR’S NOTE—This week, we know many of our readers are discussing the narrow vote at a global United Methodist conference in St. Louis that doubled-down on that denomination’s condemnation of LGBTQ family, friends and neighbors. As a result, this week, we are recommending 6 Inspiring Books for Christians on LGBTQ InclusionWe hope you also are aware of the inspiring column by Jim Wallis of Sojourners along with retired United Methodist Bishop Will Willimon, headlined: Are Methodists Mirroring a Culture of Division? And, Can We Do Better? Finally, we are well aware that a historic event like the St. Louis conference—which was covered as front-page news in newspapers nationwide—affected far more than members of United Methodist churches. That’s why we invited author and pastor Emily Swan to offer her analysis, as well.

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‘Deep empathy and sorrow for LGBTQ+ friends’

By EMILY SWAN
Pastor and Author of Solus Jesus

Dear Readers,

I was the first openly gay pastor in the Vineyard movement —a movement with approximately 2,400 associated churches worldwide—and  perhaps in the entirety of the evangelical orbit. I was fired in 2014, and my then-lead pastor, Ken Wilson, was fired for refusing to fire me. We now co-pastor a beautiful church called Blue Ocean Faith Ann Arbor (a2blue.org).

As I watched the United Methodist Church (UMC) general conference via livestream this week, I felt deep empathy and sorrow for my LGBTQ+ friends. The book Ken and I wrote together, Solus Jesus: A Theology of Resistance, tells the story of our own exile from our faith community and outlines the theological insights we gained from our path. We wrote it for just such a time as this—for you, our friends enduring similar treatment within other denominations, so that you might find helpful footholds for processing your own journey.

The conference re-traumatized queer people throughout the Christian world. I don’t think that’s hyperbole—LGBTQ+ people and their allies around the globe know what happened in St. Louis this week, and its effects reverberated in our hearts and minds, awakening memories of trauma and pain. I am not a UMC pastor, but some of my congregants mourn this decision, reliving their own exiles from various denominations.

The UMC harmed many vulnerable people this week.

Scripture Alone Simply Is Not Clear Enough

That said, nothing about the conference caught me by surprise, for two reasons: first the particular moment in history in which we operate is one in which the Reformation claim that Scripture is the highest and final authority in matters of Christian dispute is crumbling. Remember that Methodists and their roots in the Anglican tradition regard Scripture as their final decider in matters of faith—the Anglicans with their three-legged stool and the UMC with its quadrilateral. Treating the Bible as a “clear” guide proved unhelpful, as we now have thousands of Christian denominations created within the span of 500 years.

So, if the Bible isn’t clear and isn’t useful as a final decider, what is?

The Spirit Reveals More

In Solus Jesus, Ken and I argue it’s the Holy Spirit—the Spirit of a risen Jesus unleashed into the world to draw all people to God, teaching us and leading us. Jesus said he had “much more to say to us,” more than we could bear at the time, and that the Spirit would guide us into Truth (who is a person with whom we have relationship). Those advocating the full inclusion of LGBTQ+ people understand the Spirit as continuing to reveal more of God’s heart to humanity, leading us to freedom and a shockingly wide embrace (good news!). So here we are, on the cusp of the final authority of the Church—at least for Protestants—shifting from Scripture to the Spirit; like all major historical and philosophical transitions, there are many years of in-fighting as old wineskins crack and new ones form.

Our current struggle is over much more than sexual ethics—the framework of having an easy, “clear” rulebook for the church is crumbling. In a moment of mass psychological frailty, traditionalists are fighting tooth and nail to maintain the certainty for which we humans long.

Anxiety that Focuses on a ‘Scapegoat’

The second reason the UMC conference dynamics did not surprise me is because of my deep interest in the work of René Girard, a recently-deceased anthropologist who finished his career at Stanford University. Girard’s work on scapegoat theory changed the way I view the Bible and the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross, and it holds incredible explanatory power for the dynamics at play across the church today.

Girard says all desire is mimetic—or imitative. When we humans desire the same thing and we either both can’t have the thing, or we both perceive we can’t have the thing, envy and rivalry develops. In the UMC, traditionalists believe LGBTQ+ people should not be recognized as pastors and their marriages should not be seen as legitimate; queer people and their allies believe they should be, on both counts. Progressives (for lack of a better term) believe both can have the things while traditionalists do not. They, in fact, believe progressives will harm the things—the pastorate and marriage—tainting them with sinful impurities.

