Thursday, May 31, 2007

Report: Media Skewing Religion with Dominant Conservative Voices

Evangelical and other faith leaders are increasingly expressing concern over the frequent media coverage that the religious right gets while the more progressive voices are "left behind."

A new research report titled "Left Behind: The Skewed Representation of Religion in the Major News Media" found that conservative religious leaders were quoted, mentioned, or interviewed in news stories 2.8 times as often as were progressive religious leaders.

"Progressive voices are at a distinct disadvantage when compared to conservative access to print and TV representation," according to the Rev. Dr. Jim Forbes, senior pastor of The Riverside Church in New York City

The new report, released by Media Matters for America – a progressive media watchdog – found 3.3 appearances by conservative religious leaders for every one appearance by a progressive when being quoted or interviewed in major news print and TV media.

Read the whole article at Christian Post.

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"Family Values"

By Philip Slater

"Family Values" is one of the buzzwords of the radical right -- especially the religious right, and the mainstream media regularly parrot the phrase as if it meant something. ...

Read the whole Op-Ed at The Huffington Post.

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Tuesday, May 29, 2007

19th-Century Document and 21st-Century Scripture

The Book of Mormon Under Historical Criticism and Faithful Examination

By exposing the lie that the Book of Mormon is not an historical account of ancient peoples, we can see the truth it was crying out all along. By understanding what is fiction, we begin to identify the fact. The Book of Mormon isn’t something more than it is. It is, however, desperately more than the story of golden plates and peep stones. It is, at its heart, a sober and startling depiction of the reality young Joseph and so many others saw in the early years of the nineteenth century. The Book of Mormon was a truth-telling that ended up converting thousands, and giving them hope. That is still something we can touch today.

Read the whole paper at Bright Christian.

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Monday, May 28, 2007

some poetry

The floors are being replaced in my apartment and so my life is in a bit of chaos right now. I've sought refuge at the house of some friends (church friends are so handy for this kind of thing), but I don't have much energy to spare for blogging. So this week I will subject you to some poetry. Maybe you'll like it, maybe you won't. I enjoy writing it, and that's what really matters I think.

All of these were written on public transit: on buses, at bus stops, or on skytrain, just little bite-sized mouthfuls of haiku.

mountains stretch across
horizon jagged and dark.
rough silent backdrop.

air sparkles, snaps with
electric infectious sound.
mouth corners creep up.

cool breeze caresses
my face. moment of bliss. sweet
serene surrender.

sprawling patches of
bright white daisies lazily
ooze out of the grass.

green buds caress clear
blue sky bathed in summer light.
branches reach new life.

bright dawn light sparkles
on the river below me.
eyes open to hope.

fresh darkness plays with
each last whisper of daylight.
teasing dance of dusk.

silence sits pregnant
wonders when wisdom will birth.
who is her midwife?

(bonus erosophic poems can be found at


Wednesday, May 23, 2007

A Community of Christ Quadrilateral?

Scripture, prophetic guidance, knowledge, and discernment in the faith community must walk hand in hand to reveal the true will of God.
(D&C 163:7d)

In Community of Christ tradition, we periodically look to our church leadership to discern a direction for our international and congregational work as the body of Christ in the world. Such guidance comes in different forms and venues: some informal and casual, some so formal it rings of legalese; some spontaneous, some planned and orchestrated; some programmatic, some conceptual. One form and venue, however, holds a special place in our hearts and heritage - so special, in fact, that on these occasions we feel so moved and addressed by the Spirit that we decide as a church to incorporate this guidance into our permanent record, to hold ourselves perpetually accountable to its guidance, to measure the life and mission of our faith by it, in addition to the enduring witness and guidance of the scriptures. We include it in our "Doctrine and Covenants."

This past April, our church adopted such a document. (Our church president presenting this "counsel to the church," is pictured above.) This document is, and ought to be, inspiring radical dialog and profound response throughout the church. And, I suppose, I'm no exception. For those readers not tied to the Community of Christ, I hope you will find the following more than a merely denominational or sectarian diversion. Thanks. -FC

I'm at the church headquarters, attending the church Seminary, in classes on Community of Christ Scriptures and Community of Christ Theology, so it shouldn't come as a surprise that denomination-peculiar issues have been on my mind. Indulge me.

In Christian thought, there is what is often called the "Wesleyan Quadrilateral." It is a box of four squares with Scripture, Tradition, Reason, and Experience written respectively in each quadrant. I'm not sure of the significance of the layout, but the basic idea is that there are four fundamental sources of truth in Christian thinking. Any informed and faithful consideration of an issue must address each of those.

In this recent inspired document, though, in the seventh paragraph (dealing with scripture: basically, "don't use it as a way to beat up on people"), there was embedded the sentence I quoted at the top of this post: "Scripture, prophetic guidance, knowledge, and discernment in the faith community must walk hand in hand to reveal the true will of God." And I started to wonder if this wasn't the beginning of a Community of Christ-specific quadrilateral.

These four elements really do matter to us in our discernment of what we should do and who we should be. We are always coming back to scripture - that's part of our heritage and responsibility as Christians accountable to the tradition. Our community isn't unique for it, but is peculiar in seeking prophetic guidance - that is, the truth spoken to us that holds us to our faith in spite of our fallenness and shortcomings, ever hopeful of our ability to respond to the call to walk with Christ. Such guidance speaks powerfully to us of a God that is still involved with the life and mission and work of people who would seek to follow more faithfully.

