Summer reading, chapter two: the EDS list

The Episcopal Divinity School has responded to a number of requests for reading recommendations by developing a summer reading list. “Throughout the course of the year the EDS faculty receive many requests to make recommendations about books to read in their areas of study,” said the Rev. Dr. Sheryl Kujawa-Holbrook, academic dean. “We regularly receive requests for reading recommendations from persons interested in attending a continuing education class or enrolling in seminary. Other groups who request faculty recommended reading lists are adult education committees, parish discernment
committees, and diocesan commissions on ministry, all of whom are charged with adult formation within the church.”

The 2007 reading list covers a variety of topics including the Millennium Development Goals, reconciliation, the Anglican Communion, classism, racism, sexism, as well as publications that explore the interpretation of the Bible from a feminist or “GenX” perspective.

Selected readings include:

  • Alkire, Sabina and Edmund Newell, What Can One Person Do? Faith to Heal a Broken World, New York, Church Publishing, 2005.
  • Campolo, Tony and Michael Battle, The Church Enslaved: A Spirituality For Racial Reconciliation (Prisms), Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2005.
  • Crossan, John Dominic, Amy-Jill Levine, Dale Allison, The Historical Jesus in Context (Princeton Readings in Religions), Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006.
  • Dawson, Lorne L. and Douglas E. Cowan, Religion Online: Finding Faith on the Internet, New York: Routledge, 2004.
  • Guest, Deryn et al. Eds, The Queer Bible Commentary, Norwich, SCM Press, 2006.
  • Hassett, Miranda K., Anglican Communion in Crisis: How Episcopal Dissidents and Their African Allies Are Reshaping Anglicanism, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007.
  • Horsley, Richard, Jesus and Empire: The Kingdom of God and the New World Disorder, Minneapolis: Fortress, 2002.
  • Meacham, Jon, American Gospel: God, the Founding Fathers, and the Making of a Nation, Fortress Press, 2007.
  • Newsom, Carol A., and Sharon H. Ringe, eds, The Women's Bible
    Commentary, Expanded ed. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1998.

  • Thompsett, Fredrica Harris and Cynthia L. Shattuck, Confronted by God: The Essential Verna Dozier, New York. Church Publishing, 2006.
  • Townes, Emilie M., Womanist Ethics and the Cultural Production of Evil (Black Religion/Womanist Thought/Social Justice), Palgrave, MacMillan Books, 2006.
  • Ward, Kevin, A History of Global Anglicanism (Introduction to Religion), Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2006.
  • Westerhoff, John W., Will Our Children Have Faith? Rev. Ed. Harrisburg: Morehouse Publishing, 2000.

The full list, complete with links to purchase the books through the EDS Amazon Associates store, is here.

God's book sales increase

According to the Church Times, the online bookseller Amazon reports sales of religious books whether for or against God have increased dramatically:

Religious books are a salvation to the book trade, even when they set out to disprove the existence of God, says the online bookseller, Amazon.

Statistics published by the company suggest that the number of people buying books from it about religion or spirituality has soared in three years by 50 per cent. The increase has outshone all other categories, including history, which has grown by 38 per cent, and politics, which has grown by 30 per cent.

As well as the other religious titles, sales of the Bible through Amazon increased by 120 per cent last year.

Read it all here

Thanks to Anglicans Online.

The Lucifer effect

In American Scientist, Robert V. Levine tells the story of the Stanford prison experiments:

In the summer of 1971, a young social psychologist named Philip Zimbardo set up a mock prison in the basement of Stanford University's psychology building. The 24 subjects he had selected for the two-week experiment he was planning were mostly middle-class, educated, college-age men who happened to be in Palo Alto for the summer. At the outset all were deemed to be "normal" on the basis of personality tests and their conduct in clinical interviews. They were to be paid $15 a day for their participation.

Zimbardo assigned each subject to be a prisoner or guard by flipping a coin. There were no measurable personality differences between the two groups when the experiment began. Zimbardo played the role of warden himself. The researchers were initially concerned that subjects wouldn't take the experiment seriously enough.

They needn't have been. To everyone's astonishment, the two groups quickly came to act like their real-life counterparts. The prisoners became despondent; some broke down. In less than 36 hours, one had to be released because of extreme depression, disorganized thinking, uncontrollable crying and fits of rage. Over the next three days, three more prisoners were let go because they exhibited similar symptoms of anxiety. A fifth prisoner was discharged when he developed a psychosomatic rash over his entire body, an apparent reaction to the rejection of his parole appeal by the mock parole board.

The guards' behavior was even more disturbing. All flexed their power to one degree or another. They made the prisoners obey trivial, often inconsistent rules and forced them to perform tedious, pointless work, such as moving cartons from one closet to another or continuously picking thorns out of blankets (an unpleasant task the guards created by dragging the blankets through thorny bushes). The inmates were made to sing songs or laugh or stop smiling on command; to curse and malign one another publicly; to clean out toilets with their bare hands. They were required to sound off their numbers repeatedly and to do endless push-ups, occasionally with a guard's foot or that of another prisoner on their backs.

He continues:

Zimbardo's remarkable experiment is at the center of his equally remarkable book, The Lucifer Effect. Why a new book about a 35-year-old study? Zimbardo presents the research in greater detail and texture than ever before. He provides a wealth of new interpretations and new material—anecdotes, entries from the diaries of prisoners and guards, updates on the lives of the participants, and documentation of the consequences his findings have had for real-world prison policy.

Perhaps more important, the passage of time offers him a larger canvas—disturbingly large—on which to apply the lessons of the experiment. In the second half of the book, he delves into a profusion of contemporary small- and large-scale evils. He investigates, for example, the fraudulence of executives at Enron and WorldCom, the sexual abuse of parishioners by Catholic priests, the My Lai massacre in Vietnam, systematic programs of police and military torture in a number of countries, the mass suicides at Jonestown, and the genocides in Rwanda and elsewhere. Zimbardo convincingly explains how each of these evils mirrors the lessons of the Stanford Prison Experiment and might to some extent have been avoided had those lessons been learned more successfully.


Most notably, Zimbardo analyzes the infamous sadistic acts carried out by U.S. military personnel in Abu Ghraib prison. This section alone is worth the price of the book. Not only is it extraordinarily detailed, both psychologically and otherwise, it also offers the chilling perspective of an insider, Staff Sergeant Chip Frederick, a supervisor on the night shift at Abu Ghraib and one of the primary villains in the abuse scandal. Zimbardo was an expert witness at Frederick's court-martial and came to know the defendant and his family well. By the time Zimbardo has finished describing Frederick's transformation from idealistic soldier to abuser, Abu Ghraib feels eerily indistinguishable from the Stanford Prison Experiment. It is as if the Iraqi prison had been designed by twisted social psychologists who wanted to replicate Zimbardo's experiment using real guards and prisoners.

The book, however, is not simply a catalog of horrors:

What, Zimbardo asks, leads ordinary people to do bad things, things they never would have imagined doing? Most evildoing, it becomes depressingly clear, is driven by rather ordinary social-psychological reactions. Zimbardo offers an extensive list and discussion of the toxic situational forces and normal psychological reactions to them that tend to activate the Lucifer effect. He provides a detailed, intelligent and workable program for resisting unwanted social influence, highlighting dangers and offering tangible prescriptions for neutralizing negative effects. There are, for example, mini-tutorials on how to distinguish between just and unjust authorities, on being careful not to sacrifice one's freedom for the illusion of security, and on learning to recognize when, where and how to stand up to unjust systems.

The final chapter is a gem. Here Zimbardo seamlessly demonstrates how the same social psychology that may exploit our worst instincts can be reconstrued to cultivate the best in ourselves. Altruism, like evil, is readily responsive to situational forces, and Zimbardo suggests strategies for tapping into these potentialities. He also presents a provocative, multidimensional taxonomy of heroism that I hope will stimulate long-overdue research and education in this area.

Read it all. And have a look at this excerpt as well.

Madeleine L’Engle has died

The New York Times has news today that the noted children's author and active episcopal layperson and speaker had died at the age of 88. All of us here at the Café give thanks for her life and ministry

"Ms. L’Engle (pronounced LENG-el) was best known for her children’s classic, “A Wrinkle in Time,” which won the John Newbery Award as the best children’s book of 1963. By 2004, it had sold more than 6 million copies, was in its 67th printing and was still selling 15,000 copies a year.

Her works — poetry, plays, autobiography and books on prayer — were deeply, quixotically personal. But it was in her vivid children’s characters that readers most clearly glimpsed her passionate search for the questions that mattered most. She sometimes spoke of her writing as if she were taking dictation from her subconscious.

“Of course I’m Meg,” Ms. L’Engle said about the beloved protagonist of “A Wrinkle in Time.”

The “St. James Guide to Children’s Writers” called Ms. L’Engle “one of the truly important writers of juvenile fiction in recent decades.” Such accolades did not come from pulling punches: “Wrinkle” is one of the most banned books because of its treatment of the deity.

“It was a dark and stormy night,” it begins, repeating the line of a 19th- century novelist Edward George Bulwer-Lytton, and presaging the immortal sentence that Snoopy, the inspiration-challenged beagle of the Peanuts cartoon, would type again and again. After the opening, “Wrinkle,” quite literally, takes off. Meg Murray, with help from her psychic baby brother, uses time travel and extrasensory perception to rescue her father, a gifted scientist, from a planet controlled by the Dark Thing. She does so through the power of love.

The book used concepts that Ms. L’Engle said she had plucked from Einstein’s theory of relativity and Planck’s quantum theory, almost flaunting her frequent assertion that children’s literature is literature too difficult for adults to understand. She also characterized the book as her refutation of ideas of German theologians."

Read the full two page article here.

The AP story is here.

What is the source of creativity?

The Telegraph has published an edited extract from from Peter Conrad's new book, Creation: Artists Gods and Origins. Here's a passage,

The very idea that art purports to be a creative activity can offend a man of faith. In 1880, the Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins defined creation as "the making out of nothing", which was accomplished by God "in no time with a word".

Hopkins denied that human beings shared this capacity; we can only play with matter that already exists. We know how to use grain to make bread or clay to make bricks, but cannot create the seed or the soil. "Man," Hopkins emphasised, "cannot create a single speck, God creates all that is not himself".

But is it really nonsensical to praise a man of genius for creating a painting, a poem or a tune, just because he did not invent the canvas and the colours, the words or the notes? Art is a magical activity....

Read the entire extract here.

Some reviews are available here.

In the Washington Post this morning there is an article (with images), "Putting His Brush in God's Hand," about the American artist Asher B. Durand with a similar theme:

He adhered to his principles: It is God who made the universe. Nature is a Scripture. The pious landscape painter who learns to read it rightly is thus a kind of priest.

Sigmund Freud's Moses book

Mark Edmundson, author of The Death of Sigmund Freud: The Legacy of His Last Days writes,

In “The Future of an Illusion,” he described belief in God as a collective neurosis: he called it “longing for a father.” But in his last completed book, “Moses and Monotheism,” something new emerges. There Freud, without abandoning his atheism, begins to see the Jewish faith that he was born into as a source of cultural progress in the past and of personal inspiration in the present. Close to his own death, Freud starts to recognize the poetry and promise in religion....He argues that Judaism helped free humanity from bondage to the immediate empirical world, opening up fresh possibilities for human thought and action. He also suggests that faith in God facilitated a turn toward the life within, helping to make a rich life of introspection possible.

About the Moses story Freud came to some unique conclusions:
How did Freud know [Moses was not a Jew]? First of all, he claimed that Moses is not a Jewish name but an Egyptian one; second, Freud’s study of dreams and fairy tales convinced him that the Bible had inverted things. In the Exodus story, Moses’ mother, fearing Pharaoh’s order to kill all Jewish boys, leaves the infant Moses in a basket on the river’s edge, where he is discovered by Pharaoh’s daughter. But Freud maintained that the Jews were the ones who had found him by the river. (In fairy tales and dreams, the child always begins with rich parents and is adopted by poor ones, yet his noble nature wins out — or so Freud insisted.) Freud also said that monotheism was not a Jewish but an Egyptian invention, descending from the cult of the Egyptian sun god Aton.

Read it here in today's New York Times Magazine.

Find Edmundson's book here.

The Stillborn God?

Today's New York Times Book Review includes a review of a fascinating book by Mark Lilla, a professor of the humanities at Columbia University, that examines the persistence of faith in the Western world after the enlightenment. Here are highlights from the review:

Some of us have been taking the European Enlightenment a little bit for granted. We’ve assumed that, just as natural philosophers like Copernicus, Galileo and Kepler ultimately prevailed in overturning the geocentric model of Ptolemaic cosmology, so, too, moral philosophers like Hobbes, Spinoza and Locke ultimately prevailed in removing ideas of divine revelation and redemption from politics. Progress in both spheres, the scientific and the political, was not only analogous and linked, but also, in some sense, inevitable, at least once rigorous standards of clear thinking were adopted. Let people freely and rationally pursue physics, and eventually they’d draw the conclusion that the Earth moves. Let people freely and rationally think about how best to organize human society — with a view toward diminishing turmoil and augmenting the realization of individual potential — and eventually they’d separate church and state. We’ve assumed the matter has been thankfully settled, at least in the Western intellectual tradition. No wonder, then, that recent years have brought a spate of incredulous “neo-Enlightenment” books — along the lines of Christopher Hitchens’s “God Is Not Great” — all of them barely able to contain their dismay that they even have to be arguing what it is they are arguing.

The sophisticated story that Mark Lilla, a professor of the humanities at Columbia University, presents in “The Stillborn God” adds nuance and complexity to the intellectual account we tell about the West’s thinking on religion and politics, and how it managed to separate (sort of) the one from the other. Lilla wants to challenge the view that the “Great Separation” — the prying apart of political theories from theology — was analogous to, say, the Copernican Revolution, that it constituted a discovery at which those thinking well would eventually arrive and that, once discovered, was secured in intellectual history’s linear progress.

In Lilla’s telling there was, first of all, nothing inevitable about the Great Separation. In fact, it is political theology that comes most naturally to us: “When looking to explain the conditions of political life and political judgment, the unconstrained mind seems compelled to travel up and out: up toward those things that transcend human existence, and outward to encompass the whole of that existence. ... The urge to connect is not an atavism.”

Indeed, this urge is so irresistible, Lilla argues, that only highly unusual circumstances can compel us to give it up. Those unusual circumstances were provided by Christian theology — but not, as some recent religious apologists have argued, because the Judeo-Christian framework itself promotes rationality and tolerance. Rather, it is Christianity’s own fundamental ambiguities — torn between a picture of God as both present and absent from the temporal realm, an ambivalence powerfully represented by the paradoxes of the Trinity — that made it “uniquely unstable,” subject to a plurality of interpretations that became institutionalized in sectarianism, and hence to several centuries’ worth of devastating upheaval.

. . .

And what was the Enlightenment’s proffered cure? It was to translate questions about religion into psychological and anthropological questions. The problem was changed from “What does God want from us?” to “Why is man constantly asking what it is that God wants from us?” The thinker most centrally responsible for this interrogative substitution was the 17th-century English philosopher Thomas Hobbes, and the answer he gives is: because man is a frightened ignoramus. Knowing enough to be terrified of his own mortality but knowing little else about objective nature and thus understandably alarmed, man creates an omnipotent being who can be supplicated and obeyed, a conception that then ends up tormenting him with new fear. Religion, Hobbes thought, comes from a dark place in the psyche.

Lilla makes it clear that he believes Hobbes’s thinking on the religious impulse to be both historically pivotal and psychologically simplistic. More important, he argues that influential thinkers like Rousseau, Kant and Hegel agree with him. The religious impulse isn’t merely a matter of man’s cringing self-protective fear; it can also be an expansive response toward the universe, morality and freedom, and a strain of post-Enlightenment thinking, featuring thinkers of the caliber of Kant, struggled to do justice to religion’s expansive aspects.

Read it all here (subscription may be required).

Medieval life in the margins

The most recent issue of Atlantic includes a book review of Cambridge historian Eamon Duffy's Marking the Hours, which describes how the inner life of men and women in medieval times (mostly women) is disclosed in their scratchings in the margins of "the Book of Hours—a devotional assemblage for the laity, first compiled in the 13th century."

Duffy largely eschews such speculation and instead concentrates on the nitty-gritty. The Book of Hours was in many cases its owner’s most expensive and most intimate possession, carried about tucked in a sleeve or belt. Although a deeply personal artifact, the book, soon grubby and well thumbed, was also shared—known as “the primer” in England, it was the primary volume children used in learning to read. Both the way the books were handled and the scribbles that filled them signified the permeability of the secular and religious life, especially among women (a point Mary Erler stresses in her Women, Reading, and Piety in Late Medieval England), and also the intermingling of the quotidian and the eternal, the individual and the communal, even the Christian and the pagan. One woman, in her marginalia, laments the destruction of a shrine and details the contents of her linen closet. The books are crammed with pressed flowers, recipes, notes on debts and rents due, charms and incantations, souvenirs of pilgrimages, affectionate messages from family members (the young Catherine Parr, the future queen, playfully jotted to her uncle, “Wen you do on thys loke / Pray you remember wo wrote thys in your boke”; it’s the equivalent of every bad yearbook rhyme), dates of marriages and deaths (“my moder departed to God”), and often very precise information about the times of births, to aid the casting of horoscopes. Moreover, these prayer books, a means to converse with God, testify to the vicissitudes of temporal power. Richard III’s book was taken at Bosworth Field; the victor, Henry VII, gave it to his mother, who scratched off Richard’s name and wrote her own on the flyleaf. A onetime devoted court friend of Catherine of Aragon blotted out the queen’s autograph after Henry VIII repudiated her.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Duffy;s book is his examination of the margin scriblings of Thomas More's Book of the Hours:

Occasionally the books offer far more than a trace of that elusive quarry Duffy calls “the innermost thoughts and most sacred privacies of late medieval people.” While imprisoned in the Tower, awaiting his trial and eventual execution, Thomas More pored over and annotated his Book of Hours. Its remarkable survival (it was in private hands until 1929) allows us, as Duffy writes with forgivable hyperbole, to watch More “in the very act of praying.” Duffy’s scrupulous exegesis of More’s poignant notes about the verses in the psalms that captured his attention and of the prayer More wrote in the margins (“Gyve me thy grace good lord / To sett the world at nought …”) clearly shows a devout and isolated man using his Book of Hours in his struggle “to come to terms with a frightening fate.”