Thus, rivalry develops.

Girard says rivalries escalate group anxiety and, when those tensions reach a tipping point, violence erupts and groups turn on themselves and eventually implode.

However, over time, humans discovered a mechanism that could save the larger group from fully destroying itself: the scapegoat mechanism. The group identifies a vulnerable person or group of people onto which they can project all of the group’s anxieties. This creates a sense of unity, with the majority coalesced against the minority. The group then accuses the scapegoat of a taboo crime and dehumanizes them, justifying violence. At this point, Girard says, even people who are sympathetic to the minority will often circle up with the victimizers—they do so not by joining them outright, but through their silence. They so often do not speak up in favor of the vulnerable, and often view themselves as victims.

This is key: the victimizers genuinely believe they are victims of the vulnerable. In the UMC it sounds something like this: Your insistence on sin being okay is causing turmoil in the Body, so you need to go because you’re harming our church and our unity. Or, for those who are silently sympathetic: Why can’t you just wait? Eventually things will change. You’re causing all of this hardship and it’s selfish. We have bigger fish to fry. Stop doing this to us.

The group then kills, exiles, deports, incarcerates, beats, tortures, fires, or otherwise weakens or expels the scapegoat(s). Once the scapegoat is incapacitated or disposed of, the larger group experiences peace … until the next dispute arises and a new scapegoat must be found.

The Unbearable (and Unfair) Weight of a Scapegoat

In the case of the UMC, our LGBTQ+ friends are the vulnerable scapegoats, made to carry all of the projected anxieties and shame of their denomination—anxieties about Scriptural authority, anxieties about sexual ethics, anxieties about shrinking church membership, anxieties about who’s in and who’s out of the group.

Having carried the shame of a denomination myself, I know the unbearable weight, and we should all weep for our queer friends in the UMC. The shame load is so very heavy.

Jesus knows this weight himself, having carried the projected anxieties of humanity to the cross. The mob circled around him and killed him, declaring the innocent scapegoat “Guilty!” Humans killed Jesus, not God. We killed Jesus to satisfy our longing for a false peace at the expense of the vulnerable. When Jesus hung on a cross, he represented all of the innocent scapegoats of the world, killed and exiled in an attempt to maintain group stability.

However, while Jesus was indeed killed, he also rose from the dead. In doing so, God overturned our human verdict of the scapegoat. We declared the scapegoat guilty, and God said our verdict was wrong: the scapegoat is innocent. In vindicating his Son, God vindicated all of the scapegoats of the world. We are to desire mercy, not sacrifice. We are to love our neighbors as ourselves. This whole messy business of sacrifice is finished.

Why We Need to Stand with the Vulnerable

I knew my role as a scapegoat for the Vineyard movement was to humanize myself before my church. This is what I see the queer UMC members, pastors, and their allies doing—telling their stories and making their presence and their pain known. However, humanizing the victims and unveiling the scapegoat mechanism for what it is, a false peace at the expense of the vulnerable, removes the feeling of unity from the larger group. Scapegoating creates unity and peace; removing the mask creates disunity and disruption. Which means that, the more people who see what’s happening, believe the pain of the victims, speak up on their behalf, and hold the majority to accountability … the more disunity you will experience. There’s far more disunity in the UMC than there was in the Vineyard movement, because far more people in the UMC are standing with the vulnerable. This is commendable.

Jesus said following him wouldn’t bring peace in the short-term. “Do you think I came to bring peace on earth? No, I tell you, but division. From now on there will be five in one family divided against each other, three against two and two against three. They will be divided, father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law” (Luke 12: 51-53).

Standing up for the scapegoats causes division. Should this discourage us from doing so? No! It removes a false unity and forces humans to deal with the harm and anxieties tearing us apart. The UMC will either scapegoat their queer people in the long-run (looking increasingly likely), or figure out a way through their differences. But that way through can not stigmatize the vulnerable, or else it is yet again a false peace, leaving the vulnerable resenting the privileged.

Walking Away from Abuse Is a Healthy Response

I honor our queer UMC friends and their allies in the work they’ve done. They are courageous; they are heroic. But I will say this, as someone who’s been through it: There comes a time when the stress placed on the vulnerable becomes unbearable. While continuing to help the UMC come to a place of inclusion is admirable and praiseworthy, at a certain point your queer congregants will have had their fill of abuse. Walking away from abuse is a healthy response. Let me repeat: walking away from abuse is a healthy response.

