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The Way into Jewish Mystical Tradition

The Way Into Jewish Mystical TraditionThe Way Into Jewish Mystical Tradition by Lawrence Kushner
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

"Something sacred is at stake in every event."--Abraham Joshua Heschel

I enjoyed this book. An introduction to Jewish mysticism focused on 50 key ideas structured under 9 overarching themes. And with each idea the author introduces us to an important figure or text in the tradition. So you learn a little of the history at the same time you learn the main ideas.

I highlighted a number of lines and passages that I will likely use in my teaching and preaching. Here's a good one from the 18th century mystic Menachem Nachum Twersky of Chernobyl:

"God is the fullness of the world; there is no place empty of the divine. There is nothing besides God and everything that exists comes from God. And, for this reason, the power of the Creator resides within each created thing."

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Festival of Homiletics Thursday

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As Karoline Lewis pointed out, we are in "an unprecedented homiletical moment."

Earlier in the day William Barber emphasized that in the past we have tried to heal the wounds of the people with Band-Aids.  And now God is furious and the church should be furious, because this didn't have to be--the results of this pandemic on our nation.  He proclaimed that if we don't fix these pre-existing wounds our attempts to deal with the pandemic will fail.

For me the star of the day was the newcomer, Lenny Duncan, who delivered a passionate short sermon before Dr. Barber.  He talked about how we are currently grappling with questions at the very margins of theology.  In this crisis the church is left with "strange and ancient stories of love defeating death."  He talked about how to make use of those stories in this moment.  He spoke the reality that we are "bewildered, angry, and afraid" and that we should sit in the lament of all that we could have been and should have been and could have done in ministry with our people.  This feels like an important truth to spend some time with.

Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove  advised preaching be focused on the pastoral task of blessing because everyone is grieving and experiencing a spiritual depression.  Blessing is key because of the truth that God blesses us where it hurts.


Telling the Truth

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I'm "attending" the Festival of Homiletics this week (from my dining room). The lecture I just watched was by Ellen F. Davis who teaches at Duke. She was talking about truth telling.

Our primary vocation is to shape our words, imaginations, and lives by the biblical story. We have the responsibility to affirm moral imagination as a social force & a genuine politics which negotiates difference with a concern for truth. To do these things we must tell the story well. The guidelines for truthful storytelling are:

  • transparency that opens a window onto the present moment,
  • faith that looks for God's work
  • hope that opens to the future
  • and love

She focused on the early Exodus story to explore creation, power, and fear.  We need to summon courage and humility in order to face how we are corporately Pharaoh, healing our (hardened) heart disease.

The Bible is not fantasy literature.  Destructive power is real, and its consequences are tragically permanent.

What started in the story as natural fear has, through the story, become holy fear.  Fear of the Lord is true faith.  It is knowing where real power reside and acting on it.  It is the opposite of pharaonic insanity, arrogance, recklessness, and moral blindness.  Fear of the Lord is empowering, because it is the flipside of the love of God.


Making Haste from Babylon

Making Haste from Babylon: The Mayflower Pilgrims and Their WorldMaking Haste from Babylon: The Mayflower Pilgrims and Their World by Nick Bunker
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This year is the 400th anniversary of the Mayflower voyage, and I read this book in preparation for activities at church (and a family vacation this summer). I really enjoyed this book.

Bunker wants to expand the scope of the normal histories of the Pilgrims in order to better understand them in their religious, political, and economic context. So we don't get the standard narrative of the voyage and the founding of the colony. We also get great details about the English villages where English Separatism arose, detailed descriptions of what was going on in Leiden, the wars of Europe, economic developments in London, and details about the trade in beaver furs.

I also enjoyed the highlighting of my ancestor John Howland at various points.

So, if you are looking for a book this year to better understand the Pilgrims and their world, I highly recommend this in-depth, well-written, engaging work.

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The Art of the Saint John's Bible

The Art of The Saint John's Bible: The Complete Reader's GuideThe Art of The Saint John's Bible: The Complete Reader's Guide by Susan Sink
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

What's really amazing is the St. John's Bible itself, but this guide to the art is a marvelous book in its own right. One could use it as an introductory study guide to the Bible or as a devotional book. Built around the new practice of visio divina, the artistic images are used to draw you into contemplation of the Bible by the way they interpret and comment upon the text, rather than simply illustrate it.

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Short Stories by Jesus

Short Stories by Jesus: The Enigmatic Parables of a Controversial RabbiShort Stories by Jesus: The Enigmatic Parables of a Controversial Rabbi by Amy-Jill Levine
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This fall our Wednesday Night Bible Study at church covered the parables of Jesus, particularly in the Gospel of Luke. I ordered this book, which wasn't yet available the last time I had preached on the parables. And it was a helpful contribution to our study.

Levine is best at deconstructing bad interpretations, particularly the anti-Semitism and supersessionism that can seep into Christian interpretations of these stories.

But I wasn't always persuaded by her own interpretations of the parables.

The book was a good one to read alongside Brandon Scott's work that has been the standard in liberal interpretations of the parables in recent decades.

