Monday, July 23, 2012

Twilight of the Gods?

We are witnessing an amazing turn of events unfolding in the wake of what has been at State College, Pennsylvania over the past few years.  (You can read about the extraordinary NCAA sanctions against the Penn. State football program here.)

Just a few of my initial observations, in the wake of the NCAA announcement today. (These comments are a bit off the cuff):

1) Kudos to the NCAA, at least, for acting quickly and decisively on the damning Freeh report and the recent conviction of Jerry Sandusky for sexual abuse of minors. Some of the penalties seem especially fitting -- especially the steep fine and the vacating of the wins (which bumps Paterno from his pedestal).  Of course, it's impossible to put a monetary value on the damage that has been done to the young victims.

2) Why not the "death penalty"?  (By the way, I don't like using that phrase to denote something as trivial as the disciplinary suspension of a sports program.  It calls to my mind images, you know, of actual people being put to death, which for me is a little bit more serious than anything the NCAA mete out.)  Perhaps, in some ways, these punishments are worse? I'm not completely convinced.

3) I have a lot of problems with the NCAA and am convinced that big-time college sports programs and their host institutions are exploiting student athletes for tremendous gain in money, status and prestige.  Migh we hope that today's announement is a sign that the culture just might be changing at the NCAA?  Might we expect a more chastened, responsible organization that shows it values the lives young people above all?  Or is this an exception, a blip in the screen?

4) We need to see some follow-up that shows the NCAA is prepared to enforce a zero tolerance stance on sexual abuse at sports programs.  I would want to see a clearly delineated sexual abuse/safety policy that spells out very clearly will happen to any other program caught allowing similar atrocities.  This case is unprecedented:  Let's pray it is unique.

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5) It is a propos to discuss this repulsive and heart-rending scandal on a theology blog.
Christians (and Jews and Muslims) have a special kind of term for what has been happening at Penn State -- Idolatry.  (PSU is not by no means the only school where this false religion is practiced).

(Confession time:  I'm a lifetime fan of Alabama Crimson Tide football, and I "played" high school football, or at least attempted to do so.  So I feel I have at least some qualifications to make these observations.)

In this religion, salvation is equated with winning.  Having a winning program, annual bowl appearances and (for a program with the scope of Penn State) national championships.

The savior figure, quite often, is the head coach --  in this case, Paterno himself.  (Is it not ironic that the very name "Paterno" is etymologically rooted in the Latin word for "father"?  Think of the word "paternal.")  It will be very interesting to see how the university deals with the Paterno statute.  For some of supporters of "JoePa", no doubt, the events unfolding constitute a kind of martyrdom -- perhaps even a crucifixion. 

The priests of this faith are, primarily, the players themselves.  Just like the clergy of organized religions, the players are lionized, idealized and pulverized with unrealistic expectations -- as long as they are doing well on the field, that is.  When things go badly, the fans turn on the players pretty quickly.  As the high priest (normally), the quarterback is in the most precarious position within the life of the cultus.
The "church" or communion of saints is comprised of the the historic community of students, alums, donors and all others affiliated with or touched by the university and its football program, which includes many people who have never even set foot on the school's campus, much less matriculated there.

This religion comes complete with liturgies (e.g., pep rallies, game days) and feast days (homecoming / the bowls) and temples (stadiums).  Fans wear their "Saturday best" -- which sometimes means a painted bare chest.  Cheerleaders and marching band members serve as acolytes.

Of course, every religion demand sacrifice.  The ascetic rigor demanded of coaches and players in the gruelling summer preseason as well as during the seasons itself are well known.  And of course offerings are required for the faithful themselves -- money for tickets, products with the team logo and time off from work to attend bowl games, etc.  Donors give to support scholarships.  Professors make academic exceptions to accommodate the schedules of student athletes.  And so on.  In the case of PSU, top officials at the university were willing to put everything on the line -- even risking jail time themselves -- to cover up the scandal that threatened to rock the program.

Ultimately, even, like certain religions of the ancient near east, and even like some religions today, the football cult at Penn State made a very steep demand indeed -- child sacrifice.  And this extremity gives us a clue as to what kind of a god is actually worshipped in this sort of idolatrous religion.