Scapegoats don’t owe the majority more time, they do not owe you education, they do not owe you treasure, they do not owe you allegiance. They are not your punching bag to relieve pressure as you work out your theologies and differences. They are human beings who have gifted you time and education and treasure, and if those gifts aren’t received then they should move on.

Because we have new wineskins to stitch together. The UMC has a lovely old skin with some truly good wine, but what’s fermenting right now must spill over as the wideness of God’s love overflows into the world. It will be a shame if you can’t embrace the old and the new.

Care to read more?

DON’T MISS our ReadTheSpirit Cover Story: “6 Inspiring Books for Christians on LGBTQ Inclusion.” That story includes a recommendation of the book Emily Swan co-authored, Solus Jesus. 

GET THE BOOK—Emily’s book is available in paperback and Kindle from Amazon. It’s also available in paperback and Nook from Barnes & Noble. And, the book is listed in Apple bookstores, Google Books and other online retailers.

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Kashmir: Why can’t we give up this time bomb from the Raj? Why can’t we free Kashmir’s love and beauty?

Part of the Shalimar gardens in Kashmir.

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Shalimar gardens in Kashmir.

By VICTOR BEGG
Author of Our Muslim Neighbors

When Americans hear the news that Kashmir is the flashpoint of another deadly conflict between Pakistan and India, they shake their heads wearily and move on to the next news story—that is, if Americans pay attention at all. For most people, the name Kashmir is synonymous with endless conflict.

What breaks my heart is that this region is one of the most beautiful spots on this planet—and this deeply entrenched conflict really is a legacy of the British Empire’s “divide and rule” policy. The paradise of Kashmir is burning because Indian and Pakistani leaders are willing to die, claiming their ownership to this scenic beauty. Kashmiris themselves, mostly Muslim, are fiercely independent and don’t care for either side. After all, India and Pakistan both have pursued such brutal policies in the region that it is hard to find peace there—and the potential for prized tourism has never been realized. This is a tragedy on many levels.

A Shikhara in Kashmir.

I don’t intend to try to sort out the decades of back-and-forth arguments over abuse, oppression and violations. What I want to convey to readers is that this truly is a corner of the earth that I hope, one day, they will place on their bucket list of global travels.

A Muslim born in India, I grew up in Hyderabad, about 1,200 miles from Kashmir. I first saw this legendary region in the summer of 1967, when I had a chance to attend a medical school in Kashmir. I began my long, slow journey to the beautiful Kashmiri city of Srinagar from Pathankot, an Indian town in the foothills of the Himalayas. My final destination required a challenging mountainous journey—especially scary because earlier that same day, another bus had careened off a cliff. Far below, we could see it like an upside-down toy!

This was such a dangerous trip that there was no question of driving in the dark—so we stopped for the night and I slept on a cot under the starry sky.

Anxiety kept me awake most of that night. Not only were there the obvious natural dangers, but I was young and worried about my own future. As I lay looking up at the stars, I heard devotional hymns and bells from a shrine farther up in the mountains that lulled me to sleep. I woke up to the sound of chirping birds. It was a memorable prelude to what I experienced the next day.

After driving through a poorly lit two-mile-long tunnel, we emerged into a vast, lush valley surrounding the mirror like Dal Lake reflecting snow-capped mountains. As a popular tourist destination, it was known as “the jewel in the crown of Kashmir.”

For centuries, India’s elite escaped the summer heat by packing up their horse-drawn carriages, and sometimes their elephants, and moving to Kashmir for a few months.

The 17th-century Mughal Emperor Jahangir loved this place. Everyone knows the story of India’s Taj Mahal, built over many years as an act of love. But the shores of Dal Lake in Kashmir boast another world heritage site that was born of love. Jahangir devoted enormous resources to the construction of formal gardens to honor his beloved wife Nur Jahan. These gardens made of terraced pools, waterfalls and elaborate landscaping are known as Shalimar, which means “abode of love” in Sanskrit.

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

UNESCO sums up the beauty of the gardens this way: “The outstanding quality of Shalimar Bagh lies in the synthesis of its landscape and architectural features. The wider setting of the rural agricultural landscape, the rice fields and hamlets, the historic canal that links the garden to Dal Lake, and the mountain backdrop, all contribute to the significance of Shalimar Bagh.”