"Knowledge," or perhaps "study," has always been an important part of our tradition, and both informs and is informed by scripture and prophetic guidance.

And one of the perennially defining qualities of our church is the struggle for discernment in and as a community. We embrace a great deal of variety partly because of our conviction that community requires a freedom to be different in order to cultivate a genuine freedom of solidarity. We believe that God is revealed in the struggles and joys of relationship. Discernment in the faith community isn't easy or quick, but it is essential for our sense of who we are and our continuing faith journey.

More so than the Wesleyan Quadrilateral, this list of four elements accurately and insightfully identifies our peculiar sources of truth, the foundations that we return to and grow out of, the principles that underly our questioning and appeals. Could this be the seed of a new way of speaking about the way our community arrives at truth? After claiming proximity to the larger Christian community with the four Wesleyan sources of truth, are we beginning to be confident to articulate a sense of our own unique place among the others who call on the name of Jesus?

(Or am I reading too much into one sentence?) ;-)

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Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Seminary: Week One

Just a quick note to say I'm back in Independence, starting another round of classes for my Masters in Christian Ministry.

Yesterday, before the cascade of homework and research reaches avalanche proportions, I took advantage of an opportunity to just sit in the shadow of the Temple and read for a while. What I couldn't stop thinking about, though, was the question: what in me has changed? How did I get here?

I wonder what I would have said ten years ago if I described this scene to that young person. Would I have believed it? Would I have been surprised? Can we ever be prepared for our own future? Can we often reconcile our past selves with the journey we've taken in the meantime?

Yesterday I was asking myself that question as an individual in a faith community. But now these questions seem just as curious for the faith community.

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Quote of the Week

"The true church will recognize that God may be as much a part of the change and upheaval characterizing our world as a part of the stability that has passed."
-Geoffrey F. Spencer (1994)

Sunday, May 20, 2007

fishing around for some answers

So I happened upon this article in the Vancouver Sun on Monday: "Fishing around for a religious connection". It 'caught' my attention because it was about both fishing and the church, two things I'm always interested in reading about. I work at a commercial fishing nonprofit organization, and so I always pay attention to what is being said about fishing in the media.

Once I began reading the article, I realized it hit on a topic that seems to have been bleeping on my radar screen fairly regularly in the past few months: "the feminization of the church". My first, sarcastic response is: "And they say that like it's a bad thing?". But as I think about it more and more, I wonder what exactly that phrase means. What do they mean by "feminization"?

The Sun article by religion columnist Douglas Todd talks about a man who conducts fishing trips for men looking for a Christian, religious experience, men who are not finding satisfying experiences in churches.
From the article:
"'Church is too boring for men,' says Ed Trainer, head of International Fishing Ministries. 'Church is set up like a country club for women.'"
"The author of Why Men Hate Going to Church, David Murrow, says studies show the average U.S. congregation is 61-per-cent female. Alaska-based Murrow says many men see church-going as soft, uncomfortable 'womanly' behaviour."
"Barb Trainer, 46, who runs International Fishing Ministries with her husband, says, 'The church has been feminized. It appeals to women in that it focuses on emotion and children and coffee. It's not bold enough for men.'"

I really am curious about what issue these complaints are trying to diagnose. Apparently statistics show that more women are going to church these days than men, but does sheer numbers really a 'feminization' make? And when that word 'feminize' is used, it is used in a very traditional, non-deconstructed very pejorative and almost antiquated way of characterizing certain ideas or practices. Is there a way we can articulate what is going on in the church without resorting to polarized, stereotypical gender norms that not only assume what 'feminine' is but assume it must be bad?

I can agree with the idea that the bulk of Christianity in North America has, in fact "gone soft" in many ways. Most of mainline Christianity doesn't require or request much of its adherents: from the talk in many churches, as long as you make a financial contribution to help keep the institution on life support, you are doing fine. Yes, that is the cynic in me talking, but even my most optimistic self agrees that it is an accurate diagnosis. Radical, sacrificial discipleship is rarely required or even suggested. In my opinion, discipleship and sacrifice could be integral to overcoming contemporary issues such as global warming and global poverty. Instead of being a public witness of a different way of living and engaging with the world, Christian faith has become a matter of private devotion, and disengagement from the world.

But even though I agree with the "softening" of Christianity, I don't call it "feminization". I can see why popular thought would equate the two: there is the very basic idea that stems straight from the sexual realm that hard is good and soft is bad, and man is hard and woman is soft, and man is good and woman is bad. (I have just terribly over-simplified a huge area of study of which I could be much more articulate, but I am tired and this is not an academic paper and hopefully you get the gist of what I'm trying to say) The other part that leads to the "feminization" label is what could more accurately be called "privatization", but since the feminine has long been associated with the private realm, there too we see how matters get convoluted.

Yet another aspect that can be clarified by using terms more specific than masculine/feminine is the sentimentalization of religion. The sentimental has long been associated with the feminine, in opposition to higher masculine rationality/reason. As religion becomes less rational and more sentimental, there is a tendency to again name it as a gender binary.

