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    Entries in Religion (10)


    Home Is Where Jesus Is

    Elizabeth Vargas and ABC News "20/20" recently reported on the journey of a group of Iraqi Christian refugees, fleeing ISIS and being received ultimately by the people of Slovakia. Along the way, they are helped by the people of Mar Elia in Erbil. The entire report is worth watching.  

    It is a moving human interest story, but is also a really good investigation of religion. Vargas repeatedly alludes to the biblical narratives in her reporting, suggesting that the Christian communities represented are witnesses to the gospel as communities, not simply as individuals. Hospitality is a major theme. So is suffering. When leaving Iraq, Vargas refers to the movement as an exodus, and when the refugees wait to board their plane, it is called an ark.

    Vargas tells us of Christians in the city of Erbil who are part of a small church community named Mar Elia, receiving brothers and sisters from neighboring Qaraqosh. Qaraqosh was once home to one of the largest population of Christians in Iraq, but has been overrun by ISIS forces. Churches have been desecrated and relics have been destroyed. Communities have been displaced.

    In the report, we meet the priest serving the people of Mar Elia. His name is Douglas Bazi. Under Bazi's leadership, Mar Elia established a refugee center, and has extended hospitality to those fleeing persecution and violence. Bazi, once a victim of persecution himself, comes across as a man filled with joy and love. Once the refugees arrive safely in Slovakia and Bazi prepares to leave, he was embraced and the people wept. I was reminded of Acts 20:36-38.

    I watched the entire report, which you can view here. The headline that drew me in, however, was an excerpt from the sixth or seventh segment, showing a conversation between Vargas and a young Iraqi Christian named Myriam. Here is a quotation from the "20/20" report:

    A young Iraqi Christian girl, whose family has been living in a refugee camp after fleeing ISIS threats, says she forgives the terrorist group and shared her hope for the future.

    “Yes I forgive them,” Myriam told ABC News “20/20” co-anchor Elizabeth Vargas, adding that “as Jesus said ‘forgive each other, love each other the way I love you,’ that is what we need to learn. Forgiveness.”

    Myriam is 10 years old.

    Myriam understands the gospel, and its implications for life.

    In Matthew 18:3-4, Jesus says, "Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever takes the lowly position of this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven." I am also reminded of Isaiah 11, and what our world is like for those who receive the shoot who has come up from the stump of Jesse.

    May we learn forgiveness.


    The Question is Not Whether We Live the Spiritual Life.

    Photo by Stefano G.

    The question, rather, is if we live it well.

    Thomas Merton once wrote, "The spiritual life is first of all a life. It is not merely something to be known and studied, it is to be lived."

    In secular cultures, spirituality remains an active concept that nonreligious persons refuse to discard. But spirituality, as concept, remains undefined and contested. It has become an antonym to religion or religiosity. It has become something that, if a person remains open to the supernatural, compels and is thought to enrich one's life. But in the absence of strong traditions, combined with the presence of pluralism, it is the work of bricolage. We piece it together for ourselves with whatever we have on hand.

    For those who spurn religion, who decry the church, or who dismiss Christianity, there is still the matter of spirituality. The spiritual person is an explorer; they are seeking answers, and have found some truths they believe worth sharing. In my conversations with spiritual seekers, I have found that spirituality is a place to begin. The question for these people is not whether we live the spiritual life--it is whether that life is lived well. This is fertile ground for conversation.

    If, like me, you are a Christian, you may ask a spiritual person what it would mean to live the spiritual life--or life--well. You may ask these questions:

    • What are your key beliefs that guide your daily life?
    • What are the sources of authority that guide your decisions and practices?
    • Who are the examples that you follow?
    • What are the teachings that you rely upon?
    • How do those teachings hang together?
    • What questions are your presently considering?
    • What answers have been slow in coming?

    When you ask these questions, truly listen. As a Christian, you might consider these questions:

    • Might there be better answers found in the person of Jesus, in his life and teachings? 
    • Might those who have followed Christ through the ages provide us with examples of remarkable lives, without which belief in God might not make much sense? 
    • What might Jesus have to teach us about living life with God well that might be counterintuitive, but compelling? 
    • How does Christ expose our faults and correct our steps?
    • What questions is this person asking that Christianity addresses?
    • How does Jesus lead us to become someone that not only does good, but is good?

    If given the opportunity, you might offer ways Christianity addresses questions about what it means to be human, our purpose on earth, or how one lives a virtuous life (don't assume too much here--I think an essential aspect of life in Christ is the confession that a virtuous life cannot be lived apart from renovation and redemption by Christ himself). Explore the differences, but do so in a way that is gentle and respectful. Speak truth, even if it might stand in opposition to your conversation partner's perspective. Be ready for sparring. Trust God will be present with you in conversation.