Jahangir absolutely loved this place. When he finished his gardens, he had an inscription carved in stone from the Sufi poet Amir Kushrow: “If there is a paradise on earth, it is here! It is here! It is here!”

UNESCO says one of the remarkable details of the architecture is that it was deliberately downplayed so that visitors’ attention was focused not on human construction—but on the natural beauty of the region. In fact, no great palaces were built in Kashmir, compared with the Mughal landmarks in northern India. These Muslim rulers were environmentalists, appreciating God’s artistry in nature.

When I hear “Kashmir”—that’s what I see in my mind’s eye. And, I think of the fragrant saffron fields, which legend holds were introduced by Sufis. I think of 100-foot-tall chinar trees with their wide, shady canopies. I remember the houseboats, anchored in Dal Lake, and the gondola-like boats, called shikhara, slowly moving across the lake to carry the tourists and honeymooners to the houseboats anchored in Dal Lake. I had seen these Kashmiri sights on Indian movie screens, but the reality was breathtaking!

I never became a doctor. Shortly after I arrived, Indian forces established a harsh curfew that closed everything down for many months. Finally, I gave up and left Kashmir behind. I wound up coming to America and becoming an entrepreneur. Now, I am an author promoting peaceful understanding between religious and cultural groups wherever I travel.

This is why my heart breaks any time fresh violence arises between the two giant powers poised around Kashmir like great lions, ready to pounce at any provocation.

I want to reach out and grab the leaders of both nations and give them a good shaking. I want to tell them: “Wake up! Why can’t grown-up, educated Indians and Pakistanis finally reject this British time bomb that was left behind when the Raj crumbled?”

There is so much of God’s beauty still cradled in Kashmir. Why can’t the armies leave and let this lush valley once again become a global mecca for love and beauty?

VICTOR GHALIB BEGG is a nationally known peace activist, a Muslim born in India, and the author of the 2019 memoir, Our Muslim Neighbors.

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A Tour of Ancient Rome’s Powerful Leaders That You’ll Want to Discuss with Friends

By DAVID CRUMM
Editor of ReadTheSpirit magazine

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

Ancient Rome has never been more popular.

I’m a journalist in my 60s whose professional specialty is covering cultural diversity, books and films. I vividly remember the swords-and-sandals Hollywood epics of the mid 20th century and also the host of B-list movies that sprang from the ancient world in that era. In 2019, today’s Roman resurgence in popular media is a lot more graphic and also makes far more detailed historical claims.

As of this book’s March 5, 2019, release date—we’ve got The Smithsonian Channel airing the series, Eight Days that Made Rome, which features lots of historians and on-site footage. Amazon is streaming the fictional Britannia series. Netflix is streaming the blood-drenched dramatic series called simply Roman Empire. These days, no self-respecting cable service wants to be caught without a Roman series for its viewers. And I could go on and on, listing other cable services that routinely air shows about Rome from the Travel Channel to Discovery.

So, that’s my first point in this review: The emperors covered in this book pop up regularly in those popular TV shows—and in world news headlines on a daily basis. The day I am posting this review, The Times of India carries a headline comparing a controversial politician to Emperor Nero. The Australian Broadcasting Company has a news analysis of political assassinations today—comparing them with ancient Rome. And, also today, the UK Independent newspaper is telling readers in a headline: What should be done in the Middle East? Ask the Romans.

This book is timely! That may sound odd about a book covering events two millennia ago, but it’s true.

There’s another reason to welcome Barry Strauss’s new book—and that involves the millions of small groups that meet each week in congregations nationwide. These groups have all kinds of names, including Sunday School, or Bible Study, or Prayer Group, or Men’s Group. What they have in common are regular meetings and, often, these groups either discuss the Bible—or agree to read and discuss other books related Christianity. Those are millions of men and women with an ongoing interest in what happened in the Roman Empire, the era of the New Testament and the early church.

Then, is this book too shallow? My answer: No!

I’m a journalist who has reported from Rome on a number of occasions, so I already know a lot about these Caesars. I was curious to see how Strauss is summing up their lives—based on the state of historical research in 2019. So, I read his entire book in two evenings, thoroughly enjoying this refreshing tour of this tumultuous era.

