When Religion Becomes Just, Plain Embarrassing…

Over the past few decades, since the emergence of fundamentalism on a grand worldwide scale, there has been much written about identifying the characteristics that can turn religion toward the vicious, psychotic and destructive. Scott Appleby’s, The Ambivalence of the Sacred: Religion, Violence and Reconciliation, and Charles Kimbell’s, When Religion Becomes Evil: Five Warning Signs, define some of the terrain that takes religious adherents down the path to hatred and the devaluation of life. Appleby’s book, in particular, tries to describe the distorting factors of belief that lead religions from formational paths to peace and a flourishing life to an instigator of pathological evil.

Unfortunately, much less is written about religion when it becomes embarrassing, although it is a far more common phenomenon in Western cultures.  Many of us have at least one sibling, cousin, uncle, aunt, neighbor or member of a church who models religious belief as an embarrassing spectacle, projecting the image that religion is primarily a coping mechanism for the simple of mind or the troubled of heart.  Religious detractors discredit the entire enterprise of personal and corporate faith by pointing to the silliness of religion as much as the malignancies.  As a matter of fact, hard-boiled secularists get a lot of mileage out of cartoons of ancient religious traditions that are on display by some religious believers.  Comedian Bill Maher’s popular movie/documentary, Religulous: The Truth is Near, is the classic example. I would wager most people in Western nations who avoid churches, temples, mosques or other religious gathering places are kept away more by the crazy and embarrassing things explored in Religulous than the violent and evil.

Every time Looney-Tune representations of religion occur, the mission of a faith tradition, and all serious religion, is tarnished.  I think one of the major conflicts serious people of faith or spirituality have with embarrassing religion is that it is difficult to distinguish oneself and a faith tradition from the awkward, ignorant statement, the goofy assertion, or the obnoxious action.

When I was younger, I felt the urge to confront the cartoonish public display of religious belief, but quickly learned such confrontation created two spectacles, instead of just one. Now I want to hide under a rock when I see people of faith do clownish or stupid things in public; I recently had such an experience while on a work trip in San Francisco.

Three men were walking down Fisherman’s Wharf, two carrying signs calling for repentance, with threats of the fires of hell for those who did not, and one talking fast with a loudspeaker strapped to his back. Hebrew and Christian scriptural verses dealing with judgment and condemnation poured from the street preacher’s mouth like the waters of Niagara, and he frequently stopped to yell into the open doors of bars and restaurants.

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In a particularly outrageous act, the man approached a woman standing outside a store and told her she was going to hell unless she repented and accepted Jesus as her personal savior.  She replied to him that she and God were fine, just as a boyfriend or husband appeared in the doorway and shooed the street preacher away. As the preacher turned, he said over his shoulder through the loud speaker with a cocksure voice: “I have news for you, young lady, you are not okay and are headed for hell.”

You rarely get a chance to see such spiritual arrogance and religious foolishness on full display in the middle of a busy street. The man with the loud speaker seemed to think he understood the Christian notions of salvation and judgment so thoroughly that he could apply that knowledge to the life of a young woman, even though he apparently knew nothing at all about her.

Understanding salvation and judgment in the Christian tradition requires a profound understanding of ancient Hebrew and Hellenistic cultures. Both concepts require a great deal of nuance and context, as the meaning of both terms shifted according to many factors impacting both religious traditions. Making application of these concepts to lived reality requires a heart and mind schooled in justice and mercy and how the two interrelate in both the Jewish and Christian traditions. Only then can someone speak of the Christian notions of salvation and judgment with any real meaning. Forget passing judgment on what awaits an individual on the other side of the grave. Although such prognostications are delusional within the context of the meaning of the two words, it did not stop the fellow with the loudspeaker.

The Internet recently experienced an equally obnoxious example of people talking about religion with insufficient knowledge of their subject.  During the HBO show, Real Time with Bill Maher, the comedian and famous atheist author Sam Harris made sweeping generalizations about Islam and set in motion an embarrassing conversation about the merits and demerits of this ancient tradition.

