One of my favorite stories is about the interview I wanted most, but didn’t get.
It was 2005 and I had just signed a contract to write what would be my first book — a collection of profiles of mostly well-known people about their spiritual lives. Artists. Writers. Thinkers. Scientists. The odd rock star.
Sitting in my publisher’s office, she asked me to dream out loud: If I could interview anyone for the project, who was No. 1 on my wish list?
I answered without hesitation: Seamus Heaney.
Reza Aslan begins of his book, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, with a prescient warning: “Scholars tend to see the Jesus they want to see. Too often they see themselves—their own reflection—in the image of Jesus they have constructed” (xxxi).
I don’t think Aslan had himself in mind when wrote that statement, but you should be warned: the Jesus in Zealot is Aslan’s own false construction.
His central thesis is that the Jesus of history, and the God Jesus believed in, demanded violence in the face of political and religious oppression. Here’s one of the relevant passages:
[F]or those seeking the simple Jewish peasant and charismatic preacher who lived in Palestine two thousand years ago, there is nothing more important than this one undeniable truth: the same God whom the Bible calls a “man of war”(Exodus 15:3), the God who repeatedly command the wholesale slaughter of every foreign man, woman, and child who occupies the land of the Jews, the “blood spattered God” of Abraham, and Moses, and Jacob, and Joshua (Isaiah 63:3) the God who “shatters the heads of his enemies,” bids his warriors to bathe their feet in their blood and leave their corpses to be eaten by dogs (Psalm 68:21-23)—that is the only God that Jesus knew and the sole God that he worshipped. (122, emphasis in the original.)
The problem that I have with this passage is indicative of the problem that I have with the way Aslan constructs his Jesus. He constantly picks and chooses which verses from the Bible he uses to support his claim that Jesus was a warrior messiah whose goal was to violently overthrow the Roman and religious establishment. He peels away all passages that conflict with his construction so that he can show us what Jesus was truly like.
Well, what Aslan thinks Jesus was truly like.
I really did not like Michael Pollan's newest offering, Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation. Here are three reasons why:
1. The premise feels phony and staged.
Pollan has said that he is “more at home in the garden than the kitchen” (In Defense of Food), but this modesty about his cooking skills is less than convincing to those who read The Omnivore’s Dilemma, in which he prepared a highly local meal of wild pork cooked two ways, bread leavened with wild yeasts he captured himself, and a sour cherry galette with fruit from Pollan’s own trees.
Fred Bahnson’s first bit of advice when he started planning a church garden eight years ago came from an elderly tobacco farmer who grabbed a handful of soil, rolled it around in his fingers and shook his head:
“You don wohn fahm heah,” he said in his deep North Carolina drawl.
Those were not the only discouraging words he received as he planted and cultivated one of the earliest and most successful church gardens, 20 miles north of Chapel Hill.
But Bahnson, a Duke Divinity School graduate and a pioneer in the church gardening movement, had a different view of farming than the older tobacco farmer. He knew that if he gave back to the soil more than he took out — in the form of compost, manure and other soil food — he could create an abundant garden.
Eva Piper considered herself a shallow Christian until the accident that revitalized her faith and turned her Baptist pastor husband, Don Piper, into the best-selling author of “90 Minutes in Heaven.”
“It wasn’t until Don’s accident that I really opened myself up to a really honest relationship with the Lord,” said Eva Piper, who says she’s embarrassed to recall her superficial faith.
Eva Piper writes about life after her husband’s alleged visit to heaven in “A Walk Through the Dark,” released on July 30. Her book comes nine years after the publication of her husband’s book, which spent more than five years on The New York Times’ best-seller list.
Human beings seem to come with certain built-in spiritual inclinations, and gratitude is chief among them.
Parents and teachers think we have to be taught to say thank you, but maybe it just comes naturally. Gratitude is both accessible and enlivening.
Accessible because it’s as easy as paying attention to that which we might otherwise take for granted.
With gratitude, when our lover holds our hand for the umpteenth time it feels like it’s the first time and we’re grateful for them all over again. Or when we sit down to a plate of something humble and home-cooked it suddenly transports us to all those other meals in all those other places where we felt loved, accepted, and welcomed.
Educating All God's Children: What Christians Can—and Should—Do to Improve Public Education for Low-Income Kids by Nicole Baker Fulgham / Bidder 70 / Just Spirituality: How Faith Practices Fuel Social Action by Mae Elise Cannon / Courage to Think Differently by George S. Johnson
Editor’s Note: The following poem by Trevor Scott Barton was written while he was living in Africa and reading The Little Flowers of St. Francis of Assisi.