Read the entire review here.

What aspect of your interior life would be revealed if a future historian were to look at you margin notes?

Canterbury Press to publish Bishop Robinson's book

According to;

"Canterbury Press has bought the memoir of Bishop Gene Robinson from US Episcopal publisher Morehouse. The book, In the Eye of the Storm, will be published in April 2008.

In 2003, Robinson was elected Bishop of New Hampshire, the first openly gay man to be appointed to such a position. The election sparked a storm of controversy which, according to Canterbury Press, is changing the face of Anglicanism worldwide.

The book will see Robinson reflecting on his faith, his life and the controversy. Christine Smith, publishing director of Canterbury Press, said:'Gene Robinson has an incredible story to tell and a depth of humanity and humility to reveal to all who are willing to listen.'"

Canterbury Press is an imprint of Hymns Ancient & Modern, Ltd, an publishing house that has a long history of service to the Church of England

Read the rest:

J.K. Rowling 'fesses up

J.K. Rowling, the author of the best selling series of books about Harry Potter, "the boy who lived" has revealed in an interview with MTV that she intentionally included a great deal of Christian thought and imagery in her books.

She says specifically of the scripture quotes found in the final volume of the series that "They almost epitomize the whole series."

The interview begins:

'It deals extensively with souls — about keeping them whole and the evil required to split them in two. After one hero falls beyond the veil of life, his whispers are still heard. It starts with the premise that love can save you from death and ends with a proclamation that a sacrifice in the name of love can bring you back from it.

Harry Potter is followed by house-elves and goblins — not disciples — but for the sharp-eyed reader, the biblical parallels are striking. Author J.K. Rowling's 'Harry Potter' books have always, in fact, dealt explicitly with religious themes and questions, but until 'Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows,' they had never quoted any specific religion.

That was the plan from the start, Rowling told reporters during a press conference at the beginning of her Open Book Tour on Monday. It wasn't because she was afraid of inserting religion into a children's story. Rather, she was afraid that introducing religion (specifically Christianity) would give too much away to fans who might then see the parallels.

"To me [the religious parallels have] always been obvious," she said. "But I never wanted to talk too openly about it because I thought it might show people who just wanted the story where we were going.

Later in the interview she talks more specifically about the Christian parallels, but that section contains spoilers and so it may never be said that the Episcopal Café ever ruined the reading a good book, we'll let you read that for yourself.

You can read the rest here.

A Secular Age?

Charles Taylor, Board of Trustees Professor of Law and Philosophy at Northwestern University, is causing quite a stir with his new book A Secular Age. Among his more interesting arguments is that Christianity itself is responsible for the rise of secularism. Robert Bellah has written a glowing review:

I have long admired Charles Taylor and have read most of what he has written and always found him helpful. Yet for me, A Secular Age is his breakthrough book—one of the most important books to be written in my lifetime. Taylor succeeds in no less than recasting the entire debate about secularism.

From the very first pages it is clear that Taylor is doing something different from what others writing about secularization have achieved, because he distinguishes three senses of secularity. Almost all the literature on secularization with which I am familiar falls under Taylor’s first two categories of secularity:

• Secularity 1: the expulsion of religion from sphere after sphere of public life.

• Secularity 2: the decline of religious belief and practice.

Many excellent books have been written on these two aspects of secularization.

But Taylor’s focus in this book is on what he calls

• Secularity 3: “the conditions of experience of and search for the spiritual” that make it possible to speak of ours as a “secular age.”

I doubt that many people have even perceived this third dimension, and Taylor’s book should be as much a revelation to them as it has been to me.

. . .

Taylor argues that the Reformation—with its radical rejection of the monastic life and the demand of a kind of monastic discipline for everyone—is just the preliminary culmination of a thousand years of pressure of Christianity toward Reform. He then shows how, even when Protestantism itself comes in question, long-term pressure toward Reform continues, first in 18th-century Deism and its attendant strong emphasis on Benevolence, and then in the 19th-century emergence of unqualified (secular) humanism with its emphasis on progress.

According to Taylor, it is not “science” or “Darwinism” that accounts for these developments, but the continuation of a moral narrative that was already long present in Christianity. Even the emergence in the late 19th century of anti-humanism (Nietzsche) cannot be understood except in terms of the particular features of what was being rejected: namely, both Christian and secular social ameliorism. By seeing the emergence of the secular age in narrative form primarily, rather than as a theoretical discovery, I think he makes the whole thing far more intelligible and explains our present quandaries far better than any competing accounts.

Read it all here. And read other commentaries by other (including Taylor himself) on the themes of his book here.

Idol Chatter about the Golden Compass

The movie of Philip Pullman's book, The Golden Compass, will be released in December. Beliefnet's entertainment blog Idol Chatter has created a Golden Compass category. Go here to see the series of posts. They are studded with links. This recent post includes videos of an interview with the author.

In the latest post Kris Rasmussen writes,

I suggest you read fantasy author Jeffrey Overstreet's anaylsis, in which he describes in detail his respect for Pullman's writing while pointing out that with Pullman's anti-religion bias, he still never has the courage to deal with the true nature of Christ himself.

You could also check out critic Peter Chattaway's take on the movie, where he discusses how there have been complaints that movie has been dumbed down so that it wouldn't be so anti-religious--and that has inflamed the secularist group Pullman belongs to.

Empires and tolerance

Today's New York Times Book Review includes a review of Amy Chau's Day of Empire, which makes some very interesting observations about the role of toleration and inclusion to the success of several empires, including Achaemenid Persia, imperial Rome, Tang Dynasty China, the Mongol empire, the Dutch commercial empire of the 17th century, the British Empire and the United States. Lance Morrow, a longtime essayist for TIME magazine wrote the review:

The emperor Claudius thought about the dynamics of imperial ingestion. He reminded the Roman Senate that the founder Romulus would “both fight against and naturalize a people on the same day.” Claudius argued that the Gauls, by logical extension, could be accepted into the Senate because “they no longer wear trousers” — that is, they could be counted on to come to work wearing the Roman toga and thus to have effectively become Romans.

The great Mughal emperor Akbar flourished by practicing a similar “strategic tolerance” — which included what Amy Chua in “Day of Empire” calls “multicultural copulation.” A Muslim himself, the emperor intermarried widely: “By the time of Akbar’s death, he had more than 300 wives, including Rajputs, Afghans, princesses from South Indian kingdoms, Turks, Persians and even two Christian women of Portuguese descent.”

E pluribus unum.

Chua argues that all of the world-dominant powers in history — among them, Achaemenid Persia, imperial Rome, Tang Dynasty China, the Mongol empire, the Dutch commercial empire of the 17th century, the British Empire and hegemonic America — prospered by a strategy of tolerance and inclusion, the embrace (and exploitation) of diversity and difference.

. . .

The death of empire, in Chua’s thesis — the Kryptonite that vitiates a superpower — is intolerance and exclusivity, an insistence on racial “purity” or religious orthodoxy. Chua wonders how different 20th-century history might have been if Hitler had been a tolerant and accommodating conqueror. “By murdering millions of conquered subjects and hundreds of thousands of German citizens,” she observes, “the Nazis deprived themselves of incalculable manpower and human capital. ... Germany lost an array of brilliant scientists, including Albert Einstein, Theodore von Karman, Eugene Wigner, Leo Szilard, Hans Bethe, Edward Teller and Lise Meitner, many of whom went on to play an integral role in the construction of the world’s first atomic bomb, which the United States used to win the war.” It was history’s most spectacular example of shooting oneself in the foot.

Further unintended consequences of doctrinaire malice: In 1478, the Inquisition, decreed by papal bull, ended an era of relative tolerance in Spain. In 1492, Ferdinand and Isabella gave Jews the choice of either converting to Catholism or leaving. Ten years later, the Muslims of Castile were ordered to convert or emigrate. “The Spanish monarchy had officially embraced intolerance,” Chua writes, “and for an empire hoping to rise in global pre-eminence, this was a staggeringly bad move.”

Chua, the John Duff Jr. professor of law at Yale Law School, unfolds an agreeably plausible case with clarity and insistent simplification, like a lawyer pacing before the jury box, hitting the same points (tolerance, diversity, inclusion) for emphasis as she clicks off centuries and civilizations. Always in the back of her mind is the drama of America.

. . .

Few would quarrel with Chua’s absorbing PowerPoint presentation, her shrewd and happy argument that a generous policy of tolerance and inclusion leads on to success and prosperity. Or with her somewhat more intricate (or circular?) case that even the most embracingly inclusive empires eventually disintegrate because they lack “glue” — an overarching political identity to give coherence to the whole.

But in the 21st century, “empire” and “superpower” and “hyperpower” are terms that may require rethinking. They suggest boundaries, borders — even as they connote the expansion of territory and influence. But most of the powerful forces, good and evil, of our new century are borderless, globalized — the almost unimpeded global flow of information (images, ideas, news, music, movies, emotions, hatreds), products, commodities, capital, environmental pollution, climate change and terrorism. Perhaps, eventually, nuclear terrorism. In such a world, an idea (a rage, a grievance, a difference of cultural perspective) may create a superpower without borders, using a cave in Afghanistan or Pakistan as its Pentagon.

Read it all here.

New York Times Notable Books

The December 2, 2007 New York Times Sunday Book Review will feature its lists of the editors' call on the 100 most notable books of the year. While the print version of the list is a week away, the list is now available online here.

A remarkably large number if these books have religious themes, including the following:

THE RELUCTANT FUNDAMENTALIST. By Mohsin Hamid. (Harcourt, $22.) Hamid’s chilling second novel is narrated by a Pakistani who tells his life story to an unnamed American after the attacks of 9/11.

CIRCLING MY MOTHER. By Mary Gordon. (Pantheon, $24.) Gordon’s deeply personal memoir focuses on the engaged and lively Catholicism of her mother, a glamorous career woman who was also an alcoholic with a body afflicted by polio.

EASTER EVERYWHERE: A Memoir. By Darcey Steinke. (Bloomsbury, $24.95.) A minister’s daughter confronts her own spiritual rootlessness.

FORESKIN’S LAMENT: A Memoir. By Shalom Auslander. (Riverhead, $24.95.) With scathing humor and bitter irony, Auslander wrestles with his Jewish Orthodox roots.

HOW TO READ THE BIBLE: A Guide to Scripture, Then and Now. By James L. Kugel. (Free Press, $35.) In this tour through the Jewish scriptures (i.e., the Old Testament, more or less), a former professor of Hebrew seeks to reclaim the Bible from the literalists and the skeptics.

PORTRAIT OF A PRIESTESS: Women and Ritual in Ancient Greece. By Joan Breton Connelly. (Princeton University, $39.50.) A scholar finds that religion meant power for Greek women.

THE STILLBORN GOD: Religion, Politics, and the Modern West. By Mark Lilla. (Knopf, $26.) With nuance and complexity, Lilla examines how we managed to separate, in a fashion, church and state.

The online list includes links to the New York Times review of each listed book.

Was Shakespeare Roman Catholic?

For several years, Shakespeare scholars have speculated on whether William Shakespeare had been a closeted Catholic. The Rev. David Beauregard, a Roman Catholic priest who teaches Shakespeare at the seminary of St. Clement Eucharistic Shrine in Boston, has published a new book, Catholic Theology in Shakespeare's Plays", that makes the case that Shakespeare was indeed Catholic:

"My case isn't based on documentary evidence," Beauregard acknowledged in a recent interview. Religion back then was a matter of don't ask don't tell. The Church of England was the state denomination; what devout Catholics thought and did privately was their business, but Elizabeth I demanded public fealty to the church she headed and was prepared to punish, even brutalize dissidents. In 1581, she made a martyr out of Jesuit priest Edmund Campion.

Biographical detail of any kind about Shakespeare is scant, but a now-lost Catholic document found in the 18th century suggested that Shakespeare's father, John, was a loyal Catholic, and an Anglican clergyman, the 17th-century cleric Richard Davies, wrote that the great playwright "died a Papist."

With Shakespeare's life shrouded in murkiness, scholars must probe the sprawling thicket of his writing for evidence of his religious views. A chat with Beauregard to sample a few bits of his research is to beam back to high school or college English classes.

He'll remind you that in "Hamlet," the ghost of Hamlet's murdered father tells his son that he is in purgatory, a Catholic concept. Or that an earlier play, "King John," portrays its titular character, who feuded with the pope and, said Beauregard, was a hero to Protestants, as an evil tyrant who dies violently. True, there are antipapal lines in the play, one of several examples in Shakespearean works in which he mocks Catholic figures. But Beauregard said the diatribes are in keeping with John's character, as a rebel against Rome.

Isabella, a novice nun in "Measure for Measure," is a model of virtue, a break with Protestant dramatists who depicted Catholic religious as sinners, said Beauregard. (It's telling, he adds, that Shakespeare made Isabella a novice; an earlier play on which "Measure for Measure" was partly based portrayed Isabella as a secular woman.) In "All's Well That Ends Well," Helena cures the sick king, attributing her success to "inspired merit" - "a very Catholic phrase," Beauregard said.

Not every scholar is persuaded:

They don't convince Stephen Greenblatt, professor of Renaissance literature at Harvard, a Shakespeare scholar, and an author of several books on the Bard. In an e-mail, Greenblatt notes Shakespeare's family and its Catholic ties, but said: "I think throughout his life, he drew upon this experience of the outlawed faith. He was, in this and in other ways, a specialist at recycling damaged or discarded institutional goods. But I do not myself believe that the adult Shakespeare was a pious Catholic or Protestant."

Read it all here.

A revisionist history of tolerance

Peter Steinfels has a very interesting column in yesterday's New York Times on a new perspective on the development of the concept of religious toleration. While the typical history is a story of intellectual history involving scholars and other elites, Benjamin Kaplan, a professor of Dutch history at University College London and the University of Amsterdam, offers a history focused on the popular culture and every day believers in Divided by Faith, just published by Belknap Press of Harvard University Press. With this perspective, the radical nature of religious tolerance becomes much clearer:

Every town and village was a microcosm of the body of Christianity. Civic rituals were not separate from sacred ones. Daily, weekly and seasonal time had a religious dimension. Communal welfare depended on divine wrath or favor, which might bring on flood, famine or bountiful harvest. Tolerating heretical deviations was a high-stakes business.

“It does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods, or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg,” Jefferson could write in 1781. A century earlier, such individualism was unthinkable to most Europeans. Indulging heresy, as Mr. Kaplan points out, threatened not only to pick their pockets but also to endanger their souls.

. . .

Without grasping the very different mentality prevailing in post-Reformation Europe, one cannot fully appreciate what the heroes of Mr. Zagorin’s more familiar account achieved. In that account, religious toleration comes across as obvious common sense. Resistance to it could only stem from irrationality or vice.

That impression is exactly what worries Mr. Kaplan. As usually told, the story of the rise of toleration becomes a myth, he writes, “a symbolic story, with heroes and villains and a moral” — the moral being that the precondition of toleration is the triumph of reason over faith.

Kaplan tells how toleration developed in small communities in a Europe ravished by religious conflict:

Contrary to the once-popular notion that religious toleration rose steadily from the Middle Ages through the Protestant Reformation and on to the Enlightenment, Mr. Kaplan maintains that religious toleration declined from around 1550 to 1750.

This was the age of frightful religious wars, as rulers yoked religion to dynastic ambitions. But religious wars did not usually mean neighbor against neighbor. Religious violence among neighbors tended to be sporadic, often ignited when one religious group engaged in public rituals that a rival group felt contaminated communal space.

In response, believers devised intricate boundaries allowing them to live more or less peaceably with neighbors whose rival beliefs were anathema. Mr. Kaplan describes shared churches, where Protestants worshiped in the nave while Catholics used the choir space around the main altar, and what the Dutch called “schuilkerkerken,” supposedly clandestine churches that maintained their facades as houses but were in reality well known to officials and neighbors.

This new perspective on tolerance could be critical as we try to understand the persistence of religious intolerance in many areas of the world today:

“If toleration depends on the adoption of certain contemporary Western values,” Mr. Kaplan warns, “its fate in the rest of the world, and perhaps in our own future, is uncertain.”

Yet a fuller understanding of European history suggests that “even in communities that did not know our modern values, people of different faiths could live together peacefully.”

“Even in profoundly religious communities where antagonisms were sharp,” he writes, “religion was not a primitive, untameable force.”

“Divided by Faith” ends with five words that sum up its message and could serve as a motto for historical studies generally: “the possibility of other options.”

Read it all here.

Just in time for Christmas

The editors of Christian Century have announced their selections for the best books (and music) of 2007 in several categories, including theology, spirituality, fiction, children's literature, classical music and pop Christmas music.

Find them all here.

Jeff Sharlet, a contributing editor for Rolling Stone and Harper's, and a creator of the Revealer, daily review of religion in the news and the news about religion, has his own list of the best religion books here.

Children's Bible storybooks

As any parent who has shopped for religious books for a child can tell you, the theological divides that rock the adult world also affect the choice of an appropriate Bible storybook for a child. USA Today had a very interesting story on the issue earlier this week:

Christmas is peak season for sales of children's Bible storybooks.

The lavishly illustrated collections vary from literal booklets that don't hesitate to lay down the line against sin, to imaginative variations such as one where a butterfly hovers by Christ at the Crucifixion.

. . .

Each collection reflects the spiritual outlook of the parents and grandparents who do the writing — and the shopping, says Brenda Lugannani, head of merchandising for Family Christian Stores, the nation's largest Christian retail chain at 310 stores nationwide.

And every Bible storybook reflects a certain theology, says Ted Olsen, managing editor of Christianity Today. He and his wife, Alexis, searched carefully for the one they read to their 18-month-old son, Leif.

"Most Bible stories are told like Aesop's fables, refitted to a moral lesson that is almost always, 'Obey! Obey your parents! Obey God! Oh, look how good Noah is — he obeyed God!' " Olsen says.

