Theology

Israeli Institute Gets $2.2 Million to Help Christians Study Jewish Thought

President of the Herzl Institute Yoram Hazony. Photo courtesy of the Herzl Institute/RNS.

A new institute in Jerusalem has been awarded $2.2 million to help Christians and Jews study Jewish texts, launching what’s being billed as a new kind of Jewish-Christian cooperation.

The Herzl Institute was awarded what’s being called the first ever multimillion-dollar grant in Jewish theology by the U.S-based Templeton Foundation, a philanthropic organization that has focused much of its giving on science-related projects. The Herzl Institute is a research institute that focuses on the development of Jewish ideas in fields like philosophy and history.

The institute is named for Theodor Herzl, considered the father of modern political Zionism, ideas that have found much support from conservative and evangelical Christians in the U.S.

Jewish and Christian collaboration has often been relegated to the political level, said Herzl President Yoram Hazony. The partnership reflects a new kind of engagement between Christians and Jews, he said.

One in the Lord

MULTIRACIAL CHURCHES are becoming more common in this country—but that doesn’t happen by chance.

A 2010 study by the Hartford Institute for Religion Research, based on a random sample of more than 11,000 congregations, revealed an increase in multiracial congregations in the U.S.—30 percent of churches reported that more than half of their members were part of minority groups.

Members of three multiracial churches in and near the nation’s capital—one Catholic, one Methodist, and one nondenominational—say that at their church “people don’t look the same, or think that much about it,” and describe their congregations as welcoming places “where you can feel God’s presence, where you can be yourself.”

Though Sunday worship time is still known as “the most segregated hour in America,” older members of churches such as Peace Fellowship Church in Washington, D.C., St. Camillus Catholic Church in Silver Spring, Md., and Culmore United Methodist Church in Falls Church, Va., remember when things started changing. As migration and demographic shifts altered neighborhoods and communities, members sought to engage in “desegregated” worship, opting to join communities that mirrored a world with different cultures and ways to praise God.

Reconciling Divisions
Dave Cho, a Korean-American who started attending Peace Fellowship Church in 2008 with his family, said he felt welcomed by Dennis Edwards, the founding pastor.

“Rev. Edwards’ philosophy is to reach out to people on the margins,” Cho said. “We didn’t know anybody. About 60 percent [of the congregants] were African American. We didn’t have much in common other than our faith.”

Faith was enough. Even though Peace Fellowship, a small, nondenominational community in the Deanwood neighborhood of Washington, D.C., did not set out to be a multiracial church, it welcomes everyone.

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Waiting for the Music

Cienpies Design/Shutterstock.com
Cienpies Design/Shutterstock.com

I am waiting for the music to return — the sonorous graces of laughter and kitchen clinking, of bird call on the hillside. 

I am waiting for the music to return — the precarious arrangement of hope and memory that uplifts and guides. 

I am waiting for the music to return — the band, the orchestra, the seisiún, the jam, the people who make and craft sound.

Instead, I am stranded in an eschatological posture like pause on my mp3 player. The Wifi Spirit does not respond and even if I could connect, the playlist I have randomized is sore lacking. I miss the people who make these sounds. I miss their voices. 

Faith is a Verb - A Theology of Love

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Love and faith need to be verbs. oneinchpunch/Shutterstock.com

There is a line in the famous movie Ben Hur in which one of his relatives goes to hear Jesus speak. She comes back enthralled. The way she describes Jesus is by saying that he is like no one she has ever met before, that he speaks words of life. And so he did. The Gospel writers add that he spoke as one who had authority. The Message version interprets this as meaning he lived out what he spoke.

Our lives have the most impact when we live what we speak. Jesus of course is the perfect example of this. For 2,000 years he has captivated people of all races and colors. There is something about this man that is like no other. He speaks words of life and he lived those same words. He loved his enemies, he walked the extra mile, he denied himself, took up his cross and lived a life of obedience to the Father.

Our lives speak, whether we like it or not, and whether we think so or not. We are either speaking life or we are speaking death. We all have a worldview.

Tapping the Sacred Power of Song

MUSIC IS OFTEN regarded and consumed as something that fills a space—the chords of an organ resounding off the walls of a sanctuary, the beats of a drum circle riding on the breeze through a park, the harmonies of an orchestra flowing from my headphones into my ears as I write. Music even transcends physical spaces to permeate the heart and the soul with emotion.

In Music as Prayer, pastor and musician Thomas H. Troeger invites the reader to cherish and engage in music as an act of prayer. Taking into account the metaphorical, scientific, and practical aspects of music-making, Troeger illustrates the power of music to not only fill a space but to also clear a way for meaning and creativity. Building upon Henry Ward Beecher’s metaphor of a boat stuck on the shore, Troeger describes how the “mighty ocean-tone” of a church organ brings the “tide” needed to lift up the members of the congregation and set them free from the shore.

In what Troeger calls a “dialogic process,” music lends rich metaphors to language and changes the effect of language upon the listener. The same song played in two distinct styles can convey two completely different sets of emotions.

From the ancient flute invented 35,000 years ago to today’s smartphone streaming songs on demand, music has occupied a central part of the human story. The mystery of music lies in the way that sound waves can blend into melodies that speak directly to the human yearning for wholeness. Creating space for both celebration and lament, music has the capacity to hold opposing emotions in the same breath. Music can provide release from suppressed inner tension and give voice to even the most unspeakable emotions.

