Marilynne Robinson and Rowan Williams Talk “Faith, Imagination, and the Glory of Ordinary Life”

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Marilynne Robinson

Robinson is a Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist.  Williams is the former Archbishop of Canterbury.  They were at Wheaton College recently for a conference celebrating Robinson’s work.  Christian Century has published some of their exchange.  Here is a taste:

The novel Gilead presents us with life in its ordinariness. But in our celebrity-obsessed culture there’s almost a disdain for the ordinary. Could you help us to think about how to give more attention to ordinariness and more value to ordinary life?

Williams: It’s a version of the earlier question about time. Sometimes we want the immediate sense of glamor, gratification, or drama. We can’t understand that the prosaic, the everyday, always accumulates toward glory, because we want the glory now, we want the fix.

I think of Augustine in the Confessions saying, in effect, “The problem isn’t that God’s not here. The problem is that I’m not here.” I’m everywhere but here in this moment, in this particular prosaic, ordinary, physical environment. Part of the function of really effective art is to slow us down and bring us to that particularity.

Robinson: When I think about the ordinary—and that’s a word apparently that I use a lot—I think about the strange miracle of one’s self-ness. When I’ve been away from home for a while, I come downstairs in the morning and I put together what I consider to be the perfect breakfast, which has a lot to do with toast and butter. Combining the sense of the ordinary or the habitual with the sacramental—that’s very strong in my mind.

We talk ourselves into things, like that we’re interested in a celebrity. Very few people over the age of 14 identify in a serious way with a celebrity. But they are distractions, they are the shiny objects. We get told things like “we’re interested in celebrities” and this makes us pay more attention to the magazines at the checkout of the grocery store. But in terms of how people actually live and what they feel, it is: “How do I get along with my children? What do I do with a problem that looks like a looming problem that will require all the understanding that I can muster?” I think people live at that level and maybe take a certain amount of relief from the fact that there is always a new magazine cover.

Read the rest here.

Did Missionaries Contribute to the Growth of Secularism?

Protestants AbroadOver at The Christian Century, Robert Westbrook of the University of Rochester reviews David Hollinger‘s latest book, Protestants Abroad: How Missionaries Tried to Change the World but Changed America.

Here is a taste:

Protestants Abroad fits snugly within Hollinger’s long-standing narrative of the price that ecumenical Protestants paid as a religious community for their thinning of the particularism of Christianity. Clearly missionaries were prominent among the church leaders who got out ahead of the rank and file on controversial social and political matters and lost the loyalty of many of them. And the weight of Hollinger’s extensive biographical evidence is that they also pioneered the art of raising post-Protestant children who may well have admired their moral strength and shared their humanitarian values but found little need for their religious beliefs.

Hollinger himself remains impatient with those who persisted in “God-talk” long after he thinks it lost its plausibility, favoring post-Protestant “mish kids” over their still devout parents in this regard. But arguably, on his own evidence, there is something to be said, even if one does not speak it oneself, for God-talk or even Christ-talk. It may very well be that the tension between the universal and the particular was crushing for missionary theory, but was it so for missionary practice? There is little evidence in Hollinger’s book that this was the case.

Many of the numerous life stories in Hollinger’s books are tales of courage, courage that was for many of those who mustered it sustained by Christian belief, however thin it may have been. Civil rights activist and former missionary Ruth Harris was described by one of the students she inspired as “acting up for Christ”—not for humanity but for Christ. And the same might be said of many of those who gave us a more cosmopolitan republic. Could they have found the strength to act up elsewhere, outside the confines of Christian belief? Maybe, but in their Christianity was where they found it.

Thin God-talk is not necessarily weak God-talk; it can be wiry God-talk. God-talk lean, supple, and articulated alongside humility and doubt. Might one not cop to the considerable uncertainty that remains in even such wiry God-talk and despite doing so be moved by religious faith to do far more good than one might otherwise have done? The more cosmopolitan American republic that liberal Protestant missionaries did so much to create is of late under siege. If we are to protect it, perhaps a few courageous, die-hard ecumenical Christian survivalists will come in handy.

Read the entire review here.

The Mixed Blessings of Civil Religion

civil-religion

The editors of The Christian Century see the positive and negative affects of American civil religion. Their recent editorial was prompted by the lack of civil religiosity in Donald Trump’s inaugural address last month.

Here is a taste:

Theologians have long been wary or dismissive of civil religion, noting that it often functions as a rival religion to authentic faith—it’s a brand of Christian heresy. Civil religion borrows Christian themes but celebrates the stories and martyrs of the nation rather than the church and treats the nation rather than the church as the vehicle of God’s purposes. As such, especially in times of war, American civil religion has been an invitation to hubris and self-righteousness; it can cloak mundane self-interest in religious garb.