All of these dualisms where one is privileged over the other are in the end inadequate because in reality all are always at work and what is needed is balance between extremes. For Paul, Christianity was a religion that broke down dualisms: In Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, Slave nor Free, Male nor Female.... And yet we still resort to naming what goes on in the body of Christ as one of those aspects being privileged.

I guess what I'm trying to say is that considering what a lousy time women have had in churches in general for the majority of the history of Christianity, could we cut the churches a little slack in the feminization department? And can we please, please, try to describe what is going on without attributing it to a gender? Can we say that the church is too private or too disengaged or too soft, or too sentimental rather than saying it is too feminine? But then I also wonder whether we haven't actually deconstructed gender norms enough to unhinge those adjectives from the feminine at all....

I also want to know what men who are involved with churches think about this whole feminization thing - is it an accurate diagnosis? Why? Why not? What is going on in the churches, why don't men want to come? Why is being religious or going to church not seen as a good thing to do? And even if it is "weak", why is that bad? Is weakness a bad thing? Christianity's "saviour" is a crucified man who refused to fight back - is that strong? Can a lamb be victorious? I wonder if deconstruction of gender norms and turning-over of the world actually runs very deeply in this religion....

What do you think?


Saturday, May 19, 2007

Making History

In Our Own Backyard

Christie (my partner) and I may be doing something that has NEVER been done before. In the history of the WORLD.

I regularly harvest the dandelions out of our yard - instead of throwing them away, I save the roots, dry them, roast them, grind them, and make a delicious (and healthy!) coffee substitute. It has a delightfully velvety texture with nutty chocolate undertones. (And the aroma of roasting dandelion root is reputedly an aphrodisiac... another health benefit!) No big deal. Lots of people do that.

But TODAY... (cue dramatic music) we took dandelion-root coffee to the next level.


That's right - perhaps for the first time in human history, dandelion espresso has been consumed. And you, faithful readers, are the first to hear of it. (Don't you feel special?) I dug out my old college espresso machine, pulled down the freshly roasted root, and went to town.

The verdict? Mmmm... not quite as chocolaty as last year's harvest or perhaps as regularly brewed root, but definitely velvety. With a touch of sugar (raw, of course), it's perfect. Sadly, we're out of milk to try a latte. (We could have made history AGAIN! The first dandelion latte! Arrgh.)


Joseph Smith for President?

Mitt Romney wasn't the first Mormon to run for President

A new movie about Joseph Smith's run for president is in the works. Read more about it here:

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Friday, May 18, 2007

Jesus for the Non Religious

A Review of John Shelby Spong's new book (from The Center for Progressive Christianity) by Jim Burklo, pastor at Sausalito Presbyterian Church.

With a coroner’s scalpel of scholarship, John Shelby Spong autopsies the corpse of doctrinal Christianity. In Jesus for the Non-Religious, he cuts away at the miracle stories and dissects the myths and the theological constructs that were written into the texts of the gospels. His quest is to reveal the Jesus of history.

Spong reveals a Jesus who crosses the borders between insiders and outsiders, Jews and gentiles, male and female, clean and unclean, sacred and profane, and leads us through to the other side of chauvinism. This Jesus reveals, by his own action and example, the way that divinity can be found in humanity. This Jesus was so present, so whole, so free, so devoted to justice and compassion, that he filled his followers with remarkable hope and courage even after his crucifixion by the Romans. This Jesus inspires John Shelby Spong so deeply that he holds hope for a Christianity devoid of many of its most commonly-cherished beliefs.

Read the whole review here: Jesus for the Non Religious

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Quote of the Week

It is no use walking anywhere to preach unless our walking is our preaching.

-Saint Francis of Assisi

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Diggers Begin Occupation (1649)

In response to the dramatic events and privations of the English Civil War, a group of people motivated in part by the New Testament occupied vacant public lands and started to cultivate them with crops and homes. Starting on St. George's Hill in April, by May communities were springing up all over the country. The government and the wealthy conspired to destroy the communal experiments, and within a year all the communities were dispersed. But, for a short time, the Kingdom of God was built on Earth.

More info if you're interested:

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On Abortion

As the election cycle begins, social topics and "moral values" start bubbling up more and more in public discourse. At the recent debate of Republican presidential hopefuls, in fact, abortion was one of the "social" topics touched on briefly. (Although abortion is also an economic and class issue as well.)

Following is my take on the situation, from both a ministerial and a politically strategic (that is, democratic) perspective. I hope I'm not offending anyone with this discussion. In fact, it is my express hope to alleviate some of the contention around this issue. (And, of course, this post should not be interpreted as having any relationship at all with official church policy or position.) -Flannel Christian

It seems to me that much of the contention and vehemence around the issue of abortion is due to how we've structured the public discussion about it. Both sides of the argument have convinced themselves that to cede any ground is to lose all ground; to grant any point to the other camp is to yield all claims; to allow the other any reasonableness is to give everything they say one's approval as reasonable. And the premise is held in reverse: each side has convinced itself that if it can just gain one point over the other, then the whole battle is won - and so there is no interest in compromise or finding agreements. This forces each side to take extreme positions at either end of the spectrum. One camps holds that full-humanity begins at the instant of conception, while the other withholds full-humanity until the moment of complete birth. And I think the vast bulk of reasonable Americans have been left in the middle and somewhat abandoned.