"Sure, we want Leif to understand obedience, repentance and forgiveness. But we're more concerned that he get to know Jesus is the grand arc of the Bible story. We're like a lot of young parents who don't want to be talked down to. We're not afraid of encountering theology. We want to be intellectually and spiritually engaged when we read to Leif."

Their choice is one of the newest collections, The Jesus Storybook Bible:Every Story Whispers His Name. Author Sally Lloyd-Jones presents Bible stories back to Adam and Eve as foreshadowing the coming of Jesus Christ — the way many Christians read the Bible as adults.

Lloyd-Jones says her writing is shaped by "a strong Sunday school memory of the Bible as all about rules and coloring in the lines. There was no sense of the joy, freedom and wonder of the Bible story.

"Yes, there are rules in the Bible to show us how life works best. But rules don't change your heart. Stories change you. I'm in the business of telling stories."

Her book is highly popular, Lugannani says, but some parents turn away from it "because they think such symbolic language is confusing to young children."

"It's all part of the decision: Do they want a Bible storybook that's literally true to the text or are they willing to accept that a vegetable illustrates Moses or a butterfly appears in the Gospel?"

The butterfly is featured in one of Roberta Simpson's Nana's Bible Stories. It's another hot seller this season for publisher Thomas Nelson, where Bible stories are almost one-third of the children's books offered, says Troy Johnson, head of marketing.

Simpson tells stories "the way I told stories to my children and grandchildren."

Indeed, she has woven their names and ideas into the collection. Granddaughter Alexandra rebuffed an offer to be written in as "Queen Esther's best friend" because the 6-year-old said, " 'No, I want to be a butterfly at the Crucifixion.' I always listen to kids' crazy ideas," says Simpson, who has the endangered butterfly saved by the blood of Christ.

That innovative approach doesn't fly with the Rev. Paul McCain, publisher for Concordia Publishing House, established in 1869 by the deeply conservative Lutheran Church Missouri Synod, a 2.5-million-member denomination.

"The more seriously a church body regards the Bible, the more seriously they will present it, in a child-friendly way, but not water the content. We don't throw the King James Bible at them, but we don't turn it into Mother Goose, either. We don't avoid the s-word, for sin; the G-word, for God; or the J-word, for Jesus," McCain says.

Read it all here. What storybooks do you use?

Pullman's art of darkness

The 12-year-old in our house thought the filmed version of The Golden Compass was a crime against the author of one of his favorite books, whereas his father thought it was a slightly better than average movie that rushed through necessary exposition, thereby decreasing viewers' understanding of what is at stake in the final showdown.

Meanwhile, Philip Pullman continues to be, in his own words "attended by crazy people." This profile in More Intelligent Life magazine doesn't add much to our understanding of the theological controversy Pullman's popularity has created, but it does an excellent job in tracing the roots of his understanding of adolescents.

Reconsidering Dante's Paradiso

Robert Baird, a doctoral student at the University of Chicago and the co-editor of Chicago Review has an interesting essay at Slate about the most ignored part of Dante's Divine Comedy--Paradiso. He argues that the book is ignored laregely because we find Hell far more interesting than Heaven:

Dante's Paradiso is the least read and least admired part of his Divine Comedy. The Inferno's nine circles of extravagant tortures have long captured the popular imagination, while Purgatorio is often the connoisseur's choice. But as Robert Hollander writes in his new edition of the Paradiso, "One finds few who will claim (or admit) that it is their favorite cantica." (A cantica, or canticle, is one of the three titled parts of the poem.) The time is ripe to reconsider Paradiso's neglect, however, since three major new translations of the poem we know as the Divine Comedy are coming to completion. . . .

When it comes down to it, though, the real problem modern readers have with the Paradiso is the idea of heaven itself. T.S. Eliot noted almost 80 years ago that "we have (whether we know it or not) a prejudice against beatitude as material for poetry." As the quote suggests, our trouble with heaven is less a problem of belief than it is a problem of imagination. From the opening lines of Anna Karenina on down, all our best literature teaches us that narrative thrives on adversity, and so heaven presents itself as little more than a blank screen of beatific blandness, eternal sunshine of the spotless mind. (Consider, by contrast, how successfully hell has been deployed as a metaphor for modern life: Under the Volcano, The Invisible Man, The Descent of Alette, not to mention "The Waste Land.")

Baird goes on to argue, however, that Dante's Heaven is anything but boring:

In fact, one of the major achievements of the Paradiso is that Dante is able to create drama out of people getting along. Contrary to the individualist slant of many contemporary visions of the afterlife, Dante's heaven is insistently social, and the souls of the blessed take great pains to show what a happy society they have up there, even to the point of performing stunning audiovisual choreographies . . .

But the real drama of the canticle is literally cosmic: It develops out of the tension between a perfect heaven above and a very imperfect world here below. After more than 10 years in exile, Dante was an expert on human imperfection. And even though he'd seen one after another of his political hopes crushed under the steel toe of history, he never gave up on the ideal of earthly justice. (In the Monarchia, written around the same time as the Paradiso, he argued that "the world is ordered in the best possible way when justice is at its most potent.") This is why, despite all their professed camaraderie and contentment, the souls of the blessed can't stop talking about what's happening on earth. The folly of the living brings them repeatedly to rage, as when St. Peter says of Pope Boniface VIII: "He … has made my tomb a sewer of blood and filth." Dante himself is not shy about joining in the general indignation. Looking down from the eighth sphere of heaven, he sees only "the little patch of earth that makes us so fierce."

Read it all here. Hat tip to Thinking Christian.

The Slate reviews Joel Osteen

Joel Osteen is the pastor of Houston's Lakewood Church, which may well be the largest congregation in the country. Even beyond his own congregation, he is well known for his positive message of the Gospel — a message that many call the Prosperity Gospel. Chris Lehmann reviews Osteen's latest book, Become a Better You, and is not at all impressed:

Joel, who succeeded to the Lakewood pulpit on his father's death, has pointedly refrained from pronouncing visions, performing wonders of the spirit such as speaking in tongues, or really doing much biblical preaching at all. He has the wardrobe and tirelessly dapper mien of an oil industry lobbyist; it's as a walking advertisement of the success creed, and not as any manner of prophet, that he's made his name. "I'm not called to explain every minute facet of Scripture or to expound on deep theological doctrines or disputes that don't touch where people live," he writes dismissively in Become a Better You. "My gift is to encourage, to challenge, and to inspire."

. . .

There's, of course, nothing inherently suspect or dishonorable about seeking uplift and consolation in the Bible. But the point of those "deep theological doctrines" that Osteen seems to deride is to leaven that quest with the less agreeable features of life—pain and suffering, the persistence of evil, the fleeting quality of all endeavor, the cosmic insignificance of the human self, let alone that self's subordinate chosen modes of expression in body posture or a near-pathological penchant for smiling. After all, the same Bible that Lakewood's arena full of believers champion as a handbook for what they can do and be also contains these words, in Revelation 3:17: "Thou sayest, I am rich and increased with goods, and have need of nothing: and knowest not that thou art wretched, and miserable, and poor, and blind, and naked."

Read it all here.

So what do you think? Is this a fair criticism of Joel Osteen's message?

Episcopal tradition and emerging church

Christianity Today reviews a new book on emerging church.

Rising from the Ashes: Rethinking Church explores the interface between the emerging church and traditional, liturgical churches. The book is a series of interviews — the author, Becky Garrison, describes it as a "salon." It's a helpful ... sampling of discussions about recovering authentic Christian witness in postmodern urban culture.

Becky Garrison, senior contributing editor for the Wittenburg Door, had in-person, phone, e-mail, blog, and IM interactions with 33 people, most of whom are involved in "emerging" groups, "alternative worship," or other innovative worship practices. About half of the contributors are of the Episcopal/Anglican tradition; nearly half are women.

They note eight themes in the book, one of these is the relationship between Episcopal traditions and emerging church:

A new partnership between traditional churches and emerging churches. Episcopal and Anglican leaders are building bridges from older liturgical forms of church worship to emergent forms. Jonny Baker works with the (Anglican) Church Mission Society to "reimagine worship, faith, and community in postmodern/emerging cultures." Karen Ward (abbess of Seattle's Church of the Apostles) is excited about "amazing 'convergence'" she finds "between Anglican ethos and practice and [that of] the emerging church."

Read it all here

Ward also created a social network for people interested in the Anglican emergent church here.

The Bible in fiction

Washington Post blog contributor Alan Cooperman lists his five favorite "retellings" of Biblical stories, and is very effusive over the Jenkins/LaHaye books. But before listing his top five, he invites readers to share their favorites as well—or perhaps to just abuse him with their favorites; hard to say.

His list:

1. Joseph and His Brothers (1933-1944) by Thomas Mann. Four sublime volumes by the Nobel Prize winner, a great work of literature and learned Bible commentary, even if Mann did base Joseph's rescue of the Egyptian people from starvation on FDR's New Deal.

2. J.B. (1958) by Archibald MacLeish. The poet and librarian of Congress won a Pulitzer for this play, a re-telling of the Book of Job with some debt to Jean-Paul Sartre, too.

3. Song of Solomon (1977) by Nobel Prize-winner Toni Morrison. OK, this isn't exactly a retelling, more a string of biblical themes and allusions, complete with a character memorably named "First Corinthians." It was an early Oprah Book Club pick and a bestseller.

4. The Red Tent (1997) by Anita Diamant. A feminist retelling of the rape and avenging of Dinah, whose own voice is conspicuously missing from Genesis 34. Socko popular fiction, millions sold.

5. The Left Behind series and The Jesus Chronicles (1995-present). 65 million copies sold and counting, though I suspect that The Jesus Chronicles (retelling the four gospels) won't enrapture nearly as many readers as the apocalyptic books did.

So far in comments, readers have submitted The Last Temptation of Christ; East of Eden; and Lamb: The Gospel of Biff, Jesus' Childhood Pal. If you would like to put a few nominees up, you can read the post here.

The best children's books of all time

Booktrust, the British reading charity, conducted a survey of 4000 in Great Britain, to determine the best children’s books of all time. Leading the list is The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis. Harry Potter and the Half Blood Princeby J.K. Rowling, placed sixth.

Here are the top ten:

The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe, C.S. Lewis
The Very Hungry Caterpillar, Eric Carle
Famous Five, Enid Blyton
Winnie the Pooh, A.A. Milne
The BFG, Roald Dahl
Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince, J.K. Rowling
The Faraway Tree, Enid Blyton
The Wind in the Willows, Kenneth Grahame
Alice in Wonderland, Lewis Carroll
The Gruffalo, Julia Donaldson

The Booktrust press release makes the following observations:

“At Booktrust we want everyone to enjoy reading, whether it be returning to old favourites or encouraging people to try something new. The final 50 are a fascinating mix of classic and contemporary titles which offers something for everyone. ”

The best loved author in the poll is Roald Dahl – who has an astonishing SIX books listed in the top 50 best.

Enid Blyton has five books in the top 50, whilst Julia Donaldson has four.

The poll cited that four out of five parents read their children a bedtime story every night, for an average of 22 minutes a time.

And just over half of parents questioned said they started reading books to their children when they were six months old – whilst 18 per cent read stories to their baby bump before the child was born.

Read the entire list of 50 books here.

The Guardian blog "Comment is Free" is having an interesting discussion of the list here.

Would the list be different in the United States? What do you think belongs onthe list?

Life with Bishop Paul Moore

The New Yorker has posted an interview with Honor Moore, daughter of the late Paul Moore, famed bishop of the Diocese of New York.

This week in the magazine, in an excerpt from her book “The Bishop’s Daughter,” Honor Moore writes about her father, the Episcopal bishop Paul Moore, his faith, and his secret. Here Moore talks about her father’s public service and private life.

Moore was a leader in moving the church to act on behalf of those without power in the world.

Mark Harris at his blog Preludium comments on Honor Moore's tender and compassionate interview.

The Paul Moore story will be out there and I wager that there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth in some parts of Anglican Land., but he will deserve better.

Perhaps there will be a time when we will finally give up on the idea that being heterosexual or homosexual is not an either/ or even a both / and sort of thing. It may be common to say a person is heterosexual or homosexual, but it may be more to the point to say that we are all sexual and sensual and that is about who we are, as a whole person, and being beat up about that or ostracized or shamed does not help anyone get a better grip on being a fully whole human being, saved or obedient to the Word of God.

Elizabeth Kaeton at her blog Telling Secrets reflects on the book:
There will be rending of garments and much wailing and moaning and gnashing of teeth on both sides of the aisle about this book and her revelation.

Some will cry that many LGBT people could have been helped and the church's journey to greater social justice advanced years sooner "if only he had told the truth."

Others will cry that the church and his legacy is soiled by this truth that should have remained secret - that nothing good can come of any of this.

There will be those who will laugh and scorn the Body of Christ in its incarnation as The Episcopal Church and say this is but one more piece of evidence of its 'internal decay' which provides them with one more reason to leave 'this apostate church.'

Still others will say, "I told you so!" and smirk, "See, Gene Robinson is not the first gay bishop. He's the first honestly gay bishop."

Hear the interview here.

Article on The Rt. Rev. Paul Moore at the time of his death here.

Manga Bible author discusses work

A couple of weeks ago, we featured the work of Siku, the creator of the Manga Bible, on the Art Blog and gave him coverage here on the Lead. (If you missed it, the coverage is here

This week, he was featured in a 13-minute long segment of the NPR program Faith Matters in which he discusses why he chose the stories he did, the challenges of interpreting narrative style within graphic novels, how his family reacted to his "calling," the Archbishop of Canterbury's feedback, the difference between manga and comics (manga is "cinematic," among other things) and much more.

In one part, Siku talks about how he hopes to make the narratives of the Bible accessible to a new generation of people and provide churchgoers with a fresh interpretation:

You can see this in two ways. In the West, especially in Western Europe, Biblical narratives are no longer the narratives we actually use. Lots of kids don't know what the Moses story is about. It's a way of making those grand narratives familiar again ... That's one way of looking at it. Another way of looking at it is that it gives Christians who think they know the Bible a spin on how to see the Bible differently.

There's a short write-up here, but be sure to click on the "Listen Now" link to tune in to the segment.

New biography of John Milton

There is perhaps no more important religious literature in the English language than Paradise Lost, but its author remains a deep mystery. Anna Beer has just written a new biography, Milton: Poet, Pamphleteer, and Patriot . The Economist offers this review:

PEOPLE quail slightly at the thought of John Milton: the Latin, the theology, the school memories of “Paradise Lost”—there is something inhospitable about it all. A scholar himself, Milton seems to belong to scholars and teachers. Very little is known about his private life. There is a haunting sonnet to a dead wife, but he wrote nothing else about any of his three wives, two of whom died soon after giving birth, nor about his three daughters, nor even about his dead infant son. Anna Beer, in this fair-minded and scholarly biography, cannot disguise her frustration. Could he even have erased them from the record, she wonders, as “beneath his notice”?

Milton, who was born 400 years ago this year, saw himself as a man set apart. Born into an upwardly mobile family, Cambridge educated, trained to dispute in Latin, he seemed cut out for academia, the church or the law. Instead, he saved himself for poetry, with a reading programme and an eye on immortality. He wanted to be the national voice of England, no less. But it wasn't until he was blind and in his 50s that he embarked on “Paradise Lost”, his great epic about the fall of man, about good and evil, reason, free will and authority, which would indeed immortalise him.

What happened in between was England's own fall—its descent, in the 1640s, into civil war and a kind of politics driven by just those philosophical and moral questions. This is the heart of Ms Beer's book, the aspect that brings the reader closest to the man. The bitter dispute between king and parliament about the nature of good government exploded in a storm of ephemeral pamphlets furiously arguing and counter-arguing.

With the fate of the nation at stake, this was Milton's moment. He piled in with pamphlets of his own; tracts expressed in a vivid, word-coining, muscular English, at times high-flown, at others colloquial, sometimes downright rude, but always engaged. What fires him is the whole principle of debate, the battle of wits: “Who ever knew Truth put to the worse”, he wrote, “in a free and open encounter.”

Read it all here.

Founding Faith

Steven Waldman, the editor-in-chief of Beliefnet, has a new book, Founding Faith, which discusses public life and faith at the beginning of our Republic. Jon Meacham finds Waldman's discussion on John Madison of particular interest:

Steven Waldman's enlightening new book, "Founding Faith," is wise and engaging on many levels, but Waldman has done a particular service in detailing Madison's role in creating a culture of religious freedom that has served America so well for so long. "As a child, James Madison needed only to look across the dinner table to see the Anglican establishment," writes Waldman, the editor in chief of Beliefnet and a former NEWSWEEK colleague. Madison's father, James Sr., was a vestry-man of Brick Church in Orange County, Va. "The church lay leaders (the vestry) had not only religious powers but also the authority to collect taxes and enforce moral laws," Waldman writes. "It was they who would declare punishments for those who rode on horseback on the Sabbath or drank too much or cursed."

A child of the established church, of a world in which one's civil and political rights were linked to one's religious observances and professions, Madison was deeply affected by what he called the "diabolical, hell-conceived principle of persecution" at work in his native county in the early and mid-1770s. Dissenters—Baptists in those days were dissenters—were being jailed, beaten and harassed (one preacher was nearly drowned by a mob in a mud puddle) by the Anglican establishment, and Madison was horrified. "I must beg you to pity me," he wrote a friend, "and pray for liberty of conscience to all." Madison ultimately became a kind of Adam Smith of church and state: he believed that the marketplace, if left to its own devices without government interference, would produce stronger religious belief, not weaker.

He was right: once the federal government declined to establish a church and the states moved to disestablish (Massachusetts was the last, in 1833), religious belief grew. "No doubt exists that there is much more of religion among us now than there ever was before the change," Madison wrote. "This proves rather more … that the law is not necessary to the support of religion."