The actor Ben Affleck passionately disagreed with their comments, called them “gross” and “racist,” and sent the panel discussion (if you can call it that) into a spiral. (If you missed the action, you can see the interview here)

After the show, the Internet lit up to pass judgment on the scattered discussion:  “Ben Affleck Goes Ballistic,” opined one blogger; “Liberals can’t handle the truth about Islam’s woes,” claimed an op-ed in the New York Post; “Bill Maher and Sam Harris Debate ‘Islamaphobia’ with a Defensive Ben Affleck,” asserted a writer on Patheos.com; and a columnist in Psychology Today referred to “Affleck’s incoherent rant.” On the other hand, fans lined up behind the actor.  “Why Ben Affleck is Right, Bill Maher is Wrong, and Sam Harris is Jaded About Islam,” wrote a columnist for the Huffington Post.  Meanwhile on the pop scene CNN commentator, Piers Morgan, tweeted, “Brilliant by Ben Affleck,” and actress Rosie O’Donnell tweeted, “Ben Affleck for President.”

If you take faith seriously and have committed much time trying to understand it, the Real Time conversation wasn’t very serious. You can decide the people you think won the argument, but I think everyone lost.

Harris received so many negative reactions that he devoted a long post-mortem on his blog trying to explain what he was trying to say. Bill Maher gave an interview to Salon.com, in the hopes of articulating why he and Harris were not demonstrating bigotry, but rather defending liberal principles based on solid research. It appears Affleck has decided not to further explain his thoughts or motivations.  (Incidentally, Christopher Ingraham, formerly with the Pew Research Center, checked the “facts” of both Maher and Affleck, based on Pew data that Maher brought up in the argument. Based on the data, he found they were both wrong (see here).

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Aggravated voices, unfinished thoughts cut off by talk overs, vague references to “facts,” sloppy arguments, and a host of untested assumptions. This is the kind of style and tone in conversation that we labor not to have at the School of Theology and Ministry at Seattle University. These are unproductive ways to communicate, but sometimes such embarrassing encounters expose the deeper values and assumptions that are the real source of disagreements.

In the case of the Real Time “word brawl” Maher and Harris exhibited a fundamentalist point of view about religion that is not too dissimilar from the narrow perspective of the street preacher in San Francisco. Their biases toward religion have so shrouded their thinking that they cannot really test their underlying assumption: religion is primarily twisted, deluded, and dangerous to the common good.

Maher and Harris will concede that there are good people of faith in the world. But, they see these individuals as peripheral, perhaps even accidental, to the religious enterprise. Serious people of faith believe – and experience – the exact opposite.

Sam Harris described his view of religion with a telling metaphor. He suggested that Islam’s believers exist in concentric circles of acceptance of the tenets of the religion’s doctrines (the enemy for him is religious ideas and the behavior resulting from those beliefs.) In the center of the religion, he said, are the jihadists, who find life cheap and extinguishable.  In a second concentric ring from the center, Harris places Islamists, who want to reestablish the Islamic controlled culture of a caliphate, but would not strap dynamite to their bodies to do so. On a third ring is the conservative Muslim population, repulsed by violence but holding all kinds of “illiberal” ideas about women, homosexuals and other issues that are incompatible with a democratic way of life. One can assume faithful, but critically thinking Muslims exist somewhere on the periphery of the concentric circles, but he didn’t consider them worthy of mention.

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Later in the discussion Harris makes an even more revealing comment: “There are hundreds of millions of Muslims who are nominal Muslims who don’t take the faith seriously, who don’t want to kill apostates, who are horrified by ISIS. And, we need to defend these people, prop them up, and let them reform” Islam. Translation: people who are enlightened enough to see religion as a cultural encrustation (i.e., who are smart enough to think like Harris) are the potential “reformers” of evil and embarrassing religion.

This is a particularly American idea. A reformer rides into town on his white steed, kills off the bad guys, gives the town folk some backbone and purpose for their simple life, and then mounts his horse and rides off in to the sunset. Of course, this kind of narrative can make a decent Western, but people from outside institutions do not transform systems, whether religious or not. Reform comes from within, led by women and men connecting with the depth of a religious tradition’s wisdom.

Just for the record, those of us who take faith seriously find religion an indispensable source of wisdom. It isn’t the only wisdom in the world, but it is a type of insight that helps us grow into more caring, thoughtful and compassionate human beings. It gives us strength to endure the profound challenges we face in life, and assists us in overcoming and even laughing at adversity. It inspires us to live our lives, bury our dead, and even face our own last moments with hope and anticipation. For us, the inner ring of religion is occupied by those who enflesh the core beliefs of our traditions, not the behaviors that emanate from what Miroslav Volf refers to as the “malfunctions” of faith.

