Culture

Book Review: 'Rob Bell and a New American Christianity'

Rob Bell, via Rob Bell's Facebook page
Rob Bell, via Rob Bell's Facebook page

"Can we watch a video with that guy who has the weird hair and the dark rimmed glasses?" -Member of My Youth Group

"Love wins the in the sense that God’s will is the reconciliation of all things—the soul, the body, the earth, the cosmos, and everything in it." -James Wellman, Rob Bell and a New American Christianity, 59.

American Christianity is experiencing a theological shift. Many have tried to explain it, sometimes making the shift far more confusing than it actually is. Fortunately, the shift can be explained quite simply, and while it may be new to American Christianity, it is actually very old. Indeed, it dates back 2,000 years. The shift boils down to the two theological axioms of the New Testament, both found in the letter 1 John:

“God is light and in him there is no darkness at all” (1:5) and “God is love” (4:8 and 16).

Those statements, while simple, are far from simplistic. John was bold in affirming these statements. He knew he had to give it to us straight – probably because he and the other disciples had a hard time understanding what Jesus meant in his teachings and parables. So, John cut to the chase and simply claimed that Jesus reveals, “God is love and God is light. There is absolutely no darkness within God.”

Sundance Diary: Imagining the World As It Ought To Be

Photo courtesy of the Sundance Institute
An image from the film "Circles." Photo courtesy of the Sundance Institute

PARK CITY, Utah —  It’s been said that Hollywood films comfort the afflicted while Sundance films afflict the comfortable. Film offers a vicarious entry to the world the way it is, and the films I saw at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival left me longing for a different world — the world the way it ought to be.

It ought to be a world in which Muslims and Christians love, serve, protect, and forgive each other. Circles is based on a 1993 incident that took place in Trebinje, a small town in the Serbian region of east Herzegovina. Three Serb soldiers were brutally beating Alen Glavovic, a Muslim shopkeeper. When Srdjan Aleksic, a Christian Serb intervened to stop the soldiers, they turned their attention on him and beat him to death. The film explores the impact of this incident on the Muslim who survived the beating, Srdjan’s fiance and his father, on the children of the perpetrators, and on the whole village.

In the Stacks, January 23, 2012

Among my must reads are the Sunday New York Times Book Review and other book reviews I come across in various media outlets. There are too many books being published that I would love to read, but just don’t have the time. So, I rely on reading book reviews as one way of keeping in touch with what’s being written. Here are my picks from this week’s books.

‘Zero Dark Thirty’ Tortures the Truth About Interrogations

RNS photo courtesy Columbia Pictures
Jessica Chastain plays a member of the team of spies devoted to finding Osama Bin Laden. RNS photo courtesy Columbia Pictures

Nothing was tortured more in the making of Kathryn Bigelow’s film Zero Dark Thirty than the truth about torture.

While it’s just a movie, it runs the risk of becoming the basis for a false view of reality for millions of moviegoers who have largely ignored a decade of debate about the efficacy of the United States sanctioning torture.

To dismiss the movie as simple entertainment ignores the impact seeing it has on our perception of reality, even when we understand we are watching actors in a — mostly — pretend setting.

The fact that Zero Dark Thirty was nominated this week for an Academy Award for Best Picture only underscores the importance of understanding what it gets wrong about torture.

Passings 2012

PASSINGS, 2012

I always begin a new year by remembering those who passed in the just concluded year. These aren’t necessarily the most famous, and I didn’t know them personally (or, at best, had met several briefly), but their lives touched mine in three of my passions.

Art As An Act of Faith

Photo illustration, © Elena Ray / Shutterstock.com
Photo illustration, © Elena Ray / Shutterstock.com

Almost two years ago, I took a titanic risk. If you look at things from an earthbound perspective, what I did is: I took my livelihood, and my children's provision, in my hands alone. I quit my job at The News & Observer, a major, Pulitzer-prize-winning newspaper where I earned a decent salary and reached 150,000 to 200,000 readers on any given day. 

The decision was a long time coming — my whole adult life, really. Before I ever started my first newspaper job in 2000, I’d wanted to help people explore deeper things than just tax policy, or crime, or environmental regulation. These just skim the surface of who we are as humans: why we share or hoard, why we hurt or protect one another, what we owe to Mother Earth.

What I found as a newspaper reporter was that I had no choice but to skim the surface of things. There’s not enough space to go deeper, but, more importantly, deeper takes you into hypothesis, not fact — and hypothesis is a leap of faith. What you find when you go deeper depends a lot on the gear you’re wearing when you dive. I’m cloaked in Bible stories and Christian tradition, and therefore I live in hope that there’s a Creator and that this God is working quietly to heal the world.

I read recently in Psalm 27: 

“The Lord is my light and my salvation —
 whom shall I fear?
 The Lord is the stronghold of my life —
of whom shall I be afraid?”

