Wednesday, November 18, 2015

My Latest Book Review: Christ Crucified in a Suffering World by Nathan Hieb

Check out the newly revamped website for The Center for Barth Studies There you will find, in addition to many excellent resources for the Karl Barth researcher, my latest publication, a review of Nathan D. Hieb's superb study, Christ Crufied in a Suffering World: The Unity of Atonement and Liberation. In this volume, Hieb provides one model for doing what I should very much like to accomplish constructively: He integrates a Christocentric theology, complete with a strong doctrine of the atonement, with contemporary efforts on socio-political transformation and liberation. As I write:

All too often contemporary theologians create a false binary between traditional atonement doctrines and theologies of liberation. Nathan Hieb seeks to bridge that gap by means of a fresh reading and retooling of Karl Barth’s doctrine of atonement.

I hope this might whet your appetite to read the review and, more than that, to get a hold of Hieb's book for yourself.

Picasso, La Crucifixion (1930)

Monday, January 26, 2015

The Gospel According to Elizabeth Warren Running for President

I have always longed to inhabit sacred ground, but alas, I live a very long way from the Holy Land.

True, I have lived in Alabama and Georgia (the Bible Belt), Illinois (Land of Lincoln) and Pennsylvania (Penn's Peaceable kingdom, except in election years). Now I live in Northampton. According to the internet, Northampton is 5,580.1 miles away from Jerusalem. For you international readers, that's 8980.3 Kilometers (or Kiloumeters, British spelling) and 4845.8 Nautical Miles. Nor have I ever been anywhere near Isreal-Palestine, where the Lord lived, ministered, died and rose again.

But I've learned it does't really matter, because when the Messiah returns, her home base is going to be much closer to home -- Cambridge!

No, no, silly! Not THAT Cambridge. Cambridge, Massachusetts, a mere 102 miles from where I live in Northampton.


Yes, that's more like it. And the one who will save us, the one for whom we have hoped will come from none other than the hallowed halls of Harvard.

Mike Huckabee's views on the matter notwithstanding, Harvard is not a dirty word in this neck of the woods. Harvard is where we send and brightest and best (=most richest) to earn A minuses and learn how to rule the world. Because legacy.

Who is the Child of Promise, then, who emerges from this esteemed institution -- in particular, from its faculty? Why it's none other than Elizabeth Warren Running for President. For those of you unfamiliar with the U.S. national political scene, Ms. Warren is one of two Democrats representing Massachusetts in the U.S. Senate. She's fiesty, confrontational and reform minded. And she formerly taught at Harvard. But this piece is not about her per se. Note my language carefully: I didn't say that Senator Warren herself is the fulfillment of our messianic hopes and dreams. Only the most clueless space cadet among left-liberal punditry could imagine that Warren could ever actually be elected President of the United States. Rather, what I'm arguing is that it's the very idea of Elizabeth Warren running for president itself is the mechanism that, in the last days, will finally turn the wheels of history and redeem the unfulfilled American dream for freedom, peace and democracy.

You see, the prophecies go something like this: The idea of Elizabeth Warren Running for President will emerge in the last days of 2016. All the elect will rise up in concord and the sleeping beast known as the national Democratic Party will be awakened from its globalist, militarist, centrist slumbers and get about the business of establishing the Millenial reign of Democracy in the United States, a notion that is implied by certain obscure passages in the U.S. Constitution but that has never been even remotely realized in the present evil age.

"And the Chosen One shall arise in the Back Bay, and the Great Donkey shall awaken, and an internet petition drive shall lead them," according to one version of the prophesy.

And, just as in California politics, it all begins with a petition drive. The details can all be found in the Sacred Oracle, "Run Warren Run," from an outfit known as

Hear what the Oracle Saith:

In the wake of the Great Recession, Senator Warren stood up to the big banks and led the successful fight to create the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau—an act that’s already recovered more than $1.5 billion for Americans who were ripped off by Wall Street predators.

This is all true, by the way. It's all been fulfilled. I checked it out.

And furthermore:

Senator Warren is leading the fight for students and graduates who are struggling under the weight of crippling student loan debt and is transforming the Social Security debate from whether to cut the program to how to grow it.

Also true! Are you starting to get excited yet?

Here's the key bit, the John 3:16, if you will, of the Gospel According to Elizabeth Warren Running for President:

Our country will be better off if Elizabeth Warren runs for president.

Cryptic? Yes, apocalypses always are. Note the key thing, though: It doesn't read our country will be better of if Sen. Warren becomes President. That would take a divine miraculous intervention that would make the Red Sea incident look like a wading pool in an Orlando hotel. No, the true change will come from her running for President. Or perhaps even just the idea of her running itself.

Of course there are always naysayers and skeptics. Our age abounds in them. That's why it's important to have faith -- to trust the Gospel of Elizabeth Warren Running for President. But to all of those folks, the preacher saith: "Quit your braying and get with the program."

And all the people said, "Amen."

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.