Sunday, December 1, 2013

Thank God He's Not My Pastor

Swain Hammond, the protagonist in Peggy Payne’s novel, Revelation, is a self centered jerk who could never have been able to get through the process of being ordained in the Presbyterian Church without lying several times along the way. He readily admits having felt no call to ministry; he sees it as a job, and unfortunately, the only job for which he has any training.

Sadly, he has found the perfect congregation for his intellectual approach to talking about God. Most of the members we meet are just as afraid of actually encountering God as Swain is. So what’s the problem? Swain is starting to hear the voice of God. Worse than that, he starts believing, even if only momentarily, that God actually works miracles, that maybe prayers to heal a boy who has been blinded in an accident might work. In Payne’s world, that is cause to consider getting rid of the pastor! Seriously?

Now I’ve been ordained for almost thirty years, and I have known God’s frozen chosen—I’m an Episcopalian after all—and I’ve never seen a congregation that would react to their pastor praying for healing as a sign the pastor must be crazy. Then again, most pastors would likely be humbled by hearing God’s voice. Not Swain; he just becomes even more insufferable. So maybe these people deserve each other.

The emotionally abused wife, on the other hand, needed to walk long ago. Swain is simultaneously so distant from her and so co-dependent that you want to stage an intervention. And watch out if she gets pregnant; the man hates children!

All of which is to say that, if this had been written as a farce, I could have loved it. I know all these people. They are toxic church killers. Put them all together in one place and the buildings would likely burn down, especially in Chapel Hill, home of liberal mystics who could survive anything short of speaking in tongues as long as one uses the correct silverware. Painted a bit broadly, this could be a wonderful commentary on all that is wrong with a certain kind of parish that actually does exist. As drama, though, I found both Swain and his members unreal. And, frankly, after the first one hundred pages, I just found him tiresome. 

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the author and/or publisher through the Speakeasy blogging book review network. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR,Part 255.

Saturday, November 30, 2013

You Know Where This One's Going

From the moment you start reading The Billionaire's Gift by Edward Iwata, you know pretty much what's going to happen before the end. That's not necessarily a problem. It is intended as a familiar story. The unnamed billionaire is a cold-hearted bastard interested only in himself and money. There will be a back story which explains this. Something will happen that causes a shift, and the money will start to flow.

This doesn't mean that reading the story is boring. The story of the billionaire's loyal secretary, seemingly placed in the book as another way to show us how much this guy is a bastard, takes on it's own life. Part of you will wonder why she sticks with this guy, given her level of skill. In fact, you will have lots of questions about these two people before it is all over, until it hits you.

Iwata tells you right up front that this is a parable. One of the traits of that form is to be sparing. Lots of details are left out because the story is merely the vehicle for the message. So, no names, no long descriptions of rooms, no sweeping narrative arc. Just enough details to get us where he want s to go. Fortunately, the novella is short enough to be read in an evening; this is not something that will hold your attention too long.

And yes, it has something to say about God, something that a lot of people need to hear. And no, it doesn't have much to say about the evils of capitalism overall, just the evil of excessive greed, so you folks on the left will need to put that concern aside; find a different book to discuss that issue.

I do prefer the parables that include a twist ending. There is a small twist at the end, but not much of one. Not all parables end with a twist, so the reader has no right to expect one. Like I said, you know where this one is going when you start. Nevertheless, you'll probably enjoy the ride along the way.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the author and/or publisher through the Speakeasy blogging book review network. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR,Part 255.

Monday, October 7, 2013

Son of Laughter

This is funny. I'm doing a music review. The guy who can barely keep on tune if someone is singing a familiar song right next to me.

For the record, I listen to U2. Marvin Gaye. Imagine Dragons. James Taylor. Gungor. Aretha Franklin. Emmylou Harris. And, yes, Mumford and Sons. No Miley Cyrus or Robin Thicke though. Even I can't stretch that far.

