I’m happy to join some distinguished historians of religion–John Turner, Philip Jenkins, Tommy Kidd, Agnes Howard, Miles Mullin, and Tal Howard–at the Anxious Bench blog. Below is my inaugural post:
This past semester for me focused inordinately on death. I taught a course called “War in the American Memory” and covered the Holocaust in World Civilizations. And then—even though commencement was already over—fellow blogger Miles Mullin piled on with a terrific post on how modern Americans outsource death and dying. It’s the semester that won’t die!
Death even pervaded an annual trip that I take with a group of Asbury students to the Abbey of Gethsemani, located about an hour west of Lexington, Kentucky. One of the main attractions at Gethsemani, of course, is the grave of Thomas Merton, a Trappist monk whose 1948 spiritual autobiography Seven Storey Mountain sparkles with lively descriptions of a boyhood in Europe, a bohemian young adulthood in the bustling streets of New York City, and a new monk’s life of quiet contemplation in the pastoral rolling hills of Kentucky. Ahead of the hippies, he interpreted monastic spirituality and community to the world. In fact, his grave, which rests in a gently sloping hill next to the Trappists’ chapel, bears witness to simplicity and community. His stone is identical to his colleagues’ markers. Death is universal, the modest stone suggests, leveling profound and simple minds.
Even the Welcome Center features death. A film replays the burial of a Trappist monk, whose unembalmed body wrapped in a simple white shroud, is lowered by ropes into a deep hole. Next door to the film room is a gift shop. What drew me first was the Trappists’ amazing bourbon fudge. But the shop also sells caskets. They start at $1,000 for the “Simple Rectangular” model and top out at a still-reasonable $3,400 for a “Premium” cherry model. No worries—if you live outside Kentucky, you still can buy your very own Trappist casket on the Internet. They can deliver it within two days in the continental U.S. (Or if you plan ahead and want your furniture to pull double-duty, you might consider the Coffin Table. I love the ad copy: “Not only can it store books and other knick-knacks like personal mementos, but its ultimate goal is to store YOU – or what remains of you – when you pass on to the next life.”)
The aura of death at Gethsemani did not feel unduly dark or foreboding. It rather felt like a reprieve from the sterility of modern life and death. Even the roads that took us to Gethsemani testify to the monastery’s unmodern sensibilities. The winding, idiosyncratic Monks Road on which the monastery is located contrasts sharply with the road we took out of Lexington: the Martha Layne Collins Blue Grass Parkway, an efficient four-lane divided highway that cuts an unnatural path straight through rock. The feeling that I was leaving the twenty-first century for the nineteenth century evoked a kind of nostalgia in me–even though I’ve never actually lived any golden age. Nevertheless, Gethsemani’s practice of death as a natural part of life, instead of an artificial thing to be cordoned off in a hospital morgue, has striking appeal for postmoderns drawn to earthier approaches such as this. My students certainly expressed a lot of enthusiasm for our trip.
Conservative evangelical Michael Gerson makes nice with progressive evangelical Jim Wallis. Check it out here.
The book has broader value in challenging a variety of shallow modern ideologies.
• Contra libertarianism: The common good is not identical to the triumph of market forces. Constructing it is the shared duty of communities, corporations and government.
• Contra modern liberalism: The common good is not identical to the triumph of autonomy and choice. Humans flourish in the context of binding moral commitments such as marriage and family. And the most vulnerable members of the human community deserve special concern and protection.
• Contra secularism: The common good is not achieved by banishing religion from the public square. Religious institutions perform works of mercy, carry ideals of justice and should be sheltered by a generous interpretation of religious liberty.
In a political era of rights talk and special-interest pleading, a greater emphasis on the common good would make American politics more civil, admirable and humane.
Nice little piece–“The Fiction of Evangelical Friction”–by Wheaton’s Noah Toly on evangelicals and immigration. In recent weeks several analysts have criticized articles in national publications that have highlighted shifting evangelical views. Mark Tooley, for example, says that evangelical elites are misrepresenting rank-and-file evangelicals in the pews who remain opposed to immigration reform. But PRRI/Brookings research really does show an overall softening on immigration due to “generational differences, social class, educational attainment, and party affiliations.”