Yet because civil religion claims a transcendent purpose for the nation, it has also offered a basis for judging the nation’s failures and spurring it to reform. Because the nation has claimed high ideals for itself, it has invited a moral critique. It was in that tradition that Martin Luther King Jr. blended biblical ethics with democratic principles to condemn racial segregation as a betrayal of the nation’s creed of equality for all. It is in that tradition that protesters took to the streets in recent weeks to insist that the United States fulfill its promise to be a beacon of freedom to refugees from all lands and religions.

Christians have no ultimate stake in the survival of American civil religion. Its demise under Trump could conceivably encourage the church to claim and assert its distinct identity apart from the rhetoric of American politics. Yet insofar as the demise of American civil religion spells the contraction of moral imagination and the loss of a horizon of moral judgment and aspiration, it is hardly a development that Christians can cheer. The collapse of a Chris­tian heresy can lead to things that are far worse.

Read the entire piece here.

“Good News for Modern Man” Turns 50!

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The December 21 print edition of The Christian Century included my article “A Bible Translation for Everyone.”  The piece reflects on the fiftieth anniversary of the American Bible Society’s Good News for Modern Man New Testament.

A version of that piece now appears on the Century website.  Here is a taste:

For a baby boomer named Rick, the cover of Good News for Modern Manevoked a flood of wonderful memories. Responding to an online survey that I conducted on the impact of this version of the Bible, Rick reported that in the late 1960s he was a member of a youth group in California which sang folk-rock Christian songs using acoustic guitars. Rick’s church gave out copies of Good News for Modern Man like candy. As youth group started each week, he and his friends would crowd together “and somebody would start tossing—literally tossing—the Testament and a brown Youth for Christ songbook” to everyone in attendance. Like typical adolescent boys, Rick and his friends got rowdy sometimes, and they used the copies of Good News to beat one another over the head until the youth pastor calmed everyone down.

Tom, another respondent to the survey, remembered that in 1972 he was a charismatic good-newsCatholic participating in an ecumenical Jesus People prayer meeting with Pentecostals. When they weren’t on the ground speaking in tongues (which Tom called a “joyous babble in the Spirit”) they were playing “Bible roulette” with their copies of Good News for Modern Man. Someone would randomly read a passage aloud, and one or two people in the group would comment on how the particular passage spoke to them.

Released by the American Bible Society in September 1966, Good News for Modern Man—subtitled The New Testament and Psalms in Today’s English Version—quickly became a cultural phenomenon and one of the most successful religious publications in American history. For the price of a quarter, the English-speaking public (and eventually the world) could read the Bible in a language that was (in the words of ABS publicity materials) “as fresh and immediate as the morning newspaper.”

Good News for Modern Man was the brainchild of Eugene Nida, an ABS linguist who pioneered the “dynamic equivalence” approach to Bible translation. At the heart of this theory is the idea that the best translation of a Bible text is one that allows readers to forget they are reading a translation at all. Nida was one of the first Bible translation Bible Cause Covertheorists to take the linguistic position of the reader this seriously. A good translation, he argued, would arouse in the reader the same reaction that the writer of the text hoped to produce in his “first and immediate” readers. For Nida, the test of a translation is how well the readers understand the message of the original text, the ease with which they can grasp this meaning, and the level of involvement with the text that a person experiences as a result of reading the translation.

Read the rest of this version of the piece here or read the entire piece in hard copy in the December 21, 2016 print edition of The Christian Century.  

Or get the entire story of the American Bible Society in my latest book The Bible Cause: A History of the American Bible Society.

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From the Archives: “A Time Empathy, a Time for History”

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I published this at The Christian Century on July 12, 2016–JF

Sunday, after a tragic week of race-related killings in Dallas, Minneapolis, and Baton Rouge, I took a seat in my white evangelical middle-class megachurch in central Pennsylvania. I didn’t know what to expect, but as the sermon began I found myself pleasantly surprised.

My pastor used his scheduled sermon on the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25–37) to address the issue of race in America. He urged the congregation to take seriously the racial division pervading this country. He challenged those in attendance to do more listening than talking about race.  He asked us to consider what it really means to love our neighbor as ourselves.

But what struck me the most about the sermon was my pastor’s assertion that racism is a structural problem. Though he did not go so far as to use the pulpit to issue a treatise on institutional racism in America, he did challenge his privileged congregation to consider the fact that racism is embedded, and has always been embedded, in virtually all aspects of American life.

