Reading Theologically

Reading Theologically: Foundations for Learning, ed. Eric D. Barreto (Fortress Press, 2014) $14.00

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How we read scripture is potentially one of the most divisive issues in theological studies. The essays that Eric Barreto, assoc. prof. of New Testament at Luther Seminary, collects here are by no means a replacement for graduate study of hermeneutics at seminary, but he certainly offers an excellent introduction to those seeking to determine whether seminary is for them.

Each chapter engages topically with how we read scripture (basically, meaningfully, biblically, generously, critically, differently, digitally, and spiritually) and what the interaction of the lenses have to do with one another. As Barreto says in his introduction, theological reading “is about the formation and cultivation of a particular posture towards texts, whether sacred or profane. Reading theologically is not just about building your academic skills, but about your formation as a ministerial leader who can engage scholarship critically, interpret scripture and tradition faithfully, welcome different perspectives, and help lead others to do the same. That is your call as a student of theology.” (11)

With these words, Barreto locates the primary (though not exclusive) audience of his book – new seminarians and those discerning a call to ministry. As a recent graduate of religious studies, I wish I had read something like this to make the transition into my program easier!

But the “average reader” won’t feel left out. Any member of a church – laity, Sunday school teacher, or interested pew-sitter – will find here a collection of approachable. All of the chapters are directed to and for those in “community” with people of faith, how to understand fellow parishioners, how to articulate what you see in scripture in an informed way, and how to encourage fellow believers toward something more than passivity. At under 150 pages, Reading Theologically offers an excellent opportunity for students new to theological discussion.

Randall S. Frederick is a recent graduate of Fuller Theological Seminary. He writes for The Huffington Post, State of Formation, and Theology & the City.

Culture According to de Botton

The News: A User’s Manual by Alain de Botton (Pantheon Books, 2014) $26.95

NewsAlainEmbedFounder of the School of Life, Alain de Botton’s latest work The News: A User’s Manual aspires to be “the ultimate guide for our frenzied era” of news and is a good introduction to seeing news outlets as culture-making machines.

De Botton excels at presenting competing ideas and showing how both have equal merit. One of his recent works, How to Think More About Sex (2012), is an excellent summary of how culture presents ideas around sex and how individuals express that with each other. Surprisingly, he concludes that work by suggesting that Christian morality can “redeem,” even “save” pornography from it’s excess. That he is an avowed atheist of the loose French variety, and names Christian morality as the main suppressor of art, beauty, and sex further emphasizes this claim.

In reading his previous works, I have been impressed by how even-handed and fair he is. Which is why, knowing de Botton as a keen observer and precise writer, he disappoints with The News by creating hypothetical scenarios and broad cultural critiques rather than engaging with the world as it is. This may have served him well in the past while discussing religion and sex, but The News succumbs to it’s own grand vision of shaping a reader shaped by information informed by the reader. Think of the book as holding up a row of mirrors to one another. The reader walks through and, for a moment it is perhaps fun, perhaps disorienting, until higher functioning brain activity reminds them that this is a parlor trick. As a (sometimes) journalist, I found myself wishing he would have explained either more of how newsroom decisions are made or interviewed editors and journalists rather than focusing on his own pseudo-objectivity, inflating the reader’s sense of self, or congratulating the reader for looking down their nose at another. Case in point, in the middle of the book he discusses financial reporting and states:

It isn’t only the scale of the economic machine that can silence us, but also its complexity. On a miniscule percentage of the populations of developed economies have any solid understanding of the workings of the economic system they exist within. Most of us will struggle to grasp quite what might be going on within essential terms like arbitrage, Basel 1 and 2, cyclically adjusted current budgets, price/earnings ratios or quantitative easing. As we follow financial events in the news, we may ask, and not for the first time: ‘What is the growth rate of money?’ ‘How do hedge funds operate?’ ‘What does the LIBOR rate determine?’… Those kindly commentators occasionally employed by news organizations to help us with our confusions certainly try hard to offer us explanations, but perhaps because the concepts that dizzy us lack connection with anything in our day-to-day lives, their explanations have a habit of leaching from our minds just hours after we have heard them. (130-31)

