Month: March 2021

Fate or freedom?

As a child, I heard various Christian leaders declare that “God sent his son to die for our sins.” By the time I was a teenager, I had a list of faith statements such as these that I was debating in my mind. I’m grateful for a youth group that allowed me (and other mid-teens) to discuss *and question) traditional faith propositions. In that fertile ground, I developed a respect for different interpretations of biblical stories and assertions.

I resist the idea of fate, whether it’s expressed in secular or religious language. The events leading up to the crucifixion of Jesus can be read as a divine script being played out, or an account of various people or groups exercising human freedom. Interpretation is the art of discerning the interplay of those cosmic forces. I tend to focus on the choices we make in the exercise of human freedom–and their consequences.

The world has a way of creating dividing lines that pit individuals against each other, or groups against each other. Holy Week exposes those divisions as at least temporary and almost always illusory. I’m helped by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (1918-2008), who said “the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.” There’s part of me in Peter’s denial, in Judas’ betrayal, in the crowd that said, “crucify him.”

From “The Fate We Create,” by Kathy Garcia, The Stanford Freedom Project, Fall 2015

Holy Week means letting go

In 2005, Buzzy Pickren founded an annual event called January Adventure, held at Epworth By the Sea. Each year, speakers such as Marcus Borg (1942-2016) provided lively conversations about the challenges facing progressive Christians in today’s world.

This week, an email arrived from the planners of January Adventure saying that the group “realized that our team has aged and it would be difficult for our four people to replicate what we’ve done in the past.  We started asking questions that did not have easy answers.  In the end, we acknowledged that we no longer had the work force or the resources to manage an event of this scale.”

They dutifully notified the speakers that had been scheduled for January, 2022. To their surprise, they said, “No! We can’t lose January Adventure; its legacy is too important. We already have the manpower and the resources to host the event. Will you give it to us?”

So, beginning January 14-16, 2022, an annual event begins under a new name (to be determined) at Epworth By the Sea with the leadership of Diana Butler Bass, Brian McLaren, and Jim Chaffee (from the Chaffee Management Group). The JA team, happily letting-go, wrote: “Mark your calendars and tell your friends.”

A foundational principle of Holy Week is letting go. It means dying. It means giving away one’s life. Resurrection is always a joyous surprise!

Foster’s list

Holy Week seems to be an appropriate time to revisit some Richard Foster quotes that I pasted years ago in a small Bible. The quotes were from two of his books: Celebration of Discipline and Freedom of Simplicity.

This is from Celebration of Discipline, pp. 90-95:

I suggest ten controlling principles for the outward expression of simplicity. They should never be viewed as laws but only as one attempt to flesh out the meaning of simplicity for today:

  • Buy things for their usefulness rather than their status.
  • Reject anything that is producing an addiction in you.
  • Develop a habit of giving things away.
  • Refuse to be propagandized by the custodians of modern gadgetry.
  • Learn to enjoy things without owning them.
  • Develop a deeper appreciation for the creation.
  • Look with a healthy skepticism at all “buy now, pay later” schemes.
  • Obey Jesus’ instructions about plain, honest speech.
  • Reject anything that breeds the oppression of others.
  • Shun anything that distracts you from seeking first the kingdom of God.
From “Understanding Celebration,” by Richard Foster,

A man on a donkey

The Romans posted extra troops in Jerusalem at Passover, the Jewish “Independence Day,” when they remembered their liberation from Egypt. They waved palm branches every Passover (the way we wave Old Glory on July 4). Christians who celebrate Palm Sunday remember that many in Jerusalem hoped Jesus would lead a revolt against Rome. Rather than taking up arms, he took the Zechariah option. He was saying “no” to violence and “yes” to Zechariah’s call to servant leadership.

Tensions were high. The people were divided. The followers of Jesus were confused. It must have felt like a whirlwind. Events unfolded rapidly over the course of a week, called Holy Week by Christians, and still celebrated in proximity to the Jewish Passover.

This past year has felt like a whirlwind. It seems the world beckons us to respond to hate and violence with more of the same. The Zechariah option seems the road less travelled. But its witness endures.

Chul Yoo, an Asian-American pastor remembers a former parishioner who lashed out in senseless violence on March 16. Also on March 16:

A young man in Colorado bought a Ruger AR556 pistol that found its way into a grocery store on March 22, and into the annals of senselessness.

With fresh memories like these on Palm Sunday, a question presents itself: How might I choose the Zechariah option today?