If you consider Strauss’s own biography closely, then you know he’s a top scholar, based at Cornell. He could have devoted his career to peer-reviewed volumes read by a small handful of historians. Instead, over many years, Strauss has published great books with Simon and Schuster that are a pleasure for general readers. Personally, I’ve read and kept on my shelf his earlier books on The Trojan War and The Battle of Salamis. Curious about his sources? Want to go deeper into the research? There are 50 pages of end notes you could sift through at your leisure, if you are so inclined. But he doesn’t clutter every page with a cascade of these references. He lets us enjoy ourselves with the narrative.

Overall, his new book feels like an invitation to sit in a classroom with a popular teacher who will carry us through dramatic events as a sweeping storyteller. Along the way, he pauses to sort out the conflicting opinions we hear from other sources about this era. Sometimes he debunks myths. Sometimes he admits that there’s really no way of settling a particular dispute, at the moment.

His aim is always to engage us. As a veteran author, he understands that our time is limited and we are torn between a myriad of distractions. So, Strauss has focused here on emperors who crop up frequently in news, in popular TV shows and in Christian discussion groups. I was particularly impressed, for example, at his balanced overview of Constantine, the so-called “first Christian emperor.” Many voices today ask: So, was Constantine really a Christian? Or was he faking it for political advantage? Curious about that? Get a copy of Strauss’s book and find out how he sifts the evidence.

Ultimately, there’s a very good chance, if you do get a copy, that you’ll wind up talking with friends about it in coming weeks. And that’s a very strong endorsement for any new book.

 

 

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In ‘For the Life of the World,’ Miroslav Volf argues: ‘Christian theology has lost its way …’

Reclaiming the Question:
What is flourishing life?

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

The Communists helped us. They stripped our faith of all the superfluous things. … Only someone willing to make a personal sacrifice could make a confession of faith. Young people entered the church because they understood this sacrifice.
The Rev. Vaclav Maly, who suffered imprisonment and torture in Prague before the 1989 Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia.

It sounds paradoxical but, under the oppression, we felt that everyday improved our spiritual life. I think it might be even a bit boring now that we are free.
Artist and mystic Otmar Oliva, in an interview shortly after the Velvet Revolution.

Then, 30 years later …
Christian theology has lost its way because it has neglected its purpose.
Miroslav Volf, writing in For the Life of the World, published in 2019 and available from Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

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By DAVID CRUMM
Editor of ReadTheSpirit online magazine

You can’t fully appreciate the prophetic power of theologian Miroslav Volf’s new manifesto: For the Life of the World, Theology That Makes a Difference—unless you are aware of what was happening exactly 30 years ago in the region where he grew up: Eastern Europe.

At that time, the former “Eastern Bloc” was turning on its head. As a senior writer for Knight-Ridder newspapers in that era, I was sent to Eastern Europe with a colleague to spend a couple of months traveling across what we had been calling “the Eastern Bloc.” Our mission? We were assigned to document and write what turned out to be an award-winning American newspaper series about the catalytic role of religious groups in spurring revolution. This ambitious assignment arose because my colleague, Roddy Ray, and I had been watching countless U.S. news reports about these revolutions, casting these stories as political dramas. Roddy and I soon realized that this reporting was produced largely by foreign correspondents who had no understanding of religion. We knew that we had to step in to report the larger story.

In one Eastern European nation after another, Roddy and I traced key sparks of revolutionary ignition back to rallies inside churches, to courageous pastors, to spiritually minded artists and writers and to prophetic religious leaders. Thanks to our series of stories, American newspaper readers learned of names like Vaclav Maly in Prague and Laszlo Tokes in Romania—and many others, as well.

In one story, I simply described Maly’s tiny apartment, where the light fixture in the ceiling had been partly dismantled to remove the electronic surveillance devices from the Communist authorities. Nearby was a round hole in Maly’s wall where the rock-hard plaster and lathe had been crushed inward.

“That is where they picked me up bodily and rammed my head into the wall during one of the interrogations,” he told me. “Luckily, the wall broke before my head did.”

I met a priest who was emerging from years of imprisonment in a stone quarry, determined to help rebuild the church. Another priest was trying to clean the oil stains from the floor of his church, which had been used as a garage for police vehicles for years. I met a rabbi who was re-opening a cobweb-strewn synagogue.

One night in Prague, I was astonished to sit up long after midnight with 20-something activists in a tiny, book-lined apartment where they gathered to discuss theology as if this was the turning point of their world. What kept these men and women up half the night in impassioned debate?