So when I was given a copy of The Mantis and the Moon by Son of Laughter (aka Chris Slaten), I didn't know what I was getting. My fear was contemporary Christian, and heaven knows how much I hate contemporary Christian music. Why, when it is supposed to be about God, does it always sound like it is about us instead? "I could sing of His love forever" might as well be "I'll be singing this song forever".

You'll love this EP. Go out and find it. Son of Laughter is not quite singer/songwriter, not quite country, not quite spiritual, but all of that and a lot of fun besides. Yes, there are Christian themes woven through the songs, but only if you stop and pay attention. He doesn't hit you over the head with them. Instead, you get playful lyrics (see Cricket in a Jar, the first song) and really complicated music that sounds like he just spun it out on a whim; he's so good he makes it sound easy.

I don't know Chris Slaten's background. But I'm going to find out. And I'll be waiting for what comes next. But you had best listen to this EP all at once. It is not likely to mix easily with whatever else you are listening on your shuffle.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this EP free from the musician and/or publisher through the Speakeasy blogging book review network. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR,Part 255.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

What Coffee Shop Conversations?

It would be easier to read Dale and Jonalyn's Fincer's book if I came from an evangelical Christian background, which, too often in the book, they assume is the only Christian out there. So let's clear up one mistaken principle right now; mainline congregations are just as concerned about evangelizing as so-called evangelical churches are. We may be terrified of the "E" word, but we do understand the call to do it, even if our actual practices are often lacking.

Because of their assumption that the problem is that Christians evangelize badly, much of this book will be useless to the person who is not evangelizing because he or she does not want to make the mistakes this book seeks to correct. My congregation, for example, already knows not to threaten people with hell or openly show our disgust for the lives that others are leading (unless they are in the North Carolina legislature!). They are so respectful and accepting of others that they don't wish to be offensive, so they say nothing. Worse, they have watched people make the mistakes the Finchers are attempting to correct and do not want to be associated with the people who make those mistakes.

Buried under their assumptions are actually some useful ideas that, framed a little differently, could actually be convincing for the people I know. One of the best reminders here is this one, found on page 217 "The only time we have a right to talk with someone and introduce Jesus is when we're certain we see them as equally human." That''s would be a great starting place for any evangelism program. Still, a chapter on what to do to overcome reluctance to be evangelists would help much more than letting me know not to lead with biblical literalism or condemnation of the LGBT community. What we get instead is rational apologetics. That is not enough.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the author and/or publisher through the Speakeasy blogging book review network. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR,Part 255.

Monday, July 29, 2013

But Why Can't We Have Communion?

You might have heard of Green Street United Methodist Church in Winston Salem. This is the congregation that voted last winter to stop celebrating weddings of heterosexual couples until gay couples can also get married in North Carolina. They are one of the few Reconciling worship communities in the Western NC District of the UMC (Last I checked, the other one is the campus ministry at UNCG). For those reading this who are not Methodists, that means that they are welcoming and supportive of LGBTQ folk. It’s sad, but that’s where I live.

For the record, some other denominations, including my own, have better track records in this neck of the woods, so don’t write off North Carolina as backwards—well, except out state government at the moment. I am just grateful I get to work with the UNCG chaplain and community.
So since I have been on vacation for July, I decided to do a mini version of the sabbatical trips I took last year to churches doing things differently. Greet Street also had a reputation for being well integrated economically, age, wise, race, community, etc. And they have a jazz group leading the music. More than enough reason to visit.

Green Street sits in an area that is close to both poor and middle class communities. At church, tattooed bikers sit next to elders in suits. Gay couples feel comfortable holding hands sitting next to solo middle aged women. Almost the kingdom of God, right?

Well, not exactly. I think I was the only black male in the full nave who was not in the music team. And has anyone examined the question of why the Black women are almost all in the rear and to the sides? There is a dynamic going on here that I don’t really understand, but I certainly noticed it. Someone should be asking that question.