In addition to the discussion of Madison, Meacham gives the book high marks:

"Founding Faith" is an excellent book about an important subject: the inescapable—but manageable—intersection of religious belief and public life. With a grasp of history and an understanding of the exigencies of the moment, Waldman finds a middle ground between those who think of the Founders as apostles in powdered wigs and those who assert, equally inaccurately, that the Founders believed religion had no place in politics. Along the way he does justice not only to Madison but to John Leland and Isaac Backus, two Baptists who fought for the separation of church and state on the grounds, to borrow a phrase of Roger Williams, that the "wilderness of the world" was bad for the "garden of Christ's church."

Read it all here.

Michael Dirda has a review of the book in the Washington Post Book World here.

John Gray on Atheism's proselytizers

Maggi Dawn points us to a piece in the Guardian Review in which British author and philospopher John N. Gray examines the popularity of the "New Atheists" —same as the old atheists, he adds, examining the motivations of "secular fundamentalists."

An atmosphere of moral panic surrounds religion. Viewed not so long ago as a relic of superstition whose role in society was steadily declining, it is now demonised as the cause of many of the world's worst evils. As a result, there has been a sudden explosion in the literature of proselytising atheism. A few years ago, it was difficult to persuade commercial publishers even to think of bringing out books on religion. Today, tracts against religion can be enormous money-spinners, with Richard Dawkins's The God Delusion and Christopher Hitchens's God Is Not Great selling in the hundreds of thousands. For the first time in generations, scientists and philosophers, high-profile novelists and journalists are debating whether religion has a future. The intellectual traffic is not all one-way. There have been counterblasts for believers, such as The Dawkins Delusion? by the British theologian Alister McGrath and The Secular Age by the Canadian Catholic philosopher Charles Taylor. On the whole, however, the anti-God squad has dominated the sales charts, and it is worth asking why.


Zealous atheism renews some of the worst features of Christianity and Islam. Just as much as these religions, it is a project of universal conversion. Evangelical atheists never doubt that human life can be transformed if everyone accepts their view of things, and they are certain that one way of living - their own, suitably embellished - is right for everybody. To be sure, atheism need not be a missionary creed of this kind. It is entirely reasonable to have no religious beliefs, and yet be friendly to religion. It is a funny sort of humanism that condemns an impulse that is peculiarly human. Yet that is what evangelical atheists do when they demonise religion.

There's more—Gray scrutinizes the positions of authors such as Dawkins and Hitchens, Daniel Dennett and Martin Amis, Michel Onfray, Philip Pullman and other authors, and provides some historical perspective on what exactly tends to happen when religion is actively suppressed. Read the whole thing here.

New books on resurrection

A Catholic scholar, a Jewish rabbi and an Anglican Bishop have all turned their attention to the concepts of resurrection, and all three come to remarkably similar conclusions. Peter Steinfels wrote about their thinking in yesterday's New York Times:

As Christians in most of the world approach the celebration of Jesus’ Resurrection, it is startling to find three distinguished scholars, all known for scrupulous attention to theological tradition and biblical sources, agreeing that the very idea of resurrection is widely and badly misunderstood.

Misunderstood not just by those whose contemporary sensibilities restrain them from saying much more about resurrection than that it symbolizes some vague (and probably temporary) victory of life over death. But also misunderstood by many devout believers who consider themselves thoroughly faithful to traditional religious teachings.

Kevin J. Madigan is a Roman Catholic who teaches Christian history at Harvard Divinity School. Jon D. Levenson, a colleague at Harvard, is a Jew who teaches Jewish studies. Together they have written “Resurrection: The Power of God for Christians and Jews.”

The book, which will be published next month by Yale University Press, argues that the idea that God will raise the dead to life at the end of time is central to both Jewish and Christian traditions.

N. T. Wright is a noted New Testament scholar who has continued to churn out academic and popular works, even after moving from Oxford in 2003 to become the Anglican bishop of Durham. Last month he published “Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church” (HarperOne).

So what is it these three diverse scholars have to say about the resurrection? Steinfels explains:

Resurrection, they maintain, does not simply mean going to heaven or life after death.

Resurrection is not a belief that divides an other-worldly Christianity from a this-worldly Judaism.

Nor is resurrection something that refers only — or even primarily — to the individual’s survival after death.

Instead, both books emphasize that in classic Jewish and Christian teachings, resurrection refers to a collective resurrection of people and renewal of all creation at the end of time.

Resurrection was linked to the expectation of judgment and a final triumph of justice. This was the idea of resurrection that had evolved as Jews returned from exile and struggled under foreign domination in the period before Jesus. It was this idea of resurrection that Christians had in mind when they declared that what occurred on Easter was the “first fruits” of what was to come.

If there is a key to the convergence among these authors, it lies, first of all, in their insistence on the bodily and communal character of resurrection, a view that has long competed with a Hellenistic philosophical and especially Platonic dualism, in which an individual disembodied intellect or spirit could be saved from its corruptible and corrupting body.

Read it all here.

Christianity Today Book Awards

Christianity Today has announced the winners of its 2008 Book awards. Some of the books may raise a few eyebrows. The winners include:

Anthony Flew, There Is A God: How the World's Most Notorious Atheist Changed His Mind (for Apologetics/Evangelism)

Paul Rhodes Eddy and Gregory A. Boyd , The Jesus Legend: A Case for the Historical Reliability of the Synoptic Jesus Tradition (for Bibical Studies)

D. Michael Lindsay, Faith in the Halls of Power: How Evangelicals Joined the American Elite (for Christinaity and Culture)

Virginia Stem Owens, Caring for Mother: A Daughter's Long Goodbye (for Christian Living)

Read the full list, including comments by judges, here.

What is a Bible worth?

The Anglican Journal asks the question "what is a Bible worth?" To the owner the worth comes from faith and association with family. On the market rarely do Bibles have the monetary value that matches the emotional value. Patti Desjardins explores the question of Bibles and their worth.

In recognition of my parents’ 50th wedding anniversary, our municipality gave them the Bible. The gift was befitting because they were known in this close-knit farming community as regular churchgoers. They were touched by the tribute and placed the Bible prominently in their home.

The Bible is a modest copy: the title on the white cover is brassy, the paper coarse, and the colour photographs pallid. Yet my parents deemed it of value because it was the means by which their community saluted their long marriage of fidelity and affection. That civic officials chose to use a religious book shows Bibles are in a category all their own.

Ironically, most Bibles hold little monetary value, yet many people assume that they are worth a lot of money. Janet Carlile, an accredited antique appraiser, regularly assesses items at fund-raising events for charitable organizations such as public libraries and local museums. Bibles come up frequently.

Her conclusion is:

For Christian faith communities, a Bible is a collection of sacred writings. The content between the covers is the source of value, not the trappings. This leads to an answer to my original question: a Bible has an incalculable worth.

Read it all here.

Or go to eBay and check out the prices antique Bibles are going for.

At home in Charlottesville

Author Jan Karon made an appearance at the Virginia Festival of the Book, whose lineup reads like a SXSW for English majors. The sold-out "high tea" with Karon happened Thursday afternoon in Charlottesville, VA, and got a slightly irreverent writeup on the blog of the local weekly paper, The Hook:

Albemarle resident Karon created the wholesome Mitford series and published the first of nine books about Episcopalian priest Father Tim and his flock in 1994. “When I started writing the Mitford books, I thought he was a little boring,” she said.

Her relationship with the pudgy priest changed over the years, and in her most recent book, she leaves Mitford, set in her native North Carolina mountains, and follows Father Tim to his new fictional locale, Holly Springs, Mississippi. She compares the launch of the Father Tim series to “giving birth on Sunday and getting pregnant on Monday.”

And does she miss Mitford, the setting that sold more than 20 million books? “No,” she says firmly.

Karon also confesses that she writes as she drives, and warns, “Multiply that by the number of writers living in Albemarle County– and order your groceries in.”

Her faith is an integral part of her fiction. “What I write about is redemption,” she told the Book Fest crowd. “We need it, we’re starved for it. I write about God’s love.”

From here, with an additional punch line of how to find, um, sex scenes in her books?

More about Honor Moore

Publisher's Weekly has an interview with Honor Moore, Bishop Paul Moore's daughter, whose recent book about her father and family has stirred controversy within the family and within the Episcopal Church and the diocese that Bishop Moore served. The article helps to put Honor's effort into a fuller context within her own life journey.

From the article:

"In The Bishop's Daughter, Moore shares center stage with her subject. Intensely personal, this complex family saga is compelling in the contrast between Paul's public career as a charismatic religious leader active in such progressive causes as the civil rights movement and his conflicted private life.

[...]Moore decided to write about Paul for the magazine the American Scholar, when he became sick with cancer in his 80s. ‘I tried a memoir about my father twice before, but I abandoned it because I had no story. I was too angry, too unresolved,’ she says. Ann Fadiman, editor of the American Scholar, suggested she do a piece in the form of a journal, which was published in the fall after Paul's death in 2003 as ‘My Father's Ship.’

This article caught the attention of Jill Bialosky, who would later become Moore's editor at Norton. ‘I was so struck by the beautiful writing,’ says Bialosky, who's excited by the book's prospects. Moore, already well-known in poetry circles as a great reader, is lined up for several appearances on the East Coast. An excerpt ran in the March 3 issue of the New Yorker.

The Bishop's Daughter can be considered a kind of detective story, full of dramatic emotional surprises, in which Moore pieces together the secret side of her father's life. One of the more poignant sections chronicles her getting to know a longtime male lover of her father's in the years after his death. ‘I came to see who my father was in his terms,’ says Moore. ‘He saw himself as a normal person who had a conflict and did the best he could with it.’"

Read the rest here.

Paul Zahl on grace healing alienated relationships

The Rev. Dr. Paul F.M. Zahl, rector of All Saints Church in Chevy Chase, Maryland, has written "Grace in Practice: A Theology of Everyday Life" which he describes as an attempt to understand how the "grace of God or judgment or law of God" relates to various types of relationships and social issues such as "war and peace, and classism."

According to Episcopal Life Online, Zahl, formerly Dean and President of Trinity Episcopal School of Ministry said that "after 2003, when the Episcopal Church went into a time of severe conflict, I decided that I really ought to think about this in terms of a way that might be uniting rather than dividing," he explained. "I myself had been part of a rather divisive traditionalism and I said that this can't be fully right because there is quite a bit of anger to it."

"Grace in Practice" is Zahl's attempt be "positive and heartfelt." He said it is a book for everyone but may appeal specifically to "people who have often felt that Christianity was a matter of prohibitions and admonitions and heavy judgment rather than an enabling word of love and grace."

Read the rest here.

More on Founding Faith

We previously noted several positive reviews of Steven Waldman's Founding Faith. Today, Richard Bookhiser adds to the praise in the New York Times Book Review:

Waldman wants to make two large points, rebuking by turns both sides in the contemporary culture wars. One common myth, he writes, holds that “the founding fathers wanted religious freedom because they were deists.” The First Amendment, in this view, is a conjurer’s trick designed to hold the rubes’ attention while gentlemen professed polite unbelief over their after-dinner port. In fact, Waldman writes, “few” of the founders “were true deists — people who believed that God had created the universe and then receded from action.” Many were orthodox Christians — Waldman lists Patrick Henry, Samuel Adams, John Hancock, John Witherspoon (a Presbyterian minister) and Roger Sherman. The founders whose biographies fill our best-seller lists are a more heterodox lot. John Adams, a scrappy Unitarian, scolded Catholics, Anglicans and skeptical French philosophers as each passed under his eye. Benjamin Franklin flirted with polytheism in his youth but ended believing in “one God, creator of the universe,” who “governs the world by his providence.” Thomas Jefferson railed against the Christian church, past and present, as corrupting the teachings of Jesus, and made his own digest of Gospel sayings he considered accurate. “It was the work of two or three nights only, at Washington,” Waldman quotes him, “after getting thro’ the evening task of reading the letters and papers of the day.” Yet even these founders, Waldman says, “believed in God and that he shaped their lives and fortunes.”

According to an equal and opposite myth, America’s national origins were Christian. The 13 colonies, Waldman says, were indeed Christian polities, most of them indulging in persecution to uphold their ideals. But the independent United States “was not established as a ‘Christian nation.’” When George Washington was Revolutionary commander in chief, he mandated that his soldiers have chaplains and strongly encouraged them to attend divine service, but his own writings typically employed nondenominational language, appealing to providence rather than Christ. The First Amendment, which, along with its siblings Second through Tenth, was among the first business of Congress under the new Constitution, rejected a national religious establishment. States were allowed to maintain their own establishments, and some did so for decades, although James Madison had hoped to dismantle even these.

Perhaps the strongest supporters of the separation of church and state in the founding era were the communicants of a new, vigorous church, the Baptists. From 1760 to 1778 there were 56 jailings of Baptist preachers in Anglican Virginia. When the Rev. James Ireland continued to preach through the window of his cell, two supporters of the 39 Articles put a bench to the wall, stood on it and urinated in his face. No Barsetshire atmosphere in the New World. At least 14 jailings of Baptists happened in Madison’s home county. “Though much scholarship has gone into assessing which Enlightenment philosophers shaped Madison’s mind,” Waldman says, “what likely influenced him most was not ideas from Europe but persecutions in Virginia.”

Bookhiser, while praising the book, does suggest some shortcomings:

“Founding Faith” has a few shortcomings. Waldman gives the most ink, as do we all, to the founding all-stars — Franklin, Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison. Why not spend a little more time, in a book on founding religion, on the most pious and most radical of the founders, Samuel Adams? As a young man, Adams heard Whitefield preach; as an old one, he criticized the anti-Christian polemics of his friend Thomas Paine. Waldman’s favorite among the Big Five is Madison, a wise choice if constitutional interpretation is the core of the story (certainly courts are the venue where church/state issues are hashed out these days). But this is not an unassailable choice. The laws tell us what we may do. Leaders must decide what they themselves should do. If leadership is the focus, then pride of place must go to Washington, who, unlike Madison, ran a successful war and a successful presidency, attributing his success to providence all the while.

Waldman ends by encouraging us to be like the founders. We should understand their principles, learn from their experience, then have at it ourselves. “We must pick up the argument that they began and do as they instructed — use our reason to determine our views.” A good place to start is this entertaining, provocative book.

Read it all here.

The closest Christian book store

Christianity Today notes the growing trend of churches providing space for Christian bookstores:

The Christian bookstore you shop at tomorrow may be as close as your church's front door. More and more churches want to be the place you'll buy your next Beth Moore book or study Bible. Church bookstores enjoy prime locations, low overhead, and (in many cases) volunteer workers. They are "the fastest growing portion of this industry," according to Geni Hulsey, president of the Church Bookstore Network and manager of the Garden Bookstore at Houston First Baptist Church.

Dave Condiff, associate publisher at The Church Bookstore magazine, estimates there are about 5,000 church bookstores in the U.S. A "church bookstore" can encompass anything from a 10,000-square-foot bookstore with $3 million in sales to a narthex book table.

. . .

"As the number of independent stores has decreased, we see more and more pastors making a decision to add a resource center in their churches as an extension of their ministry," Condiff says. Many church bookstores are in megachurches in Texas, the Bible belt, and California.

A church retail store has unique challenges: financial accountability to the church and products that are a theological match, The Church Bookstore assistant editor Allison Hyer says. Often, church bookstores are smaller than their independent retail counterparts, making vendor relationships more complicated.

Mixing retail and worship is also a touchy subject, Hulsey says: "For some, it's a hard pill to swallow, doing retail business inside the church. I believe if our bookstore is not doing ministry and only peddling goods, we have no business being inside this church."

Read it all here.

The idolatry of America

The debate over the proper relationship between religion and politics often focuses on whether religious influence in the public square is a good thing or bad thing for the nation. Evangelical Charles Marsh has written a new book, Wayward Christian Soldiers: Freeing the Gospel From Political Captivity that argues that undue political involvement has been bad for the faith.

Damon Linker reviewed the book in The New Republic:

A professor of religion at the University of Virginia and a devout evangelical, Marsh believes that the politicization of Christianity in recent years--using the good name and moral commandments of the church to "serve national ambitions, strengthen middle-class values, and justify war"--has been spiritually disastrous for evangelicalism in the United States. Conservative American Christians, he claims, have forgotten the difference between "discipleship and partisanship." They have "seized the language of the faith and made it captive to our partisan agendas--and done so with contempt for Scripture, tradition, and the global, ecumenical church." The result has been a collapse into spiritual unseriousness, as Christians have "recast" their faith "according to our cultural preferences and baptized our prejudices, along with our will to power, in the shallow waters of civic piety." Resisting despair, Marsh hopes that his book might inspire some of his fellow believers to repent of their recent ways--to "take stock of the whole colossal wreck of the evangelical witness" and then try to rebuild a more authentic Christianity in its place.

Unlike most books about the religious right, positive or negative, Wayward Christian Soldiers is addressed primarily to the movement's most devoted members. Accordingly, much of the book is written in a prophetic register, alternating between rebuke and exhortation, as Marsh tries to persuade his readers of the enormity of their transgressions. He employs a rhetoric of outraged denunciation most effectively in his introduction, where he recounts visiting a Christian bookstore near his home in the spring of 2003, shortly before the start of the Iraq war. The store was stocked with "a full assortment of patriotic accessories--red-white-and-blue ties, bandanas, buttons, handkerchiefs, 'I support our troops' ribbons, 'God Bless America' gear, and an extraordinary cross and flag bangle with the two images welded together and interlocked." By the cash registers, he found numerous books about the faith of George W. Bush. In Marsh's words, "It looked like a store getting ready for the Fourth of July, although Easter was just weeks away."

The problem with such displays is not simply that they blur Christian piety with patriotism, but also that the patriotism is highly partisan. It is not all of America, or even most of America, that these godly patriots love. If Marsh's neighborhood bookshop was preparing for the Fourth of July, it was the holiday as scripted by the Republican National Committee. And such displays have hardly been limited to selected Christian businesses. As Marsh notes, Christian Coalition activists made a habit of attending rallies for Bush's 2004 re-election campaign with specially designed crosses emblazoned with Bush-Cheney logos and American-flag emblems. On some of them, "the president's name appeared in full at the places where Jesus's hands were nailed" to the cross. At these rallies, which took place all over the country, the blending of politics and religion was complete.