From “Man on a Donkey,” by Drew Christiansen, America Magazine, April 11, 2014

The Adjustment

Scott Peck (1936-2005) was an American psychiatrist who became well-known for his 1978 book, The Road Less Travelled, among others. My favorite Peck book is his 1998 novel, In Heaven As on Earth: A Vision of the Afterlife. The novel is a first-person narration by a man named Daniel. His story begins with his death, which he somehow observes, dispassionately, in a out-of-body experience from the ceiling of his hospital room. It’s the story of a fascinating journey, beginning with his encounter with Sam and Norma, who are sent to help him adjust. Here’s a quote that I pasted years ago in a pocket Bible I’ve mentioned previously:

I had questions. Particularly the big one. “Is this heaven, hell, or purgatory?” I demanded.

“Take your pick,” Norma shot back.

Sam went a little slower on my behalf, “I said we’d be getting back to the subject of freedom,” he reminded me. “The governing law of the afterlife is what we call the Principle of Freedom. There is absolutely nothing that’s coercive here. Souls are free to respond to this place or level of existence in any way they choose. Some choose it to be hell, some purgatory, and some heaven.”

“Purgatory is a gentle place. A healing place if you want to be healed. And if one wants to be healed it’s sometimes hard to tell the difference between heaven and purgatory. Besides, everyone who comes here, no matter how good or holy they are, needs a period of adjustment. That’s our job as Greeters: to do the best we can to help newcomers with the Adjustment.”

Bridge Builder

Amy-Jill Levine is an Orthodox Jew. At Vanderbilt, she is University Professor of New Testament and Jewish Studies. I’ve learned much about the New Testament from her and from Jewish rabbis through the years. That’s no surprise since most people in the story were Jews.

This is the first of a new category of posts: Bridge Builders.

A-J, as many friends call her, preached (virtually) at the Washington National Cathedral on March 7, 2021. You can click this link to read the transcript and/or view the video. You can read it and listen to it, so I won’t clutter the universe with commentary. Just a word of context:

Vatican II (1962-1965) began an ecumenical renewal of worship, which led to a 3-year calendar of suggested scripture readings called the Revised Common Lectionary. Vanderbilt’s Divinity School Library became the custodian of this ecumenical effort. The lectionary isn’t written in stone, so there are lively conversations about how to best use (or modify) it. A-J’s sermon is part of that conversation.

The bio linked below her photo mentions that in 2019 she was the first Jew to teach New Testament at Rome’s Pontifical Biblical Institute. I smiled because as a child A-J wanted to be pope someday. (She thought his hat and robe were cool.) Her mother tried to explain that it would be unlikely for a Jewish girl to achieve that goal. A bridge too far?

Psychic numbness

Walter Brueggemann is one of the great biblical scholars of this era. His German evangelical pietist roots instilled a simplicity that freed him to see the big picture. His lifelong study of the ancient texts has been done with a keen awareness of his contemporary world. The Bible is not a sterile pile of dusty manuscripts, but vibrant material that comforts, challenges and critiques our lives as individuals and community.

Brueggemann sees the Bible–particularly the witness of the prophets–as a resource to equip us to resist with tenacious solidarity the forces of totalism in every era, including our own. Integral to that task is a refusal to succumb to “psychic numbness.” From the Editor’s Preface to Tenacious Solidarity, Davis Hankins wrote:

Brueggemann consistently attempts to weave the biblical texts … into the deep contours of (our) experiences, in order to foster a tenacious solidarity that might overcome … the psychic numbness cultivated by a twenty-four-hour news cycle relentlessly disseminating information ….

Let’s give Brueggemann the last word (for now) in this 4-part “scavenger hunt,” from the Preface to Tenacious Solidarity:

I arrived at a sense of urgency of church ministry and its vocation as a singular vehicle for courage, for keeping alive and for performing a “more excellent way” in the world. For all of the flaws and failures of the church it is still the case that it is the church that shows up first in justice questions, that by its very life attests to hospitality, generosity, and forgiveness as engines for a livable life for all creatures. Thus I have worked, quite beyond the permits of historical criticism, to evoke in pastors some lost courage for truthfulness and for hope, practices that are so urgent in our society that has lost its way in pretence and despair.

Published by Fortress Press, 496 pages, 2018

To differently construct

Walter Bruggeman, 88, is at home in the German evangelical pietism that he transcends. Some teachers helped, named in the Preface to Tenacious Solidarity: Biblical Provocations on Race, Religion, Climate, and the Economy: “This sequence of teachers taught me not only a passion for good learning but the awareness that the world in front of us is a constructed world that can be differently constructed.”