For instance, partial-birth abortion (when the fetus is carried full-term, and in the process of being born, it is terminated/killed before entirely "out" of its mother) seems absurd to me. At the same time, considering a glob of cells the size of a pencil point to be a human being deserving of the rights and consideration of any fully-developed human being is also stretching my imagination. These two extremes are maintained against common sense (note, not "commonsense") because such extreme claims are necessitated by a reluctance to give any ground in the debate. This intransigence is not only unhelpful in discussions of public policy, it also runs afoul of what I sense is the calm, rational, sensible, emotionally informed and morally interesting conclusions that most Americans would come to in a discussion guided by the intent to come to some degree of agreement.

Having said and illustrated my point that it is by and large the philosophical underpinning of the discussion that is holding our public culture from having more fruitful and meaningful discussions, let me go out on a limb here. Enough discussing the discussion... let me throw something into the actual talk. I think most Americans - even those who ardently disagree with each other - could come to some degree of consensus.

I don't think the claims of either camp (humanity-at-conception and humanity-after-birth) square with our emotional or rational experience. We humans see humanity in fetuses that resemble us, that react in ways that we interpret as approaching how we act, and so on. Few of us, however, feel emotionally attached to or ethically bound to respect, a glob of cells that in no significant way resembles us. When, how and why we designate "full humanity" isn't universally shared, and varies among individuals and populations. But this lack of unanimity doesn't withhold the possibility of significant agreement.

I haven't done any research on what I am about to say, except anecdotal and reflective, so I just throw this into the proverbial ring as a starting point.

I think most Americans could reasonably agree that a glob of cells is not deserving of consideration as "fully human" (we don't send paramedic teams to save them, we don't allow them to own property or to marry, and so on). On the opposite end, I think most Americans could reasonably agree that a child in the process of being born is pretty much a fully human being with some or most of the rights we accord to other human beings. Once we have established that basis, we can move inward on the timeline and determine where there range is for the vast majority of reasonable Americans. Just for an example, perhaps most people can agree that in the first trimester the fetus doesn't really merit full humanity in the political sense (although the potential humanity is oh so precious on a personal level), and perhaps most people can agree that in the last trimester the fetus is clearly deserving of the political and legal protections that we afford any human being. This doesn't mean that everyone agrees on the instant when the glob of cells becomes "human." But even with all the diversity, we have some significant agreement.

With even this limited agreement, we can start enacting laws and policies that articulate our best thinking in a pluralist society, and answer both the individual's and community's need to protect life and respect the worth and dignity of each human being. The range of agreement may not be as large as I suggested - it may be in the range of a few weeks on either end - but the principle guiding the discussion is fundamentally different than that which has been underlying the public discussion up to this point.

The discussion that reflects this gradiance and yearning for fruitful compromise won't be a clear or clean or easy discussion, but frankly the supposedly clear and easy claims made heretofore have been anything but clear and easy in the public forum. I believe that is because humans are capable of much finer and more subtle moral distinctions than the moral philosophers of the past have given us credit for. Instead of seeing our moral flexibility as an obstacle to be overcome in public policy, part of living in a democracy is learning how to take advantage of it to serve the greater good of all (or nearly all).

This has been on my mind for several years now. I appreciate you reading it in the spirit of someone who sees the public debate being derailed unnecessarily and sent in unhelpful directions. I believe that there is room for disagreement, but that disagreement on some things doesn't mean a total lack of shared conviction or common ground. It is in this spirit that I offer these thoughts on this difficult and contentious issue. (And, of course, I reserve the right to revise both my thinking and this post.) Thanks.

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Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Yolanda King dies

ATLANTA -- Yolanda King, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s eldest child who pursued her father's dream of racial harmony through drama and motivational speaking, collapsed and died. She was 51.

Seattle P-I obit

Monday, May 14, 2007

A Comparison of LDS and Community of Christ Responses to 9/11 and the War in Iraq

A student posted on his blog a paper comparing Latter-day Saint (Mormon) and Community of Christ statements on 9/11 and the Iraq war. I don't know anything about this person, but I thought this post was interesting enough to link here before I get to do my usual background check. Judging by the comments, the CofC's clear peace-making stand gets a good reception.

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on ambition and humility

It is not easy for a dedicated feminist theologian to admit that she has a certain affection for the confessions of St. Augustine. Countless contemporary theologians have launched various critiques of Augustine's theology and how it has negatively affected Christianity through his negative view of women and problematic views about the body. I do have a certain affinity for Augustine's Confessions though, an affection cultivated by an inspiring teacher (Sallie McFague), a brilliant translation
(Garry Wills, Penguin Classics), and a willingness to lose a bit of myself in the process of reading.

This week I found myself returning to a particularly biting chapter simply titled "Ambition". It begins with Augustine saying "I panted after honors, wealth, marriage - and you [God] just laughed." I returned because this week I was struck with serious doubts about my own ambition for honour. I had a sort of "state of the union" or summit meeting with my two main theology professors, the meeting that apparently most people have at some point in their academic career, the meeting where they say that I am doing ok but that it is time to step up my game and take things to the next level. The meeting where they say that it is time to start taking things seriously and working hard to maintain focus. They were extremely nice about it, but at the same time, I couldn't help but wonder if I'm on the right path, if I'm really cut out for this work, if I should be doing something else...