In a chapter titled “Celebrity,” de Botton educates the reader on ancient hero-worship practices before naming the way that envy cripples individual expression. Then he makes a telling statement:

Too many random reminders of other people’s success may simply terrify us into inactivity and unwittingly prevent us from putting any single plan into practice. In order to achieve anything on our own, we need to be free for extended stretches from the psychological pressures exerted by news of others’ feats. We require periods of inner seclusion and calm if we are ever going to finish off something worthwhile: that is, something that we may ourselves one day be envied for. (173)

de Botton makes a case in each of the six areas of examination – politics, world news, economics, celebrity, disaster, and consumption – that it is insecurity which compels us to have our favorite 24-hour news source in the background, to constantly check social media to see what friends are up to, and to somehow form our own identity in light of the deluge. Some, like Noah, become despondent and retire to happy hour. Others, like the children of Noah, gradually forget What Happened and move out to their own entitlement.

Still, de Botton is true to form in that he raises incisive and implicit questions. Do we really want the news to tell the truth? Or would we prefer to self-medicate with distraction? These are good questions, and he excels at framing them in a digestible way. But as a former journalist, I can’t help notice that de Botton dwells on identity formation instead of “the hard news” of an event. In concluding the work, he notes that individuals select their news sources to assist in identity construction but does not really dwell on his initial inkling that news outlets actively seek to shape their audience. Notice the contrast between his initial thoughts and conclusion.

The news knows how to render its own mechanics almost invisible and therefore hard to question. It speaks to us in a natural unaccented voice, without reference to its own assumption-laden perspective. It fails to disclose that it does not merely report on the world, but is instead constantly at work crafting a new planet in our minds in line with its own often highly distinctive priorities. (11) 

Far from helping us develop a rich and complex individuality, ‘personalized news’ might end up aggravating out pathologies and condemning us to mediocrity. Imagine how personalization would have worked for, say, Marie Antoinette – someone temperamentally squeamish about distressing Political news and who would have been drawn to turning up the dial on Fashion and Entertainment… Personalization would be an improvement over the current editorial system if, and only if, users had a highly mature and complex sense of what sort of news they needed to hear. But this would require them, before they could be let anywhere near the dashboard used to program the news-stream, to get to know their own souls extremely well. (244-45).

One critiques the newswriter for failing to present their effort to shape an audience, the other critiques the audience for being incapable of properly choosing to know that which is best for them. In like kind, de Botton’s The News: A User’s Manual offers six poor case studies in areas of news which likely interest us but fails to explicitly disclose the kind of person it seeks to create – the self-knowing contemporary individual whose individual pursuits and preferences create a bubble of individualized self-actualization “ready” to take the world as it is… but who is entirely unprepared to notice others.

Randall Frederick is a freelance writer living in Los Angeles. He has just finished his second M.A. at Fuller Theological Seminary, writes for The Huffington Post, and does religious consulting.

Raised Voices

Talking Taboo: American Christian Women Get Frank About Faith, (eds.) Erin S. Lane and Enuma C. Okoro (White Cloud Press, 2013) $16.95

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Lane and Okoro’s intent with this collection of essays was to show the diversity of Christian women’s voices around the perennial issues of sex, embodiment, and faith. While the novitiate reader will be enthused to see their (likely) represented in the diversity of 41 essayists, there is little here that has not already been addressed more directly elsewhere.