Holding you in the palm of my hand
I see your tiny feet and hope you'll live and walk these stony paths
To the pump to get water.
Blessing you in your meekness and gentleness,
You are Jesus to me today.
Sarah Thebarge is the author of The Invisible Girls, a new memoir from Jericho Books. I was fortunate to get a few minutes to ask her a few questions about her touching, funny, compelling new piece of work.
Q: Your book is about Somali Refugees and also about your survival of breast cancer. How do you write one book about both things?
A: When I met the Somali mom and her girls on the MAX the first time, we had a lot of differences – different religions, ethnicities, skin color, and language. But as I developed a relationship with them, I realized that we had a lot in common at the core. Because I’d been a little girl growing up in a fundamentalist culture, where men buried you under yards of fabric and lists of rules and taught you that women were supposed to be silent. And I knew what it was like to be a refugee of sorts, because after I nearly died of cancer in my 20s, I sold everything I had and got on a plane with a suitcase of clothes and flew from the east coast to Portland, Ore., and started over. And so even though the narrative lines of the Somali refugee family and my cancer experiences seem disparate, they actually weave together well, because all this time, I’d been an Invisible Girl, too.
A Dog Walks into a Nursing Home: Lessons in the Good Life from an Unlikely Teacher by Sue Halpern / Kinship Across Borders: A Christian Ethic of Immigration by Kristin E. Heyer / Skipping Stones / In the Footprints of Francis and the Sultan: A Model for Peacemaking
Most Americans sat glued to the TV or radio on April 15 (or raced to finish tax returns) transfixed by the horrific Boston Marathon bombing and aftermath. Nearly 100 friends of Fr. Michael Lapsley’s gathered that evening at Busboys and Poets restaurant and bookstore in Washington, D.C., to be soothed with a testimony of faith by South African Ambassador Ebrahim Rasool, soul-stirring cello music, and a transporting testimony of healing by apartheid regime bomb victim “Father Mike.”
One of my favorite newspapers in the world, the South African Mail and Guardian, reported on April 19 this way:
“Boston bombings: the marathon struggle of survival and healing … a priest from South Africa, apartheid fighter and a bomb victim himself reaches out to Americans about forgiveness … He had not planned it that way. The event was to launch his book. It had been scheduled for last October but Hurricane Sandy scuppered those plans. Instead it took place on a day when three people were killed and more than 100 injured in Boston.”
If you eat food, here are two newish books you should know about.
You may already have met Robert H. Lustig, author of Fat Chance: Beating the Odds Against Sugar, Processed Food, Obesity, and Disease (2012). Lustig is the UCSF professor whose surprisingly riveting 90-minute lecture, "Sugar: The Bitter Truth," has already had nearly 3.5 million hits on YouTube. The thesis of his lecture: it's not dietary fat that's making Americans gain weight, it's sugar. And sugar is doing much worse things than increasing our clothing size. It's setting us up for a whole range of lethal diseases that are almost entirely avoidable.
In Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us (2013), Moss, a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter, tells what the food industry has been up to during the last couple of decades. Food executives, Moss says, are nervous: people are figuring out that convenience foods aren't good for them.
How far can one go in retelling a Bible story, adding things that are not in the original? In The Testament of Mary, Colm Toibin goes a long way.
His 2012 book is now a Broadway play presenting a view of the mother of Jesus so different from pious tradition that it angers some Christians, creating a “new,” intellectually and spiritually challenging Virgin Mary.
Yet in the end, Toibin’s searingly human Mary may be ultimately more accessible than the Mary of porcelain perfection set high on a pedestal.
The Irish writer, who has written about his strong Catholic childhood, imagines Mary 30 years after the crucifixion of her son. She lives as a virtual prisoner of two of Jesus’ disciples, still mourning her son’s death, bitter at what has happened since, and seeking consolation from pagan idols, which make more sense to her than what happened to Jesus.
(The Controversial figure Rob Bell has created another firestorm with his latest provocative book What We Talk About When We Talk About God. Raven Foundation Education Director, Adam Ericksen and Tripp Hudgins will share our thoughts on the book in this blogalogue. We invite you to join the discussion by leaving a comment.)
Sadly, this is our last post on Rob’s book What We Talk About When We Talk About God. As Tripp Hudgins stated, my previous post was a lengthy missive, and yet I feel like we have just scratched the surface of this book. I promise to make this concluding post shorter, but I’m tempted to inflict upon you the longest post ever! because there is so much in these final 30 pages.
I noticed that we haven’t made a list yet, and every blogalogue needs a list! So, to keep this from becoming the longest post ever!, I offer you the top 3 reason that Rob Bell matters.