They were discussing the coming centennial of a Vatican encyclical, Rarum Novarum, about God’s vision for proper relationships between capitalists and laborers and between governments and citizens. Writing in the midst of what he called “the spirit of revolutionary change” in 1891, Pope Leo XIII, wrote passionately about the divine value of each person’s life—even the poor and oppressed. For the young activists in that apartment, Leo’s questions about the purpose of human life and work were as relevant as that morning’s newspaper headlines.

On one wall in that apartment hung the poster that seemed to be popping up everywhere in Prague, at that time. It showed playwright-turned-activist Vaclav Havel in a casual black sweater with one outstretched hand as he declared: “Truth and love must conquer lies and hate.”

This explosion of spiritual wonderment was not limited to the cities—or to elite intellectuals in university towns. I also traveled into the remote mountains of Transylvania to write about an impoverished Orthodox family prying up the floorboards of their bedroom to bring out priceless icons hidden away for decades. Those icons were bound for a solemn procession back to their church of origin.

Here is how Tokes summed up that era in an interview, as I quoted him in that newspaper series:

“Churches managed to survive four decades of communist attempts to suppress them, generally because they preserved eternal values—moral values that our societies now need very much for the future. … Through these years, the churches’ strength was that they remained the only organized alternatives left for people to the totalitarian governments.”

Here Is Where Miroslav Volf Begins …

That is why Volf’s new book, which he calls “a manifesto,” begins the way it does—with memories from Eastern Europe in the 1970s. (You can read an excerpt here.) The question that this book raises is deeply troubling—almost heartbreaking—to anyone who lived through the turbulent transformation of Eastern Europe in the late 1980s.

Across that entire region of the world, a new vision of human purpose seemed to be emerging. Men and women who cared deeply about their spiritual values—everyday theologians—were willing to risk their lives to carve out a better way of life. Many were imprisoned, tortured and died as a result. When that happened, more and more arose to swell their ranks.

Here is how I reported on just one of those scenes in November 1989:

In one of the climactic rallies that helped push the revolution to victory, the Rev. Vaclav Maly and other dissidents addressed a crowd of 500,000 gathered along the Letna Plain, a huge riverfront park on the northern edge of downtown Prague.

At one point, a young police officer unexpectedly appeared at the podium and admitted that he had been among the police who had beaten a group of student protesters earlier that month. He begged for forgiveness.

Maly then talked about the need for forgiveness, asked the crowd to forgive the officer, then led his huge audience in reciting the Lord’s Prayer.

Rita Klimova, a Jewish dissident who became the Czechoslovak ambassador to the United States, agrees that oppression actually has helped the church flourish. “It took the communists to make the citizens of Prague kneel on the pavement for the Catholic Church.”

That scene on the Letna Plain is one of the purest examples of theology in action I have ever seen in my 40-plus years as a journalist.

So, Theology Is ‘an Alternative’—
But to What?

Now, three decades later, Volf grabs his readers by the lapels on the first page of his book—and demands to know:

So, what happened!?!

In an interview about his new book, Volf told me: “In those years under these authoritarian regimes, the interest in theology—and, more broadly, the interest in the Christian faith, provided us an alternative safe space. We could think about questions of life and offer something like an alternative to the totalitarian powers that were holding our countries in such a tight grip.

“The problem was that, once the oppressive hand was lifted, many theologians were unable to shift to seeing their role and to continue to offer an alternative—this time to the emerging order in these countries. As a result, they became marginalized. Once the totalitarian regimes were gone, many thought their job was accomplished and there seemed to be little more for them to do.

“What I’m saying in the opening section of this book is that the motivation behind the vibrancy of theology for me, in those days, was the idea that we were exploring an alternative vision of life. But that alternative vision was not simply opposition to authoritarian regimes. We also were holding up a vision that was an alternative to capitalist and liberal orders, as well.

“There are still fundamental questions we can help people to answer for the good of the world.”

What You Need to Know about ‘For the Life of the World’ …

The first part of Volf’s case—about the explosion of creative theological activity across Eastern Europe in the 1970s and 1980s—is largely unknown to most Americans today. However, the second part of his case seems more obvious: Theologians have lost their way.

Are you questioning that sweeping conclusion? Quick! Can you name a famous, living theologian?