The activist, lawyer and theologian William Stringfellow claimed that the "principalities and powers" exposed in the New Testament actually are embodied concretely in the ideologies, institutions and images that rule our world.  Ultimately, in his view, all of these forces are subject to falling under the power of idolatry.  But all idolatries and false religions worship one deity above all -- Death.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Summer Reading

Many bloggers like to post reading lists, and I'm a sucker for such lists.  So here several of my recent or current reads, followed by incisive commentary.  My mom always claimed I wasn't too good at leisure reading; this list has proven she was right.

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1. The Bible (King James version, with Apocrypha) (Penguin Classics). (

Not your grandma's King James Bible.  Actually, a several months ago, I finally succeeded in reading this tome cover-to-cover -- no small feat at a hefty 2,000 pages.  This took me two years and was much more difficult than I anticipated.  In case you think I'm bragging, keep in mind that my grandmothers have read the Bible through numerous times.

This is a literary-critical edition of the Bible, edited and introduced by David Norton, probably the leading expert on the Authorized Version.  This is not the KJV you would find typically at a bookstore or that the Gideon's might have dropped off next to your bed at the Super8.  That Bible is the text as it was standardized in 1769.  There were a number of variations among the early print runs of the 1611; this text is Norton's attempt to reconstruct the original.  To make the text more readable today, he has modernized punctuation and spelling (thus "begat" becomes "begot") and put the text in a paragraph form that's easier on the eyes than the two-column, verse-by-verse bullet style in most pew Bibles.

A 2,000 page paperback doesn't wear as well as ye goode old leather-bound Bibles, but this text has been my go-to for personal Bible reading for several years now.  Not that it has been easy.  Reading through I & II Chronicles is like hitting the 22nd mile of a marathon. And most of you Protestants have never had to contend with the apocryphal / deuterocanonical texts.  Those who like to extol the grandeur and majesty of the KJV (which sometimes includes me), need to spend half a day or so in  plodding through Ecclesiasticus or 2 Esdras and then report back.

The "King James only" phenomenon is somewhat preposterous, but fascinating nonetheless.  I know there are many weaknesses to this text.  But, for some unknown reason, I just can't bring myself to sit down to read any of the many fine contemporary translations.

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2. A Keeper of the Word: Selected Writings of William Stringfellow (ed. Bill Wylie Kellerman, Eerdmans).  (

I just finished reading this splendid anthology that, sadly, is out of print.  This is the ideal introduction to that quirky, pugnatious, passionate and incisive lawyer-theologian who practiced law in East Harlem, harbored the fugitive priest Dan Berrigan and defended the first women ordained as priests in the Episcopal Church.

There are anthologies that caricature the subject and there are those that illumine them, and this one is in that latter category.  Keeper of the Word is no mere introduction.  Wylie Kellerman, who knew Stringfellow well, has captured the essence of his mentor's writings with well-chosen excerpts organized topically.  These include generous excerpts, especially, from the autobiographical books and, especially, from the more programmatic books on Christian political ethics.  Also included are manuscripts from the Stringfellow collection at Cornell that are published only in this volume.  A couple of my favorite things are the famous exchange between Stringfellow and Karl Barth at the University of Chicago in 1962 and his open letter calling for Episcopal Presiding Bishop John Maury Allin to resign.

So try to get a hold of this book if you're terested in dialectical theology, radical discipleship, Christian political ethics and the North American theological scene of late 20th century.  I'm now working through Stringfellow's books, which happily are available here: (

You'll be hearing more musings about Stringfellow on this blog soon.  But, in the meantime, check out these excellent posts:, and

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3. The Future of Work in Massachusetts (ed. Tom Juravich, UMass press). (

Now this is a heady volume I picked up at the local public library.  It's so depressing that it may just have to go back there unfinished.  The essays came out of a conference of labor experts held at the University of Massachusetts several years ago.  The contributions are interdisciplinary, primarily from within the social sciences, and this book seems pretty thorough and solid (at least to a layperson like me).

