Bewildering Word

When Jesus began his ministry, Rome was the sole superpower, governed by Tiberius, adoptive son of Caesar Augustus, whose praises were carved in stone.

From untamed territory a voice resounds: Prepare the Way! Unlock the gate! Make straight the reach of Love renowned.

Caesar was the “redeemer” who brought “salvation,” establishing “peace and security for the world,” the only true “Lord” in whom all should have “faith.”

Rise up you valleys! Recline you mountains! The Word breaks, unleashed, from every empire’s rule, every temple’s sway. Read more ›

News, views, notes, and quotes

Signs of the Times  •  9 May 2018 •  No. 161

Processional. “Holy Mother, where are you? / Tonight I feel broken in two. / I've seen the stars fall from the sky. / Holy mother, can't keep from crying. / Oh I need your help this time, / Get me through this lonely night. / Tell me please which way to turn / To find myself again.” —Eric Claption & Luciano Pavarotti, “Holy Mother

Above: April the giraffe’s new calf, born in 2017 at Animal Adventure Park in Harpursville, N.Y. Photo by Buddhika Weerasinghe/Getty Images. Watch this short (2:56) video of mom washing her newborn.

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News, views, notes, and quotes

Signs of the Times  •  2 May 2018 •  No. 160

Processional.Garden Song” (“Inch by Inch”), Pete Seeger.

Invocation. “How, indeed, shall we then live / in this enduring season between / Easter, / God’s Resurrection Moment, and / Pentecost, / God’s Resurrection Movement?” —continue reading "The Little Flock of Jesus," a poem for Eastertide Read more ›

The music of Mary Lou Williams

A review

Reviewed by Dale Roberts

When Mary Lou Williams converted to Catholicism in the 1950s she turned away from her career as a jazz musician, thinking that music played in bars had no place in the realm of the spirit. She came to realize that, as her friend Duke Ellington said, “Every man prays in his own language, and there is no language God does not understand.” Williams and Ellington were among the first jazz artists to write sacred music in the jazz idiom and perform jazz in churches.

Mary Lou Williams (born Mary Elfrieda Scruggs, 1910 – May 1981) was an African-American jazz pianist, composer, and arranger whose career spanned the history of jazz from early swing through the big band era, bebop, and beyond. She stood in the first rank of jazz pianists. She wrote and arranged music for Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman, and other bandleaders.

After two priests and her friend Dizzy Gillespie persuaded her to return to playing jazz she performed with Gillespie’s band at the 1957 Newport Jazz Festival. Read more ›

The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion

Jonathan Haidt, Vintage, 2013

Reviewed by Dale Roberts

All Democrats are insane, but not one of them knows it; none but the Republicans and Mugwumps know it. All the Republicans are insane, but only the Democrats and Mugwumps can perceive it. The rule is perfect: in all matters of opinion our adversaries are insane. —Mark Twain

Why bother talking with people at the other end of the political or theological spectrum? We already know what they think. They’re wrong. They won’t listen to reason. They view the world askew. They march mindlessly in lockstep behind partisan ideologues and extremists.

Jonathan Haidt, a social psychologist, challenges us to think about our thinking on political and moral questions, to seek to understand how and why others see things differently. Read more ›

Weaving the Sermon: Preaching in a Feminist Perspective

Christine Smith, Westminster/John Knox, 1989

Reviewed by Vern Ratzlaff

Smith’s book is an intriguing extended metaphor, using weaving as a central lens of understanding.  Weaving is an art, an expression of our time, and Smith uses the components of weaving as illustration, as an organizing image in women’s lives:  weaving, loom, warp, weft.  Weaving:  interlocking threads to create joyful instances of textures and colours.  Loom: keep threads in order and under tension.  Warp: binding together differing threads.  Weft:  the most prominent threads.  This is Smith’s extended metaphor for preaching.

Smith believes there is some ‘qualitative distinctiveness surrounding the preaching of feminist women (p 9); there is a distinctive quality to women’s preaching (p11).  Women use more images and more stories than men do.  ‘The texts women choose are less abstract and more related to everyday life/ (p 12); they are more creative and imaginative in dealing with the text.

Smith has a good section on authority.  Religious authority has usually referred to ordination, giving them the ‘right’ to speak. ‘criteria for effective preaching held by many male homileticians appear to be persuasion and the ability to influence the listener.  The criteria for many women preachers appear to be creating the quality of faith connection….  Authority has to do with a quality of content, a mode of communication and an authenticity of message (p 46).  Smith looks at issues of gender.  She looks at issues of gender.  Eg how ‘can a male Jesus of Nazareth be considered a normative model for all humanity/ (p 80).  She suggests key areas for this definition that entail much broader understandings of incarnational theology’s ‘power’ in relations, radical activity of love, Jesus as parable of G-d, concepts of salvation, hermeneutics. Read more ›

Preaching Biblical Sermons

Raymond Bystrom, Kindred Productions, 2006

Reviewed by Vern Ratzlaff

This book looks at sermons and the changing perspectives; the writer, Ray Bystrom, has taught homiletics (the theological name for sermons) at several colleges and shares both the descriptions of sermons past as well as the approach today, and as pastor had  to practise what he preached!.  He does so through an analysis of our culture and an examination of three major homileticians:  Frederick Craddock, Eugene Lowry and George Buttrick. 