White evangelical congregations in the Pennsylvania Bible belt do not usually hear this kind of preaching. The sermon took courage to deliver. I left church on Sunday proud to call myself an evangelical Christian.

On the ride home I had a conversation with my 18-year-old daughter about structural racism. We wondered whether the congregation really understood what our pastor meant by this phrase. There are various ways of examining institutional racism in America, but any exploration of this moral problem must begin with the study of the past.

Most white Americans know something about slavery, Jim Crow laws, or Martin Luther King Jr., but very few of them have studied African American history beyond a mandatory unit in high school or the brief coverage the topic might receive in a required college history course. Many have never been challenged to think historically about the plight of their black neighbors.

What does it look like to think historically about race, and how might such an exercise contribute to the process of racial reconciliation? Good history teachers know that the study of the past, in order to be a useful subject of inquiry in our democracy, must move beyond the memorization of facts. The study of history demands that students of all ages listen to voices from the past that are different than their own. How can one understand structural racism in America without understanding the long history of oppression and discrimination that black people have faced in this country?

To put it differently, the study of history, when taught well, leads to empathy. History teachers require their students to step into the shoes of historical actors in order to see the world as they did, to understand them on their own terms. As historian John Lewis Gaddis writes, “Getting inside other people’s minds requires that your own mind be open to their impressions—their hopes and fears, their beliefs and dreams, their sense of right and wrong, their perception of the world and where they fit within it.”

It will take more than historical empathy to solve the racial problems facing our country. The pundits and politicians (or at least the ones who care about these issues) are right when they call for a national conversation on race. My pastor and other Christian leaders are right when they call the church to draw upon biblical teachings on reconciliation, neighborliness, and human dignity. But a more robust commitment to historical thinking—and the virtues that result from such an approach to understanding our lives together—will also help. Sadly, public school districts and public and private universities are making drastic cuts to the study of history and social studies at precisely the time when we need it the most.

After church my daughter and I stopped for breakfast at a local restaurant. As we walked across the parking lot we noticed a pickup truck with a back windshield displaying stickers of a Confederate flag, a gun manufacturer, and a prominent Christian university.

We have a lot of work to do.

“The Christian Century” on the 200th Anniversary of the American Bible Society

Bible Cause CoverCheck out Celeste Kennel-Shank’s piece on the 200th anniversary of the American Bible Society.  I was happy to contribute.

Here is a taste:

As the American Bible Society marks its 200th anniversary, and after a series of leadership changes and a recent move to Philadel­phia, its leaders are looking to the nation’s past in planning for the future.

“When you turn 200 and you’re looking at another century, you ask really big questions,” said Geof Morin, senior vice president for ministry mobilization.

One question is, Who in the world today cannot read scripture in their own language?

There are about 1,800 languages in which scripture does not exist, Morin said. The ABS estimates it will take about ten years to provide scripture to them.

While translation has always been part of the society’s work, there is now “a sharpened focus” on it thanks to current president Roy Peterson, Morin said. Peterson, who spent decades working on Bible translation, joined the ABS in 2014.

The mission of the organization remains what it was in 1816: making the Bible available to all people in a way they can understand and afford. But “the work of doing that is slightly different in 2016 than it was in 1816,” Morin said.

The ABS continues to distribute Bibles, currently through partnerships in 200 countries and territories.

After 199 years in New York City, the society moved last year to new headquarters in Philadelphia, with a 25-year lease on two floors of a building shared with Wells Fargo.

The building is just off of Indepen­dence Mall, which attracts 2.5 million visitors each year. The society has been getting to know its Jewish neighbors: on one side of the building is the National Museum of American Jewish History and on the other Congregation Mikveh Israel, the oldest continuously meeting synagogue in the United States.

Albert E. Gabbai, rabbi of Mikveh Israel, shared with the ABS an idea he first had about 25 years ago, a few years after he became the leader of the congregation: to create a Religious Heritage Trail, like the Freedom Trail in Boston. Nearby Christ Church, where many revolutionary leaders attended, would be a another stop on the trail.

Read the rest here.

 

A Time for Empathy; A Time for History

African American History

Today I had the honor to contribute to “Now and Then,” a weekly online column published at the website of The Christian Century magazine.  I hope it makes some small contribution to our ongoing conversation about race in America.

Here is a taste:

On Sunday, after a tragic week of race-related killings in Dallas, Minneapolis, and Baton Rouge, I took a seat in my white evangelical middle-class megachurch in central Pennsylvania. I didn’t know what to expect, but as the sermon began I found myself pleasantly surprised.