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Can Grounded Faith Save Us?

CLIMATE CHANGE and its accompanying issues are mammoth topics. David Tracey’s The Earth Manifesto and Michael S. Northcott’s A Political Theology of Climate Change are ambitious and sound theoretical and practical treatments.

With different faith backgrounds, each brings to the task the urgency of the moment. Tracey is a Vancouver urban ecologist, a fiction and nonfiction writer, a writing teacher, and an avid housing co-op dweller with his wife and two school-age children. He has spearheaded several community garden co-ops. Northcott is a priest in the Church of England and a University of Edinburgh social ethicist who has written on understanding space and its sacred sharing, urban ministry and theology, and now this, his third book on climate change.

Tracey’s The Earth Manifesto dives right into the ecological mandates of our time and place. It gently and consistently employs an implicit Buddhist perspective to offer concise chapters—really a set of tools—to name, address, engage, and sustain a meaningful citizens’ involvement. These are expressed in two parts: three big ideas and three big steps. The ideas consist of “Nature Is Here,” “Wilderness Is Within,” and “Cities Are Alive.” Tracey’s three big steps are “groundtruthing”—engaging deeply in a place to shape one’s environmental efforts; political advocacy; and building a community to help spread a campaign for change.

Two concepts stand out vividly. Tracey’s explanation of groundtruthing conveys the need to test a theoretical perspective by getting right on the ground to verify its potential in the concrete. One intuits incarnational theology here. He also affirms the nature of engagement from its French origins to mean “someone passionately committed to a cause”: pledged, dedicated, or devoted. For me this summons the discipline of spirituality in the service of social justice.

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The Tribes of Rob Bell, Mark Driscoll, John Piper ... and Jesus

Christianity consists of thousands of tribes, cliques, and communities — each with different theologies, traditions, and doctrinal beliefs. Within a Westernized society obsessed with celebrity, entertainment, popularity, conflict, and money, it can be easy for Christian groups and communities to clash with each other.

For the modern church, much of its recent legacy has involved conflict, division, and controversy. Christians have developed a love-hate relationship with theologians, pastors, and church leaders — and it’s dividing the church.

Many Christians see their faith journeys as series of either/or situations and decisions — this is bad. Because as much as we want things to be clear, concise, and black-and-white, reality is complex and messy.

Pride, greed, hatred, bitterness, fear, and ignorance often cause Christians to promote distrust instead of unity — but what if Christians were more patient, graceful, and forgiving of each other?

For Those Who Study or Think About God

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It's easy to make thinking about or studying God an idol. lithian/Shutterstock

"It's about God, stupid." I can still hear Dean Richard Hays addressing Duke Divinity School at its convocation two years ago, reminding a room full of ambitious, intelligent, and talented theologians to keep their priorities in line. "You will all be writing papers, reading books, studying for exams. Some of you will be worrying about getting published and applying for Ph. D programs. But just stop. Just remember: It's about God, stupid."  

Meanwhile, I sat there in awe at this powerful message, but also amused at how he just called three hundred graduated students at Duke "stupid." 

Yet Dean Hays was right on target. We needed to hear it.

A Watershed Moment

OUR HISTORY IS increasingly hostage to a deep and broad ecological crisis. Stalking us for centuries, it is now upon us in the interlocking catastrophes of climate destruction, habitat degradation, species extinction, and resource exhaustion. Some call it “peak everything.”

“All we have to do to destroy the planet’s climate and biota and leave a ruined world to our children and grandchildren,” concluded environmental policy analyst James Gustave Speth in The Bridge at the Edge of the World, “is to keep doing exactly what we are doing today ... to release greenhouse gases ... impoverish ecosystems and release toxic chemicals at current rates, and the world in the latter part of this century won’t be fit to live in.”

Our Christian faith and practice now unfold either in light of or in spite of this crisis. Our choice is between discipleship and denial.

Two trends among thoughtful Catholics, evangelicals, and other Protestants in North America over the last quarter century are helping awaken us to “response-ability” in the face of these inconvenient truths. One is the spread of contextual theology, which demands both analysis and engagement with social realities around us. The other is how “creation care” has gained broad traction among churches.

But these trends need to be integrated. Contextual approaches have tended to address social, economic, and political issues apart from ecological ones. And environmental theologies are not contextual enough: often too abstract (debating “new cosmologies”), focused on remote symptoms (tropical rain forests or polar ice caps), or merely cosmetic (“greening” congregations through light bulb changes while avoiding controversies such as the Keystone XL pipeline).

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For the Love of God, Love Others

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Jesus was the sacrifice. WDG Photo/Shutterstock.com

“Christianity” is often used to manipulate, control, shame, judge, and hurt others. It’s influenced by politics, popularity, wealth, success, pride, hate, fear, selfishness, and a desire for power. The poisoning of our beliefs — or theology — happens subtly, under the pretense of tradition, teaching, education, discipline, authority, respect, and religion.

We often treat theology similar to politics, where our beliefs and doctrines are based on which ones benefit us the most.

We strive to get everything we can from our faith, and this can lead to spiritual narcissism, where we become obsessed with maximizing the benefits for ourselves while withholding them from others.

Rarely do we adhere to — or agree with — theological ideas that benefit someone else more than us. Sacrificing our own comforts for the sake of others is absurd — which leads to a sense of divine favoritism.

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