Read it all here (subscription required)

Ratzinger's Faith

As the Pope ends his first visit to the United States in his new role as Pope, more American's are trying to understand this man. Is he the conservative that many feared? Christianity Today reviews Tracey Rowland's Ratizinger's Faith, which attempts to explain this Pope:

In the usual telling of the tale, Joseph Ratzinger went from being a progressive reformer at the Second Vatican Council to being God's reactionary Rottweiler as the Catholic Church's chief doctrinal authority under John Paul II.

That standard account misses the truth about the Bavarian theologian who has become Pope Benedict XVI. Tracey Rowland—professor of political philosophy and continental theology at the John Paul II Institute in Melbourne, Australia—paints a more complete picture in her new book, Ratzinger's Faith, arguing that Ratzinger's fundamental theological convictions have remained essentially constant while the world around him has changed. Ratzinger's Faith is the first serious book on Benedict's theology since Aidan Nichols' excellent 1987 volume The Thought of Joseph Ratzinger. Unlike Nichols, however, Rowland proceeds thematically, not chronologically, and she strikes a balance between lucid accessibility for non-specialist readers and the kind of scholarly precision that theologians require.

The key to Ratzinger, Rowland explains, is his place in history. Never enthralled by the prevailing neoscholastic Thomism he encountered as a student, Ratzinger gravitated toward an Augustinian and Bonaventurian emphasis on love as an antidote to the hyper-rationalism of God as the logos of pure reason. Ratzinger's long-running theological emphasis on beauty and history can also be traced to his early studies, and the theme of God as love marked his first encyclical as pope.

. . .

For Ratzinger, according to Rowland, "a 'daring new' Christocentric theological anthropology is the medicine that the world needs," and "it is the responsibility of the Church to administer it." We can understand our human destiny only through the revelation of Jesus Christ.

This emphasis on Christology is central to Ratzinger's thinking on just about everything else. Responding to the then-dominant view of revelation that championed its "propositional character," Ratzinger argued that revelation is not a mere collection of true statements about God. Revelation is Jesus Christ himself—not the Greek philosophers' unmoved-mover, but the God of Trinitarian and human relationships, active in the world as creator, redeemer and sanctifier. Dei Verbum, Vatican II's decree on revelation, restored, in Ratzinger's words, the "focus on the biblical God for whom it is precisely relationship and action that are the essential marks."

Revelation, however, is more than a text; here Rowland explains Ratzinger's reservations about the historical-critical method of biblical scholarship: Scripture must be read within a tradition, for the truth of revelation is mediated through a historically defined community—the church—that one can never interpret from the outside. To reject the providential guidance of the Holy Spirit in the historical development of Christian doctrine is to miss the historical role that the Christian church must play in its transmission.

In this light, Ratzinger argues that the church should be viewed sacramentally—as the sacrament of salvation to the world, as the institution that makes Christ present to humanity. Rowland repeatedly stresses that Ratzinger resists all attempts to think of the church in political or sociological terms. In its essence, the church consists of communities that gather to celebrate the Eucharist, but these don't make the Eucharist; the Eucharist makes the communities—which means, as Ratzinger puts it, that the universal church is "logically and ontologically prior to the particular churches."

It becomes easier to understand, then, Benedict's emphasis on church unity, the collegiality of bishops, and the ministry of unity entrusted to the bishop of Rome. Evangelicals might wonder where this places them. Ratzinger stands firmly in continuity with Vatican II in insisting that the church of Christ exists most fully and rightly only within the Catholic Church, but that there are elements of sanctification and truth in churches and ecclesial communities outside Catholicism's formal structure.

Read it all here.

Catholic fiction

Over at the Catholic group blog Vox Nova, M.Z. Forrest is trying to compile a list of great Catholic fictional literature, which he defines to include "Catholic, Orthodox, and high Anglican authors." To get the discussion going, his initial list includes four authors, one of whom was an Anglican:

Fyodor Dostoevsky, Crime and Punishment, Brothers Karamazov

C.S. Lewis, Chronicles of Narnia

J.R.R. Tolkein, Lord of the Rings

Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina, War and Peace

There is now a lively discussion on the blog about what else belongs on the list--and why it qualifies as Catholic. You can join the discussion here, but be sure to let us know here what else you think belongs on ths list.

N.T. Wright's new book

N.T. Wright, the Bishop of Durham, has written a new book, Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church, that is raising anew a debate in evangelical circles about the public nature of faith. Christianity Today summarizes the discussion:

As with his other works, Wright has encouraged his many fans on both sides of the Atlantic even as he has provoked some critics. Wright's position as a leader in the Church of England exposes him to jabs from all sides. But this role also makes him quite influential. He wants to hold out the gospel for a largely post-Christian United Kingdom, in part by refuting the faulty scholarship of biblical critics. But he also wants to challenge Christians to see the gospel in a new way. Thus, he takes issue with Luther's view on justification by faith alone. He also worries that many Christians have unbiblically privatized the gospel, stripping the Good News of its public imperative.

This last point has renewed a vigorous theological debate. Wright argues in Surprised By Hope that the "mission of the church is nothing more or less than the outworking, in the power of the Spirit, of Jesus' bodily resurrection. It is the anticipation of the time when God will fill the earth with his glory, transform the old heavens and earth into the new, and raise his children from the dead to populate and rule over the redeemed world he has made."

Echoing the long-standing concerns of evangelical leaders such as John Stott, Wright goes on to explain that Christians must never choose between saving souls and doing good works.

"Thus the church that takes sacred space seriously (not as a retreat from the world but as a bridgehead into it) will go straight from worshiping in the sanctuary to debating in the council chamber; to discussing matters of town planning, of harmonizing and humanizing beauty in architecture, green spaces, and road traffic schemes; and to environmental work, creative and healthy farming methods, and proper use of resources," he writes.

Given the distain that many conservatives seem to have for the Episcopal Church's focus on the Millennium Development Goals, the Bishop has shocked many of his admirers with the issue he thinks should be the focus for Christians:

Wright says the "number one moral issue of our day" is relieving Third World debt.

"I've studied the problem of global debt quite intensively," Wright told blogger Trevin Wax. "In fact, I've read probably more books about contemporary economics recently than I have contemporary biblical studies. Curiously, I find myself drawn into that world, and it's quite likely that I'm getting a lot of things wrong."
Idaho pastor and blogger

Douglas Wilson sure thinks so. He believes relieving Third World debt could only end in "horrific humanitarian disaster" or "resurgent neo-colonialism." In typically pointed fashion, he says Wright is inadvertently "insisting on the humanitarian disaster option … in the name of Jesus." In response, Wright says he is calling for mercy, not a complicated debate over the effect of debt on national economies.

In his talk two weeks ago at the Together for the Gospel conference, pastor Mark Dever also criticized Wright. Dever's lecture, "Exercises in Unbiblical Theology," (mp3) became the meeting's hot topic. Unlike Wilson, Dever did not engage Wright's politics. In fact, he wondered whether church leaders should enter such discussions at all.

"As I read the New Testament, I do not see any example of the church understanding its gospel or its mission to be the direct shaping of the laws of the land or the improving of its structures," said Dever, senior pastor of Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington, D.C. "Certainly, the apostle Paul never tells the church to spend its time explicitly instructing the Roman emperor or shaping the pagans' view of culture."

Read it all here.

God and Dr. Seuss

Are there Christian messages in the works of Dr. Seuss? Robert Short argues that there are in his new book, The Parables of Dr. Seuss. The Associated Press discussed the book earlier this week:

No one has ever doubted the layers of meaning in the stories of Dr. Seuss. The Lorax has obvious lessons about the environment. The Butter Battle Book took direct aim at the Cold War arms race. Marvin K. Mooney, Will You Please Go Now! was one way to demand the resignation of President Nixon.

So when Horton's world of Who-ville was "saved by the Smallest of All," Robert Short saw the savior of the Whos as a symbol for the Savior of all people. From Green Eggs and Ham to How the Grinch Stole Christmas , Short has reinterpreted many of Theodor Seuss Geisel's stories as subtle messages of Christian doctrine in the new book, The Parables of Dr. Seuss.

Questions remain, however, about whether the original author intended such an interpretation or Short, a retired Presbyterian minister, is just seeing the stories through the lens of his own life.

"I was amazed at what I found when I started looking at it — all this Christian imagery was very carefully factored into his stories," Short said in an interview from his home in Little Rock.

"And that's what this book intends to do, is show how he has done this in a very carefully crafted way. It's there, and you could make an argument for it being intentionally there, because it's done with such great care."

Short has spent four decades drawing spiritual lessons from popular culture, starting with the 1965 best-seller, The Gospel According to Peanuts, the first of his eight books. The 75-year-old minister also does presentations that explore religious meanings in the popular comic strip Calvin and Hobbes and even in the last episode of the television comedy Cheers, set in a Boston bar. Short has the congregation sing the Cheers theme song before beginning his talk.

. . .

So is The Cat in the Hat really the Christ who arrives with a "BUMP" and turns the world upside down for God's children? Is the mother in the story a symbol of the old religious law? Are the fish in the bowl representative of churches that adhere to a restricting version of the Gospel? Did Dr. Seuss really intend for his stories to be interpreted this way?

It's a quandary that, for some, would puzzle even the Grinch's puzzler.

"There's so much of it," Short said. "And it fits so neatly into the configuration of the Christian message that I'm convinced that he knew what he was doing."

Read it all here.

Bishop's Big Sort

Scott Stossel, deputy editor of The Atlantic, reviews Bill Bishop's new book, The Big Sort:

Superficially, the phenomenon Bishop is examining is not new, and the litany of division he recites is familiar. The two major political parties have become more extreme and can’t find common ground anymore. National civic groups and mainline church denominations have withered away, replaced by smaller, more narrowly focused independent groups. Marketers (and political pollsters) have sliced up the population into increasingly “microtargeted” segments. The three-network era of mass media, which helped create a national hearth of shared references and values, is long gone, displaced by a new media landscape that has splintered us into thousands of insular tribes. We can no longer even agree on what used to be called facts: Conservatives watch Fox; liberals watch MSNBC. Blogs and RSS feeds now make it easy to produce and inhabit a cultural universe tailored to fit your social values, your musical preferences, your view on every single political issue. We’re bowling alone — or at least only with people who resemble us, and agree with us, in nearly every conceivable way.

This separation into solipsistic blocs would perhaps not be so complete if people of different political views or cultural values at least lived within hailing distance, and encountered one another on the street or in the store from time to time. But, increasingly, they don’t. Over the last decade, as 100 million Americans have moved from one place to another, they’ve clustered in increasingly homogeneous communities.
Does this balkanization matter? Bishop argues convincingly that it does. Psychological studies suggest that the mere fact of division, even when there is no substantive content to it, can be corrosive: in a series of experiments in the 1950s and ’60s, groups of similar people arbitrarily divided into subgroups quickly exploded into conflicts of “Lord of the Flies”-like intensity. Other studies have shown that when relatively like-minded people are grouped together, they don’t settle around the average point of view of the individuals in the group but rather become more extreme in the direction toward which they’re already inclined.

Any parallels to denominations you may know is purely coincidental.

Read it all in the New York Times Sunday Book Review. See, also, the LA Times.

More on "The Big Sort"

We previously wrote about Bill Bishop's new book, The Big Sort. The Economist now explores the issues in the book:

In 1976 Jimmy Carter won the presidency with 50.1% of the popular vote. Though the race was close, some 26.8% of Americans were in “landslide counties” that year, where Mr Carter either won or lost by 20 percentage points or more.

The proportion of Americans who live in such landslide counties has nearly doubled since then. In the dead-heat election of 2000, it was 45.3%. When George Bush narrowly won re-election in 2004, it was a whopping 48.3%. As the playwright Arthur Miller put it that year: “How can the polls be neck and neck when I don't know one Bush supporter?” Clustering is how.

County-level data understate the degree of ideological segregation, reckons Bill Bishop, the author of a gripping new book called “The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America is Tearing Us Apart”. Counties can be big. Cook County, Illinois, (which includes Chicago), has over 5m inhabitants. Beaverhead County, Montana, covers 5,600 square miles (14,400 square kilometres). The neighbourhoods people care about are much smaller.

Americans move house often, usually for practical reasons. Before choosing a new neighbourhood, they drive around it. They notice whether it has gun shops, evangelical churches and “W” bumper stickers, or yoga classes and organic fruit shops. Perhaps unconsciously, they are drawn to places where they expect to fit in.

Where you live is partly determined by where you can afford to live, of course. But the “Big Sort” does not seem to be driven by economic factors. Income is a poor predictor of party preference in America; cultural factors matter more. For Americans who move to a new city, the choice is often not between a posh neighbourhood and a run-down one, but between several different neighbourhoods that are economically similar but culturally distinct.

For example, someone who works in Washington, DC, but wants to live in a suburb can commute either from Maryland or northern Virginia. Both states have equally leafy streets and good schools. But Virginia has plenty of conservative neighbourhoods with megachurches and Bushites you've heard of living on your block. In the posh suburbs of Maryland, by contrast, Republicans are as rare as unkempt lawns and yard signs proclaim that war is not the answer but Barack Obama might be.

. . .
Because Americans are so mobile, even a mild preference for living with like-minded neighbours leads over time to severe segregation. An accountant in Texas, for example, can live anywhere she wants, so the liberal ones move to the funky bits of Austin while the more conservative ones prefer the exurbs of Dallas. Conservative Californians can find refuge in Orange County or the Central Valley.

Over time, this means Americans are ever less exposed to contrary views. In a book called “Hearing the Other Side”, Diana Mutz of the University of Pennsylvania crunched survey data from 12 countries and found that Americans were the least likely of all to talk about politics with those who disagreed with them.

Intriguingly, the more educated Americans become, the more insular they are. (Hence Mr Miller's confusion.) Better-educated people tend to be richer, so they have more choice about where they live. And they are more mobile. One study that covered most of the 1980s and 1990s found that 45% of young Americans with a college degree moved state within five years of graduating, whereas only 19% of those with only a high-school education did.

Read it all here.

do you think this is type of sorting is happening in our churches as well? Anything we can do about it?

Epic life of Jesus

Ecumenical News International's Anto Akkara, reports that a Hindu woman living in India has produced a 900-page poetic epic on the life and message of Jesus following the style of Hindu classics such as Mahabharat and Ramayan.

Read more »

Mere Christianity redux?

Back in the middle of the twentieth century a thin book was published by C.S. Lewis entitled Mere Christianity. The book was an attempt to explain Christianity in such a way that it be easily understood by a mass audience. The book was very successful. Other authors have tried their hand at the same task since but no one has come close yet. Why?

An article in the Wall Street Journal, which is focused on a possible successor to Lewis' work suggests that the reason may be because of Lewis' shortcomings more than his talents.

Lewis's real ambition was, he revealed in his letters and diary entries, to be numbered among the great English poets. He didn't get there. Unlike his Narnia novels, Lewis's poems are largely forgotten. But when we marvel at a metaphor or memorable passage in "Mere Christianity" -- such as the famous claim that Jesus, given what he said, must have been either a lunatic or the very Son of God -- we are the beneficiaries of a gifted dreamer's not quite successful quest. And maybe that's as good as it gets.

Perhaps, just as the Portuguese proverb evocatively suggests, "Our God is a God who can draw straight with crooked lines," Lewis' success tells us something more about God than we might otherwise expect.

Remembering Giordano Bruno

High schools students all know about the troubles that Galileo had with the Catholic Church, but few have ever heard of Giordano Bruno, who died at the stake. The New Yorker has a fascinating review of a new book about Bruno:

In 1600, Rome’s Campo de’ Fiori, now a nice plaza lined with cafés, was one of the city’s execution grounds, and on Ash Wednesday of that year Giordano Bruno, a philosopher and former priest accused of heresy by the Inquisition, was taken there and burned. The event was carefully timed. AshWednesday is the primary day of Christian penance. As for the year, Pope Clement VIII chose it because 1600 was a jubilee for the Church—a festivity that would be enhanced by the execution of an important heretic. Bruno rode to the Campo on a mule, the traditional means of transport for people going to their death. (It was also a practical means. After years in the Inquisition’s prisons, many of the condemned could not walk.) Once he arrived and mounted the pyre, a crucifix was held up to his face. According to a witness, he turned away angrily. He could not speak; he had been gagged with a leather bridle. (Or, some say, an iron spike had been driven through his tongue.) He was tied to the stake, and the pyre was lit. When it had burned out, his remains were dumped into the Tiber. As Ingrid Rowland writes in “Giordano Bruno: Philosopher/Heretic” (Farrar, Straus & Giroux; $27), the Church thereby made Bruno a martyr. But “a martyr to what?” she asks. That is the question that her book, the first full-scale biography of Bruno in English, tries, with difficulty, to answer.

So why was Bruno burned at the stake? He was an original thinker with often provocatively modern ideas:

In this system, there were three main ideas. One was heliocentrism, the notion that the sun, not the Earth, was the center of the universe. This revision of the standard, Ptolemaic cosmos was, of course, not original to him. It had been made by the Polish astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus in 1543, five years before Bruno was born. But while Copernicus’s repositioning of the earth and the sun was a radical proposal—indeed, a heresy (the Church needed the Earth, the arena of salvation, to be the center of the universe)—in other respects his cosmos was quite orthodox: a finite structure consisting of fixed spheres that revolved in concentric circles, just as in Ptolemy. Bruno, on the other hand, proposed an infinite cosmos, consisting of innumerable heliocentric worlds. This, his second and most important idea, was also not new. It had been put forth by Nicholas of Cusa, a German cardinal, in the fifteenth century. But here, too, Bruno went further, claiming that the universe was a vast, wheeling, unknowable thing, and that all theories about it, including his own, were not descriptions but merely approaches—“models,” as we would call them today.

Finally, Bruno developed an atomic theory, whereby everything that existed was made up of identical particles—“seeds,” in his terminology. Other people, notably Lucretius, had had this idea, but, again, Bruno expanded it. Not only were all parts of the cosmos constituted of the same elements, but God, whom the Church strictly set apart from the material world, resided in these elements. It was his love, informing every “seed,” that unified the world.

Read it all here.

