Monday, February 22, 2010
Gratitude for Seasonal Christianity: A Lenten Reflection
Growing up as a Southern Baptist in Mississippi, Lent never got much play. Nor for that matter did any other season of the liturgical calendar. Advent, Epiphany, even Holy Week—these were all, if mentioned at all, relegated to the exotic hinterlands of mysterious things the minority of Catholics did somewhere on the other side of town. Like icons, incense, written formal prayers, kneeling, and other “smells and bells” of the Christian tradition, we discarded the liturgical calendar as we pared down religion to what seemed its essentials—individual salvation and a personal relationship with God. To be sure, we celebrated Christmas and Easter (insofar as they related to Santa Claus and substitutionary atonement—churches in our neck of the woods were likely to advertise Christmas with a marquee declaring “Jesus was born to die”), and saw the pews swell on those days. But rather than the crest of a crescendo, these days were more like punctuation marks, thunderclaps with echoes never lasting very long. There was little in the way of squinting in darkness, of yearning, of wrestling…of waiting.
On the other hand, there is a sense in which it was Lent all the time. Consistent with our evangelical, revivalist roots, each Sunday we received at least six opportunities for reflection on our own sin and shortcomings, unless we skipped the fourth verse of “There is a Fountain Filled with Blood” in the interest of beating the neighboring Methodists to Morrison’s Cafeteria. But it was my experience that these opportunities for reflection never had much transformational staying power for the baptized in the pews for at least two reasons. First, they were largely aimed at producing a moment of salvation. They mapped the territory around salvation in minute, redundant detail, but they left the longer Christian journey largely uncharted. Second, they focused on individual attitudes and moral purity, and offered few resources for thinking about broader patterns of character, social structures, and responsibility to act for justice in a broken world. And in that sense, we missed Lent altogether.
As I’ve moved out of seminary, through academia, and into the strange world of studying how religious people interact in public life, I’ve become grateful for finding what might be called “seasonal Christianity” rather than “punctuated Christianity.” Here’s why: the challenges we face run so deep that we need significant time and space to find the first thread that might begin to unravel our bindings, that might allow us to behave, as one of the lectionary readings for this week states, as citizens of heaven rather than card-carrying members of our lifestyle enclaves.
One of the most persistent and theologically disturbing conclusions I’ve come to from conducting and studying public opinion polling is this: Christians in American might qualify as “people with faith,” but they surely don’t qualify as “people of faith,” at least if that means people whose actions are mostly guided by those lights. The truth is that we Christians are often governed more by our demographics than by theological convictions that have any power of critical distance, whether on specific issues like support for torture or health care reform, or support for Democratic vs. Republican candidates. Moreover, the kind of Christian one is is also highly correlated to a number of demographic factors such as region, urban/rural residence, race, education level, or income level. We are generally more likely to predict someone’s denominational affiliation accurately from these factors than from their theological beliefs. Against these odds, a seasonal Christianity that offers real time to comprehend the frightening claim these powers and principalities have on us is critical.
Now I don’t want to sound too one-sided here. God knows that there are members of the frozen chosen in seasonal Christianity churches who could use a good thunderclap. But on balance, I’m grateful now for the mere fact that Lent offers us a season, not just a moment, for reflection. That time gifts us with the best chance to see the deep patterns that distort our lives, to grasp our complicity, and to stumble, however imperfectly, toward becoming a force governed less by our happenstance demographics and more by a vision of love, justice, and healing in the world.
Monday, October 19, 2009
Review-Onward Christian Athletes: Turning Ballparks into Pulpits and Players into Preachers
Insightful journalist and commentator Tom Krattenmaker has given us a steady diet of compelling, nuanced snapshots of the changing role of conservative Christianity in America through his USA Today columns for years. Now, in Onward Christian Athletes, with his lens tightened to the professional sports arena, he gives us a detailed portrait of how conservative Christianity has taken on (and taken over) professional sports, transposing athletic field to mission field.
