Earth-Honoring Faith

Larry Rasmussen, Oxford University Press, 2013, reviewed by Vern Ratzlaff

        Rasmussen is one of our most creative thinkers, whose concern with ethics keeps religious faith relevant and forward looking. Voyager 1 was on its way out of the solar system when it photographed each planet it had passed In some of the photos a pale blue dot appeared. Carl Sagan featured that dot. ‘That’s home,’ he said; ‘That’s home for everyone you ever heard of, lived there on that mote of dust, suspended in a sunbeam’ (p 3).

        On a different scale, ‘our very being was shaped by a seamless series of an ever changing ecosphere… Its ability to support humans into a distant future was not on the line…. But now it is… We’ve been burning through the five pools of relatively non-renewable energy, the first of which is soil. (Forests, coal, oil, and natural gas are others.) (p 205)

        Earth can industrialize but once in the manner and on the scale it has. ‘Not good ideas but anticipatory communities meeting adaptive challenges’ are needed (p 226), and religious communities are essential for these challenges. ‘Those who believe and humble themselves before their Lord, they will be companions of the garden.’ (Qur’an, Sutra 11:23). ‘There is no separation between what our surroundings do to us and what we do to our surroundings’ (p 19). Key is the loss of ‘fertile crescents’.

        A study of the soils of the middle east found sobering results: washed off soils, silted canals, meagre flora and fauna, ruins of dead cities (p 195). The zoo in us makes up 10% of our dry body weight; we have an inner ecosystem in which each of us is home to something like 100 trillion microbes (p 21). Read more ›

Surprised by Hope

N. T. Wright, Harper Collins, 2008, reviewed by Vern Ratzlaff

        The Christian’s hope, says Wright is intertwined with how we live today; Christianity’s most distinctive idea is bodily resurrection. He argues that what we believe about life after death directly affects what we believe about life before death.

        If G-d intends to renew the whole creation (begun in Jesus’ resurrection), the church cannot stop at ‘saving souls’ but must anticipate the eventual renewal by working in G-d’s kingdom in the wider world. Earth is where G-d’s reign will take place, which is why the new Testament regularly speaks not of our going to be where Jesus is (going to heaven) but of his coming to where we are: earth (p 190).

        Teaching about King Jesus as Lord (G-d’s kingdom) has as its basis the resurrection—not his parable, not his healings, not even his death (p 243). ‘The power of Easter (resurrection) must be put into effect both at the macro level, in applying the gospel to the major problem of the world and to the intimate details of our daily lives’ (p 253). ‘The church that takes sacred space seriously not as a retreat from the world but as a bridge head will go straight from worshipping in the sanctuary to debating in the city council chambers’ (p 265).

        The church must learn the arts of celebration without compromise and of opposition without dualism (p 269). The new creation which Jesus brings to us (not the ‘left behind stuff’ when we leave the creation behind as we are swept into the clouds) will be characterized by justice (p 213), beauty (222) and evangelism (p 223). ‘Precisely because Jesus Christ rose from the dead, G-d’s new world has already broken in to the present’ (p 213). Read more ›

Lost Christianities

Bart Ehrman, Oxford UP, 2003, reviewed by Vern Ratzlaff

        Ehrman sketches the diverse, variegated Christian groupings in the modern world, and in the first three centuries of the church’s story, summarizing varied practices and beliefs of those who called themselves Christians.

        Most of these ancient forms of Christianity eventually came to be reformed or stamped out, and the sacred texts Christians used to support their religious perspectives have been destroyed or forgotten or lose. Ehrman sketches the wide range of writings of the early church—acts, gospels, epistles, gospels, apocalypses—and reflects on ‘what was both lose and gained when these books, and the Christian perspectives they represented, disappeared from sight’ (p 4). This process represented both gain and loss; what if some other form of Christianity had won the early struggle for dominance?

        Ehrman identifies especially three groups: Jewish-Christian Ebionites, anti-Jewish Marcionites, gnostics. And standing over against each of these groups was the form of Christianity that endorsed the beliefs and practices that eventually dominated the religion toward the middle of the third century (he calls this expression of Christianity the ‘Proto-orthodox’); out of these conflicts the New Testament being. (Significantly, these confrontations were waged on largely literary grounds, thereby shaping the canonical process.)