Members of the Islamic tradition, not Sam Harris, would need to identify the believers that should reside in the inner concentric circle of that religion. But as a friend of many Muslims and as someone with a keen interest in the nobility in the tradition, I would put 17 year-old Malala Yousafzai, the remarkable Pakistani girl who survived a gunshot in the face and just won a Nobel Prize, in the first circle. I would also place next to her Iranian civil rights activists Shirin Ebadi, and Mohammad Ali Dadkhah. Nicholas Kristof mentions Dadkhah in the Affleck-Harris conversation. The Iranian lawyer was recently given a nine-year sentence for defending marginalized people in Iran in the court system, including many Christians.

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From my own tradition, the Christian inner circle would not consist of people bombing abortion clinics, wearing sheets at KKK meetings, or burning Korans. It would include Christians throughout history who advanced education, promoted health care, established social service agencies, took a front row seat in the abolition, child labor law, women’s rights and Civil Rights movements. The inner circle would consist of people who inspired their generation to think beyond a materialistic frame of reference to dream of a richer world of liberty matured by justice, people like Francis of Assisi, Catherine of Sienna, Teresa of Avila, and Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits. More contemporary individuals would consist of Albert Schweitzer, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Dag Hammarskjöld, and lesser known people like Maura Clarke, Ita Ford, Dorothy Kazel, and Jean Donovan – the four women abducted, raped, and shot to death in El Salvador in 1980 because of their work with the poor.

Maher and Harris are bright guys, but their assumptions about religion are so pockmarked with blind spots that when it comes to this subject they are really not too far removed from the San Francisco street preacher. All three have one thing in common: they really don’t understand religion or the role faith plays in the lives of millions upon millions of people who do not use religious ideas to promote evil or silliness, but rather use it to inspire themselves and others to make substantive contributions to the human race.

When religion becomes embarrassing, either at the hands of those who love it or hate it, I guess the best response really isn’t to hide under a rock. But, God knows that rock can look mighty attractive sometimes.

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Welcome to A New Year of Ultimate Makeovers

Welcome to the start of another academic year, as Seattle University’s School of Theology and Ministry begins a new year of “ultimate makeovers.” The makeovers will occur in various degrees, with different intensities for students, faculty, staff, attendees at educational programs for the community, and the cloud of supporters that have given life to the school. Ultimate makeovers are our “business.”

Although one definition of a makeover is “a complete transformation or remodeling of something, especially a person’s hairstyle, makeup, or clothes,” we will not have cosmetologists or image consultants available. Our kind of makeover deals with something less tangible but no less dramatically altering.

The idea of a make over was first used, according to Merriam-Webster in 1546, referring to the remodeling or “refashioning” of something, such as an old building or other structure, in order to make it useful for new needs. It appears the concept became one word, and started getting applied to the refashioning of one’s personal image around 1927.

Makeovers are now a fundamental part of modern life in many cultures and an enormous industry. According to Mint.com, a free web-based personal financial management service, beauty products alone are a $382 billion industry worldwide. (See here) In the highly unstable industry of journalism, some of the most stable magazines are devoted to ideas for personal makeovers: Cosmopolitan, Vogue, Glamour, Allure are all designed for women. But, this is not just a female phenomenon. The male fashion market in 2014 will exceed $402 billion, and male grooming products are estimated to reach $33 billion in 2015. GQ, the men’s fashion magazine, has had a following since 1957 and there are well-established magazine counterparts throughout the world, especially in Europe.

For those who are particularly tired of their look, you can even get “extreme makeovers,” which require boot camp like exercise programs, radical diets, and plastic surgery. You can get these high-octane refurbishings for yourself or your house. A popular television show called “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition” surprises poor families, or those suffering from natural disasters, with dramatic overhauls of their homes.

There is nothing inherently wrong with makeovers. As a matter of fact, you don’t have to spend much time in the work world to discover that our self-presentation usually makes a significant difference in how people perceive our competence.