Toly further notes that:
evangelical Protestants are making connections between their core commitments and the plight of many immigrants. As Martin Marty writes, evangelicals “’believe their own eyes’ when they look, are dumbfounded, and are then motivated to change attitudes about the plight and agony of ‘illegal aliens’ and so many others. And they also believe their own eyes when they look at their scriptures, which put the need of the strangers, exiles, aliens, and newcomers first as bidders for consideration and change.” Typical evangelical Protestant convictions are being expressed in new or unexpected ways.
Check out a new book by Brayton Shanley entitled The Many Sides of Peace: Christian Nonviolence, the Contemplative Life, and Sustainable Living. Here’s the description from the publisher Wipf and Stock, which is putting out some fantastic books these days:
The Many Sides of Peace comes out of thirty years of living in a Catholic lay community, attempting to understand and practice the compelling ideas of gospel-centered nonviolent love. The book attempts to speak to the signs of these times for those who seek peace and liberation from both war and the looming ecological Armageddon. It is a faith based on the revelation of Jesus and the conviction that a love that is nonviolent will save this environmentally threatened planet and its warlike people from an “at risk” status to a more peaceful and sustainable one. This is a message of hope, a “how to live” spiritual manual for human/earth survival that can help create a bold and beautiful world.
World Vision is launching its most ambitious campaign to date. “For Every Child” seeks to raise $500 million by October 2015 to save the lives of 10 million people in countries around the world. The money will go toward reducing child death rates and keeping children safe from exploitation.
World Vision began as a kind of evangelical Marshall Plan for Southeast Asia. In the early 1950s they sent evangelists and relief workers to Korea with the hope of saving the world from commies and atheism. Since the 1970s the organization has been a favorite of moderate and progressive evangelicals and has broadened its scope and intent, now focusing primarily on development work.
The Consistent Life organization reports demonstrations on April 13 at the White House and Planned Parenthood. Bill Samuel reported: “While we were at PP, one woman who had paid for an abortion changed her mind after talking with folks witnessing. PP refused to give her money back. Pat is helping her with that. Then we joined the anti-drone action called by ANSWER at the White House. The crowd there was diverse, with people from countries which have suffered drone strikes. There were no negative reactions directed to us with our message connecting the abortion and drone issues, and several positive ones, both from others witnessing and from tourists.”
For more photos, see Consistent Life’s Facebook page.
With spring semester nearly at an end–and my wife’s comprehensive exams done (and passed!)–it’s time to start blogging again.
For evangelicals, tragedies like the Boston Marathon bombing prompt fervent prayer. For many progressive evangelicals, such tragedies also spark the counterintuitive sensibility of “loving the enemy,” even those who commit senseless violence. Here’s an example of such a call from Red Letter Christians:
Lord have mercy, Christ have mercy on me, a sinner. Lord have mercy, Christ have mercy, on all of us, sinners.
Father, we don’t know who was behind the tragedies in Boston, but we do know that they were human. And we know we are to pray for our enemies.
In Jesus we see humanity’s true identity as ones who are to be agents of life, not death. Jesus, as first of New Creation, invites all humanity to reflect and participate in New Creation.
Despite humanity’s sacred identity, evil often reveals itself through humanity. We must return to what we were created to be. May those behind this event return to who they were created to be.
We pray specifically that those involved in this violence return to their shared humanity as they confront the violence brought on fellow humans as a result of their actions. We pray that we don’t lose ours in the midst of it all.
May we embrace our vocation as peacemakers who are to be agents of restoration and reconciliation rather than divisiveness, enmity and violence.
We pray for a collective grieving that fuels our ability to live with compassion, generosity and wholeness.
We plead for your justice to reign as we announce and promote your Kingdom reign through our words and deeds.
In the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, amen.
Jim Wallis, founder of Sojourners, just released another book (his tenth, I think). I’ll comment more fully on On God’s Side: What Religion Forgets and Politics Hasn’t Learned About Serving the Common Good in due course. In the meantime, here are some videos from the media push over the weekend:
Some recent praise for Moral Minority:
- According to the Library Journal, Moral Minority is a best-selling book this year in the religion category.
- At First Things, John Turner asks Penn Press to “bring it out in paperback so that I can assign it to my students.”
- At Exploring the Study of Religious History, Jonathan Yeager includes Moral Minority in his 64-book “Religious History” bracket.