        Ehrman comments on the significance of this one form of Christianity over the others, and what was lost when so many forms of Christianity and the texts they espoused came to be lost to posterity—only to be found again in our time. Read more ›

Leadership and Listening: Spiritual Foundations for Church Governance

Donald Zimmer, Alban, 2011, reviewed by Vern Ratzlaff

        Church governance has had several forms (from ancient Israel to the current): governing institutions (from Nehemiah’s simple project to Herod’s elaborate bureaucracy), elder leadership in the early church, charismatic leadership gave way to more power in episcopal offices (institutional form), the contemplative movement (monastic life), valuation of daily work, and business enterprise (Jesus as CEO).

        Zimmer sketches each of these contributions to church governance theory and practice, and adds another contributor: spirituality, the nurture of the soul (‘imagination’) in the world of work (p 22). (Cf Marx’ theory of alienation as another call to work validation.) Spiritual discernment focuses on listening prayer, liturgy, story telling and reflection as ways of listening more attentively to G-d and to one another, the basis of holistic spirituality. Zimmer details insights for church governance from the natural order and from scripture.

        •From scripture. Called to be servants, blessed by differences (diversity), Christ’s image bearers in our society, gifted by the spirit, saved by grace for good works, called to rest and renewal (Sabbath), part of a highly interrelated world. These seven themes are not automatic steps but organic, coming from within.

        •From the natural order. Wholeness (creation is an unbroken whole), unique identity (eg DNA particularity), self organization, facility of information transfer, openness (physics suggests how the world works—‘creation is more sacramental than scientific’ p 72). Read more ›

Third Way Allegiance: Christian Witness in the Shadow of Religious Empire

Tripp York, Cascadia, 2011, reviewed by Vern Ratzlaff

        York teaches in the philosophy and Religious Department at Western Kentucky U; he asks us to question our true allegiance, to examine our discipleship, to be people who hunger and thirst for justice. He calls us back to the subversion of grace and nonviolence.

        He has moving references to modern day saints whose lives focused on the practice, politics and worship expressions of our faith, a faith lived as a Christian under the post-Christian, religious empire that is the United States of America. The fact that we follow a crucified G-d suggests that discourse about this G-d will be provocative. And his reflections range widely.

        •All creatures are included in G-d’s care; all are on G-d’s heavenly mountain (Jonah, Isaiah 11, Psalm 24)

        •Steve Irwin, the Australian ‘Crocodile Hunter’; Isaiah 11 that dreams of creation with the eyes of a child. Read more ›

Religion and Culture: Contemporary Practices and Perspectives

Richard Hecht and Vincent Biondo (eds), Fortress Press, 2012, reviewed by Vern Ratzlaff

        Here are 19 essays that describe significant interaction between religion and culture, eg religious ethics, education, death, film, music (and others). The essays have a global vision—processes of religion and culture are not the specific property of the west.

        Each part of this volume demonstrates the interweaving of religion and culture, according to three spaces. First, power relationships that deal with issues of conflict, science, sexuality—outlining how religions and cultures create societies and communities. Second, private space where individuals are moulded. Third, the tension between public and private, or political and ethical, eg the public preservation of Elvis Presley’s grave becomes intensely private for individuals on pilgrimage there. The article demonstrates the interweaving of religious and culture eg religion can’t be separated or compartmentalized, operating only within the walls of religious institutions or during religious events and dates.

        I found some of the essays in Religion and Culture more fascinating than others (there were 19 to choose from!). Eg ‘Conflict and Peace Building’. ‘Because religion plays a role in the dynamics of conflict, religion may play a role in peace building as well’ (p 3). We need to clarify whether religion is a cause or a rhetorical cloak.

        The essay on civil religion does a good job of historical examination of the articulation of civil religion. American exceptionalism—that the United States has a unique and/or divinely sanctioned role in the political and social history of the world. Civil religion utilizes practices, symbols, myth, ritual and consecrated time and space that integrate the disparate parts and individuals into a cohesive whole. Religion needs to become an intentional, multilingual conversation of particular traditions and identities (religious and non-religious, theistic and non-theistic) (p45). Read more ›

The Sorrows of Empire

Chalmers Johnson, Holt Paperbacks, 2004, reviewed by Vern Ratzlaff

        Johnson sketches the history of American imperialism, seeing its beginnings in 1898 with the Spanish-American war, portraying its brutal colonization of the Filipinos as ‘divinely ordained racially inevitable and economically indispensable’ (p 43).