Patience Perry in the essay, “Crafting Bonds of Blood” for instance focuses on how menstruation unifies women but is also a social concern. “In the case of tampons, we directly expose the vaginal tissue to these toxic chemicals, fragrances, and synthetic fibers where… [then] upon removal, feminine products linger indefinitely in a landfill or oceanic gyre (floating pollution which has accumulated in each of the five oceans) along with their plastic wrappers, strings, and applicators, since they are not biodegradable.” An important issues, to be sure, but in an essay asking for transparency and forthright language in religious and cultural communities so as to celebrate the feminine presence, it is curiously ironic that Perry goes on to describe her menstruation “as my Moon Time. That way, I acknowledge the cycles of life and death.” As an educated white male, I’m sure whether to celebrate her call to social responsibility while also shaming women for using feminine products, or note how she prioritizes of the “natural” female spirit which “operates in accordance with nature. AWESOME” as women “intuitively and hormonally respond to each other. It’s like we’re wolves. COOL” or whether I should become part of the patriarchal system that reminds these idealists that there are alternatives to completely charting a new course for women- be they Christian or otherwise (59).

Specifically, one of the recurring issues with this book is the way that the essayists, like Perry, seek to “take back” male-dominated language, and with it theological and social space. As someone who works in cultural dialogue, I find these conversations at times rewarding, exciting, inventive, and parochial if not frequently confusing. Both men and women forget, at times, the sociological function of language. Words have meaning and though languages can be shaped and reformed over time, a sudden decisive break (even a shift to or borrowing from a competing social narrative) is more problematic than the cunning linguist might allow. Put another way, the language games of these authors who seek to “speak for ourselves” are, in many ways, a problem for patriarchal religion as much as their intended audience. We might envisage a feminine Jesus, but two millennia of tradition – including the four commonly accepted primary gospels – specify that Jesus was born and died a male. But as “Joiner essayist Alena Amato Ruggerio writes, “Joining makes you an equal” (131). Simply speaking or writing validates your work with scholars. In many ways, the collective conscious of these essays says that tradition, heritage, and scholarship do not matter. Indeed, none of the essays with their generous headshots and blank pages exceeds 8 pages of work. Though they intend to subvert scholars and overhaul an entire global faith system with diverse cultures, they do not commit themselves to any kind of scholarship or sensitivity. By “joining” they exhibit that signature trait of postmodern America – the belief that to have an opinion warrants accolade. In the shadow of Betty Friedan, N.T. Wright, Maryann Meye-Thompson, Harold Blount, or Gustavo Gutierrez, these essays seem like nothing more than random blog posts.

Still, the essays here find traction with the neophyte to Christian Feminism and raise many important concerns for American Christian women. If you have a high-schooler who is considering a more serious role in religious life, this would be an excellent gift or book to suggest for them to read. K.D. Byers writes that “the church fails to teach her daughters how to ask good questions” and that women can only become “the disciples and prophets God seeks to raise up when we move beyond the answers of our youth and embrace the questions” that these essays raise (103). What is most appreciable about Talking Taboo is that it is raises awareness on many of the concerns American women have each time they approach their local church – Will they be allowed to share the details of their lives in an honest way? Will their sexuality be valued? Are they alone, or are there similar-minded women? Will the leadership of the church welcome their contributions and honor their time? It will surely provide new concepts and new language to help those involved in religious dialogue to better understand one another’s perspective.

Randall Frederick is a freelance writer living in Los Angeles. He has just finished his second M.A. at Fuller Theological Seminary, writes for The Huffington Post, and does religious consulting.

Women Are People Too

Jesus Feminist: An Invitation to Revisit the Bible’s View of WomenSarah Bessey. (Howard Books, 2013) $14.99

Jesus-Feminist-Cover-copyIn recent years, there has been a backlash against egalitarianism and Christian Feminism emerging from what could be described as the “young, restless, and reformed” segment of the Church. Fortunately, the voices coming from the other side have been equally loud, calling for mutual submission in the household and full participation of women in ministry. In this conversation, Sarah Bessey’s book Jesus Feminist (2013) stands out. She addresses the Church’s treatment of women with the end goal of “exploring God’s radical notion that women are people too.” At first, I thought this subtitle seemed almost satirical, but in light of the more outspoken complementarians who have published recently, it is perhaps more warranted than my initial impression would have allowed.