But, there is another kind of makeover that is more important than our external appearance—the kind of makeover you get from education. Education remakes our interiority. Good education buffs up our confidence in responding to the complexity of the problems we face; it tucks in the flabby edges of our understanding of our world and ourselves; and, it gives us an eyelift that expands our field of vision so we begin to see more of what is happening around us.

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Theological education takes this refashioning of human interiority one step further. It provides an environment to receive an ultimate makeover for future counselors, chaplains, ministers, and leaders in non-profits, business and government. Theological education exists on the premise that the human person can be remade through intimate dialogue with the Mystery expressed and interpreted in an ancient religious tradition. The image of God as Potter and we as clay in the Hebrew Bible’s book of Isaiah has been a primary metaphor for describing the kind of ultimate makeover achievable through surrendering oneself to the wisdom, practices, and sacred sensitivity interlaced into the life and teachings of an ancient religious heritage. The Potter’s wheel will spin all year at the School of Theology and Ministry here at Seattle University.

At this level of makeover, our understanding of the world expands to a “metaphysical” horizon, reaching beyond what we can encounter merely through our senses. An ultimate makeover awakens us to the constellation of personal and moral issues underlying every challenge we face as members of the human race. It also builds confidence in our own abilities to impact the relationships, groups, organizations and work that God brings into our daily living, and heightens our trust that the necessary inspiration, strength and focus will come to us in situations when and where we will need it. The ultimate makeover of theological education hones our skills in discerning our vocational call, even as we try to operationalize this call in the changing contexts of our lives.

It will spin during our study, prayer, conversation, debate, “stretch” experiences, mistakes and missteps, successes, opportunities for learning and unlearning; crossing through moments of new awareness that bring disillusionment and discouragement, as well as revelatory “eurekas;” and, by way of laughter, tears, and buckets of reflection. Collectively, in the process we will all undergo an incremental interior re-making.  Many will not see all of these changes in us, and some of our more significant transformations will likely go unnoticed by all but those closest to us. But, a theological education can make all the difference in the way we live our lives. This is the difference between an interior makeover that is part of a life of pilgrimage, and other kinds of makeovers.

In retail marketing there has been an interesting parallel to the concept of makeover: the overused oxymoron, “new and improved.” (How is it possible to improve something that is new?) One of the oldest “new and improved” promises is an 1861 advertisement in a Boston newspaper touting superior spectacles. “Sore, weak and inflamed eyes scientifically doctored and a cure in every case warranted,” the ad promises. (See here: oldadsarefunny.blogspot.com)  Most of us can all live side-by-side with an oxymoron like new and improved because we all desperately want improvement and newness in our lives. In some first encounters with many poor homes in America it can rattle ministers and social workers to discover the piles of clutter – booty acquired from Goodwill, the Salvation Army, church bazaars, garage sales, Wal-Mart – mounds of clothes and plastic in all shapes and sizes, each offering a few moments of refreshing newness, a chance to feel as if it is possible to start things over.

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The ultimate makeovers in theological education depart company with other makeovers when it comes to new and improved. In every generation this kind of education becomes “improved,” but it is never really something new. It has roots in the wisdom acquired through centuries of women and men struggling to understand the real meaning of human existence, and trying to develop the skills and perspectives needed to build a new kind of world according to the design of a different sort of Architect. With an ancient, always improved, but never new ultimate makeover you create a new chapter in the human condition for each generation. You remake yourself so others might become inspired to remake themselves. You engage the world with a metaphysical and moral compass that allows you to navigate the worst the human condition can throw at you, and to respond to evil with a transforming goodness.

Terrorist groups recently released hideous videos from Syria showing the execution of three men by laying them face down on the ground and slowly beheading them with a knife. I accidentally stumbled across the video while looking for news. At the time, it was believed that one of the men killed was a Franciscan priest, although this now seems unlikely. Crowds are shown standing around the doomed men, many of them filming the gruesome act on their cell phones, while periodically turning to look blankly into the camera of the videographer. I have never witnessed a more perfect example of what Hannah Arendt referred to as “the banality of evil.” She used this as a description of Nazi leader Adolf Eichmann, who showed neither hatred nor remorse for his leadership in the task of sending Jews to death camps during World War II. He was just doing his job, and felt no moral obligation or personal investment in what his actions meant to others or the broader scheme of things. The image of the video from Syria, and the banality of its evil, is yet another reminder that no other species is capable of such a loathsome act, and our world is still in desperate need of ultimate makeovers.