People Get Ready

IT WAS THE first week of November 2012, and Bruce Springsteen was busy helping nail down a few swing states for President Obama. In the process, he expressed more enthusiasm than I could ever muster for the man who put Tim "The Fox" Geithner in charge of our financial hen house. But political quibbles aside, I remain convinced that what Springsteen actually does for a living is more important to the life of our country than the work of any living politician, and I saw living proof that very same week.

On the Saturday night before Election Day, Springsteen and his E Street Band dropped into Louisville, Ky. Of course, my wife, Polly, and I had to go, and we had to take our 12-year-old son, Joseph, who has become the fourth Springsteen-obsessed member of our family. It was my fifth time to see the show, and ever since I've been thinking of the poem in which Allen Ginsberg asked America, "When will you be worthy of your million Trotskyites?" Paraphrasing Ginsberg, I ask today, "America, when will you be worthy of your E Street Band?"

To me, going to see the E Street Band has become something like going to see a natural wonder, like Yellowstone or Mammoth Cave or, more to the point, the California redwood forests: Like the redwoods, it's growing older. The bark gets rougher by the decade, and some branches break off and fall to the earth. But Springsteen's great tree of American music is still growing in stature and substance. The band has become a cultural institution that spans races, genders, and generations and fittingly represents the sacred American musical tradition that has grown from the work songs, ring shouts, and spirituals of the slaves.

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Getting to Green

IN THE FOREWORD to Sacred Acts: How Churches Are Working to Protect Earth's Climate, prolific scholar-activist Bill McKibben recalls a time not long ago when many people of faith regarded environmentalism suspiciously—conservatives saw it as a cover for possible paganism, while liberals considered it less of a priority than problems such as war and poverty. Now, however, theologians and religious leaders discuss the environment almost as much as ecologists and Nobel prize-winning scientists do. As this book shows, moreover, the environmental movement now includes religious organizations such as Earth Ministry, Interfaith Power & Light, and GreenFaith, which are working at the grassroots level in congregations and communities.

Edited by Mallory McDuff, a lay Episcopalian who teaches environmental education at Warren Wilson College near Ashville, N.C., Sacred Acts boldly focuses on climate change. McDuff believes that momentum is building among Christian communities worldwide as they call for just climate solutions—much like a modern Pentecost moment. The book addresses both skeptics and those who know climate change is real but feel overwhelmed by the problem's magnitude and despair of finding and implementing solutions.

The contributors to Sacred Acts include clergy, teachers, activists, directors of nonprofit organizations, and a farmer. Its 12 chapters are divided into four sections on the themes and strategies of stewardship, spirituality, advocacy, and justice.

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Sleeper Awake!

IN THE TITLE song of Aimee Wilson's new album, Unto Us the Sun, the music begins soft and gentle, like a slight shaft of light breaking over the morning horizon. Gradually the song intensifies, both instrumentally and vocally, until it reaches an almost ecstatic crescendo—a musical embodiment of the process she lyrically portrays of the subtleties of nature opening up its unspeakable beauty, a grand chorus of creation praising its Creator. It is also hardly incidental that the song evokes biblical language of resurrection, while both the title and images such as "tender as the shoot" subtly hint at the presence of Christ—not a heavy-handed doctrinal Christ, but the saving incarnation of a loving God.

Wilson is part of a remarkable network of young, spiritually rooted musicians (such as the Psalters) who are fashioning a very new and dynamic musical language of radical faith—a faith that is searching, exploring the edges of experience, probing human hurts and joys as well as divine mysteries and manifestations. Wilson's personal journey has taken her from the hills of her native Tennessee to inner-city Philadelphia. Her songs cover a range of moods, many reflecting her mystical apprehension of God's presence in creation. Other songs, drawing on her experience working with women who have struggled with homelessness and mental illness, convey the power of grace amid human brokenness.

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Crossing the Belief Divide

IT WAS AS if the poison of the rancorous 2012 campaign had seeped into our social groundwater, tainting family gatherings, Facebook feeds, church coffee hours, and workplace lunch rooms. In my lowest moments I pictured an election-result map rendered with myriad fractures, like windshield glass—a nation of particles and fragments, held together, barely, by begrudging surface tension.

How do those of good will find productive and respectful ways to talk about important civic and moral issues when a significant number of people view their fellow citizens as enemies?

Two recent books, by radically different authors, explore how to stay committed to your principles while reaching out and even finding common cause with those who live and believe differently.

ReFocus: Living a Life that Reflects God's Heart, is by Jim Daly, president since 2005 of Focus on the Family. Faitheist: How an Atheist Found Common Ground with the Religious is by Chris Stedman, the assistant Humanist chaplain at Harvard University and an activist in atheist-interfaith engagement. Daly leads a conservative evangelical institution that has been a major player on the Right in the culture wars of the past three decades (including around what Focus would term the "homosexual lifestyle"). Stedman is a young gay atheist who was once attacked by thugs who shouted Bible verses as they tried to shove him and a friend in front of an oncoming train. And yet both men argue, from both pragmatic and ethical grounds, for actively and respectfully engaging those who hold different beliefs.

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