It can be hard to tell, sometimes, why I want to be a part of theological academia, it is certainly not about the money, professors generally aren't millionaires. It is perhaps about the recognition, the "fame" I might get even inside my own little denomination. It is perhaps about the potential job security of having teaching credentials and being the right age to step-in as the so-called "Baby Boomers" retire from academia.

But it is also about the love of wisdom - erosophy if you will - that pulls me along this path. And my love of wisdom is so tightly tied-up with my love of God, that for me, this is a faith journey. Once in awhile I think it is good to get a sort of "wake-up call" that forces one to re-examine one's life choices. Especially if the final calculation is a hopeful one. So thank you to my professors for the scholarly coaching, and thank you Augustine, for examining your life in a way that helps me examine mine.


Friday, May 11, 2007

The Atheist Dilemma

And What It Means for Religious People

Science is predicated on the assumption that belief is unwarranted without evidence and reason to back it up. But religion is based on the opposite: that belief in the absence of evidence is a virtue and that "the more your beliefs defy the evidence, the more virtuous you are."

("Among the Disbelievers", The Nation)

Continuing the discussion started earlier, anti-religion is going on the offensive. Columnist Daniel Lazare in The Nation writes about the difficulty of defining oneself negatively - that is, as a negation of something else. Once the vile thing has been negated, what remains? The column does a good job of exploring the difficulties.

But what interests me more is the idea behind the portion quoted above. Certainly, some people would like to define science as entirely rational and requiring no unsubstantiated beliefs (although I wonder if most professional scientists wouldn't so readily agree). And some people would like to define religion as entirely irrational beliefs that have no (in fact, stoutly refuse any) experiential substantiation. But that just doesn't make sense to me.

Admittedly, my "science" and "religion" are really close and overlap a great deal. But still, it seems like most reasonable people (theist, atheist, naturalist, polytheist, pantheist, panentheist alike) can see religion as more than merely unsubstantiated belief. (Surely some reader will quote Hebrews 11: "faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen." Yeah-yeah, don't get me started. That one scripture has, in my opinion, entirely swayed the Biblical notion of faith more than it deserves. But that's another post.)

Defining religion (or faith) as belief in unsubstantiated (or unsubstantiable) things plays to two types of rhetoric. One, the anti-religionist who wants to scorn religious-types for their foolishness. Two, the authoritarian religionist who wants to control the thoughts, feelings and loyalties of his or her followers. I don't want to be either one of these kinds of people (although there are times when both are tempting).

Religion is part of a culture that shapes and forms individuals. Henry Nelson Wieman, an early-20th-century philosopher, described religion thusly. Humans have an amazing potential for transformation - we can become things and people we never thought possible. Sometimes people are transformed into tremendously bad people (e.g. Hitler, Jeff Lundgren). Sometimes people are transformed into powerfully good people (Martin Luther King, Jr., Gandhi, Mother Teresa). Religion is a mechanism to cultivate among people an orientation to that which will transform them into better people.

Sometimes, believing people can be better is crazy - and frankly defies so much evidence to the contrary (e.g. Holocaust, Collectivization, African genocide, endless war). But religion turns our hearts and minds, our hopes and dedication, to the idea that people can be better - we can be better, the world can be better. That requires some amount of "belief in things unseen," but isn't entirely without evidence. And sometimes, we have to candidly admit, it doesn't seem reasonable. But that's our task as Christians - to see the world as capable and in need of radical transformation into something better, starting with individuals, namely you, me and our relationship with our enemy.

(I'll also note that violence and warfare also act without evidence - since the whole history of the human race is one of recurring violence under the rhetoric of necessity. But, again, that's another post.)

Yes, religion does require some sense of confidence and hope that isn't necessarily substantiated by our previous experience. But then again, most all of us have experiences of transformation and love, and it doesn't take much imagination to extend those experiences beyond our own bodies, neighborhoods or lifetimes. This kind of extrapolation isn't necessarily irrational. Nor does it praise ignorance of the facts or our best reasoning. Religion of this kind embraces the best that we as humans know, incorporating the best of what we know (contingently, as science does) into our perennial hopes and visions of a better world, articulated by some as the Will of a All-Loving God.

(Religion, like all mechanisms of organization, of course serves other purposes - and has all too often in the past and present served the destructive transformation of people and nations. We have to face that reality, too, and be on guard, lest our religion and faith be corrupted into destruction rather than life-giving energy.)

I guess, all I'm saying is that the reasoning behind the quotation above just doesn't fly with me. It doesn't accurately or helpfully describe either religion or science, and doesn't get us any closer to being better people. The dilemma of the atheist, in this case, is also one for the theist; the dilemma of the anti-religious is also that of the religious. When we define or identify ourselves merely negatively, we are an empty shell dangerously vulnerable to being filled with whatever comes along. We should form our faiths based on our ultimate commitments, informed and shaped by the best that we know (at the time).

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Thursday, May 10, 2007

May Day

Not the usual May Day, on May 1st I buried my grandmother, Granma May.