To be fair, Volf points out in this book that everyone is a potential theologian. “I tend not to make a sharp line between professional theologians and the kind of ordinary theologian that every thinking Christian is,” Volf said in our interview. “Obviously there’s a difference in training and in the sheer amount of time devoted to the subject matter if one is a professional theologian. But fundamentally theology is about discerning and articulating the character of faith. In that sense, I don’t see theology as simply looking at Christianity from the outside and describing what’s going on in Christian communities—rather, I see theology as being the very ideational side of everyday life.”

Pew Research reports that, today, nearly half of all Americans (40 percent) regularly experience moments of wonderment about the meaning and purpose of life. That’s a starting point, of course, for what Volf is trying to encourage. That basic “ideational” instinct necessary for theological inquiry still is alive and well.

The bulk of Volf’s book is a systematic analysis of the failure of our more official theologians, today, to reclaim the basic purposes of their vocation. They are missing the opportunity to help shape the general wonderment of men and women into a meaningful theology, he argues.

Of course, the next question for Volf has to be: So, what should be the purpose of Christian theology? Volf and his co-author Matthew Croasmun write, “We believe the purpose of theology is to discern, articulate, and commend visions of flourishing life in light of God’s self-revelation in Jesus Christ.” (Our non-Christian readers should be reminded that Volf also is internationally known for his interfaith peacemaking and for important books on inter-religious dialogue such as A Common Word and Allah.)

The central theme of this new book, then, is “flourishing life.” So, think about that phrase for a moment! When was the last time you recall a news headline about a theologian—or any regional religious leader for that matter—talking about anything close to that exciting idea? What we get in public media, instead, are religious leaders endlessly debating rules and regulations and, even more tragically in 2019, the moral failures of their entrenched hierarchies.

You may be thinking: What about the popular prosperity preachers we see on TV? Are they theologians of “flourishing life”? But, Volf’s response is a resounding: No! Flourishing life is a vision that stands in stark contrast to the selfish desire promoted by name-it-and-claim-it, get-rich-quick preachers.

“The idea of flourishing life has been used especially in recent philosophical and psychological discussions about the nature of a desirable human life,” Volf said in our interview. “It’s in the tradition of talking about ‘the good life’ or ‘the true life’ or ‘life that is truly worth living.’ This is a vision of human life as it ought to be—something toward which we can aspire in our own lives and in the world as a whole. You might call this ‘human fullness’ in contrast to a life that simply echoes all the values and messages that surround us.

“I am asking questions like: How should we fill our time? What kinds of things should we want? And what kind of human beings should we aspire to be? Today, it is so easy to simply live by acquiring things, perhaps resources or knowledge or fame or wealth. We love social media and we want those clicks in our lives. If we get more clicks, then we must matter in the world.

“The questions I am asking used to be at the core of university life. The question of the good life—the meaningful life—was the central pillar of university life for centuries. Then, over many years, it was marginalized. Now, what universities do primarily is try to explain the world and teach people how to manipulate the world. The real questions are forgotten: How should we live? What should we do? Why should we manipulate the world in these ways? Try to raise those questions in a university setting and, now, they seem to be questions above everyone’s pay grade.

“We are ignoring the most important human questions of all time.”

Get a Copy for Your Small Group or Class

There are portions of this relatively short book that may be described as “a bit academic” for everyday lay readers. But this historic moment of global turbulence in 2019 and the over-arching energy of Volf’s manifesto make this so powerful and timely that we urge readers to dive into this book. If you do, you’ll almost certainly want to share portions of it with friends and perhaps discuss this book in your small group or class.

In our interview, Volf acknowledged that portions of this book are directly addressed to fellow academics. Volf and his co-author are both based at Yale.

“But there is a larger message in this book and I hope that readers will consider what we are saying,” Volf said in our interview. “I am hoping they will understand the importance of these questions. I hope that some readers will come away from this book saying: ‘Wow! This question of the flourishing life may be the most important question of my life.'”

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Excerpt from Miroslav Volf’s new ‘For the Life of the World—Theology That Makes a Difference’

AN EXCERPT FROM … the opening pages of For the Life of the World—Theology That Makes a Difference, written by Miroslav Volf and Matthew Croasmun. You will also want to read David Crumm’s reporting about this new book, based in part on a new interview with Volf.

