Tuesday, December 9, 2014

If you give a birthday party for Jesus....

If you give a birthday party for Jesus
just be aware he might show up
not the gauzy gazed at infant
not the gaudy glowing saint
but the fleshy mess of breath and bones
holding banners, singing in the cold
what would happen if he came inside
the room, the candles would they sputter?
or turn to tongues of flame?

-- Leah C. Gregg

Sunday, October 26, 2014

The Bible in one hand, The Nation in the other

In the thick of the Detroit auto boom in 1927, the young pastor Reinhold Niebuhr wrote this entry into his journal:
I believe every preacher ought to take several radical journals, preferably the ones which are extremely inimical to religion. The ethical ideals of Christianity are so high and the compromises which the average church and the average minister has made between these ideals and the economic necessities of society are so great, and self-deception is so easy, that we need the corrective and perhaps cynical evaluation of religion in modern life.

I should like to recommend this kind of reading who are so easily obsessed by a messianic complex because of the compliments they receive. Let them remind themselves that there are astute observers who think that all their preaching is superficial and never touches the fundamental defects of modern society, and that these critics are at least as near the truth as their too generous devotees (Leaves from the Notebook of a Tamed Cynic, Meridian Books, 1957, p. 204.)
Were you aware, gentle readers, that Niebuhr wrote prodigiously for such secular journals as The Nation and The New Republic as well as the newly established Christian Century? If you wish to take up Niebuhr's advice, doubtless you can find what you need via the blogosphere and Twitter. But if you are still a little perplexed, allow me to get you started with this.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Niebuhr at the Supermarket

I wish to report to y'all, gentle readers, that I've had a genuine moment of (Reinhold) Niebuhrian self transcendence to report in my own life.

This weekend, while shopping at the local Pause-'n-Pay Grocery Store(™), I deliberated briefly between two options in the dairy case: Should I buy the store-brand milk and save money or spend an extra dollar for the Local Hero option (I don't typically consider myself a hero, local or otherwise). Then it happened: In a moment of genuine self transcendence, poised between the existential polarities of my finitude and freedom, I allowed my narrow self interest to be checked by the demands of a higher, more universalizing ethical framework -- an action that would have been virtually impossible for me had I been representing a larger social aggregate, such as a nation state, wherein collective egoism -- typically masked by the machinations of ideology and hidden power plays -- thwarts any such self-sacrificing ethical behavior.

In other words, I opted for the local brand.

Alas, though, for I am undone! For now, gentle readers, my own self interest has become an (unjustified, I think y'all will agree) occasion for bragging rights and an overweening sense of my own superiority vis-a-vis the woman next to me who bought the cheaper milk (that's the "sin of pride," people).

The only solution? A countermeasure: Please excuse me while I bury my head in a vat of Cheese Flavored, Partially Hydrogenated MSG Puffs(™) (oops, that's the "sin of sensuality").

Friday, August 22, 2014

A Little Niebuhring

I'm rereading Reinhold Niebuhr, which I admit I haven't done to much of for a little while -- say, about 15 years or so, though I did get a lot out of reading the fine biography by Richard Wightman Fox a couple of years ago (I mentioned that reading here. I'm reading him with fresh eyes -- or perhaps I should say somewhat jaundiced eyes. Apparently, if David Brooks and President Obama are any indication, it seems there is no way around dealing with Niebuhr for anyone interested in what Christian faith might have to say today about the political order.
I both sincerely admire this man and am deeply ambivalent about his political theology.

My recent read is late Niebuhr, Man's Nature and His Communities (1965). I admit that I find it somewhat difficult to come to terms with Niebuhr once and for all: Once I start to find myself disagreeing strongly with a particular point, he then tries to counterbalance it with an opposing perspective. One key area where this plays out is the way he seeks to balance political realism (that is, a commitment to accurately describing the dynamics of power and collective egoism in the real world) with idealism (the conviction that these power dynamics are somehow checked within a more encompassing sphere of ideal ethical principles).

This book, of course, was written during the thick of the Civil Rights Movement. Niebuhr argues that the individualistic, evangelical religious heritage in the United States (at least, up to that point) had offered precious little aid in the struggle against institutional racism. For my part, as someone who grew up as a white Southern Baptist, I really want to push back against that claim; yet, I have to admit the force of it. But I hope this is not the last word on the subject. For my part, I am seeking resources for answering Niebuhr's, constructively if not historically. Maybe some of the recent, promising conversations in evangelical post-colonial theology can help me here. I'll write more about all this later.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Nobody Writes About Prayer Like this Anymore

Here's Rauschenbusch on prayer (emphasis mine):

If the moral demands of our higher social thought could find adequate expression in prayer, it would have a profound influence on the social movement. Many good men have given up the habit of praying, partly through philosophical doubt, partly because they feel that it is useless or even harmful to their spiritual nature. Prayer in the past, like the hiss of escaping steam, has often dissipated moral energy. But prayer before battle is another thing. That has been the greatest breeder of revolutionary heroism in history. All our bravest desires stiffen into fighting temper when they are affirmed before God.