It was an entirely different experience than the death of my father-in-law last October. Where my father-in-law died suddenly, tragically, virtually alone and with many years yet of energetic life ahead of him, my grandmother died quietly, surrounded by family, slowly enough for people to say goodbye, after 93 years of an extraordinary life. Grandma May's funeral was a celebration of a life well-lived, the good fortune of so many people to have known her for so long, so many grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

It ended up being a giant family reunion. It was the first time my brother and sister and I were in Philadelphia at the same time, and ten years since any of us had seen our cousins and aunts and uncles and second and third cousins. Now, instead of us being kids ourselves, most of my cousins have children old enough to want to sit at their own table. It was a beautiful weekend, despite the sadness.

This was an experience of what death should be, under perfect circumstances - the loss of a loved one, but not unexpected or surprising, not joyous but appropriate, not happy but acceptable. Death treated all of us justly here. Grandma was the last of her generation, and she had seen a great deal, and her body was suffering some of the indignations of old age. It didn't seem a bad time to go. There were no regrets, no wishes for otherwise. The occasion was just an acceptance, and a soft nurturing of blessedness for having had such a spunky grandma around for so long.

Just her style, Grandma May started to go in the middle of a party, a beer in her hand and surrounded by her buzzing family. And even in her preparations for death, she treated all of us so well: after the funeral everyone went to lunch at a fancy restaurant nearby and ate and drank and talked to our fill. I found out afterwards that Grandma had actually paid for the meal. She bought us all lunch at her own funeral. Now that's class.

Goodbye, Grandma. You've taught me several things over the years - how to appreciate tea, bet on a good horse, sneak a sip of beer, spoil pets and children, and how to go out with grace and style. You brought together so many people, loved so many people, lived through so much and worked so hard. Peace be upon you. Peace be upon us all.

Oh, and thanks. A lot.

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Wednesday, May 09, 2007

The Post I've Been Avoiding

I haven't been entirely honest with you. There has been a post on my mind for some time that I've avoided making, because it deals with a subject matter that might change our relationship (or, rather, what you think of me). Those of us in the Community of Christ tradition already know, but since this is an ecumenical-type blog reaching out beyond the narrow sectarian lines of a peculiar denomination, this is the first time I'll be addressing this. I've tried to give the impression that I am a blogger willing to discuss most any issue or topic respectfully and earnestly - and while that's mostly true, I've had this post in mind for some time and not written it. And it has affected my willingness/eagerness to post anything at all: I don't want to be untrue or ingenuine. But I realize now that I am also doing you and this proto-community we're building a disservice by not posting what I think is interesting. I have to respect you as much as I hope to be respected by you - and in the context of a blog that means sharing what I feel is topical and insightful.

The topic is the Book of Mormon. The Community of Christ inherits the Book of Mormon from our history as authoritative (alongside the Bible) for our community. The CofC generally approaches scripture differently than most traditions, but the Book of Mormon is nonetheless peculiar, and there is no dearth of positions among members of the church regarding it. My intent in posting this - as with all my posts - is not to convert, but to discuss or highlight what I have found interesting or compelling. Realizing that this is not just a CofC forum, but an ecumenical (perhaps even inter-faith) community, I ask for indulgence in posting the following. Thanks. -Flannel Christian

Recent interpretations of the Book of Mormon have emphasized its rationality in contrast to the religious enthusiasm of American revivalism, its calm millennial hope in contrast to Millerite enthusiasm, its progressive optimism in contrast to Calvinist determinism, and its quest for order in contrast to romanticism. Unfortunately, these interpretations miss the animating spirit of the book. ... These interpretations fail to see that the Book of Mormon is a document of profound social protest, an impassioned manifesto by a hostile outsider against the smug complacency of those in power and the reality of social distinctions based on wealth, class and education. (The Democratization of American Christianity, by Nathan O. Hatch, pp115-6, emphasis mine)

Author Nathan Hatch is an historian - specifically a religious historian, more specifically an historian of American religiosity in the post-revolutionary era. He is not, by the way, a Mormon. His book, The Democratization of American Christianity, which I read recently for a Seminary class in religious history, focuses on the fifty year period following the American Revolution (1780-1830) and analyzes the impact of the populist, democratic and revolutionary language and ideas of the Revolution affected American Christianity. His analysis is brilliant and engaging. Hatch meaningfully charts the course of American religion in a distinct and divergent direction from its European (primarily English) counterpart: anti-intellectual, anti-establishment, anti-authoritarian, emphasizing the authority of the individual and the unschooled. The whole way through, in fact, the text serves as an insightful commentary on American culture (not just religion) up to the present. (A recent manifestation of this American spirit of anti-intellectualism is so many people praising the president not for his education or insight but for his down-home-ness and approachability - the seeming greatest compliment to pay to the supreme leader that he seems like the kind of guy you could have a beer with.)

Hatch illustrates his thesis of the ideas of the Revolution affecting American Christianity by focusing on popular and upstart movements that arose or grew during the post-Revolutionary period. Among these are the Methodists, the Baptists, the Christian movement, black churches, and the Mormons. Being both an American and a member of a religious community that traces its history to the Latter Day Saint movement, this book was a phenomenal read for me. Hatch's thesis and work deserves more discussion and attention than I am prepared to give it here, but one part jumped out to me in particular: his (brief) discussion of the Book of Mormon.