VOLF—I grew up in a place and at a time when we, a small group of teenagers who knew no better, thought that no intellectual endeavor could possibly matter more than doing theology. The time was the early 1970s. The place was Tito’s Yugoslavia and, for me specifically, a house in Novi Sad at the end of a dirt road—in fact, two small rooms that my father, a confectioner turned Pentecostal minister, had built in its courtyard with his own hands. From its windows, through low-hanging branches of a cherry tree, I had a fine view of an electrical substation at the edge of a swamp. …

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

I started spending days and nights in one of these two makeshift rooms reading the Bible, C. S. Lewis, Plato, Bertrand Russell (yes, go figure!), and, later, Karl Barth, Rudolf Bultmann, Wolfhart Pannenberg, Simone Weil, and Joseph Ratzinger—and teaching myself English and Greek in the process. I was part of a small group of young theological enthusiasts. Except for its oldest and most zealous member, who had read the entire Bible, cover to cover, thirteen times in the first year of his faith journey, all of us were, roughly, halfway through high school.

For us, theology was about the unbreakable tie between human transcendent longing and our mundane strivings, about the power of Jesus Christ, the Word of God and the Lamb of God, which stood in irreconcilable contrast to the power of soldiers, ideologues, bureaucrats, and secret service agents; it was about the right of persons—about our right, too, of course—to determine the shape and the direction of their individual and social lives, rather than, like some wound-up tin soldiers, to simply march in unison to the drumbeat of a failing revolution.

Theology was about a new world coming from God and in God’s way, a new social order whose creation and survival wouldn’t demand thousands on thousands of dead as did the order in which we were born—my own father having come a hair’s breadth from becoming one of them. In short, theology was about the truth and beauty of human existence in a world of justice, peace, and joy.

For us, no endeavor could matter more than doing good theology—though for me personally getting hold of a pair of US-made Levi’s bell-bottom jeans, Italian platform shoes, and a tight-fitting Indian gauze shirt wasn’t far behind in importance. As we spent our days and nights (yes, lots of long nights) reading and arguing about all matters theological, we had no idea that out in the wide world of Western academies, where we all wanted to study, theology was in a serious crisis.

VOLF and CROASMUN—Like disoriented and impoverished descendants of a monarch long deposed, some of us theologians live under a cloud of doom and futility, nostalgic for the glory and power of our ancestors but hopeless about the future. Theology had its time, but that time is no more. It would have been better, we think, had we given up long ago on the untimely endeavor and devoted our energies to more reputable academic pursuits or some more useful activity.

Others among us feel like impoverished but proud aristocrats, with fraying clothes and crumbling dwellings but a soaring sense of self-importance. We continue to do well what theologians have always done—what we feel theologians have always done—but we do so with a big chip on our shoulders. If only other academics or the general public would recognize our greatness and pay attention to the fruits of our wisdom, ancient wisdom, God’s wisdom! If only some rich heiress would fall in love with us and return the proper luster to our clothes and dwellings!

Still other theologians, perhaps the majority of us, have acquired democratic sensibilities and settled into daily routines as “knowledge producers” employed by institutions that compete in global markets. We teach our courses and write reviews, scholarly articles, and an occasional book. We work hard to accomplish what it takes to get tenure (and nervously bite our nails through the process). We have a job, and we want to do it well: to add our own grain of intellectual sand to the vast metropolis of knowledge and to instruct students about a tradition that we aren’t sure is truly alive anymore.

In one way or another, theologians seem to have lost theological eros, our sense of divine calling to grapple with the ultimate questions of human existence and of the world’s destiny.

VOLF—By now I have been a student of theology for forty-five years, thirty-five of them as a teacher. In a sense, I wrote this book to give myself a reason to keep faith with the dream of the teenager-theologian I once was. But my concern isn’t primarily autobiographical integrity; after all, platform shoes or their current equivalents don’t matter to me nearly as much now as they did then. My concern is the self-marginalizing and self-defeating response of theologians to the obsession with acquisition of resources and entertainment in the broader culture and especially to the dominance of the sciences in modern universities.

Along with other scholars in the humanities, we theologians have sought to recast our discipline so as to acquire a legitimate home in the great edifice of science, but instead we have “dug a hole and pitched [ourselves] to its bottom.” The price we paid for the right to make at best marginal additions to the storehouse of knowledge was the loss of the ability to address the most profound and important questions of human existence, which the sciences, by the very nature of their methodologies, are unable even to take up, let alone to answer.

I became a student of theology in search of true life in the midst of a false one; I am a theologian now for that same reason. This book explains why and invites others to join the endeavor

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