Bessey’s gentle and humble tone sets her book apart. From the very first pages, it reads as a letter from a dear friend. In a debate which is fraught with conflict, mud-slinging, and name-calling, Bessey looks for the positive, encouraging women to live into their God-given potential. Rather than spending time debunking arguments on the other side (as many egalitarians do with Wayne Grudem and John Piper), Bessey spends most of the book talking about what women have done, and are currently doing in service to God, the Church, and the world. Her book reminds me of The Junia Project in that it seeks to equip and empower rather than to argue.

The core of Bessey’s argument is that her Feminism is a response to what she cares the most about—following Jesus. The best way for Christians to pursue women’s equality is for us to pursue Christ. “We must remember that all of those efforts are ultimately frustrating, sometimes even misguided, without Christ” (184). Moreover, Bessey makes the claim that “the Feminist Agenda” is, indeed, God’s agenda, because God cares about justice.

Nothing changes in a true, God-lasting way when we use people or push agendas or make finger-pointing arguments or accusations of heresy. The justice we are seeking is God’s justice—justice that leaves no one out, no one left behind. His justice breaks chains, rids the world of injustice, frees the oppressed, cancels debts (184).

As a young woman working for a church, Bessey’s writing speaks to me though I am perhaps not her intended audience, as she debunks the myth that church work is the ultimate calling. However, as a woman and a Christ-follower, I have wrestled with the questions that Bessey wrestles with in her pursuit of Jesus. As such, Bessey’s experiences and hopes resonated with me. The only thing I would change about this book would be to use gender-inclusive language for God. I understand that within the Christian world, understanding God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is our bread and butter but using masculine pronouns for God becomes a stumbling block for some Jesus Feminists as they seek to understand God at work in their lives.

More than anything, I hope that young and old women read this book and feel empowered to pursue God’s calling on their lives. I hope that my seminary professors, who have done so much to encourage my pursuit of ministry, read it and keep doing what they are doing. I hope that complementarians read it, and, at the very least, hear Bessey’s prophetic voice to begin reconsidering their positions.

Naomi Wilson is the Director of Christian Education at Faith Presbyterian Church of Valley Village, nestled between North Hollywood and Studio City in beautiful sunny Southern California. She loves coffee, sunshine, books, and running.

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God is Red: A History of Christianity in Communist China

God is Red: The Secret Story of How Christianity Survived and Flourished in Communist China, Liao Yiwu. (Harper One 2011) $14.99

God Is RedIn God is Red, historian Liao Yiwu tells the story of Christian missionary workers and the house church movement throughout the twentieth century in China under totalitarian government. For his previous writings, Liao has been imprisoned and his books banned. “But what if we, as a nation, collectively lose our memory of the past?” Liao asks.

This question haunts the entire book, a fear that is reminiscent of Orwell’s perennial classic. Liao delves “into the past and present experiences of a particular group of people in search of clues about China’s future,” interweaving and linking several interviews conducted in the Yunnan province of southwest China between 2002 and 2010. Albeit a particular story about Christianity in China, God is Red takes on the political dragon to record the country’s moment of faith crisis in the wake of a push for modernization.

Readers will find this an easy book to get lost in: Liao recounts the interviews cleanly without losing the humor, as well capturing the Chinese way of telling a story poetically,

I followed Brother Yang, clutching both hands in front of my chest, tears streaming down like raindrops. I tell you, I wasn’t overcome with grief. I felt grateful. For the first time in my life, I didn’t think about myself or about human beings. I was thinking about God, who is above us, above all living things, above the highest mountain, above Erhai Lake. My parents gave birth to me, but God gave me life. I didn’t know that before. Cancer helped enlighten me, giving winder to my heart, which had been downtrodden in the mud, and made it fly and feel the bliss of heaven. Continue reading