In the treatment of each, he devotes a chapter that includes a theology of the person featured, a sample and an analysis of a sermon preached by the person, a description of the approach, and an evaluation of the method.  Bystrom states that most North American preaching is ‘discursive’:  built on argument and organized by points and propositions; the sermon is frequently little more than the three burdensome logical points with helpful illustrations designed to relieve the minds of those trying to follow the preacher’s logic (p 1).  ‘Preachers need to move beyond ‘three points and a poem’ (p 3).  In place of the discursive model, Bystrom encourages the inductive and the narrative approaches.  Preoccupation with the sermon as argument meant that attention was focused on content and not on form, even though the focus of the early church’s sermons was narrative, not ‘discursive’.  Once the  church moved into the Hellenistic world, a reflective shape became the construct of preaching, a discursive structure (p 10). 

Today we’re paying more attention to form rather than content (p 9).  Eg in the parable of the vineyard workers and their perception of mistreatment, Lowry has the power comment, ‘to be invited into the  vineyard is to be invited home’ (p 60).  Diagnosis and not description or illustration is need, dealing with causative issues and allowing the text to stimulate the imagination (eg what were the family dynamics in the household of the ‘prodigal son’). Read more ›

Christ and Culture in Dialogue

Angus Menugo, General Editor, Concordia Academic Press, 1999

Reviewed by Vern Ratzlaff

H. Richard Niebuhr’s Christ and Culture has dominated the discussion of the relation between Christian faith and ‘secular’ culture.  The discussion has been based the awareness that theology always stands at the crossroads of decision:  either to serve Christ and His church, of to fall prey to a private religious expression, some fashionable philosophy, moral crusade of political ideology (p 7).  Niebuhr’s position is the doctrine of the two kingdoms, the belief that Christians are simultaneously saints and sinners, what Niebuhr called ‘Christ and culture in Paradox’.  The Lutheran concept of the two kingdoms speaks against the cultural accommodation of theology, the paradoxical vision provides correctives to two possible dangers:  a ‘Christianization of society’, remaking the world into the image of the church, or an ‘acculturization of the church’, remaking the church into the image of the world.

Menugo’s book speaks to three major themes.  One. The identification of alternative approaches to Christ and culture, clarifying Lutheran perspectives.  Two.  The dialogue between Christ and culture as It applies to social issues (war, evangelism).  Three.  The institutions of the church, with specific attention to worship and the educational structure of the church.  (This is particularly cogent for church colleges and seminaries.)

While Menugo’s book speaks from and to a Lutheran audience, it asks questions on a far wider perspective.  Good probing of our faith. Read more ›

Religion and Culture

Richard Hecht and Vincent Biondo (eds), Fortress, 2012

Reviewed by Vern Ratzlaff

This well-balanced volume looks at the key facets of significant interaction between religion and culture.  Religion’ may refer to the religious traditions (Buddhism , Judaism).  Or it may refer to symbols and meanings, values.  ‘Culture’ is the interaction of the political dimensions, a vital public arena where social debates are encouraged and may contribute to preserving democracy and preventing mass destruction (p xviii).  Religious pluralism may be the key, the public spaces for face to face communications.  Religion and Culture is a compilation of essays (from a Lutheran perspective) dealing with three spaces where religion and culture are performed:  peace building, as it creates communities; the dome and domestic space; contemporary art.

Six essays outline religion and culture in the space of politics (key areas sketched here are science, women and peace building).  ‘Sometimes it is religion that creates or reinforces women’s suffering, and sometimes it is religion that provides the antidote and the opportunity for freedom’ (p 110).  Another six essays examine religion and culture in the space of ethics. Fascinating conceptualization here:  the religious ethics of capitalism, education, children, death.  The final seven essays describe a third space that Hecht calls aesthetic, where there is greater creative freedom:  visual art, music, film. 

A fascinating contribution deals with Walt Disney’s ‘preoccupation with death’ (p 394); his films rely on a cultural system of religious meaning to make sense of death (p 394).  Each part of Religion and Culture demonstrates the interweaving of religion and culture; religion cannot be separated or compartmentalized so that it operates only within the walls of religious institutions or during religious events.  Human life is immersed in religion and culture.  Read more ›

With glad and Generous Hearts: a Personal Look at Sunday Worship

William Willimon, Upper Room, 1966

Reviewed by Vern Ratzlaff

Here is a helpful look at our worship time together, by Willimon, for many years Minister to Duke University and now bishop in the Methodist church.  From his knowledge and personal experience he stresses that the form and substance of worship if a whole, and sketches the biblical and pastoral components of the ordo:  Gathering, Confession, Praises, Scripture, Sermon, Creed, Intercession, the Lord’s Supper, Sending Forth.  A very useful adjunct to Willimon is "An Educational Gide," prepared by John Westerhoff, a resource for group study and discussion that implements Willimon’s material.

Of special interest to me were his comments about greeting, talking and silence in the time leading to the more ‘official’ worship.  Announcements should be made here in the pre-service, and be made by laypersons rather than by the pastor.

Willimon favours a time between necessary greetings and necessary silence and focusing.  People should be free to move around and create a family-like atmosphere.  The organ should not be played during this time—it is not used as background music for the congregation’s chatter (p 33).  (The other eight parts of worship receive similarly helpful attention.) Read more ›