Marilynne Robinson’s "Home"

Marilynne Robinson’s novels focus on issues of faith, perhaps most notably her second novel, Gilead. As James Woods notes in his New Yorker review, her new novel is no exception:

Her new novel, “Home” (Farrar, Straus & Giroux; $25), begins simply, eschewing obvious verbal fineness, and slowly grows in luxury—its last fifty pages are magnificently moving, and richly pondered in the way of “Gilead.” “Home” is not a sequel to that novel but more like that novel’s brother, since it takes place at the same narrative moment and dovetails with its happenings. In “Gilead,” John Ames’s great friend is the Reverend Robert Boughton, a retired Presbyterian minister (Ames is a Congregationalist). The two men grew up together, confide in one another, and share a wry, undogmatic Protestantism. But where Ames married late and has only one son, Boughton has eight children, one of whom, Jack, is a prodigal son. In the earlier novel, Ames frets over Jack (now in his forties), who has been difficult since he was a schoolboy: there has been petty theft, drifting, unemployment, alcoholism, and an illegitimate child, now deceased, with a local woman. Jack walked out of the Boughton home one day and stayed away for twenty years, not returning even for his mother’s funeral. After all that time, we learn, Jack has unexpectedly returned. In the last part of “Gilead,” Jack comes to Ames for a blessing—for the blessing he cannot get from his own father—and spills a remarkable secret: he has been living with a black woman from Memphis named Della, and has a son with her.

“Home” is set in the Boughton household at the time of Jack’s sudden return, and is an intense study of three people: the Reverend Boughton, the old, dying patriarch; his pious daughter Glory; and the prodigal Jack. Glory has her own sadness: she has come back to Gilead after the collapse of what she took to be an engagement, to a man who turned out to be married. Like Princess Marya in “War and Peace,” who does daily battle with her father, the old Prince Bolkonsky, she is the dutiful child who must submit to the demands of an aging tyrant. She is fearful of Jack, whom she hardly knows, and is in some ways envious of his rebellious freedom. Robinson evokes well the drugged shuffle of life in a home dominated by the routines of an old parent: how the two middle-aged children hear “a stirring of bedsprings, then the lisp lisp of slippered feet and the pock of the cane.” There are the imperious cries—for help getting dressed; a glass of water—and the hours distracted by the radio, card games, Monopoly, meals, pots of coffee. The very furniture is oppressive, immovable.

. . .

What propels the book, and makes it ultimately so powerful, is the Reverend Boughton, precisely because he is not the soft-spoken sage that John Ames is in “Gilead.” He is a fierce, stern, vain old man, who wants to forgive his son and cannot. He preaches sweetness and light, and is gentle with Jack, like a chastened Lear (“Let me look at you for a minute,” he says), only to turn on him angrily. There are scenes of the most tender pain. Robinson, so theologically obsessed with transfiguration, can transfigure the most banal observation. In the attic, for instance, Glory finds a chest of her father’s shirts, ironed “as if for some formal event, perhaps their interment”; and then the novelist, or poet, notices that the shirts “had changed to a color milder than white.” (Those cerements again.) Father and son clash while watching television news reports of the racial unrest in Montgomery. Boughton swats away his son’s anger with his bland, milky prophecy: “There’s no reason to let that sort of trouble upset you. In six months nobody will remember one thing about it.”

As the old man palpably declines, an urgency sets in. The imminence of death should conduce to forgiveness, but the father cannot allow it. He knows that his son has not returned for good. “He’s going to toss the old gent an assurance or two, and then he’s out the door,” he complains. Nothing will change, because the family situation rests on a series of paradoxes, which interlock to imprison father and son. Jack’s soul is homeless, but his soul is his home, for, as Jack tells his sister, the soul is “what you can’t get rid of.” He is condemned to leave and return. If the prodigal son is the most loved because most errant, then it is his errancy that is secretly loved: perhaps a family needs to have its designated sinner? Everyone longs for restoration, for the son to come home and become simply good, just as everyone longs for Heaven, but such restoration, like Heaven itself, is hard to imagine, and in our lack of imagination we somehow prefer what we can touch and feel—the palpability of our lapses.

Read it all here.

Churches protect the status quo

Peter Gomes is interviewed by Steven Colbert about his new book, The Scandalous Gospel of Jesus. He says Jesus came to turn things upside down, but churches have turned out to be defenders of the status quo.

McLaren emerging

Scot McKnight has a very thoughtful analysis of the Emerging Church in Christianity Today, that focuses on the work of Brian McClaren:

Despite what some critics assume, Brian McLaren, the most controversial of emergent leaders, does not represent all things emerging. But he does represent the more progressive wing, and his latest books offer a glimpse of where that movement might be heading.

To understand McLaren, one must appreciate two things. First, his books are "works in progress." He's working things out in front of us all, and he isn't offering final words on anything. Second, he's exploring how the gospel, seen as the kingdom vision of Jesus, impacts both global crises and Christian discipleship. So although I continue to have questions for McLaren (see below), I believe he can be a rich source for Christian imagination, vision, and reflection.

. . .

McLaren's vision is, simply, to return to Jesus and to rework and revitalize Jesus' kingdom vision. In The Secret Message of Jesus, McLaren explores a variety of phrases, including "empire of God," "dream of God," "revolution of God," "mission of God," "party of God," the "network of God," and the "dance of God." McLaren self-consciously brackets the "conventional" gospel message he grew up with among the Plymouth Brethren and reads Jesus, to cop the words of Marcus Borg, "again for the first time." What McLaren discovered was Jesus' thoroughly social vision, and he believes that most people—especially the conservative evangelical group in which he was nurtured—buried the kingdom vision of Jesus and distorted the gospel. "What if," he asks in what must be seen as a window to everything he is doing, "the religion generally associated with Jesus neither expects nor trains its adherents to actually live in the way of Jesus?"

. . .

I wish more believers would follow McLaren's cue and think about the implications of the Bible for global and systemic issues; that Christians would return to the Bible and ask, "What, then, is the gospel?" as well as its necessary follow-up, "How do we live out the gospel today?" For far too many, the gospel preached is not leading to any serious engagement with the global crises of our time.

But that doesn't mean I don't have questions about McLaren's theology.

Clarity Despite his many proposals in these last two books, McLaren would rather ask a question and create a conversation than propound a solution. This style is an attribute of a good teacher. Yet having said that, I want to voice the frustration of many: McLaren's willingness to muddy the waters, which is characteristic of Generous Orthodoxy, goes only so far. Many of us would like to see greater clarity on a variety of questions he raises.

McLaren grew up among evangelicals; we'd like him to show the generosity he is known for to those who ask theological questions of him. The spirit of conversation that drives much of his own pastoral work urges each of us to answer the questions we are asked, and the Bible encourages those who ask those questions to listen patiently and to respond graciously. The lack of the latter has so far inhibited the former. This can be taken as a plea on behalf of all concerned to enter into a more robust, honest conversation.

The Cross What role does the Cross play in the emergent kingdom vision? One way to get to this is to see how McLaren concludes chapter 10 of Everything Must Change: "How ironic that the cross—the icon of the dominating Roman framing story—became the icon for the liberating framing story of Jesus. And how much more ironic if we who believe in Jesus don't get the irony."

It is right here that I want to dig in. In brief, what McLaren has written about the Cross in these books approaches French intellectual René Girard's theory—namely, that by the Cross God identified with the victim and both unmasked and undid evil, systemic violence, and injustice. In Secret Message, McLaren says that at the Cross, "God exposed and judged the evil of empire and religion" and that the King "achieves peace not by shedding the blood of rebels but by … shedding his own blood … [The] crucifixion of Christ can in this light be seen as a radical repudiation of the use of violent force."

Well, yes, I say to myself—after having written two books dealing with the Atonement. Yes, I believe this unmasking role of the Cross is not only true, but also vital to a political reworking and revitalizing of the Cross. Given the sociopolitical focus of these two books, perhaps McLaren didn't think any more needed to be said.

But I feel obliged to ask, "Can we have more?" Emergents believe that penal substitution theories have not led (as they should have) to a kingdom vision. What I have been pondering and writing about for a decade now is how to construct an "emerging" gospel that remains faithful to the fullness of the biblical texts about the Atonement, and lands squarely on the word kingdom. Girard said something important about the Cross; so does McLaren. But they aren't enough.

This is an essay well worth reading. You can find it here.

Fundamentalists persist in censorship efforts

The Guardian has two opinion pieces this week on attempts by fundamentalists to censor books.

Philip Pullman:

When I heard that my novel The Golden Compass (the name in the USA of Northern Lights) appeared in the top five of the American Library Association's list of 2007's most challenged books, my immediate and ignoble response was glee. Firstly, I had obviously annoyed a lot of censorious people, and secondly, any ban would provoke interested readers to move from the library, where they couldn't get hold of my novel, to the bookshops, where they could. That, after all, was exactly what happened when a group called the Catholic League decided to object to the film of The Golden Compass when it was released at the end of last year.
My basic objection to religion is not that it isn't true; I like plenty of things that aren't true. It's that religion grants its adherents malign, intoxicating and morally corrosive sensations. Destroying intellectual freedom is always evil, but only religion makes doing evil feel quite so good.

Jo Glanville, Respect for religion now makes censorship the norm:
The firebomb attack this weekend on the publishing house Gibson Square in London was an assault on one of the bravest publishers in the business. Three men were arrested under the Terrorism Act 2000 on Saturday morning, suspected of attempting to set fire to the premises. Martin Rynja, who runs Gibson Square, is due to publish Sherry Jones's novel about Mohammed's wife Aisha, The Jewel of Medina, next month. Random House had pulled out of publishing the novel in August, stating that it had been advised that "the publication of this book might be offensive to some in the Muslim community" and that "it could incite acts of violence by a small, radical segment".
Random House's actions show just how far we have lost our way in this debate over free expression and Islam: the level of intimidation, fear and self-censorship is such that one of the biggest publishers in the world no longer felt able to publish a work of creative imagination without some kind of dispensation. Jones's book does not claim to be a piece of history - it's a work of invention.

It was also disingenuous of Random House to suggest that the novel might incite violence. Certain members of the population might choose to commit an act of violence, but that is not the same as the book itself inciting violence.
Respect for religion has now become acceptable grounds for censorship; even the UN secretary-general, Ban Ki-moon, has declared that free speech should respect religious sensibilities, while the UN human rights council passed a resolution earlier this year condemning defamation of religion and calling for governments to prohibit it.

An agnostic meditates on the afterlife

Author Julian Barnes, a self-described atheist turned agnostic, devotes his most recent book, Nothing To Be Afraid Of, on his fear of death. In today's New York Times Book Revew, Garrison Keillor, describes the effort:

I don’t believe in God, but I miss Him,” the book begins. Julian Barnes, an atheist turned agnostic, has decided at the age of 62 to address his fear of death — why should an agnostic fear death who has no faith in an afterlife? How can you be frightened of Nothing? On this simple question Barnes has hung an elegant memoir and meditation, a deep seismic tremor of a book that keeps rumbling and grumbling in the mind for weeks thereafter.

. . .

Religious faith is not an option. “I had no faith to lose,” he writes. “I was never baptized, never sent to Sunday school. I have never been to a normal church service in my life. . . . I am constantly going into churches, but for architectural reasons; and, more widely, to get a sense of what Englishness once was.”

The Christian religion has lasted because it is a “beautiful lie, . . . a tragedy with a happy ending,” and yet he misses the sense of purpose and belief that he finds in the Mozart Requiem, the paintings of Donatello — “I miss the God that inspired Italian painting and French stained glass, German music and English chapter houses, and those tumbledown heaps of stone on Celtic headlands which were once symbolic beacons in the darkness and the storm.” Barnes is not comforted by the contemporary religion of therapy, the “secular modern heaven of self-­fulfilment: the development of the personality, the relationships which help define us, the status-giving job, . . . the accumulation of sexual exploits, the visits to the gym, the consumption of culture. It all adds up to happiness, doesn’t it — doesn’t it? This is our chosen myth.”

So Barnes turns toward the strict regime of science and here is little comfort indeed. We are all dying. Even the sun is dying. Homo sapiens is evolving toward some species that won’t care about us whatsoever and our art and literature and scholarship will fall into utter oblivion. Every author will eventually become an unread author. And then humanity will die out and beetles will rule the world. A man can fear his own death but what is he anyway? Simply a mass of neurons. The brain is a lump of meat and the soul is merely “a story the brain tells itself.” Individuality is an illusion. Scientists find no physical evidence of “self” — it is something we’ve talked ourselves into. We do not produce thoughts, thoughts produce us. “The ‘I’ of which we are so fond properly exists only in grammar.” Stripped of the Christian narrative, we gaze out on a landscape that, while fascinating, offers nothing that one could call Hope. (Barnes refers to “American hopefulness” with particular disdain.)

. . .

All true so far as it goes, perhaps, but so what? Barnes is a novelist and what gives this book life and keeps the reader happily churning forward is his affection for the people who wander in and out, Grandma Scoltock in her hand-knitted cardigan reading The Daily Worker and cheering on Mao Zedong,while Grandpa watched “Songs of Praise” on television, did woodwork and raised dahlias, and killed chickens with a green metal machine screwed to the doorjam that wrung their necks. The older brother who teaches philosophy, keeps llamas and likes to wear knee breeches, buckle shoes, a brocade waistcoat. We may only be units of genetic obedience, but we do love to look at each ­other. Barnes tells us he keeps in a drawer his parents’ stuff, all of it, their scrapbooks, ration cards, cricket score cards, Christmas card lists, certificates of Perfect Attendance, a photo album of 1913 entitled “Scenes From Highways & Byways,” old postcards (“We arrived here safely, and, except for the ham sandwiches, we were satisfied with the journey”). The simple-minded reader savors this sweet lozenge of a detail. We don’t deny the inevitability of extinction, but we can’t help being fond of that postcard.

. . .

I don’t know how this book will do in our hopeful country, with the author’s bleak face on the cover, but I will say a prayer for retail success. It is a beautiful and funny book, still booming in my head.

Read it all here.

Re-examining Vatican II

John O'Malley has written "A Spirit of Affirmation" which details the Second Vatican Council of 1962-65, which not only modernized the Roman Catholic Church but had a profound effect on how churches of other traditions responded to the modern world and to each other.

The Washington Post reviewed the book.

Over the last two or three decades, a huge argument has erupted among theologians, journalists and intellectuals about what "Vatican II" actually did. Conservatives tend to argue that the council took several false and damaging turns, leading unintentionally from the confident Roman Catholic Church of the 1950s to the empty churches (in Western Europe) today. As the great progressive Jesuit Gustave Weigel, who loved irony, once predicted during the council, swirling a splash of scotch in a plastic cup at a party: "All good things, given enough time, go badly."

Progressives tend to argue that the council reaffirmed ancient traditions even as it made significant reforms: clearing the way for the Mass to be said in native languages, endorsing the search for heartfelt cooperation and doctrinal dialogue with other Christians and, above all, encouraging deeper self-understanding and warm relations with Jews. In other words, progressives say now (as some did then) that the council's essential purpose was conservative in nature, rooted in lessons from the pre-medieval church. They wanted, for instance, to resume the ancient tradition of speaking of the church as a "people" -- the "people of God" -- and of bishops and priests as "servants" of the people of God. They argued that celebrating Masses in vernacular languages and small, informal settings was more in keeping with the practices of the early church. Well, then, what was really new?

O'Malley says that the Council was fundamentally different that past ecumenical councils because the Second Vatican Council attempted to listen to and respond to the world, rather than reacting negatively to current trends.

His main point is that Vatican II differed in its way of thinking from every other doctrine-setting gathering in the church's history, from the Council of Nicaea in 325 A.D. to the First Vatican Council in 1869. His preferred word for this is "style," though sometimes he says "method," "approach" or "language." Vatican II was distinctive, he contends, in its attention to the liberty of the human person and to the connectedness of the human community. The new spirit was to affirm, not condemn; to be open, not closed; to focus on ideals to live by, not things forbidden.

"Vatican II was unprecedented," he writes, "for the notice it took of changes in society at large and for its refusal to see them in globally negative terms as devolutions from an older and happier era." He says the council underscored the authority of bishops while, at the same time, trying to make them "less authoritarian." For bishops, priests and everybody in authority, it recommended the ideal of the servant-leader. It upheld the legitimacy of modern methods in the study of the Bible. It condemned anti-Semitism and discrimination "on the basis of race, color, condition in life, or religion." It called on Catholics to cooperate with people of all faiths, or no faith, in projects aimed at the common good. And it supplied "the impetus," O'Malley writes, "for later official dialogues of the Catholic Church with other churches."

Read the rest.

The Enlightenment and religion

Peter Steinfels religion column in yesterday's New York Times is devoted to a new book by David Sorkin, professor of history and Jewish studies at the University of Wisconsin, that argues that the Enlightenment created both religious and secular world views:

“In the academic as well as the popular imagination,” Dr. Sorkin writes, “the Enlightenment figures as a quintessentially secular phenomenon — indeed, as the very source of modern secular culture.”

But contrary to this “secular master narrative,” he argues, “the Enlightenment was not only compatible with religious belief,” it actually generated new formulations of that belief.

Such theological formulations were no less an essential part of Enlightenment thought, he insists, than the deist, materialist or antireligious ideas often identified with it and regularly wheeled into the front lines of today’s cultural and political wars.

In “The Religious Enlightenment,” a book published in August by Princeton University Press, Dr. Sorkin aims at nothing less than “to revise our understanding of the Enlightenment.”

Building on recent scholarship highlighting the ideological and geographical diversity of 18th century thought, Dr. Sorkin posits a specifically religious Enlightenment that not only shared characteristics across confessional lines as well as national borders — hence his book’s subtitle, “Protestants, Jews, and Catholics from London to Vienna”— but also “may have had more influential adherents and exerted more power in its day than either the moderate or the radical version of the Enlightenment.”

Leading thinkers of this religious Enlightenment, he explains, sought a “reasonable” faith that was answerable to contemporary science and philosophy, and not grounded merely on dogmatic authority, pure emotion or fascination with the miraculous.