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A Thicker Jesus

A Thicker Jesus: Incarnational Discipleship in a Secular Age, Glen H. Stassen (Westminster John Knox Press, 2012) $25

a-thicker-jesusFrom my days at Fuller Theological Seminary, I so enjoyed the perspective taught and embodied by Dr. Glen Stassen.  His ethics course and seminal text, Kingdom Ethics, gave useful language for budding young seminarians like myself on how the teachings from the Sermon on the Mount must infuse every part of our ethical decisions.  His stories about marching with Dr. King inspired me about the value of civil disobedience and political actions today.  His teachings on just peacemaking, gender roles, and the death penalty deeply guided me into the methodology of forming ethical convictions with the narrative of Scripture as a framework. And more than that, his faithfulness as an educator and a follower of Christ gave life to his teachings and proved an authentic model of deeply reflective pastoral engagement in the world through the power of the living Christ.

Though it had been years since my time with Dr. Stassen, I was eager to dive into his newest text, A Thicker Jesus and the book did not disappoint. I was immediately struck by how helpful this text would be for the field of practical theology as it matures as an academic discipline.  As a academic, Stassen only wants to deepen the conversation about Christian discipleship rather than water down any convictions for the sake of accessibility.  Stassen’s work serves as a robust text for defending a Christian ethic of incarnation and engagement in social inequalities.  Building upon the shoulders of his major influencer, theologian and activist Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Stassen propones that one of the primary challenges for the Church today is to confront secularism with a costly discipleship that will provide the resources for renewal and revival. Incarnational discipleship, as defined by Stassen, will represent three spheres: a thicker interpretation of Jesus of Nazareth, the holistic sovereignty of God, and the Holy Spirit moving the church to what Stassen calls a “repentance from ideological entanglement.”  I could not agree more.  He looks to utilize such a formula as a model to help resolve some of the many challenges facing the Church in the 21st century.  Heroes of the faith throughout Christian history, in his assessment, all share the common trait of a ‘deep and specific interpretation of the apostolic and biblical witness to Jesus Christ.’ Continue reading

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Lamin Sanneh: Culture, Translation and the Life of Faith

Summoned from the Margins: Homecoming of an African, Lamin Sanneh  (William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company 2012) $24

Summoned from the MarginsMy claim is that no one language can substitute for the truth of God, that as children of God we learn and speak the language of faith always imperfectly and provisionally, and that the divine perfection is beyond cultural advantage or disadvantage.

This is the heart of the book, Summoned from the Margins, by Lamin Sanneh, Professor of World Christianity at Yale University.

Born in Gambia, trained at Edinburgh and Harvard universities, Dr. Sanneh has made the transition from Islam to Christianity, from Methodist to Catholic, over the space of half a century. His book is the exploration of a conversion from unlikely places to unimagined ones: summoned by a Savior to a religion about which he had little knowledge, and a marginal one in a society where the everyday came into tangible contact with, and was largely dictated by, Islamic thought.  Along the way, Dr. Sanneh explores how Christianity dialogues with Islam, and why the two religions often clash in dialogue, coming as they do from two paradigms that often speak past each other.

Following a post-secondary education in The Gambia, Sanneh decided to apply for the full scholarship offered to students at that time by the United States government for enrollment at an American university. He arrived in Virginia in 1963 into the turmoil and conflict of the civil rights movement. “…Nothing in our background prepared us for America: we had no value system to deal with race, and no fund of personal experience to draw on for understanding or self-preservation.” Nevertheless, he continued on in pursuit of his studies, realizing along the way that his interest in history matched up with his religious interest. Continue reading

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Literary But Not Literal: Spong on the Gospel of John

The Fourth Gospel: Tales of a Jewish Mystic, John Shelby Spong (HarperOne 2013)  $26.99

fourth gospelJohn Shelby Spong is something of a legend within the contemporary Christian thought leadership. Through a 24-book writing career and two-and-a-half decades as bishop to New Jersey Episcopalians, Spong is known for trenchant comments in interviews, dismantling the claims of evangelical orthodoxy, and furious pushback from those who deem him a heretic and a threat to the Christian flock.