As is often the case with WR, I'm not quite sure what to make of this.

I think his theology is mostly mistaken.

And I think he's probably a bit naive about the nature of power politics.

But I find his social acuity and passion for justice contagious.

Go figure.

Source: Walter Rauschenbusch, For God and the People: Prayers of the Social Awakening (Boston: Pilgrim Press, 1910) pp. 11-12.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

The Secret Revealed At Last

What was this secret that made this eminent German Church historian lose sleep at night?

Get ready for the bombshell that's going to rattle the playground of the theo-blogosphere.

I'm about about to share with you, loyal readers, the real reason this blog exists. (Come on, you were starting to wonder: Admit it.)

First the context:

Some time back in the 1920s, Karl Barth wrote a letter to his best pal, Eduard Thurneyson, grousing because Adolf von Harnack, the great church historian, had labelled Barth as a reincarnation of the Gnostic heretic Marcion in a review of Barth's Romans commentary.

(You can read about this, I think, in the volume of Barth-Thurneyson correspondence titled Revolutionary Theology in the Making. But I can't remember the page number. I'm good, but I'm not that good.)

Well, as it happened, Barth stumbled into an evening gathering where loyal doters were arrayed around the great Harnack and, apparently, the U of Berlin scholar had just been disposing of Barth as some sort of flash-in-the-pan enthusiast who would probably found some sort of prophetic cult and then, essentially, fizzle out.

What is not recorded in that correspondence or in the Barth biography by Eberhard Busch that also relates the incident is what happened next.

The young Barth walked right up to the eminent Harnack and whispered something in his ear -- the definitive answer to the scurrilous (as it used to be back in those days) charge of Marcionism that made the elder scholar veritably quake in his boots.

This answer is so secret and amazing that Helmut Gollwitzer, Eberhard Busch, Eberhard Jüngel and some other student of Barth named Eberhard made a secret pact that the message would never be revealed.

I'm in possession of this secret message and I'm ready to disclose it to you:

(Now lean in.) There are now 55 published pieces on this blog. (There are 28 pieces that are in "draft" mode that are simply just too awesome to publish here. Sorry, you'll just have to wait until I'm dead to read those). Scroll through the post titles and take the first letter of each title and write it down. At first blush, it will seem like gobbledygook, like ancient Greek manuscripts before the spaces and punctuation are added by diligent scholars.

Be patient and persevere. Never give up. You won't be disappointed.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Stranded Bibliophile: Can You Help?

This is a very personal plea on my part to you, gentle readers of the interwebs.

You see, I commute by bus to the day job. Today I was running late and I ran out the door without any books to read on the bus! And to make matters worse, I don't even have the dog-eared Gideon's New Testament (KJV) that's in the pocket of my winter coat, since spring has finally sprung (sort of) here in western Massachusetts (emphasis mine) and I've traded out my coat for a crimson-red hoodie. Moreover, I don't know how to access the interwebs on my very un-smart phone, where I could, at least, read Slate's "Dear Prudie" column and calm myself down a little.

So I'm not "stranded" exactly, but you get the idea: I'm in need of serious help.

My best friend has graciously offered to text to me a copy of a major work of systematic theology that's approximately 9,000 pages long. (I'll keep the text anonymous for now, to avoid the possibility some of you might get turned off and not hear out my request). She has unlimited data for texting, she points out.

But that's way to much for one person to do. So I'm enlisting you, my readers (all half dozen of you) to help her out. Would y'all, each of you, agree to text at least a portion of this major text? I'm not tech-savy -- I've only just this month learned how to make paragraph breaks in HTML -- but I can say this is what you'll need, should you choose to accept this assignment:

1. At least three type-faces.

2. A Greek font.

3. A "cut-and-paste" feature would be most helpful, as this work is agonizingly repetitive.

4. A good sense of humor, as someone who enjoys laughing with the angels.

5. A solid collect of Mozart CDs. (That's not really essential. It could be anything, really, whatever suits your taste: e.g., Cold Play, Willie Nelson, Shostakovitch -- well, maybe not that. But maybe it's just good to go along with the Mozart as reputable scholars claim this text resembles his music.)

6. A quaintly odd predilection for typing longish Latin quotations from 17th and 18th century Dutch Reformed federalist theologians.

7. An certain sort of disposition that doesn't mind typing several thousand pages or so before stumbling, to your delight, upon a small-print passage in which the author has inserted an excursus on Pure Land Buddhism. For no apparent reason. (It is the only passage on Buddhism I can recall seeing in the entire work, but I may be wrong. If you're really fond of Eastern religions and philosophy, this may not be an assignment for you to take on.)

8. But if you are into world religions, and you're game for this task, you may have to endure a longish discussion, about 1,500 pages in or so, about why religion is bunk. Then you might come to find out that number of scholars are now saying that, no, in the original German he's saying pretty much the opposite of that. But you're typing directly from the English. So deal with it.

9. Some sort of quick, key-stroke macro that will automatically insert the name Jesus Christ, because, let me tell you....

So now you're really curious and dying to know what this text is?

Here's one little hint: It's not this one.