These thinkers agreed with deists that there was a kind of “natural religion,” basic truths about God and morality accessible to reasoning people. Natural religion was not a rival or alternative, however, to revealed religion. It was a prelude, a necessary but insufficient foundation for belief. Without a further belief resting on revelation, reason was likely to end in skepticism and immorality.

. . .

“The twenty-first century has begun with seemingly unbridgeable chasms between secularism and believers,” Dr. Sorkin writes. “One step in averting such a parlous situation is to recover the notion of an Enlightenment spectrum that, by including the religious Enlightenment, complicates our understanding of belief’s critical and abiding role in modern culture.”

Read it all here.

The coexistence of God and evolution

The Washington Post reviews three new titles advancing the case for faith-based belief in evolution in tomorrow's Book World: Thank God for Evolution, by Michael Dowd; The Faith of Scientists, edited by Nancy K. Frankenberry; and Saving Darwin, by Karl W. Giberson.

... It's getting hard to tell the players without a scorecard in America's most peculiar culture war: the battle between evolution and its enemies.

Spectators often see this conflict as a straightforward affair. On one side, scientists pile up physical evidence; on the other, biblical literalists scorn that evidence as a snare of Satan. Adherents of " scientific creationism" and "intelligent design" blame evolution, with its explanation of how all living beings evolve through chance and natural selection, for everything from abortion to the Holocaust. Returning fire, the British biologist Richard Dawkins rides the bestseller list with his polemic The God Delusion, dismissing not just creationists but religious folk generally as dupes and creeps.

As if to annoy Dawkins, now comes a parade of books that jumble the sides and soften the tone of this conflict.

The review of the books is here.

Why we believe

David Shariatmadari has an interesting essay in the Guardian about Dorthy Rowe's new book What Should I Believe about purports to explain why we hold our religious beliefs:

She starts from the premise that our greatest fear is annihilation, not physical death, necessarily, but annihilation as a person. It is the desire to avoid this that motivates us throughout our lives. For some, religion is the answer, because it tends to suggest quite straightforwardly that life carries on after death.

But a continuation of our existence is what we all clamour for, religious or not; parents hope their worldview will shape the lives of their children; some take comfort from the fact that their "blood" or "genes" will be around after they've gone. Artists imagine the work will stand as a monument to them. Humbler people hope they'll live on, at least, in their friends' memories or through the effects of the good things they've done. To live without any hope of projecting one's soul is, Rowe argues, impossible. Test yourself, if you believe you do.

So why be the Pope rather than Picasso? Why choose religion as your balm, rather than some other route to eternal life? According to Rowe's model, that decision is the result of a kind of cost-benefit analysis for the individual – and those costs and benefits can come from absolutely anywhere within the arena of personal experience. And into the mix goes the cast of your personality – introvert or extrovert. Will my father beat me if I'm not devout? Well I had better believe then. Or not, depending on which is worse, giving in to dad or getting hit. Is it easier for me to believe that despite the dead-end job that absorbs all my time I will receive a reward in heaven, or to take the huge material risks involved in pursuing self-expression? Again, it depends.

All this presents a bit of an obstacle for those who think that the problem of religion can be "solved". When the explanation for religious belief is a question of individual psychology, there's little room for the argument that it can be educated away. There are always going to be situations where it makes (personal) sense to be a Muslim, Catholic or Hindu.

Read it all here.

Beyond Tolerance

Gustav Niebuhr, a former a religion reporter for The New York Times and now an associate professor of religion and the media at Syracuse University, has written a new book that explores how interfaith understanding can move beyond mere tolerance. The New York Times reviewed the book this week:

Religious tolerance is a necessary but overrated virtue. Its practice comes easiest to the religiously indifferent and to the condescending: “You know this is a Protestant country,” President Franklin D. Roosevelt reminded two non-Protestant members of his administration, “and the Catholics and the Jews are here on sufferance.”

What lies beyond tolerance? Respect and recognition — not just for individuals but also, as Gustav Niebuhr argues, for the faiths to which they are committed. Formerly a religion reporter for The New York Times and now an associate professor of religion and the media at Syracuse University, Niebuhr here gathers tales of interfaith dialogue and good will; he estimates they are representative of the practices of thousands of American believers. He claims these efforts are “largely untold.” If that is so, it’s only because such dialogues are no longer news. American Protestants, Catholics and Jews have been talking interfaithfully for more than 50 years.

What’s different, what gives Niebuhr’s book, “Beyond Tolerance,” its few bursts of energy, is the addition of Muslims to the conversation. Indeed, my guess is his search for interfaith understanding could not have found a publisher before 9/11. Since then, inviting Muslims to talk has become an act of mutual protection as much as one of respect for all parties to the conversation.

. . .

My main quarrel is with Niebuhr’s emphasis on proc­ess over substance. The point of interfaith dialogue is to learn something. As any veteran of these conversations can attest, you never really understand your own religion until you develop a deep and sympathetic understanding of at least one other. But Niebuhr hardly ever tells us what insights participants have gained from listening to one another, not even how their attitudes might have changed as a result.

We don’t hear about these things, the reader has to assume, because Niebuhr does not consider them important. “The world’s major religions,” he writes, “are essentially neutral systems in the way they affect human temperaments.” To the contrary: religion, for those who take it seriously, has enormous power to shape not only who we are and how we relate to others but also which virtues we privilege, which course of action in any situation we find right and worthy. Compassion, to cite one common inter­faith topic, has a very different meaning for Buddhists than it does for Christians. Were differences like this not important, the interfaithful would have nothing much to discuss, nothing to learn from one another.

Read it all here.

On dying

The New York Times today reviews Robin Romm's new book, The Mercy Papers: A Memoir of Three Weeks, which deals with her mother's death from breast cancer after a nearly decade battle with the disease. It sounds like a book that would be useful to anyone who wants to understand and comfort those facing such a loss:

The foundational condition of being human is that we’re going to die. Almost as basic a truth is that we seem incapable of believing it. The collision of these inconsonant facts is the spark that ignites Robin Romm’s memoir, “The Mercy Papers,” a furious blaze of a book. The title is inapt: there is little mercy in these pages. As Romm herself writes, “Maybe the problem is God, the lack of God, the lack of mercy, of grace.”

In concrete terms, the problem is Romm’s anguish over the impending death of her mother, Jackie Romm. Jackie, 56, has been living with breast cancer for nine years when her daughter is summoned home to see her for the last time. Subtitled “A Memoir of Three Weeks,” the book chronicles not only the final weeks of her mother’s life but also, in passages too seamlessly inter­woven to be called flashbacks, the almost decade-long period in which cancer invaded the author as well — not physiologically but in every other imaginable way. Romm, who was 19 at the time of her mother’s diagnosis, does not so much mourn as rail against her losses: the looming loss of her mother, yes, but also the loss of her own unburdened youth, of her “20s,” as she puts it, again and again, at times wistfully (“I felt the most normal I’d felt in a month. I felt like a girl in my 20s”), at times bitterly (“I couldn’t be around so many healthy people in their 20s, their eyes lit up with the frenzy of being young and lucky”).

. . .

But “The Mercy Papers” is no blind rant. In Romm’s hands, anger becomes an instrument for pursuing truth, an extremely effective crowbar with which to pry back nicety and expose “something unfettered, something darker.” Often, it’s from this unfettered darkness that the author delivers her best lines, the words strung together with a kind of plain-mouthed beauty. Right in the midst of eviscerating Barb, for example: “She’s building a boat to sail my mother out. . . . Barb will build the boat of morphine and pillows and then I will have no mother and the days will be wordless and empty.” This is just accurate and eloquent and hard.

The truths Romm pursues are not of the confessional variety. She offers no festering family secrets, no deathbed revelations. It’s really only a single truth she grapples with, but it’s that oldest and most unyielding, the inevitability of death. She never quite wrestles it to the ground: “I can’t get my own brain to register the truth of it.” Nor can she bring herself to surrender to it, not even when evidence of her mother’s suffering becomes intolerable (“She’s swollen everywhere and on her sternum you can actually see the skin puffed out where the tumors have grown, like a basketball rising from her chest”), not even when those around her implore Romm to “release” her mother, to assure her that she’ll be O.K. when her mother dies. “I can’t,” Romm says. She makes no attempt to cast her refusal as an act of altruism, or an act of love. It’s about her fear for herself, plain and simple. “I won’t be O.K.,” she tells her mother. “I can’t imagine life without you.”

. . .

In the end, it is the mother who releases the daughter. After a particularly horrific day of doing battle with the “boat builders” who are ushering her mother toward death, Romm goes to Jackie and confesses that she cannot bring herself, as the ­others have urged her, to say “it’s O.K. to die.” The confession is gorgeous for its admitted selfishness — which, in its candor and intimacy, is transformed into an act of generosity, a precious, unprettied gift. But the gift her mother gives in return is even greater. Her speech slurred through the oxygen mask, Jackie answers, “Sweetheart, I dun need your permission.”

Read it all here.

2009 Christianity Today Book Awards

Christianity Today has announced the winners of its 2009 Book Award. Winners include:

Home: A Novel by Marilynne Robinson

People and Place: A Covenant Ecclesiology by Michael S. Horton

Acedia & Me: A Marriage, Monks, and a Writer's Life by Kathleen Norris

Mission/Global Affairs
Transforming Worldviews: An Anthropological Understanding of How People Change by Paul G. Hiebert

Read about all the winners and finalists here. What do you think? Any books that should have been on the list?

John Milton's quiet 400th birthday

The New York Review of Books features a discussion of the very quiet celebration of poet John Milton's 400th birthday this past December that notes that Milton's republican politics may account for the lack of interest in Milton:

Celebrations of the four hundredth anniversary of the birth of John Milton in December 1608 have been modest and largely academic. He was born, and for the most part lived, in the City of London, now the financial district. Nationalistic sentiment in those days was such that the idea of a great national poet was welcomed, and Milton had high hopes of filling that role; but although his gifts were acknowledged there were aspects of his career, especially his politics, that were far from pleasing to all parties. In the eighteenth century, however, his poetry was highly valued for its own sake, and there was a revival of interest in his politics. Wordsworth celebrated Milton's republicanism as well as his poems.

In 1922 the American Milton scholar R.D. Havens could claim, a little extravagantly, that from Pope's day to Wordsworth's "Milton occupied a the thought and life of Englishmen of all classes, which no poet has held since, and none is likely to hold again." Havens had hardly spoken before powerful modernist rebels declared their opposition. Milton fell short of pleasing the royalist T.S. Eliot, and Ezra Pound judged him to be quite a small poet, about the size of Drummond of Hawthornden. In 1933 he was dismissed in the famous opening sentence of an essay by the influential critic F.R. Leavis: "Milton's dislodgement, in the past decade, after his two centuries of predominance, was effected with remarkably little fuss."

Leavis added that Eliot's remarks on the subject had made it "unnecessary to elaborate a case," and doubted if any defense was possible. Plausible defenses soon appeared, but they were mostly the work of English and American academics, and probably did not interest Englishmen, or indeed Americans, "of all classes"—though Americans are sometimes thought to have a special claim on Milton because of his influence on the language of Franklin, Jefferson, and John Adams, and because he remained faithful to the idea of republicanism.

Read it all here.

A history of the Virgin Mary

The Economist this week reviewed an interesting new book about the history of the veneration of the Virgin Mary by historian Miri Rubin:

As Ms Rubin, a professor at London University, successfully shows, it is very nearly true to say that the story of Mary’s cult simply is the history of Christianity, and hence absolutely central to the narrative of European and Christian civilisation. By studying the different ways in which Mary was described, hymned and painted in medieval Italy, one can also describe Europe’s beginnings as a great political and commercial enterprise. Her absence was a defining feature of the colder, more rational world that emerged in the Protestant north. And in the colonial era, above all in Latin America, she metamorphosed seamlessly from conquerors’ champion to helper of the oppressed—long before any of the founders of modern literary theory had come up with fancy ideas about shifting metaphors and “floating signifiers”.

. . .

For all the differences between the first Christian millennium and the second, a common theme in discourse about Mary was polemic against the Jews, who especially in Byzantium were often regarded as the “other” in relation to which Christianity must define itself. In some contexts, the word “Jew” seems to have been used almost as a generic term for one who failed to give due honour to Jesus Christ and his mother. And as Ms Rubin notes, the early Christian era also saw plenty of Jewish counter-polemic, mocking the story of Mary’s virginity and suggesting that she was an adulteress.

Read it all here.

Manifest Christianity takes a back seat to the Great Commandment

In her new book, A People's History of Christianity, Diana Butler Bass takes a people's perspective of Christianity that Howard Zinn took in his path breaking book, A People's History of the United States. Rather an institutional history, and how the institution spread, it's a history of the people who are Christian and how they live. In an interview she explains it this way:

It is parallel to the story of the secular history of the United States. I think that in the book I actually use the phrase "Manifest Destiny Christianity" to describe it, in the same way that we have "Manifest Destiny" American history.

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What we can learn from Reinhold Niebuhr

Brian Urquhart has an interesting review of a new edition of noted American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr and two new books that take a distinctly Niebuhrian view of recent world affairs in the New York Review of Books:

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Pullman lauds Williams, but asks if his strategy is working

Philip Pullman, author of the "His Dark Materials" trilogy was recently profiled in The Times of London. Among the issues he discussed with Alan Franks was the current state of the Church of England, of which he is not a member:

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Bart Ehrman's "Jesus Interrupted"

Gary Kamiya offers an interesting discussion of Professor Bart Ehrman's latest book--Jesus Interrupted at Salon, which includes an interview with Ehrman. As Kamiya notes, the new book will not be well received in many corners:

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Judas: A biography

The New York Times yesterday included a very interesting review of Susan Gubar's Judas: A Biography:

In “Judas: A Biography,” Susan Gubar has amassed a long, grim and often nauseating catalog of the ways in which the Christian imagination has vented its wrath on the disciple who betrayed his master.

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Spiritual practice can grow your brain

Spiritual practice and meditating on God can grow your brain, improve your memory and may slow aging according to a new book, How God Changes Your Brain.

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Reflections on the God Debate

Andrew O'Hehir, writing at Salon reviews Terry Eagleton's new book, Reason, Faith, and Revolution: Reflections on the God Debate in which Eagleton defends the theory and practice of religion against the claims of atheists like Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins:

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Weighing religion and secularism

The Browser interviews Anthony Gottlieb, former Executive Editor of The Economist, and historian of ideas at the CUNY Graduate Center about God, reason, and the enduring power of faith in the modern world. An excerpt:

AG: ... You have to read Hume as well to understand the flaws in the theistic argument from design.

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Interfaith friendships increase religious tolerance

Naomi Schaefer Riley adds to our understanding of what Robert Putnam and David Campbell have done in their forthcoming book "American Grace: The Changing Role of Religion in American Civic Life":

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An American Gospel

NPR carries an interview with the author of An American Gospel: On Family, History, and the Kingdom of God, Erik Reece.

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The Evolution of God

Andrew Sullivan reviews The Evolution of God (due out in the US next month) by Robert Wright:

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Growing Up Gay

Christian Century reviews a new book, Crisis: 40 Stories Revealing the Personal, Social, and Religious Pain and Trauma of Growing Up Gay in America:

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Journalists write about their faith

Cathy Grossman, USAToday interviews 4 journalists who have written books about their faith journeys. Usually religion reporters report what others are doing with religion and faith. In these books they reflect on their personal faith stories:

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The Wrath of Angels relevant again

Jessa Crispin at The Smart Set contemplates the return of violence to the anti-abortion movement:

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Tyler Cowen interviews Robert Wright

The economist Tyler Cowen interviews Robert Wright about his new book The Evolution of God. And more: On being a bad secular Buddhist, The God Bob believes in, Why agnostic Tyler loves the Hebrew Bible [about which more at Kingdom of Priests], How Bob and Tyler came to their personal theologies, Quantum physics and king-sized video games as paths to God.

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Distinguishing the work from the author

As cited in a Times article by Nicolette Jones, Archbishop Williams advocates making a distinction between the work and the author of the work. Jones writes:

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Frank McCourt, dead at 78

May he rest in peace.

The Washington Post has a report.

Christianity without the cross

Rosemary Ganley of Religion Dispatches reviews Saving Paradise: How Christianity Traded Love of this World for Crucifixion and Empire by Rita Nakashima Brock and Rebecca Ann Parker.

Rita Nakashima Brock, a Disciple of Christ minister and Director of Faith Voices for the Common Good, and her writing partner, Rebecca Ann Parker, who is president of the Starr King School for the Ministry in Berkeley, California have, with passion, scholarship and clear writing, laid out a fascinating thesis. It is also a stylish and readable book.

“This is”, said Diarmuid O’Murchu, the Irish psychologist-priest-writer, and no slouch himself, “the best book of theology I have read in 20 years”.

After finishing Proverbs of Ashes: Violence, Redemptive Suffering and the Search for What Saves Us in 2001, the two writers spent five years sniffing out evidence that the cruciform symbol, the central image of Christianity, arrived very late on the scene. Indeed, it was not important during the first millennium of Christian history.
“But the death of Jesus was not a key to meaning, not an image of devotion for the Christians of the first millennium”, Parker and Brock write. “He was risen, a healer, baptized, a shepherds, a teacher and a friend.”

This book is a rock-the-foundations work. Christians have been thoroughly taught that the crucifixion of Jesus saved the world. If the crucifixion is absent in historic Christian art, what is present?
Altogether Saving Paradise is a daring challenge to cruciform-centered Christianity. With just a whiff of political savvy and a slight hermeneutic of suspicion, readers can conclude that the crucifix was not in fact a vital symbol for early Christianity, and that its introduction in the second millennium must have served some purpose. If Jesus’ corpse was not featured in the early art and not in many early writings, why then has it become the ultimate symbol today? What political use has been made of exaggerated atonement theology? Of violent death? Of exaggerated induced guilt in believers? Of the extension of control over individual consciences by church authorities, and the creation of an obsession with the afterlife, where happiness may reside.

Read more here.

From Adam to Joseph: R. Crumb's 'Genesis' imagines all 50 chapters

Over at, Jeet Heer has thoughtfully engaged The Book of Genesis Illustrated, due in mid-October, from illustrator/satirist/critic R. Crumb.