My pastor used his scheduled sermon on the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25–37) to address the issue of race in America. He urged the congregation to take seriously the racial division pervading this country. He challenged those in attendance to do more listening than talking about race.  He asked us to consider what it really means to love our neighbor as ourselves.

But what struck me the most about the sermon was my pastor’s assertion that racism is a structural problem. Though he did not go so far as to use the pulpit to issue a treatise on institutional racism in America, he did challenge his privileged congregation to consider the fact that racism is embedded, and has always been embedded, in virtually all aspects of American life.

White evangelical congregations in the Pennsylvania Bible belt do not usually hear this kind of preaching. The sermon took courage to deliver. I left church on Sunday proud to call myself an evangelical Christian.

On the ride home I had a conversation with my 18-year-old daughter about structural racism. We wondered whether the congregation really understood what our pastor meant by this phrase. There are various ways of examining institutional racism in America, but any exploration of this moral problem must begin with the study of the past.

Most white Americans know something about slavery, Jim Crow laws, or Martin Luther King Jr., but very few of them have studied African American history beyond a mandatory unit in high school or the brief coverage the topic might receive in a required college history course. Many have never been challenged to think historically about the plight of their black neighbors.

Read the rest here.

*The Christian Century* On What Religious Freedom Is Not

Roger Williams: Defender of Religious Liberty

The Christian Century’s recent editorial on religious liberty makes sense to me.  Here is a taste:

These days social conservatives are all about religious freedom. As the wider culture has tacked left, the right has shifted to a rhetoric of conscientious objection. The free exercise of religion, once championed most prominently by minority faiths and their liberal defenders, has become a prime conservative talking point.
While some liberals are broadly dismissive of such arguments, we Century editors are not. Religious freedom is a bedrock of American pluralism and its fertile religious soil. When religious rights conflict with others, such as the right of LGBTQ people not to face discrimination, finding a solution will not be easy. Competing rights must be balanced, which requires that we seek creative compromise. (See “A search for compromise as county clerks stop same-sex marriages.”)
Yet some advocates of religious freedom seem to have something in mind besides free exercise for all. For example, some Christians trumpet religious freedom but seem uninterested in the rights of Muslims near Dallas who face fierce opposition to their plan to build a religious cemetery or in the rights of Apaches in Arizona who are fighting for a sacred site threatened by mining interests. When Christians decline to defend such groups, they betray their selective dedication to the religious freedom cause.           
And other religious freedom appeals look suspiciously like pretexts. Duquesne Univer­sity, a Catholic school in Pittsburgh, has been refusing to recognize a union that adjunct faculty voted to join in 2012…
Read the rest here.

"Then and Now" at "The Christian Century"

Kudos to The Christian Century for establishing a weekly online column in which American religious historians of faith reflect on current events.  Of course a lot of us already do this, but the more the merrier.

Ed Blum of San Diego State will serve as the editor of this new column, which The Century is calling “Then and Now.”

Here is a description of what you can expect:

This new weekly feature, edited by Edward J. Blum, harnesses the expertise of American religious historians who care about the cities of God and the cities of humans. It’s a space where scholarly expertise collides with the faith, hope and love of those of us who seek thoughtful reflection about our pasts to bear upon the confusing issues of our presents.

Check out Blum’s thoughtful introduction to this new feature.  Here is a taste:

This weekly feature will take today’s public, political and cultural happenings and reflect upon them from various historical vantage points. In response to something like the Pope’s resignation, we might post on key moments in religious traditions when leaders have chosen to leave their positions, like when evangelist Charles Grandison Finney left revival preaching to become president of Oberlin College in 1852. After the Three-Fifths Compromise invocation, we might have highlighted moral responses to it that included everything from abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison calling the Constitution a “covenant with death” and an “agreement with hell” to Glenn Beck and David Barton more recently trying to rehabilitate it. For the SNL sketch, we may have included some reflections on the George Burns and John Denver film Oh, God! (1977) and how differently the sacred beings were represented there.
To use history poorly is to abuse it and the people who still suffer from its burdens. It is also to remain in a darkness of one’s own choosing and making. But history can be helpful. Approached from an effort to honor life and to transform ourselves for the better, history can be a dear friend and informative ally. The point of these weekly entries will be to understand the historical roots of contemporary problems, the roads taken or the avenues neglected in the past, and how thinking responsibly about the past can provide us better information for our spiritual lives today.

The Christian Century, as many of you know, is a magazine edited by and written for liberal and progressive mainline Protestants. It will be interesting to see how Blum’s call for “thinking responsibly about the past” will merge with the ideological agenda of The Century.