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Surprised by Joy

Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early LifeSurprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life by C.S. Lewis
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The delight of reading this book is experiencing the development of a writer and thinker's mind. What I enjoyed the most is the glimpses at various virtues, as Lewis writes about various friends and mentors he encountered in his early life. The last couple of years I have been most interested in pictures of goodness and so the subtle and various ways he describes goodness as he encounters it was a true enjoyment.

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Hermeneutics: Facts & Interpretation in the Age of Information

Hermeneutics: Facts and Interpretation in the Age of InformationHermeneutics: Facts and Interpretation in the Age of Information by John D. Caputo
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

There were two chapters I really enjoyed and learned from, one about Vattimo and Rorty and the other about how a group of Canadian health care workers applied Gadamerian hermeneutics to their work. Otherwise I didn't care much for the book. Too much of it was simply an introduction to Heidegger, Derrida, etc. But often with a tone that was too clever by half and therefore off-putting. I kept hoping that the book was going to break new ground and speak to our cultural (read Trumpian) moment as indicated in the subtitle, but it never really got there, so very disappointing. In fact the final chapter, on religion, was simply a rehash of the (I think) out-dated theology of Paul Tillich. Sigh.

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The Holy Spirit & Preaching

The Holy Spirit & PreachingThe Holy Spirit & Preaching by James Forbes
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

I have enjoyed hearing Dr. Forbes on a handful of occasions, and especially the time I ate breakfast with him when he was last in Omaha sponsored by mine and another local church.

Yet, I did not get much out of this book, the published version of his 1986 Lyman Beecher lectures. The key idea can be summarized in this quote, "The anointing of the Holy Spirit is that process by which one comes to a fundamental awareness of God's appointment, empowerment, and guidance for the vocation to which we are called."

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The Influence of Donald Wester: Part Two

On May 9th of this year I sent the following e-mail to Donald Wester, Junior about his dad:

Donald,

I'm grading final exams from Intro to Philosophy. One student wrote about how he's long struggled with proving the existence of God and that he was very disappointed with the day we spent on the traditional arguments. But then we read William James and he discovered that we don't need to prove God's existence.

Reading the essay made me think of your Dad, from whom I learned that. Now 27 years later I'm passing those lessons on.

Which also reminds me I brought up your Dad in worship planning yesterday when Stephen and I got off on a discussion of Nietzsche's criticisms of Christianity. I mentioned how your Dad taught me to interpret Nietzsche, that basically the criticisms have some validity and any thoughtful person of faith needs a response that survives the criticisms.

Anyway, thought you might appreciate these stories.

Peace,
Scott

Don Wester, Sr. for decades taught a class entitled "Fundamentals of Philosophy."  It was a sophomore level course required of all religion and ministry majors, the only other philosophy class they were required to take beyond Intro.  It was something of a rite of passage, which means many experienced it as a stumbling block.  The course was part of the genius of OBU's curriculum at the time--before all these young (mostly) men were turned loose on the church, they had to spend a semester with Don Wester.

Wester's textbook for that course was simply the Library of America volume of William James's philosophical writings--Pragmatism, A Pluralistic Universe, Essays in Radical Empiricism, the Varieties of Religious Experience.  William James is not a conservative evangelical, so his works were a definite challenge for most of the students in the course.  Many struggled with it.  I know because I was also Wester's grader for three years, which didn't give me a lot of confidence in the future of pastoral ministry. :)

Which gets me to Don Wester's intellectual project.  

As Don told the story, he was a rural pastor who decided to become a foreign missionary--the plan was to go to Indonesia.  He was smart enough to realize that much of the Christianity he knew was deeply Western, influenced by Greco-Roman thought forms.  He didn't think Indonesians should have to first accept the legacy of Greco-Roman thought before becoming Christians, so he realized he needed to figure out what Christianity was more basically, freed of Greco-Roman philosophy.  Or to put it more simply, Christianity without Plato.

This is a more challenging project than you might realize.

Wester never did end up on the mission field, but the intellectual project remained.  And it is one he passed on to his students.  The intensive study of William James was part of this.  I absorbed his love of James (in my Intro class we read Pragmatism).  I adopted his overall understanding of the history of philosophy and its relationship with Christianity.  I too wanted to understand the history of ideas so that I might know where certain ideas came from and what effects they had had.  The framework I learned from him still shapes how I think about new ideas and how I teach them to my students. 

One implication of this intellectual project is how we think about God.  Wester rejected the notions of omnipotence, omniscience, and impassibility, as they were inherited from the Greeks (Parmenides really) and not the Hebrews.  Being persuaded by Wester on these points opened me to Whitehead's Process Thought, for he too rejects these concepts and conceives of God differently.  

When I took Fundamentals of Philosophy, my final paper was entitled "William James's Concept of God."  Wester marked the title as being wrong and then explained why to me.  James doesn't think we have a concept of God, but a perception, an experience.  He let me rewrite the paper.

Sunday I preached a sermon which explored the myriad ways one could interpret the Letter of Jude.  The sermon was written before Don Wester died, but I dedicated the sermon to his memory, for he taught me to explore truth in this way.

How does one measure the gift of an intellectual worldview?  Especially when his teaching helped me to keep my faith by seeing things in a new light?