        Intellectual foundations of American imperialism replaced the militaristic formulation (eg manifest destiny),reaching new heights(depths?) during WW II. The Korean and Vietnamese wars furthered the spiral.

        Johnson cites three hallmarks of militarism: a withering of the influence of non-military options (eg decrease of the State Department’s influence), increased presence of military officers or representatives of arms industry in high government position, military preparedness becomes the highest priority of the state.

        The United States is ‘drifting away from regarding treaties as an essential element in global security to a more opportunistic stand of abiding by treaties only when it is convenient/ (p 73). President Clinton signed the treaty creating the International Criminal Court, but the Bush administration ‘unsigned’ it. Read more ›

A Spiritual Life: Perspectives from Poets, Prophets and Preachers

Allan Cole (ed), Westminster, John Knox, 2011, reviewed by Vern Ratzlaff

        A Spiritual Life is a moving selection of the writings of poets, prophets and pastors who reflect on what makes for a vibrant spiritual life, drawing on a wide spectrum of personal experiences, exposing the reader to a wonderfully diverse group of people with a wide range of Christian experiences. Cole identifies three ways of discerning and living an authentic spiritual life: poets (8 entries), prophets (9), preachers (6). He admits the limits of using these three categories for discerning and living a spiritual life, and many of the articles in this anthology could easily fit any of the three categories.

        A word about some of the entries.

        ‘Spirituality and Chronic Illness’ talks of living with multiple sclerosis. ‘On Spirituality’ emphasizes the community dimension of spiritual formation; spiritual formation is more than private discipline; spiritual formation is an essential concern and a legacy of the community of faith—faithfulness to G-d and service to others’ (p 115). A moving reflection on his baptism—as a four-year old—marks Cole’s written comments (“More religious than Spiritual’). An insightful essay (sermon?) by William Willimon probes the relevancy of his book, Resident Aliens, and the claim that we don’t have to cultivate a tedious set of practices (eg Sabbath) in order to live in G-d’s time ( p 230).

        Cole’s work is a wonderful contribution to daily life with G-d. Read more ›

A New Kind of Christianity: Ten Questions that are Transforming the Faith

Brian McLaren, Harper, 2010, reviewed by Vern Ratzlaff

        ‘Something isn’t working in the way we’re Christianity anymore’ (p 9), and here is McLaren’s attempt to identify both what isn’t working now’ and what is needed to make religious faith relevant, based on ten questions.

        The questions probe the nature and authority of the bible: is G-d? Who is Jesus? Can we talk about human sexuality? How should followers of Jesus relate to people of other religions? McLaren tries to identify a passage out of our conventional paradigm and a passage into new possibilities. He points out the extent to which the church functions in a Greco-Roman fashion; ‘what would we call the biblical story line isn’t the shape of the story of Adam and Abraham; it’s the shape of the Greek cultural narrative that Plato taught’ (p 37).

        This Greco-Roman perspective is marked by anxiety (the need to keep on top of things), by vulnerability to paranoia (‘theirs’ and ‘us’), hope for the future (‘they are gone’ and our group is normative’), life is an unending all-out war.

        McLaren sketches what pluralism means; there is a way to be a committed follower of Christ that doesn’t require you to be flatly and implacably against other religions’ (p 223); ‘Jesus didn’t come to save us within the terms and limitations of the Graeco-Roman framing story.’ Read more ›

Christianity After Religion

Diana Butler Bass, Harper Collins, 2012, reviewed by Vern Ratzlaff

        Religious affiliation is dropping, and yet interest in spirituality is on the rose. Bass offers a fresh interpretation of the ‘spiritual but not religious’ trend. Some commentators say we are undergoing yet another revival; others say Christian belief and practice are being replaced by new ethical and religious choices.

        But Bass claims we are in a new spiritual awakening, a new kind of post-religious faith. She references the episodic American religious ‘awakenings’ (the first in 1740; the second, 1800-1830; the third, 1890-1920). The first marked the end of European styles of church organization; the second ended
        Calvinistic dominance and introduced new perspectives on free will; the third was marked by the social gospel movement and by Pentecostalism. She believes the fourth is marked by the end of Christian dominance in the United States, as emerging forms of pluralistic religions emerge and new institutions embody the new spirit.

        Citing pollsters’ analyses, she sees American faith as having undergone profound extensive reorientation away from internalized religion toward internalized spiritual experience; the Unites states is caught up with the throes of a spiritual awakening, a period of ‘religious and political transformation’ (p 5). Read more ›