In the past, such makeovers have produced saintly ministers and religious leaders, moral government and military civil servants, altruistic educators and health care workers, and torchbearing journalists, social workers and business leaders. Remarkably, these people emerged in times and barbaric environments like the one shown in the video out of Syria.

As we begin this school year, let us remember that the time we spend together in this holy enterprise is critically important to the future of the church and the world.  Many have come before us who had this kind of education, and used it to change the world in the most unlikely places, because when you have an extreme makeover your path to true happiness occurs only by following your inner call, no matter where it takes you.

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Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

The Prophetic Voice of Dr. King, Jr.

For most of my adult life I have known people of faith who have liked to think of themselves as prophets. In certain areas of western culture, particularly among Christian seminarians, prophets are often perceived as cool.

Prophets are courageous and see through the mythologies of their times, penetrating to a deeper level of reality than their contemporaries. They seem to live at a higher elevation in the moral universe than the rest of us, and are filled with a righteous and purifying anger, a common emotional feature of heroes in western cultures, especially the United States Prophets inhabit a special human realm because they are called to stand toe-to-toe against forces of evil or oppression. They speak a God-revealed truth about life at a particular moment in history and set in motion social changes that heal the broken, bind up the wounds of those most hurt by social sin, and set captives free.

The Prophet AmosFor many, prophets can embody a kind of holy detachment from the hideously imperfect muck of the human condition. They are often imagined as John the Baptizers, living in the real or theoretical wilderness and out-of-step with cultural conventions like dress and lifestyle. For some of us, prophets are even fantasied with unruly hair, a grungy look in clothing, and even the wild, driven eyes of the revolutionary consumed by the fire of a vision. From this position of detachment from the forces of culture, the prophet boldly challenges those who have abandoned the old ways to slip into paths of corruption and degeneracy.

When I was a young seminarian working in a diverse, poor (and sometimes violent) neighborhood, I thought, along with many of my fellow seminarians, that I wanted to serve as a prophet. I imagined a prophet must live a life of unparalleled joy and purpose, laser focused on God’s will for the world and fearless in following the path of righteousness. However, the more I delved into the scriptural testimony of prophets like Isaiah, Jeremiah, Micah, Joel, and Ezekiel, the more I questioned my naïve assumptions. I came to realize there is really little coolness in this necessary ministry to church and society.

Over the last few weeks, Dr. Flora Wilson Bridges has been guiding students at Seattle University’s School of Theology and Ministry through a course entitled “Prophetic Preaching for Radical Welcome” which grapples with some of these very same and challenging nuances of prophetic voice.

In fact, one of the chief characteristics of a real prophet is that he or she does not want the job. Moses preferred a quite life tending his father-in-law’s sheep herd and tried four times to convince God to send someone else to speak to the Pharaoh (Exodus 3-4). Jeremiah tried to use the excuse of youthful inexperience to get off the hook of giving prophetic utterance (Jeremiah 1:6). Jonah ran in the other direction and had to have a close encounter with a big mammal to grudgingly muster the motivation to embrace his God-given prophetic task. When prophets go about their work, it also seems that they do not find it even remotely enjoyable. After preaching to Nineveh, Jonah sat under a tree to sulk (Jonah 4:5-6), and both Moses (Numbers 11:15) and Elijah (1 Kings 19:4) hated their prophetic burdens so much that they asked God to kill them and put them out of their misery.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.If prophets are important to the human condition, and you would have a very difficult time making a case that they are not, every culture should get a reality check from time-to-time about who a prophet is, what a prophet does, and how a prophet goes about performing his or her mission. Fortunately for Americans, we get a chance to reflect on the prophetic role once a year in January during the nationwide commemoration of the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. <Photo credit: SeattleTimes.com>

Most Christians would claim King as part of the Christian tradition’s prophetic tradition. He certainly left a prophetic mark on American society by challenging an entire nation to think and act according to biblical principles of justice. But, his life and work challenges the conventional image of how God’s cry for justice manifests itself through fragile humans.

First, Dr. King was not detached from society; he was immersed in it – its problems, the complexity and elusiveness of solutions, and the soiled institutions of both church and society. He was perennially frustrated that these institutions did not live up to their moral values. But, he learned to live with the frustration and disappointment and never allowed cynicism to either destroy his vision, diminish his convictions, or demonize his enemies.