I thought it was interesting that almost all the music was old hymns. “I Woke Up this Morning“, It’s Me, O Lord”, and “This Little Light of Mine” were all sung. Mostly hymns that don’t need hymnals, though we did pull them out before the service was over. Of course, in my near perfect record, I managed to go there when the pastor was not preaching (see also an upcoming report on Renovatus in Charlotte), but Mandy Mizelle did a fine job.

Announcements went on entirely too long, and even the pastor Kelly Carpenter had to jump in to stop it. I must say the congregation really reached out during the passing of the peace. They seem genuinely happy that people are there. It’s a large enough crowd that you don’t know everybody, and sometimes that leads to visitors being ignored. Not here!

But I have one question for Green Street and the UMC in general. Everybody else is getting on the communion bandwagon, recognizing it as the principle service of Christian communities since the ancient church. All the new non-denoms are clear on its centrality—they may not know how to do it, but they do see it as important—so why do y’all act like stubborn holdouts? You’re doing a great job so far in bringing people together. Celebrate that in the Lord’s Meal for heaven’s sake! Yes, I know you are not well set up for that logistically. So what. You can make the changes if you want it to happen.

Anyway, you obviously have a lot of good things going on. And, to be truthful, I’ve been the only Black man in worship many times on the congregational visits (except the sound guy who is almost always Black!), so it’s a problem a lot of folks are having. Your marriage stance on the other hand,  is prophetic. The Shalom Project (their outreach ministry) is admirable and keeps the worshiping community outwardly focused.

Just offer me communion. Please?

Friday, June 21, 2013

The Secrets of Leaven

Every attempt I have made to write this review of Todd Wynward’s novel, The Secret of Leaven, has sounded far more negative than I intend, so let me say up front that I enjoyed the book on several levels. One should be aware, however, that the book should properly be read as a fairy tale or, at the least a fable for the Church. Read it as alternative history or conspiracy theory fiction with a theolgogcal bent and with good guys as the conspirators. That means suspending your disbelief about the following:

1)                  There is a secret world-wide society known as Leaven that is the ‘true’ followers of Jesus. Francis of Assisi was a member, and so was Dorothy Day, but the membership is very small; the group has fewer than fifty people scattered around the world, including a Greek Orthodox monk, a zen meditation instructor, and an archeologist, who in 1992 finds the ossuary of James, the older brother of Jesus. How do we know James was older than Jesus? Because the author says so. This is just the first of many truths that have been hidden from the Church since ancient times.

2)                  The protagonist of the book, however, is thirty-year-old Thomas Whidman, a third year seminarian, who is just coming to grips with the reality that horrible things happen to good people and God does not stop them, which causes him to lose his belief in God. For some reason, though, he can’t stop talking about religion with his girlfriend, the above mentioned meditation instructor, and just about everyone else he meets, and most of those conversations seem forced by the author to make sure his theology is coming across. Actually, none of these people can stop talking about the nature of God except his girlfriend and his college roommate, Ed, who consequently are the two healthiest people in the book.

Will Thomas join the Society of Leaven? Yes, that is a rhetorical question.

3)                  There is a curious mystery in this book, one that will keep many readers hanging on for the 500 page ride. Thomas has a great uncle who was a preacher in the early twentieth century. Josiah Whidman predicted the rapture was coming in 1923 and gathered a following in Gilman, Arkansas for the occasion. However, he vanished on the night before the rapture was to come. In the present, Thomas’s uncle Ben, also an evangelist, has attempted to wipe out all trace of great uncle Josiah, but Thomas accidentally learns about him.

What happened to the uncle? Thomas makes Josiah the focus of his thesis and determines to find out, jaunting off to Arizona and Arkansas following clues. How many classes he has missed and how he is paying for last minute plane fares on a seminarian’s income are probably questions we are not supposed to ask. And driving to Arkansas is simple; in this version of America, Thomas just gets in his car, and it’s a short hop down the Interstate.