One of the strengths of this book is Krattenmaker’s careful construction of the recent history, beginning in the 1990s of well-organized, well-financed sports ministries that encouraged (and sometimes expected) athletes to use their pre- and post-game cameos as opportunities for religious testimonies and evangelistic appeals. One contribution of Krattenmaker’s analysis is that it shows that the seemingly spontaneous religious overtures by individual players and prayer huddles after games are supported and encouraged by a conservative Christian institutions, deploying a cadre of chaplains in ballparks on each Sunday of the season, that often remain out of view of the cameras.
One of the original contributions of this book is the integrated way Krattenmaker wields investigative journalism, fair-handed social critique funded by empathy for a world that is not his own, and an appeal to democratic values that undergird a free, pluralistic society. Krattenmaker is not out to undo religion, or even conservative Christianity, in sports. Rather the book aims to bring it out into the light and make it more accountable and representative of the wider religious public. Krattenmaker convincingly argues that because professional sports are not only among our most popular public rituals but also often the recipient of public financing, a reform resulting in more inclusivity is the only way to bring “fair play” to the intersection of sports and religion.
The book was just released last week, and it's a compelling read. Click below to pick it up from Amazon.
Tuesday, July 7, 2009
Progressive & Religious Reads: Six for the Summer
Summer is well under way, and we are fortunate to have a number of great books out that will feed the mind and the soul and make great additions to the beach bag or day pack. We've picked a handful of our recent favorites below (listed in alphabetical order by author).
In the same spirit as Howard Zinn's groundbreaking work The People's History of the United States, Butler Bass's A People's History of Christianity brings to life the movements, personalities, and spiritual disciplines that have always informed and ignited Christian worship and social activism.
Currently: $14.98 Buy Now at Amazon
David Gushee argues convincingly that there is in U.S. politics an evangelical center of voters who do not identify with the politics and religion of either the right or the left. He suggests that the evangelical center is poised for growth; this book could be its manifesto.
Patal is the founder of the Interfaith Youth Core, an organization that unites young people of different religions to perform community service and explore their common values. Patel argues that such work is essential, manifesting the faith line that will define the 21st century.
The only fiction book on our list, but a beautiful companion piece to her prize-winning novel Gilead. Home is a moving and healing book about families, family secrets, and the passing of the generations, about love and death and faith. In the tradition of George Eliot, Robinson has earned the reputation of being not only one of our generation's best writers but also one of our most insightful theologians.
Currently: $17.04 Buy Now at Amazon
This groundbreaking anthology features over 35 articles on a wide range of social justice topics by leading and emerging Jewish intellectuals, activists, and communal leaders. It provides a set of intellectual and spiritual resources to encourage a sophisticated conversation about Judaism, social justice, and environmental responsibility.
Feel free to forward this along to friends and colleagues.
List Price: $24.95
Thursday, June 11, 2009
President Obama's Cairo Speech Inspires Warm Responses from Diverse Progressive Religious Leaders
Below I've featured video responses from two important leaders featured in Progressive & Religious, Rabbi David Saperstein and Dr. Eboo Patel.
Rabbi David Saperstein, Director of the Religious Action Center for Reform Judaism, called Obama's address an "extraordinary, remarkable speech" that contained impressive "moral consistency" and "political courage." Click here to watch the video. Rabbi Saperstein also noted:
"One of the greatest challenges facing humanity today is finding common ground between diverse religious traditions and working with all religions to delegitimize extremism that embraces violence."
Dr. Eboo Patel, Director of Interfaith Youth Core, highlighted the hopeful vision of "interfaith cooperation," rather than "a clash of civilations" that has been a mark of President Obama's administration from its beginning. Click here to watch the video.
These video responses, and audio and written responses to President Obama's speeach from other leaders featured in Progressive & Religious, including Asra Nomani and Rami Nashashibi, are featured on a new religion website, www.Patheos.com. Thanks to Patheos for gathering these resources into one page.