Second, he didn’t yell at people from the sidelines. He was an incredibly polished orator and rhetorician. King was also multilingual. He modified his message to fit the audience he addressed so the largest number of them could find an entry point into the challenging egalitarian vision he presented. Martin Luther King, Jr., also did not exude righteous anger so much as compassion, confidence, persistence and an intense devotion to a national vision that applied the words and concepts of the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution to all people equally.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.Third, we know from King’s life that prophets (at least in our time) need more than words and noble intentions; they need sophisticated skills in the inner dynamics of institutions. They need to understand the psychological and spiritual dynamics of the individual heart and mind, small group dynamics, how to analyze social situations, skills in translating a message to different audiences and so much more. More difficultly, they need to know themselves inside and out; they need to learn how not to lose heart in times of trial, and how to expand both their patience and their tolerance of others.

Fourth, King did not dress counter-culturally, but rather wore rather expensive, neatly pressed suits. He looked like the American icon of his time: the tailored Mad Men look, walking comfortably in the nation’s halls of power, even at a time in which an African-American man was not welcome in those halls. King came from solid middle-class African-American stock and he knew to win over hearts and minds of a hard-hearted people to a tough message required that he challenge only so many of the cultural conventions of his time at once.

Perhaps one of the most instructional aspects of the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., is that we know far more about his personal life than we know about most prophetic figures. King was a human first and foremost, not a plaster cast saint living on a different moral plane than those he challenged. Scholars and journalists have dissected and scrutinized his life to embarrassing levels of detail. His many imperfections are a part of the public record: his marital infidelities, his corner cutting on his doctoral dissertation, the smoking and drinking that he enjoyed out of sync with the Christian culture promoted by his Baptist roots. Yet, God used this imperfect and sinful human as a “drum major for justice,” (using one of his favorite images of himself).

The broken features of our personality, the weak links in our character, and our propensity for certain sins are all magnified under the stress and strain of a prophetic vocation. King’s life reminds us there is a constant risk of our own personal destruction in the cauldron of controversy occurring when prophetic utterance collides with the injustices of contemporary reality. Had King lived out the original dream for his life, living the intellectually rich and somewhat insulated life of a professor in a 1960s seminary or university, how might his life have looked differently? It is likely he could have maintained greater control over his personal imperfections. He would certainly have kept them less public.

When you look at the fullness of King’s life you get a better appreciation of what Martin Luther meant when he told Melanchthon “be a sinner and sin boldly” (see here). The current Pope Francis often talks about the risk of engaging the world in its messiness, to avoid becoming so sin obsessed that we fear taking risks in living and preaching the Gospel. God’s mercy awaits us all in our efforts to make the world a more just and humane place.

One of the great gifts in knowing so much about King’s life is having a greater sense of the degree to which a prophet’s loved ones must also suffer. We know little of the challenges faced by the families of the minor and major prophets in the Hebrew scriptures. We know too much about the pain caused to Coretta Scott King, Martin’s wife, and their children. Prophets pay an expensive price for the office of their ministry, and so do all those around them.

It is more than coincidental that King’s day is followed by an entire month focused on celebrating Black History Month. Every February school children are introduced to a long list of prophetic individuals in American history. These men and women changed their communities, regions, and eventually an entire nation, building upon each other’s work and inspiring future generations to take up the cause of racial equality.

Prophets come in all kinds of shapes and sizes and most of them are never recorded in the annals of history. In reflecting on the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., it is important to remember how many prophets with his message hammered on American society before substantive change occurred. African-Americans in North America lived in poverty for
246 years of slavery.

Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation 151 years ago in 1863, and Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act 50 years ago in 1964. As Pulitzer-prize winning author Isabel Wilkerson told a large crowd at the Search for Meaning Book Festival this last month, black Americans have spent more time in slavery than freedom. Actually, she said, they endured the burden of slavery for 246 years. Lots of prophets have come and gone in that time period, each changing the culture in incremental steps. And, they walk among us still, although King is the one history will remember.