Here's what gleaned, so far, from reading the introduction:  The major shift in the Bay State's economy in recent decades has been the deindustrialization that has hit several counties, including Hampden, pretty hard.  This is no surprise for anyone who has spent some time in the Holyoke-Springfield area.  The other piece is that many economic forecasts had overstated the potential growth in the high tech industries (which include many high paying jobs), whereas the greatest growth (of course!) has been in low-end service sector jobs.  This is not surprising, I guess, and I bet similar studies across the country must bear out the same trend.

A quick word to recent graduates:  Don't read this book!  Just go with what your commencement speaker -- or maybe Steve Jobs -- had to say, and keep on trucking.

Friday, July 6, 2012

Within You and Among You

"Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, 'The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.'"
-- Mark 1:14-15 (NRSV)
"The Kingdom of God is justice and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit."
-- Taizé chant.

Bible scholars of varying persuasions seem to agree, for the most part, that Jesus' message centered on the "Kingdom of God" ( the basileia tou theou).  Beyond that, the consensus starts to break down.
Just what is the Kingdom of God?

Certainly, if anyone knows the answer, a community of globetrotting ecumenical French monks must have it.  I like the Taizé chant quoted above, which I've sung and played in worship many times.  Repeating the chant can have a very soothing effect on the soul -- "The Kingdom of God is justice and peace."  But what does that mean?

"Justice" and "peace" are words I hear and use a lot.  The terms make us feel good on the surface; perhaps they shouldn't.  Just dig a little deeper.  What did the word "justice" mean to the late Troy Davis?  And what did it mean to the wife of slain police officer who was convinced Davis had killed her husband?  What does the word mean to our friend in Holyoke, Massachusetts, who is fighting to prevent the demolition of an historic low income housing complex?  What does "justice" mean to the father of Trayvon Martin, and does it mean the same thing to the father of George Zimmerman?  What does it mean to the firefighters who sued the city of New Haven, Connecticut, in a famous reverse discrimination suit?  

"Peace" is a word we all should be able to agree upon, right?  I grew up in a part of the country with a strong pro-military sentiment.  We all assumed that a large and well equipped defense was key to keeping the "peace" at home and abroad.  But I have radical Catholic pacifist friends who live down by the lake and who seem to have a quite different notion of what "peace" means.  And then there are the police officers who have been mobilized in cities across the U.S. to keep "the peace" in the wake of Occupy protests.  I've seen some pretty disturbing pictures of clashes that have ensued.

There are Buddhist styled meditation retreats engaged in Protestant parish halls with the stated objective of achieving "inner peace."  There is the ever elusive ideal state of "peace and quiet" that the mother of the three-year old boy seeks in vain.  But Jesus, for the most part, was anything but quiet -- except for those times when people desperately wanted him to say or do something.

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Whatever it might mean, the word that Jesus brings about the kingdom is not mere reportage or gossip but "good news" -- "Gospel."  But just what does the word "Gospel" mean?

I recently engaged in an online chat with a brilliant young theologian.  Somewhat impishly, I kept throwing question after question in his face -- much as I am doing to you right now.  He and I did agree that the central question was how one defines the meaning of the Gospel.  He gave a very clear and succinct statement of his position on this question, and I found I could affirm his statement nearly 100 percent.  Still, from what I've read in some of his writings and from his comments that day, I still had some reservations about the conclusions he seems to be drawing in unpacking that definition of the Gospel.  Why do we find it so difficult to agree about how to define the most important principles and concepts?

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Then a final question, for now, is how is the messenger related to the message.  The 20th century theologian Rudolf Bultmann posed the central question of New Testament theology this way:  How did the proclaimer himself become the proclaimed?  In other words, how did the message about the kingdom that Jesus preached become a message about Jesus himself?

His very way of stating the question, of course, contains an explicit challenge to many traditional ways of talking about the identity and significance of Jesus.  Still, I think, whatever her vantage point might be, the Christian theologian must allow herself to feel the force of this question, even if she disagrees with the ways that Bultmann and other modern scholars have answered it.