In The Prophetic Imagination he illustrated how the biblical tradition helps reframe the present moment “so that we can re-experience the social realities that are right in front of us, from a different angle.” Paul Ricoeur (1913-2005) spurred his imagination, the key (says Brueggemann) to his biblical “interpretative work.” From the Preface to Tenacious Solidiarity: I have been able to engage in both the “suspicious” work of ideological criticism and indispensable work of “retrieval” that features alternative discernment, alternative thinking, and finally alternative policy.”

Our Brueggemann Tenacious Solidarity scavenger hunt led us first to Robert Lifton (yesterday’s post). Two other sources sharpened Brueggemann’s lens for applying biblical faith to current events. First, in The Technological Society, Jacques Ellul (1912-1994) helped Bruggemann see the intended and unintended impact of technology and how the technique (technê) of totalisms ancient (Ahab, Nebuchadnezzar, Herod, et al) and modern create sameness of thought and loyalty.

Second, in Seeing Like a State, James C. Scott (born 1936) taught Brueggemann that a “quantifying uniformity… inescapably causes a dreadful loss of metis. … The term refers to cunning intuition about how to engage with and manage the irrepressible hiddenness of worldly reality that refuses ordered thinking.” (Think Miriam, Deborah, Esther, et al.) Chapter 1 of Tenacious Solidarity is entitled “Totalized Techne vs. Neighborly Metis.”

Tomorrrow: Moving beyond the danger of “psychic numbness.”


Reading Walter Brueggemann (born 1933) is like standing under a waterfall with a small cup to get a drink of water. I had to look up a word introduced to me (in yesteray’s post) by Brueggemann: “totalism,” which is kin to “authoritarianism” or “totalitarianism.” I plan to use it in lieu of the other two. Totalism is shorter and it moves my mind beyond the political realm.

The longer words describe a dictatorial leadership style, such as Stalin (to the left–a “dictatorship of the proletariat“) or Hitler (to the right–a narcissistic nationalism). But totalism goes beyond the leader to the broader cultural underpinning of communism or fascism, so that the followers themselves tolerate no dissent, as in “hang Mike Pence.” From the Editor’s Preface to Walter Brueggemann’s Tenacious Solidarity, Davis Hankins wrote:

Brueggemann introduces and deploys the concept of a “totalism” … to name the complex, intersectional systems that function to crowd out any possibilities for the biblical ideal that he describes as “tenacious solidarity.” The Bible offers a series of testimonies attesting to various struggles with totalisms internal and external to the communities that created and transmitted its texts. … the Bible provides rich resources for contemporary readers and interpreters wrestling with our own particular totalism.

Brueggemann borrowed the term “totalism” from psychologist Robert Jay Lifton (born 1926). The link below includes a brief introduction to Lifton and a fascinating 2014 video conversation about his work during the Korean War with those who experienced “thought reform.”

Tomorrow: The Brueggemann scavenger hunt leads to two other sources for his understanding of how biblical prophetic faith confronts totalisms.

From “Interview: Robert Jay Lifton on Korean War Psychiatry,” by Marcia Holmes, Hidden Persuaders, August 4, 2015

Schola as scavenger hunt

After many years in school, it was jarring and liberating to learn that the Latin schola, i.e. “school,” meant “leisure” or “free time.” That memory prompts me to see retirement as a scavenger hunt, a free time/schola activity. Not every scholar is a retiree, but (hopefully) a retiree is a scholar–a person on a scavenger hunt.

Yesterday morning, Richard Rohr referred to the biblical tent of meeting (holy place) as necessarily “outside the camp,” which gave the prophets freedom to use their imaginations to dissent from the way things were “inside the camp.” Rohr pointed readers to Walter Brueggemann’s comment: “Because the totalism [that is, the system] wants to silence, banish, or eliminate every such unwelcome [prophetic] intrusion, the tricky work is to find standing ground outside the totalism from which to think the unthinkable, to imagine the unimaginable, and to utter the unutterable.”

The scavenger hunt was on. I found the book. More about that tomorrow. For now, a question from Rohr: How might we maintain that same sense of prophetic freedom outside the contemporary political and religious “encampments” of our day while avoiding the temptation to become our own defended camp?

From “Schola et Labora,” Michael J. Naughton and James P. Shea, Prime Matters, December 4, 2020