To hear more of the inspiring religious perspectives that Rabbi Saperstien, Eboo Patel, and others are bringing into American public life, you can check out the "Progressive Religious Voices Podcast," which features interviews with these leaders.
To read more about the emerging progressive religious movement, you can check out Progressive & Religious: How Christian, Jewish, Muslim, and Buddhist Leaders are Moving Beyond the Culture Wars and Transforming American Public Life. Rowman & Littlefield has made my book available at the best price so far ($12.48 for hardcover). To buy the book at this sale price, click here, and enter promotion code “4S9JONE50″ at checkout.
Monday, April 13, 2009
Continue reading the full article from The Oregonian here.
Religious Progressives find new acceptance
by George Rede
Judging from recent headlines, you might think conservatives have a lock on religion. Whether the topic is same-sex marriage, stem cell research or President Barack Obama’s invitation to speak at Notre Dame’s commencement, the same sources from the religious right get top billing.
What’s going on? Robert P. Jones, a professor and ordained minister, has an idea.
Last month at Portland’s Lewis & Clark College, Jones talked about his new book, “Progressive & Religious: How Christian, Jewish, Muslim and Buddhist Leaders Are Moving Beyond the Culture Wars and Transforming American Public Life” (Rowman & Littlefield, 2008).
In the book, Jones cuts through the assumption that religion in America — and religious politics — are the domain of the religious right. (Think Jerry Falwell and the Moral Majority; Pat Robertson and the Christian Coalition; James Dobson and Focus on the Family. Recall their efforts to legislate morality on issues of abortion, sex education and gay rights.)
In reporting these hot-button issues, Jones found, the mainstream media fell into the trap of presenting a distorted picture, virtually defining religion and the public square in conservative terms. Jones’ research shows that for every progressive voice cited in the news media, three conservative religious voices were quoted.
That doesn’t match reality. After all, 14 percent of Americans define themselves as religious progressives versus 15 percent who self-identify as religious conservatives, according to the 2009 American Religious Identification Survey.
Jones spent three years crisscrossing the country doing 96 interviews with progressive religious leaders representing Christianity (both mainline and evangelical Protestant), Judaism (Reform) and Islam. From those interviews, several themes emerged: an emphasis on social justice, a fundamental belief in humanity, a vision for America as a more generous country, an active role in community organizing — plus a conviction that “truth” isn’t the exclusive realm of religious conservatives…
You can also read a longer piece on Progressive & Religious by George Rede, Sunday Opinion Editor for the Oregonian, here.
Progressive & Religious is 50% off in April. Rowman & Littlefield has made my book available at the best price so far ($12.48 for hardcover, expires 4/27). To buy the book at this sale price, click here, and enter promotion code “4S9PROG50″ at checkout.
Tuesday, April 7, 2009
President’s Faith-Based Advisory Council Taps Four Progressive Leaders Featured in Recent Book, Progressive & Religious
Contact: Robert P. Jones, Ph.D.
(Washington, DC) - President Obama’s newly unveiled Advisory Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships taps four progressive religious leaders featured in the recent book, Progressive & Religious: How Christian, Jewish, Muslim, and Buddhist Leaders are Moving Beyond the Culture Wars and Transforming American Public Life (Rowman & Littlefield, 2008). The leaders come from across the religious spectrum, representing Christianity (both mainline and evangelical Protestant), Judaism (Reform), and Islam.
These leaders, like many others on the council, have been at the vanguard in sustaining and reviving a progressive public face of religion. The excerpts below illustrate how these leaders are faithfully and critically engaging their faith and religious tradition to work for social justice and the common good--a hopeful sign in this new era.
- Harry Knox, Director of Religion and Faith Program, Human Rights Campaign. Under his leadership, HRC created a national speakers' bureau that reaches more than 10 million Americans monthly and a national network for 22 progressive state clergy coalitions around the country. Knox was denied ordination because he is openly gay, and is a former licensed minister of the United Methodist Church in Georgia.