Martin would have been the first person to remind us that his message and advocacy for justice made in-roads in the United States only because it built upon the courageous work of countless men and women who came before him. Like King, those people devoted their lives to making the world a better place on their exit than their arrival. And, like the young Baptist preacher who was cut down in the prime of his life they feel an insistence and urgency in making our nation and world more worthy of our dignity as daughters and sons of God.

~ Dean Mark S. Markuly, PhD

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Bob Dylan

A Reflection on Bob Dylan & Change

Bob_Dylan_-_The_Times_They_are_a-ChanginIn 1964, singer-activist Bob Dylan released his first album of all original compositions, “The Times They Are A’Changin’.”  The title song gave lyric and melody to a basic fact of human existence that was first articulated by the Greek philosopher, Heraclitus: change is a constant of life.  Or, as he put it, we never step in the same river twice.  You can run from change, but you can’t hide.  As Dylan put it, giving a nod to the famous metaphor of Hericlitus:

Come gather ‘round people
Whereever you roam
And admit that the waters
Around you have grown
And accept it that soon
You’ll be drenched to the bone
If your time to
Is worth savin’
Then you better start swimmin’
Or you’ll sink like a stone

Some of us deal more comfortably with change than others.  For those conversant in the categories in the personality inventory called the Myers-Briggs, you can even find a designation for your personality type’s capacity for dealing with this easily.

As the world changes in every generation, so must theological education adjust and alter, embracing new problems and learning new ways to go spelunking into the sacred mysteries of religious faith.  This reorientation includes finding new concepts and terminology, learning new methodologies for speaking about and exploring the heart of one’s religious tradition, creating new structures to support the effort, and finding new resources to pay for all of it.

In the late 1770’s, Congregationalists and Baptists picked up the nickname of “New Lights” when they started embracing some new ways to live and articulate the Christian tradition.  The New Lights became locked in conflict with the more established denominations and perspectives during the First Great Awakening in the 18th century.   The same terminology was used in the Second Great Awakening in the early 19th century to describe the changing ways of looking at the life of faith in the Presbyterian tradition.

When times change, perspectives change, and some people do not know how to deal with the shifting sand.  At Seattle University’s School of Theology and Ministry, we are committed to keeping all of the lights on as much as we can – old and new.  We live in this space of tension because we believe this is where God calls us to stand.   A purple space in a red and blue world.

But, old light or new, change is a comin’ and this means we all need to make room for new perspectives and new ways of being children of God.

All this quarter the School’s core faculty are wresting together with how to do interreligious dialogue.  We are going to school together and wrestling with the concepts and methodologies of the people who have struggled with this essential skill-set for the 21st century.

In our seminar this week, we had some very interesting visitors.  The first guest was Fr. Peter Phan, a prestigious Vietnamese theologian who has written compellingly about the Asian perspective on Christianity’s encounter with other religions.  Later in the day, Jim Wallis, the prolific Evangelical writer who founded Sojourners Magazine, joined our seminar.  Rev. Wallis had profound stories to share about his interfaith work, many of them captured in his latest book, On God’s Side.   He is known best for bringing social justice back into a central feature of an Evangelical Christian faith.

As a first year seminarian in 1980, I wrote a letter to Jim Wallis asking if the Sojourners Magazine could use a summer intern.  As someone who had been trained as a journalist, was committed to social justice, and now found himself as a student of theology and ministry, I told him I wanted to know how they were integrating these three factors that did not fit together very easily.

Jim wrote back with a very nice note, informing me that they discussed my offer at great length in one of their meetings, but came to the conclusion that they were not organized enough to even know what to do with an intern, and too broke to offer room and board.   When Rev. Wallis showed up at the School, he was accompanied by a young man who lives in intentional community with eight other Sojourners interns.  He is learning how Congress works, how laws are passed, and how he as a person of faith can leave an indelible mark on world, even if in just a small way.

From no interns to nine, and from an Evangelical start-up to a Sojourners organization that has become a focal point for faith-based political action in the nation’s capital.  For Jim Wallis, these times have been a’changin’.

In this newsletter you’ll see how they are changing at Seattle University’s School of Theology and Ministry.   But, expect a lot more in the next few months.  At the School we are aware that we are rooted in historic faith traditions, and the vibrant spiritual energies of our world of believers and seekers.  But, we also know that we never put our foot in the same river twice.

~ Dean Mark S. Markuly, PhD
Seattle University
School of Theology and Ministry

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