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Author finds silence a positive force for good

"Silence is God's first language," Thomas Keating wrote, quoting John of the Cross, and adding, "Everything else is a poor translation. In order to hear that language, we must learn to be still and rest in God."

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The Church as it might have been

Diarmaid MacCulloch has written "A history of Christianity: The First 3000 Years." William Whyte of the Church Times interviewed him about it, and talked about questions of unity and uniformity.

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Souls in Transition

Naomi Schaefer Riley in the Wall Street Journal:

College professors have been complaining about their students since the beginning of time, and not without reason. But in the past several years more that a few professors—to judge by my conversations with a wide range of them—have noticed an occasional bright light shining out from the dull, party-going, anti-intellectual masses who stare back at them from class to class.

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Library association names most 'challenged' children's titles

The American Library Association's Office for Intellectual Freedom this week released its annual listing of children's book titles that parents sought to have banned from libraries in 2008.

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Karen Armstrong makes "A Case for God"

Karen Armstrong releases her latest book, The Case for God. In it, she argues that religion is a practical discipline that teaches us to discover new capacities of the mind and heart.

She says that the approach taken by both critics of religious belief and believers themselves often misses the heart of the belief. She says that across religions, what was being encouraged and cultivated through beliefs was a set of skills and a pattern of life. Myth, ritual and theology are tools not so much to reinforce what we know about God so much as an approach to what we don't know about human life, creation and God which at the same time gives existence meaning.

What went wrong? Ross Douthat says in yesterday's NYTimes Book Review, that according to Armstrong religion met the scientific method and "religious thinkers succumbed to a fatal case of science envy."

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'We get to carry each other': U2 as theologians

Everyone covering popular culture seems to want a piece of the "gospel according to ___" business on any available topic where people are willing to use the name of God. And of course, anytime you cast a net that wide, you find varying levels of success.

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Not KJV? Burn it!

Ever wonder what unites Country Music, works by Mother Teresa, Rick Warren, and the Pope, as well as the NRSV Bible, Good News for Modern Man, the Message Bible and the NIV Bible...?

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A skeptic reviews The Shack

Lyn G. Brakeman is an Episcopal priest and the author of two books, "Spiritual Lemons" and "The God Between Us" and a blog, She writes:

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Pray without ceasing while commuting

In I Thessalonians 5:17, St. Paul urges the church to "pray without ceasing," and this passage has inspired many people to find ways to live and practice a prayerful life. A retired bishop of the Church of England has noted that the stressful commuting life may offer opportunities for prayer and reflection. The Rt. Rev. Christopher Herbert has written a prayer book so that commuters can "Get to work on prayer'

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Christian publishing hasn't seen the last of Tim LaHaye

Sigh alert: fat-cat writer/dispensationalist Tim LaHaye is set to release an offshoot brand of his top-selling Left Behind series.

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Advent reminders

If you are still shopping for a Christmas present for that spiritually-inclined person on your list, let us recommend Speaking to the Soul by Vicki Black, it is a collection of the excerpts that appear every day on our Speaking to the Soul blog here at the Cafe.

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Resilience in Coping with Death

Writing in the New York Times, Abigail Zuger, M.D., reviews The Other Side of Sadness, by Georege Bonanno, a new book on grieving that breaks the stereotypes of the grieving process suggesting that resilience is the most common and effective process:

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Speaking to the Soul,
the book

From EBaR, Episcopal Books and Resources:
Speaking to the Soul - Daily Readings for the Christian Year ISBN:9780819223654
Black, Vicki K.

The flourishing website known as the Episcopal Café ( produced by the Diocese of Washington attracts several thousand visitors a day. Its popular column “Speaking to the Soul,” which contains a concise, well-developed spiritual reflection for every day of the year, draws from many different sources, including scripture, church history, saints’ biographies, books of prayers, liturgies, and ancient and contemporary theologians and spiritual writers.

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Mary Gordon on "Reading Jesus"

Mary Gordon, the novelist and critic, has written a new book on the Bible and Jesus, "Reading Jesus," and she was interviewed about it by Bill McGarvey at

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Jesus Freak: Feeding, Healing, Raising the Dead

Religion Dispatches interviews Sara Miles about her latest book, Jesus Freak: Feeding, Healing Raising the Dead:

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Stations of the cross of globalization

Luiz Coelho is offering this booklet as a Lenten resource for churches and individuals. The paintings were submitted to Edinburgh 2010's Multimedia Contest, and he's waiting to see if they are going to be awarded a prize there. He has uploaded the resource to the web, and it can be downloaded for free. Check it out!

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Made for Goodness

A new book by Archbishop Desmond Tutu, writing with his daughter, Mpho Tutu, comes out March 9, 2010, Made for Goodness: And why this makes all the difference.:

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For all that has been, thanks

Suffragan Bishop in Europe David Hamid, blogging at Eurobishop, reviews a new book co-authored by Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams and Sister Joan Chittister:

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Nobody goes to church anymore, it's too quiet

Noise creates excitement and speeds up life:

“I can tell you,” he said, "people don’t want a space that’s really dead quiet, because that feels empty. And if it feels empty, it’s not going to feel successful. It’s not going to feel fun. You know, noise makes a place feel like it’s got a buzz."

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Playing into the consumer-driven religious marketplace

If a bird abandons the eggs she has been sitting on, she prevents them from hatching, and in the same way monks or nuns will grow cold and their faith will perish if they go around from one place to another

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Are you a hipster Christian?...

...don't even know what that means? Well, take this quiz, and read the book, Hipster Christianity: When Church and Cool Collide:

Are you a hipster Christian?
From Hipster

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Books: Ian Buruma compares religion and politics in Europe & US

Lisa Webster of Religious Dispatches interviews Ian Buruma about his book, Taming the Gods: Religion and Democracy on Three Continents.

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What are our bishops reading?

Because the House of Bishops has its own regular meeting, and its own College for Bishops, it's not surprising to learn that many bishops read the same books over a given year. And it's always interesting to find out what's on the reading list, because the ideas tend to surface in public again and again.

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Marilynne Robinson on the "dogmatic mind"

Marilynne Robinson's new book "Absence of Mind" examines the "dogmatic mind,"...

The dogmatic mind
Marilynne Robinson writing in the Washington Posts's "On Faith" Column

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Why is 'The Shack' still selling?

The Shack is William P. Young's first novel - a book of theodicy wrapped in a hunt for a serial killer, and subject to much overly florid prose about the Trinity. It is, in many ways, a reflection of the "desperate grasping after grace and wholeness" which Young describes as his own life. In other ways, it refuses clear categorization; it is not straightforward autobiography, and is very much its own animal.

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Fifty years on, influence of 'Mockingbird' remains strong

Today is the 50th anniversary of the first publication of Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird -- a novel that spoke in fine moral tones about racism with utter clarity, and that has never been out of print.

NPR notes:

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The Café sits down with Jeff Sharlet

Last week, I was privileged to interview Jeff Sharlet, a journalist who's been working in the area of religion for some time. Author of The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power, a major portion of Sharlet's effort has been pointed toward exposing the philosophy and methodology of a secretive, powerful, and influential fundamentalist organization, The Family, which is headquartered on C Street in Washington, D.C., and lead by a man named Doug Coe.

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PBS interviews author of book on Muslim-Christian conflict

Kim Lawton of PBS' Religion and Ethics Newsweekly sat down with Eliza Griswold to discuss her book The Tenth Parallel on the clash between Christianity and Islam.

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Life, all over

This letter to the editor of The New York Times Book Review by the writer David Shield is a protest against a certain city-centric kind of writing, but it is also compelling spiritual advice.

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Pop culture talks to the Bible; the Bible talks back; we listen in

Here's the majority of the table of contents for The Bible in/and Popular Culture: A Creative Encounter, Philip Culbertson and Elaine M. Wainwright, editors. The book was published last month by the Society of Biblical Literature.

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Here is Where We Meet

Andrew Sullivan points us to this wonderful excerpt from a column by Barbara J. King at Bookslut:

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Harry Potter: Christian?

CNN Belief Blog features a new book, God and Harry Potter at Yale: Teaching Faith and Fantasy Fiction in an Ivy League Classroom, on the Harry Potter series by JK Rowling.

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The Belief Instinct

Slate offers an excerpt from The Belief Instinctby Jesse Bering. If I am following him, he argues that intuiting what is on the minds of others is beneficial in an evolutionary sense, and that in our efforts to make sense of our lives, and our surroundings, we attempt to intuit the mind of the entity that created them.

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"Holy Women, Holy Men" now available online

The Standing Commission on LIturgy and Music has made a .pdf of "Holy Women, Holy Men" available for free on their website:

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Objects of concentration in an era of distraction

Johann Hari describes a new phenomenon. Does it sound familiar to you?

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Have you checked "Michno"?

Michno's "A Priest's Handbook" continues to be a "go to" source for priests and churches:

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The arrogance of moneyed religions

Garry Wills reviews Inside Scientology: The Story of America’s Most Secretive Religion, by Janet Reitman and Render Unto Rome: The Secret Life of Money in the Catholic Church, by Jason Berry for the New York Times Sunday Book Review:

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Cast out of Eden, if only as a beginning

Brook Wilensky-Lanford, author of Paradise Lust: Searching for the Garden of Eden, writes about the contemporary hunt for the biblical Eden. She argues that Eden is less a place than a typology: not so much a physical location as it is the idea that everything has to get started somehow.

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The top 25 progressive theologians

Who do progressive clergy read? A group of thirty United Church of Canada clergy listed their top 25 theologians. There are a number of Episcopalian and Anglican writers in the mix. Marcus Borg tops the list which includes Barbara Brown Taylor, John Spong and even N.T. Wright.

Take a look at the list here. Who's missing? Has there ever been a similar study done in the U.S.? Me, I'd add in James Alison to start.

Today is End Malaria Day

Today is "End Malaria Day" and a group of authors have written a book and are donating $20 from each sale to "Malaria No More". Consider buying it, and/or donating:

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Giving forgiveness a try

CNN has begun a series on the book The Devil in Pew Number Seven by Rebecca Nichols. Devil is known in the part of the country in which it's set as simply The Book - as auspicious a nickname as it is potentially stress-inducing.

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William Stringfellow: an inconvenient theology

Commonweal reviews An Alien in a Strange Land: Theology and Life of William Stringfellow by Anthony Dancer:

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Hunger for Meaning: or, the Transcendence Games

Julie Clawson has a few thoughts about the Hunger Games trilogy whose first title in the series (of the same name) has spawned a film that's about to do boffo box office.

(Spoiler Alert, we suppose:)

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Marilynne Robinson: literature as evangelism

Mark O'Connell of The New Yorker appreciates Marilynne Robinson, as all right-thinking people should. Some particularly lovely passages:

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++Rowan Williams on Aslan: knife edge of the erotic

Aslan is on the knife edge of the erotic according to Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams in an interview with Sameer Rahim in The Telegraph:

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The call to be one flock under the one shepherd

Andrew Sullivan points us to a review written by Christopher Benson of Church in Crisis: The Gay Controversy and the Anglican Communion by Oliver O'Donovon:

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The pervasive influence of the Book of Common Prayer

James Fallows of The Atlantic on Rhythm, Reception and the Book of Common Prayer

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Gene Robinson's Straight Talk about Gay Marriage

G Jeffrey McDonald interviewed Bishop Gene Robinson about his new book God Believes in Love: Straight Talk about Gay Marriage for Publishers Weekly. Here is some of what they said:

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Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha and Mohammed Cross the Road?

Brian McLaren spoke with Guy Raz of NPR's All Things Considered last night about his new book, Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha and Mohammed Cross the Road?.

An couple of excerpts from the story:

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Gay like me

Paul Harris of the Observer of London tells the story of Timothy Kurek, author of The Cross in the Closet. Kurkek, an evangelical Christian and graduate of the late Jerry Falwell's Liberty University, spent a year pretending to be gay. Kurek grew up believing that being gay "was an abomination before God," Harris writes. But when

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Testament of Mary: fierce heroine

Irish writer Colm Toibin writes of a very different Mary, mother of Jesus, than most pious versions of the meek and mild virgin. From NPR interview

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Longing for fiction

Erin Newcomb writing at Patheos encourages fiction as a route to truth and faith:

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Who are your favorite fictional Episcopalians?

Here's a topic for a Sunday night: who are your favorite fictional Episcopalians? The question came to me recently when I was reading The Darkest Mission, an espionage novel by an old college friend Rick Burton, who is now on the faculty at Syracuse University. The book is set during World War II, and an Episcopal priest plays a key role.

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Francis of Assisi: a pair of reappraisals

Joan Acocella of The New Yorker reviews two recent books on St. Francis of Assisi, and, in the best tradition of long form book reviews, gives us a crash course on the subject at hand. Of particular interest is the dispute over Francis' legacy.

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Creating A New Zealand Prayer Book.

Bosco Peters reviews a memoir of the process leading to the approval and publication of A New Zealand Prayer Book.

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Archbishop of Canterbury chooses book for Lent 2013

Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby has affirmed Ben Quash's book Abiding for his Lent 2013 book:

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How to pray when you are angry with God

The Rev. Deacon Ian Punnett of Minneapolis recently discussed his new book, How to Pray when You Are Pissed at God: Or Anyone Else for that Matter with A. J. Jacobs of Esquire, author of The Year of Living Biblically. Here is a snippet of their excellent conversation.

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The "myth" of Christian persecution

Candida Moss' new book "The Myth of Persecution: How Early Christians Invented a Story of Martyrdom" addresses the exaggeration of claims of martyrdom in the early church, and the effect it has in modern circles concerning the way Christianity is taught and perceived.

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A God of the grime

I've been reading the novelist Colum McCann recently. Impressed by TransatlanticI moved backwards to Let the Great World Spin and found this passage:

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Reconsidering the legacy of religion's leftward tilt

The New York Times' Jennifer Schuessler considers a number of books looking at the history of "the religious left":

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The vital ministry of the parish bookstore

Does your church have a bookstore? Ours does, where we sell books, prayer beads, baptism gifts, cards and more. Carrie Graves, president of the Episcopal Booksellers Association, writes about why that's important, even if the enterprise is not a money maker:

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The witness of a "Lutheran Nikita"

Candace Chellow-Hodge reviews Pastrix: The Cranky, Beautiful Life of a Sinner & Saint by the Rev. Nadia Bolz-Weber a Lutheran pastor with an unusual story.

Religion Dispatches:

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Nadia Bolz-Weber gets some mainstream love

Nadia Bolz-Weber, who has been the talk of folks who are looking for ways to made Christianity more compelling to young people who don't trust the church, has finally caught the attention of the mainstream media.

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Giving voice to a "Band of Angels"

Andrew Sullivan joins an enthusiastic choir of reviewers and commentators calling attention to Band of Angels, Kate Cooper's book on the role of women in shaping the early Church.

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The Gospel according to William Stringfellow

The writing of Episcopal lay theologian and activist William Stringfellow is featured in a new collection published this week.

The lastest installment in Orbis Books' Modern Spiritual Masters Series is William Stringfellow: Essential Writings.

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Top religion books of 2013

Enjoying some blessed time off during the holidays? Here are some reading suggestions from Religion News Service-- a list of the year's most intriguing religion books. "A Prayer Journal" by Flannery O'Connor and Reza Aslan's "Zealot" make the cut. What other books can you suggest that would be of interest to Cafe readers?

Happy Boxing Day!

Amazon Joins Christian Publishing with Waterfall Imprint

Amazon got into the Christian publishing business this week with the rollout of its Waterfall Press imprint.

Win Bassett, writer and seminarian at Yale Divinity School from the Diocese of Southwestern Virginia, reports on Amazon's presence in the $1.4 billion market for Christian books on NPR's Weekend Edition.

God of the dark places

In her new book "Learning to Walk in the Dark," Barbara Brown Taylor nudges Christians to remember that God did not only create the light, but the dark. And she reminds us that often the most serious encounters with the divine happen in the dark. Take Good Friday, for example.

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Have mainline Protestants lost the ability to create "buzz"?

Michael G. Maudlin, executive editor of Harper One, says the relatively quiet reception of Barbara Brown Taylor's new book, demonstrates that mainline Protestants have lost the ability to create buzz.

He writes:

When Rob Bell and the controversy surrounding Love Wins became a Time cover story in 2011, it felt like the crest of a giant wave of media attention surrounding this important debate on hell. And now Barbara Brown Taylor, writer, professor, and Episcopal priest, has been featured on Time’s cover for the publication of her new book, Learning to Walk in the Dark. Plus, like Bell, she was then included in the very next issue as one of Time’s “100 Most Influential People of the Year.”

And then—not much.

He adds:

[T]he ability to create buzz is a very real measure of one’s ability to influence culture.

Which does not bode well for the mainline Protestant church. … Remember, this is a community who has been told for decades that they are in decline, disappearing even, and almost all media coverage has been negative—splits, controversies, failure. And here is one of their own, an ordained clergywoman, getting noticed simply on the strength of writing such a surprising and deeply wise spiritual book. What would one expect as a reaction? Relief, cheers, pride, a desire to trumpet this achievement. But silence?

And that takes us to an even more troubling thought: Let’s say the mainline Protestant community indeed wanted to applaud and trumpet Taylor’s achievement—how would we know? How would we hear of it? What progressive Christian channels of communication are large enough or broad enough for most of us to hear those voices?

What do you make of Maudlin's argument?

I think there may be some particular reasons that account for the tepid response among Episcopalians to Brown Taylor's book. She antagonized many clergy with her last book, but beyond that, many of us are deeply familiar with her work, and the fact that she has a new book out may strike us as less newsworthy than it does first time readers.

In general, however, I think Maudlin makes some good points. The mainline Protestant churches don't have a channel of communications that commands a wide audience, and we have become captive of the narrative of decline. This diminishes our ability to shape the wider culture.

What do we do about that?

Episcopal priest finalist for National Book Foundation poetry prize

New York Times reports that an Episcopal priest is among the finalists for the 2014 National Book Awards for poetry:

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