Honestly, I was surprised he talked about the BofM at all, let alone as much as he did. And it is funny to think that this non-LDS historian has had a greater impact on my faith-encounter with the Book of Mormon than any religious thinker in the past twenty years of my life. You see, like most Americans, I am a rather secularized person. Like most people my age, I am also postmodern - meaning I approach absolute claims with significant criticism. And I am also an historian (albeit amateurish), so I see events and beliefs in the past (and present) as contextualized, as affected by the events and thoughts and historical factors surrounding them in space and time.

As such, many of the cliche absolute claims of Christianity are troublesome to me - when Christians use the Bible or doctrine to bash others, for instance, embarrasses me. I see many of the claims Christians make, no less the Bible, as historicized and context-bound. But the Bible and some elementary doctrinal claims are more or less public domain, and most everyone feels free to discuss them as if they are what they claim they are. (It's not all that simple, of course, but indulge me... this is just background.)

The Book of Mormon, though, doesn't have that same public acceptance. That's partly because of its newness (only 170 years old), and partly because of the difference of Mormons from what is generally-held Christianity. But the BofM's non-acceptance is primarily due, in my opinion, to our modern/post-modern reliance on reason and explicit verifiability (in a quasi-scientific way) for qualifications of "truth." We believe that in order for something to be meaningful, it has to be "true;" and in order for it to be "true" (in a modern/post-modern fact-driven way) it must be reasonably verifiable and coincide with other scientifically verified data. And, frankly, the Book of Mormon's historical claims just don't stand up under that kind of scrutiny. So the Book of Mormon has been both a part of my rich heritage and an embarrassment to my secularized, post-modern, rational sensibilities.

Here is this rational, post-modern historian, doing brilliant analysis of the cultural, political and religious climate of the post-revolutionary period, and he spends a few pages talking about the Book of Mormon. That's not too surprising. A lot of people can afford a couple pages dedicated to ripping the BofM apart for not matching up to its absolutist claims and so forth. But what is surprising is that Hatch didn't do this. Hatch, as an historian, approaches the text with the foregone conclusion that it was written by Joseph Smith (as opposed to an historical document divinely translated by JS). But this upfront falsehood is entirely unimportant to him - it forms one of the uninteresting postulates upon which his interest and analysis begins to rise.

What is interesting to Hatch is what the BofM says to its readers (particularly its nineteenth-century American readers), and what it expresses and gives voice to in that historical period and place. Hatch writes: "The single most striking theme in the Book of Mormon is that it is the rich, the proud, and the learned who find themselves in the hands of an angry God. Throughout the book, evil is most often depicted as the result of pride and worldliness that comes from economic success and results in oppression of the poor." (117) Hatch puts Joseph Smith, the Book of Mormon, and the Latter Day Saint movement in the context of an American sensibility that reflected the rage/outrage against injustice and authoritarianism that was cultivated during the American Revolution. Hatch's thesis is that the political language of the Revolution in the years following the end of the War spread and transferred to the religious sphere - inciting people to scorn religious authority and classism. "The vision of Joseph Smith is intensely populist in its rejection of the religious conventions of his day and in its hostility to the orthodox clergy, its distrust of reason as an exclusive guide, and its rage at the oppression of the poor." (120)

What captures and holds Hatch's attention (and therefore his readers') is not the outlandish historical claims for the origin and nature of the Book of Mormon, but the message and worldview the Book of Mormon was expressing and constructing. Smith was giving voice to a sense of alienation from and disappointment in traditional/institutional Christianity - seeing the sectarian bickering of denominations, the drive-through revivals that lifted people for a moment and then left them just as quickly, the hypocrisy of wealthy or ostentatious priests and religious hierarchy while the work of lifting up the poor and oppressed went undone.

In attempting to define his alienation from the world around him, Smith resorted to a biblical frame of reference rather than to one of conventional politics.... Yet in constructing a grand and complex narrative account of the ancient world, he chose to employ a distinct set of biblical themes: divine judgment upon proud oppressors, blindness to those wise in their own eyes, mercy for the humble, and spiritual authority to the unlearned. This book is a stern and sober depiction of reality. (116, emphasis mine)

Did you hear that? An historian calling the Book of Mormon a "sober depiction of reality"! Holy moly! I'm not advocating the acceptance of the BofM's historical claims and self-identification here. My postmodern critical mind can't do that. But what I am beginning to learn is that "truth" may have more meanings than my narrow, secularized, modern/postmodern sensibilities have heretofore allowed.

I have thought (or feared) for many years that because of the absolutist claims of the Book of Mormon and its dubitable origins, I would have to jettison the text entirely. I have fallen for the evangelical Christian line that everything has to be "true" if any of it is true. They were speaking of the Bible (advocating for its full and literal infallibility and authority) - on which I am willing to take them to task - but for some reason I yielded the argument on the Book of Mormon. Can I accept the outlandish and foundational claims as falsehood, and still lift up the work as a valuable and meaningful expression of the Spirit of God? Can I say - similarly to the way I speak of the Bible - those absolute claims about divine origin are not "true" in a scientific or historical sense, but the text nevertheless speaks a truth?

Or, to invert the question: Can we ever tell the truth without speaking through lies?

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Tuesday, May 08, 2007

What Would Jesus Do...

For a Living?