A Gentle Testimony

Given Spong’s reputation for boundary-pushing and dangerous thinking, I was a bit surprised to see this gentle testimony in the preface:

Jesus walked beyond the boundaries of his religion into a new vision of God. I think that this is what I also have done and that is what I want to celebrate. God is ultimate. Christianity is not. The only way I know how to walk into the ultimacy of God, however, is to walk through Christianity. I claim not that the Christian path is the exclusive path, but that it is the only path I know and thus the only path on which I can walk. (x)

This sentiment, not wolf-like at all, represents the book’s deep, non-creedal commitment to Christianity as “the way of Jesus” that inspires life. It’s also a foundational component of the book that might resonate with readers who want to hear more from non-literalist Christian writers, teachers, and lay members. The Fourth Gospel is designed for that audience; it’s a thoroughly Christian literary reading of John, and emerged from a five-year study of the gospel text, translations, and all major commentaries on John’s gospel published since the 1800s. Continue reading

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The Poetry Drone: Prophecy for Our Time

The Poetry Drone (known lovingly as the “Po Dro”) is a creation of LA-based poet, David Shook. In a modern-day effort to “beat swords into plowshares” Shook is seeking to arm a drone with—not bombs—but anti-war poems printed on flower paper. The project’s received considerable media attention with write ups in publications such as the Los Angeles Times, New York Daily News, Vice, Huffington Post, and even a mention in The New Yorker. It is what Dave Harrity of Antler calls “a contemporary act of prophecy, though it professes no religious affiliation.” In his brief interview with Shook, Pedrito Ortiz finds out where Shook got the inspirationally “ludicrous” idea for this project, as well as his take on poetry and politics. To learn more, visit the Kickstarter page here.

—The Editors

Poetry-DronePedrito Ortiz
How did you come up with the idea for the poetry drone?

David Shook I had just translated an interview that Nathalie Handal did with the Chilean poet Raúl Zurita, who I admire a lot. In it he discusses his work with the Colectiva de Acciones de Arte, a collective he was a part of under Pinochet, which eventually led to two of his most inspiring projects: writing a poem with a plane in the sky over Queens, and bulldozing another into the Atacama desert in Northern Chile. The next day, I was meeting with a visual artist, my friend Laura Peters, to discuss an installation I had commissioned her to build for a festival, an enormous nose made of foam, about 2’ by 3’, to promote Mario Bellatin’s Shiki Nagaoka. We were discussing the nose, brainstorming other unconventional methods of promoting literature, when our waiter, another friend of mine, approached. He listened in for a second before offering his own seemingly ludicrous suggestion: a poetry drone. He might have been stoned. I left the meeting and immediately went home to google drones, to see if the idea was even possible, affordable, legal. A couple days later I launched my fundraising campaign.

PO Do you consider yourself a political poet? Continue reading

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Sex, Shame and Healing: A Memoir of a Sex Surrogate

An Intimate Life: Sex, Love, and My Journey as a Surrogate Partner, Cheryl T. Cohen Green with Lorna Garano (Soft Skull Press, 2012)  $15.95

an-intimate-life-sex-love-and-my-journey-as-a-surrogate-partnerFollowing Helen Hunt’s portrayal of her in last year’s The Sessions, Cheryl Cohen Green decided to write a book to better explain her profession as a sex surrogate. Based in San Francisco and a student of the Masters and Johnsons model of sex therapy, Cohen Greene offers a series of vignettes interspersed with her memoirs of a good Catholic girl who grew up to disappoint and frustrate her parents. A familiar and cliché trope perhaps, but given the nature of her work a curiously unique one. What does one do as a sex surrogate? And how is that different from prostitution?

Unfortunately, Cohen Greene’s memoir doesn’t answer either of those questions. I’ve read several articles, books, and essays on sex surrogacy and while this is certainly one of the more human treatments of the profession, the book suffers from the author’s inability to expressly name how her work differs from prostitution – a fact that she readily admits neither The Sessions nor, in her final paragraph, she herself has been able to resolve. Continue reading

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