    I am someone who believes that Christianity has content that is definable, even while it is debateable. It is a tradition, one that rests on certain claims about ultimate reality. Christians believe our world was created by God, and that human beings are dignified creatures, made in God's image. Despite this, we believe that something has gone amiss in our world. Sin and brokenness are very real--all is not as it should be. We believe that God has revealed his character and purposes through the formation of a people, Israel. We center our life on the person of Jesus, born of Mary--a Jew. He is the Christ, the Son of God, the Messiah, and we trust in him for salvation. Jesus accomplished victory over sin on the cross. He was vindicated by God in his resurrection. We believe those in Christ receive the Holy Spirit. We believe that in him we have been incorporated as part of the family of God, the church. We believe the Old and New Testament scriptures are inspired and authoritative, that God's people are marked in baptism. We celebrate his meal. We believe Christ will one day come again, judge the earth, renew creation, establish justice, and heal the nations. And we believe, and debate, many other things besides. Those claims within Christianity I believe that are absolute are some of the very same claims that enable me to enter the debate--love of neighbor, the dignity of all human beings, the finitude of my own mind, the power of forgiveness, the hope of reconciliation, and a confidence that God is the God of truth.

    But much of the preceding paragraph is a confession, or a summary of knowledge which may or may not lead to a spiritual life well lived. If a spiritual life is to be lived well, we need more than knowledge. We need conversion. We need outside help. We need the transformation only God can render, which Christians believes comes through faith in Christ. We need a comprehensive grammar, a verbal and nonverbal language of love, an individual and communal expression of life in Christ.

    Merton, again, is instructive:

    Spiritual life is not mental life. It is not thought alone. Nor is it, of course, a life of sensation, a life of feeling--"feeling" and experiencing the things of the Spirit, and the things of God. Nor does the spiritual life exclude thought and feeling. It needs both...If man is to live, he must be all alive, body, soul, mind, heart, spirit. Everything must be elevated and transformed by the action of God, in love and faith.

    The true spiritual life, then, one that is lived well, is one in which the whole person has been renewed by God. That life comes through Jesus Christ, who not only demonstrated and revealed this kind of life, but who continues to make it possible by the gift of his grace. For those in Christ, the greatest witnesses to the gift of the spiritual life, lived well, are those that have been transformed by his love, and trained as his disciples. Our apologetic and our witness is not only excellent when accomplishing the transmission of spiritual knowledge. It is not only accomplished through shared experiences of spiritual sentiment and emotion.

    It is done best as revelation, life lived, fully alive.

    Such a life is a grace, the gift of God.


    A Broader Narrative RE: Catholic Priests and Sex Abuse

    In Kansas City, one of the most disturbing and attention getting headlines in both The Kansas City Star and on local news programs has involved Father Shawn Ratigan, improper relationships with children, and the diocese failing to respond promptly and appropriately to concerned parents, parishioners, and school administrators.  The Catholic sex abuse scandal continues to grab headlines.

    That is why this posting by Ben Meyers struck me as fascinating.  Scott Stephens at the ABC has done some research on the Catholic sex abuse scandal, and has found that a different narrative may need to be told by the media in order to proper contextualize what has been happening, and what continues to happen, among Catholics with regard to the sexual abuse of minors.

    Meyers writes:

    The study, Scott says, shows "a sudden and disturbing increase in instances of sexual abuse from 1960, reaching its hellish pinnacle in 1975, followed by a sharp and sustained decline from 1985 to the present". By 2001, there were 5 reported cases of sexual abuse per 100,000 children (compared to 134 cases of abuse for every 100,000 children in American society as a whole in the same year). By 2010, there were just 7 reported cases across the entire Catholic Church in the United States. The report thus describes "the 'crisis' of sexual abuse of minors by Catholic priests" as really a "historical problem." 

    Scott discusses many other aspects of the report's findings. Most interesting, I thought, is his suggestion that "the foetid cultural soil of the 60s and 70s proved uncommonly conducive to the commission of sexual abuse" – and that the Church's reinstatement of a "punitive approach" to sexual deviance (as opposed to its earlier adoption of fashionable "therapeutic" approaches – counselling, treatment, relocation), together with "John Paul II's radical reform of seminary life and the spiritual formation of priests".

    Thus Scott offers his own blistering conclusion: "Those who incessantly call for an end to sexual abuse in the Church are effectively trying to break down an open door." The deepest problem, he thinks, was the cultural milieu of the 1960s, with its vociferous opposition to all taboos, and its sinister promotion of unchecked sexual experimentation. (Sinister if you happened to be a child at the time.)