"Book of Acts" is a website/community for discussing how various cooperative movements and institutions can reflect the early Christian models of charity, equity and care. Cooperatives are great ways to live our Christian faith within the larger capitalist infrastructure of North American life. With a lot of scriptural notes and examples of successful cooperatives of all kinds, this site provides some good food for thought.

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Friday, May 04, 2007

reacquainting with an old friend

..sorry that this is a "little" later than usual...

This past weekend I was at Samish Island for a church Fine Arts retreat. It was a weekend full of great music, wonderful people, and lots of creative energy. There were lots of lovely moments. My favourite part of the weekend was sitting on the beach on Saturday morning and visiting with an old friend: my favourite tree. I met this tree about two years ago, and I say "met" because this tree has its own personality and distinctive character that seems to give it its own subjectivity.

I met this tree in the summer when I was approaching my last year of my MDiv program at theology school. I
was trying to figure out what I was going to do once I graduated, and was feeling rather disjointed and frightened about not knowing what was next for me. So I met this tree that has become a living metaphor for what theology school has been like for me. The tree clings to the side of a cliff with many of its roots exposed from being battered by the elements. It seems to sit rather precariously, yet it has massive roots that reach deeply into the hillside. There are other plants that live amidst its root system, and there are other trees that surround it further back in the hill, which will hold their ground long after my tree succumbs to the elements.

It is a metaphor for theology school for me mainly because of the roots: I feel like one of the things that this work has done to me is cause me to dig deep and expose the deep roots of myself and my theology, as well as the roots of my church and the larger faith tradition I belong to. It's not always a pretty process. Sometimes parts get exposed that I wish I didn't have to see. Sometimes it feels like I'm going to fall over. Sometimes it feels like it would be easier to just pretend those roots aren't there, and cut off the life that flows to and from them... but like the tree, which surprisingly still has sap running through even the most dead-looking roots, manages to hold on and maintain its vitality.

Last year I went to the beach to see my tree, and was afraid that the fallen tree I saw stretched across the rocky shore was my tree - but no, my tree was still there. This year I was afraid the terrible wind storms we had in the late fall all along the coast might have spelled the end of my tree's life, but no, it is still clinging to the cliffside, rooting itself more and more deeply all the time, exposing itself more and more all the time.

The tree was a key image for me in my own discernment of my vocation. It helped me discover that I enjoy that process of revealing roots, digging deeper, and always risking more and more. For me, that is what the theological academy promises - the possibility of constant revealing, deepening, and risking.

It's amazing the things that the world around us can teach us. It's amazing the wisdom that seems to be built into creation itself. Stop, look, listen, sniff, touch, taste and see what God has asked the world to teach you.


Thursday, May 03, 2007

End American Poverty in a Generation

From The Nation

"Last Wednesday, at the Center for American Progress (CAP) in Washington, the CAP Task Force on Poverty released the results of fourteen months of work in its report, From Poverty to Prosperity: A National Strategy to Cut Poverty in Half.

"The report offers twelve concrete recommendations to reduce over the next ten years, creating a stronger middle class and setting our country on a course to end American poverty in a generation."

Key highlights of the plan:

1. Over a 10-year period, raise and index the minimum wage to half the average hourly wage--that would presently be $8.40 an hour.

2. Expand the Earned Income Tax Credit and Child Tax Credit.

3. Promote unionization by enacting the Employee Free Choice Act.

4. Guarantee child care assistance to low-income families and promote early education for all.

5. Create 2 million new "opportunity" housing vouchers, and promote equitable development in and around central cities.

6. Connect disadvantaged and disconnected youth with school and work.

7. Simplify and expand Pell Grants and make higher education accessible to residents of each state.

8. Help former prisoners find stable employment and reintegrate into their communities.

9. Ensure equity for low-wage workers in the Unemployment Insurance system.

10. Modernize means-tested benefits programs to develop a coordinated system that helps workers and families.

11. Reduce the high costs of being poor and increase access to financial services.

12. Expand and simplify the Saver's Credit to encourage saving for education, homeownership and retirement.

"The combined cost of the twelve recommendations is approximately $90 billion a year. The current annual costs of the Bush tax cuts (skewed for the wealthy) enacted in 2001 and 2003 are approximately $400 billion. In 2008, the value of tax cuts solely for households exceeding an annual income of $200,000 is projected to be $100 billion."

Read the entire editorial at The Nation.

Thanks to blogger Jon for pointing this out.

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Seattle Area Losing Affordable Housing to 3rd Runway

A step forward for Sea-Tac Airport's troubled third-runway project is putting more than 500 residents of the Lora Lake Apartments in Burien a step closer to losing their homes.

The apartment complex is scheduled to be leveled to make room for the new runway, but affordable-housing advocates say many of the units could be saved.

"With a critical housing shortage, to deliberately eliminate affordable rental units -- especially units that are of good quality and located near two major employment centers -- is not only shortsighted; it is morally wrong," said the Rev. Sanford Brown, executive director of The Church Council of Greater Seattle.

"There is no need to tear the (apartments) down," said Bill Block, project director of the King County Committee to End Homelessness. "We will be very lucky in the next year to create about 625 units of housing to help people out of homelessness. If we lose 162 low-income units at the same time, those people essentially go into that pool."

See the entire Seattle P-I article: Housing to be leveled for 3rd runway.

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