The people that we study now as great thinkers were all revolutionary in their time. They all listened to God first, and then made what they were hearing bump up against the text and bump up against the tradition of the church. And they found that maybe the text and the tradition weren’t big enough to hold what they were hearing from God, and so they said some new things.
-Knox, in Progressive & Religious
- Dr. Eboo S. Patel, Founder and Director, Interfaith Youth Core. Dr. Patel, an Indian-American Muslim, founded his Chicago-based organization to build the interfaith youth movement through service and dialogue. Patel is a Rhodes scholar and serves on the Religious Advisory Committee of the Council on Foreign Relations.
A religious pluralist is somebody who may believe very deeply that their own tradition is the only “right” tradition, but who fundamentally believes in a society where people from different backgrounds have the freedom and the right to live by their own traditions and where they can live together in equal dignity and mutual loyalty.
-Patel, in Progressive & Religious
- Rabbi David N. Saperstein, Director and Counsel, Religious Action Center for Reform Judaism. Rabbi Saperstein was recently named the most influential rabbi in America by Newsweek magazine. For more than 30 years, Rabbi Saperstein has represented the Reform Jewish Movement to Congress and the administration and lobbied for a variety of social justice issues.
There is hardly a classic text of Judaism that does not resound with both spiritual meaning and God’s call for us to be engaged in creating a better world. You can open up almost any story in the Bible and feel this deep spiritual resonance that speaks across the centuries and embodies this call: that we are called to create a more just and fair world for humanity.
-Saperstein, in Progressive & Religious
- Rev. Jim Wallis, President and Director, Sojourners. Sojourners is a progressive evangelical organization that has been a longstanding voice for poverty reduction, peace, and the environment. Wallis’ book, God’s Politics, stayed on the New York Times best-seller list for 4 months.
One thing that changes American Christians is direct proximity, relationship to poor people. Revival is going to be triggered when the relationship to the poor on the part of the churches reaches a critical mass.These leaders are featured prominently in the recent book, Progressive & Religious, which explains how progressive religious leaders are tapping the deep connections between religion and social justice to work on issues like poverty and workers’ rights, the environment, health care, pluralism, and human rights. The book is the result of three years of systematic research and nearly 100 interviews with progressive religious leaders in Christianity, Judaism, Islam, and Buddhism.
-Wallis, in Progressive & Religious
The website companion to the book (http://www.progressiveandreligious.org/) also features selected audio podcasts and transcripts with these groundbreaking leaders, including podcasts with Dr. Eboo Patel and Rabbi David Saperstein.
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Sunday, April 5, 2009
1. Progressive & Religious 50% off in April. Rowman & Littlefield has made my book available at the best price so far ($12.48 for hardcover, expires 4/27). To buy the book at this sale price, click here, and enter promotion code "4S9PROG50" at checkout.
Feel free to pass this along to friends and colleagues.
2. We've had a successful launch of the book and book tour. I've been the recipient of the hospitality of several universities and seminaries (Emory University, Princeton Theological Seminary, Hebrew College and Andover Newton Theological School, MIT, Oregon State University, Lewis and Clark College), academic conferences (American Academy of Religion, Christian Scholars Conference), and local congregations (Oseh Shalom in MD, Oakhurst Baptist Church in GA, and the Interfaith Families Project in MD). I've also had the opportunity to do some engaging media talks, ranging from being Rev. Welton Gaddy's guest on Air America to an appearance on Fox & Friends (!). I'm continuing to book engagements for the second half of the year to tell the story of the emerging progressive religious movement.
3. We also continue to publish compelling "Progressive Religious Voices podcasts series with progressive religious leaders. You can find them on iTunes or at www.progressiveandreligious.org/podcasts. They're free--come check them out.