    While I have not encountered additional coverage of The Catholic Church's report, The Causes and Context of Sexual Abuse of Minors By Catholic Priests in The United States, 1950-2010, I hope to.  If there are aspects of the report that are in need of challenging, such analysis would prove beneficial in establishing what has actually taken place, and the reasons abuse has been a problem among clergy.

    Considering that sexual abuse has been a major obstacle in people taking seriously the claims of the church, if the issue has been addressed and is improving among Catholics, then this serves to clear away some of the debris for all Christian people to give faithful witness to Christ.



    If you are offended when I say that something you said is asinine, it isn't necessarily the case that your measure of offendedness is consistent with my statement, but only that YOUR interpretation of what I said is consistent with whatever your level of offendedness might be.  By calling your statement asinine, in fact, I may have not been saying anything of that kind.  If you would've understood what I actually said when I said that the words falling out of your mouth were asinine, then you would've heard me saying that everything you say is brilliant.  How could it have been that you misunderstood me?

    When you say your understanding is consistent with what I actually said, what you mean is that your understanding is consistent with YOUR interpretation of what I said, not with what I actually may or may not have said.

    This, my friends, is what we call a vicious circle.  Enjoy running laps.

    And this is why I'm frustrated with people who say things like this.

    P.S. - Christian love is hard.

    Is there a text in this class?


    Who Mythologizes The Mythmakers?


    Recently I finished reading Harvey Cox's 2009 survey of the state of religion in the world, The Future of Faith.  The book is incredibly engaging.  Cox writes in an accessible way, a rare gift for a scholar.  This book is clearly written for a popular audience, and is replete with personal anecdotes from Cox's encounters with religious leaders all over the world.  He is a professor at Harvard Divinity School, having served there for many years, and is well regarded as a scholar of religion.

    Cox's primary thesis within the book is that an "Age of Faith" has dawned, a period in history wherein certain leveling forces have emerged that will require religion (Christianity in particular) to revert to a sort of "pre-Constantinian" state.  No longer will the controls of institutionalized religion or the rules of Enlightenment rationalism apply to the world of religious practice.  Beliefs will be downplayed, and the content of the lives that are in fact lived will become the litmus test of any religion.  Christianity will become increasingly egalitarian, and hierarchies will dwindle to insignificance.  Of all the regions in the world that are most critical for these developments, Africa is tops.  Europe and the West are on the way out as a major player in world Christianity.  The future is indigenous, popular, grass roots movements of the Global South.

    In telling this story, Cox has a number of foes that he must dispose of, among them conservative Christians, the papacy, and his past.  He was involved in an InterVarsity fellowship at Penn, providing him with numerous experiences to relay in support of his argument against older forms of Christianity.  "Apostolic succession" and a "deposit of faith," critical for Catholics and Protestants both, must also be dispatched.  Cox must establish the reality of early "Christianities" to undercut any claim to a unified set of doctrines that from the very beginning composed "Christianity" in order to debunk claims to power based on history or the Bible, or both.

    I couldn't help but noticing, however, as the argument progress, that while debunking old myths Cox was creating a myth of his own, a construct within which he (and others who stand with him) can obtain power, a new controlling narrative that can reform the faith, one wherein creeds, "orthodox" teaching, or hierarchies can no longer hold sway.  Instead, there will be base communities, or localized expressions of Christian practice, that can work for justice, extoll the best of liberation theologies, provide forums for mutual care and support for one another, pray together, and wrestle with the biblical text in a more localized and contextualized way.  No magisterium.  No "one, true" church.  Only an amorphous "faith;" a defined way of life apart from "beliefs."

    But, as Russell T. McCutcheon has noted, we must "beware the mythmakers."  I find it fascinating that scholars such as Cox can dismiss old myths and construct news one, claiming historicity while failing to acknowledge that they, too, have an interest concerning how they present the story they tell.  Cox downplays beliefs, and plays up a kind of "way," the true way of being Spirit-led, faithful to Jesus, and in concord with the earliest diversity of Christ-followers.

    This leads me to ask, "Who watches the watchmen?"  Who keeps an eye on our scholars and academics, our leaders and historians?  Who ensures they are telling the story well?

    I'm doubtful that an "Age of Faith" has dawned, and while I do believe Christian expression is changing, I doubt the shift itself is any more cataclysmic than other shifts and changes that have taken place in bygone days.  There is movement, yes, and there are new developments, new expressions.  But a wholesale movement in the vein of Cox's description?  It's a myth, and I doubt it is true.