Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Summer Reading

At University UMC, the rhythm of the year cannot help but imitate the rhythm of the university (University of Texas) year. (Isn’t there a parable about when the elephant moves, the mice scamper?) So, yes, while we strive to be liturgical and follow the Christian year, when the university shuts down, we all kind of shut down as well.

For me, it means fewer meetings and emails (yay!) and more time to enjoy family (mostly by skype these days) to take in great music in Austin, to enjoy food with friends and to get in some great summer reads.

Here’s six from my summer list; I’ve read the first four and have just begun the final two.   

Free Will, by Sam Harris

Harris is one of a trinity of writers that I and others call the “evangelical atheists.” The other two are the late Christopher Hitchens (“God is Not Great”) and the biologist Richard Dawkins (“The God Delusion”). Harris’s book explores the idea that what we normally  think of as free will is a fiction. His claim is that to speak of human beings having free will makes no sense. How, then, does one develop any kind of morality or hold people accountable for their actions, if they’re not free?  Good question. Harris takes it up with energy and style and it’s a short read.

The Age of Miracles, by Karen Thompson Walker

What would happen if the earth began to revolve at a slower pace and the days and nights lengthened?  This is Walker’s first novel, a well-written , surprisingly hopeful sci-fi tale. The book inevitably shadows questions in light of global warming and the changes being wrought in the earth of reality.  

The Power of Parable, by John Dominic Crossan

Crossan is perhaps the premier New Testament scholar in our time, one of the best at taking a complex biblical topic and breaking it down. The subtitle is “How Fiction by Jesus Became Fiction about Jesus.” Crossan is interested not just in re-describing the parables of Jesus, but finding their pre-cursors in several books of the Old Testament. And then taking whole gospels as parables, that have an implied challenge or even attack. So, for example, Matthew’s gospel becomes an attack parable on a brand of Pharisaic Judaism that is in important ways in tension with the tenets of Jesus in Matthew’s gospel. All in all, a fascinating, if at times far-fetched, journey with a great scholar.

Take This Bread, by Sara Miles.

Miles was the keynote speaker at the Washington Island Forum that Linda and I attended last month, an annual event sponsored by the Wisconsin Council of Churches.  Miles was a late convert to Christianity, wooed into St. Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church by communion. A former chef and war correspondent, Miles sensed a calling to start up a food bank for all-comers. And so the adventure with Jesus follows, filled with some incredible characters and stories.   And prayers: “O God of abundance, you feed us every day. Rise in us now, make us into your bread, That we may share your gifts with a hungry world, And join in love with all people, through Jesus Christ our Lord.”

James Cook: Master of the Seas, by Frank McLynn

Magisterial biography of Captain James Cook and his three voyages circumnavigating the globe in the late 18th century. McLynn gives just enough background to make it fascinating without getting bogged down. Cook is an amazing study of indefatigability and leadership.

2052: A Global Forecast for the Next Forty Years, by Jorgen Randers
Forty years ago, Randers and his colleagues at MIT produced The Limits to Growth, which was essentially a scenario analysis designed to answer the question, “What will happen over the next 130 years  if humanity decides to follow certain policies?”  It was not, however, predictive. 2052 is a broad forecast of what Randers and others believe is the probably global evolution in areas like population, climate, food and economics. Despite the fact that Randers believes that humanity will not change its ways, he remains hopeful about the future.  Hmmm …

 What’s on your summer reading list?

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

The Strangeness of the Gospel

A couple of months ago, I had a Sunday off and it coincided with a visit to Austin by Dr. Schubert Ogden, renowned process theologian and emeritus Professor of Theology at Perkins School of Theology on the SMU campus.

While I still try to read theology and did attend a process theology conference back in January, I’d pretty much lost track of Ogden. His writing, even when I was a grad student working with him, was always pretty heady, heavy stuff. Ogden loves to pile on the qualifiers so that you understand exactly what he’s saying and what he’s not saying. Or you quickly get lost and have absolutely no idea what he’s saying at all.

Robert Hall, senior pastor at Tarrytown UMC, invited Ogden to answer questions as a kind of Sunday sermon.  At the service I attended, some of the questions were written by kids. He not only gave wonderful answers, he wrote out answers to everyone who sent in questions.

My experience of Ogden in grad school was just a tad different, and so it was a pleasure to see this pastoral side. Back in the day, Ogden was so passionate about theology and so rigorous in methodology that sloppy thinking was carved up like sushi.

One person asked him about other religions. What about someone who hears the gospel and still continues in their religious tradition? What’s their fate? Ogden was clear that Christians don’t have a monopoly on the truth.

But then he talked about what it might look like for someone outside Christianity to hear the claim that Jesus makes, the gift and the demand of God’s grace. Given all of the things that they might have heard about Christians and about Jesus, it might be very difficult, perhaps almost impossible for them to hear that claim in the same way that we hear it in our context.

All of which led me to wonder about folks who have only heard the message of our consumer-oriented, American culture-affirming, flag-waving, prosperity-gospel Christianity buzzing in the background.  What do they hear when they come by my church? Can they ever get beyond a Christianity suffocated by a set of impossible beliefs that must be believed to hear about the Jesus I know, the one who offers a way of life of truly radical freedom?

How do we get that word across in a culture that understands Christianity as homophobic, judgmental and hypocritical?