4)                  Finally, there is the difficulty one has to struggle through of the weirdly fraudulent action that the secret society of Leaven pulls at Ben Whidman’s revival, justifying it as ‘holy mischief’.  I won’t tell you what they do exactly, but you will guess at it long before that part of the book happens. The morality of hijacking an event for your own purposes as being justified speaks to the basic problem of adopting a teleological view of ethics. I am not sure that was one of the theological concerns we were supposed to ponder in the book.

This is the first of a trilogy, so the full consequences of these actions will have to be lived out in the other two books. This isn’t The Lord of the Rings or even Harry Potter, but, in the end, it is kind of fun to watch. Just don’t expect to be seriously enlightened if you have done any reading from emergent church leaders, new evangelicals, or Richard Rohr, or have ever listened to a Homebrewed Christianity podcast. Judging by the glowing reviews on Amazon, most of the readers have not. Of course, the book takes place in 1992-1993, so most of these ideas would be unknown to any character who was not a part of the secret society.

I’m not sure if we are going to see the full realization of the Kingdom or just learn that the Society of Leaven is responsible for the rise of emerging Christianity, but we at least know Thomas is on a journey of discovery; by the end of the book, he will have gone far, and the author hopes, so will we. Hopefully, Wynward is working his way up to the present; will he be able to carry his thoughts into the future?

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the author and/or publisher through the Speakeasy blogging book review network. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR,Part 255.

Saturday, May 4, 2013

God's Gay Agenda?

Sandra Turnbull's new book, God's Gay Agenda, tries to bridge too many gaps. Writing from a (conservative?) evangelical perspective, she confesses to having been struck by the Holy Spirit at the Crystal Cathedral--not a good start for those who find Robert Schuller's theology weak at best. Recognizing the importance of a fairly literal reading of scripture for her target audience, she still relies heavily on historical critical method to make her case. And, of course, there's the fact that she is a partnered lesbian making a case for full inclusion for LGBT members.

Just to make it clear from the outset: I have supported LGBTQ rights, including ordination, marriage, and adoption for decades. Currently, I co-lead a Bible study for LGBTQ students at my local university where I am a chaplain. I did not need this book to convince me. I was hoping it would be one I could give to others who need convincing. It would be a plus if I got something new from it.

Unfortunately, she gets lost in the Bible. Early on, she strongly embraces the notion that sexual identity as we understand it today was not in existence in biblical times. So where were all the LGBT folk back then if not being stoned to death? Apparently, they belonged under the category of eunuch, a group she stretches to include those born that way, the castrati, and those who voluntarily gave up sexual relations to serve God; it is in this last group that she places LGBT people. However, she is not making the case that all gays must remain celibate.

One big problem here is that it is impossible to read this book without knowing that Turnbull has already reached the conclusion she wants; instead of reading the Bible to see what it says, she reads the commentaries to find ones that best suit her agenda. The worst error occurs when she jumps from translation to translation until she finds one that best says what she wants it to say.

The truth is, she's ten years out of date. While she is doing biblical cartwheels to explain why Romans 1:26-27 (one of the so-called clobber passages) doesn't say what we long thought it did, she misses that the larger argument of Romans 1 is about the sin of idolatry, not sexuality. While she rehashes this old material, queer theologians have moved on to such topics as the real importance of the Ethiopian eunuch, which is that Philip gives a sexual outsider without a bloodline a family to belong to, not that he is also gay. She's writing for those who cannot get past those six references, of course. However, plenty of other people have tread through those waters, and she takes entirely too long reviewing them so that she can make her "modern day eunuchs" references.

Frankly, I really don't know how many of the LGBTQ folk I know would want to think of themselves as eunuchs. Well, more accurately LGB people, as she makes very little mention of trangender people, and the word queer never leaves her pen.

Finally, the marriage chapter is tacked on as an epilogue. One gets the impression she was not planning to discuss the subject and, as it took over the headlines, she hastily penned a chapter to cover that it.

Judging by the comments on Amazon, she has helped a lot of people take a second look at gay Christianity, so obviously there is a market. It is too bad a more skilled biblical scholar and theologian did not write the book as a way of moving the discussion forward. We are treading water at best with this one.