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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?  


Dorothy Day: The World Will Be Saved by Beauty

Dorothy Day; The World Will Be Saved By Beauty: An Intimate Portrait of Dorothy DayDorothy Day; The World Will Be Saved By Beauty: An Intimate Portrait of Dorothy Day by Kate Hennessy
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A beautiful book, beautifully written, in which one of Dorothy Day's grand-daughters tries to save her from hagiography by giving an intimate account of the woman, particularly focused on her relationship with her daughter Tamar and her many grandchildren. The later chapters focus a great deal on mother-daughter relationships. You will not go away from this book with a deeper understanding of Day's thought, but with a richer understanding of how complex her life was, how she approached life as a writer, and how difficult the Catholic Worker was.

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I Know What Heaven Looks Like

I Know What Heaven Looks Like: A Modern Day Coming of Age StoryI Know What Heaven Looks Like: A Modern Day Coming of Age Story by Lawrence T. Richardson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I heard Lawrence speak at the annual meeting of the Iowa Conference of the United Church of Christ. His vulnerability, resilience, and humor blew me away. He's coming to preach for us at First Central on Feb. 17, so I wanted to read his book ahead of time.

It is, at times, a harrowing read, as he recounts his childhood experiences of poverty, neglect, and abuse. But it is also a story of finding faith and a calling to ministry and how those brought healing and hope. Then it is also the story of a gender transition and the violent reaction that initially generates from family and his faith tradition.

This is a powerful book. I recommend it.

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Pensees

Blaise Pascal: Thoughts, Letters and Minor Works: Part 48 Harvard ClassicsBlaise Pascal: Thoughts, Letters and Minor Works: Part 48 Harvard Classics by Blaise Pascal
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

I had looked forward to the Pensees, though as I began to read it I was struck by how awful it is and my recurring thought was, "Why is this in the canon?"

Of course the answer is Pascal's wager, so I eventually quickly skimmed/skipped ahead to that portion and read it. But even it is only okay. I then skimmed/skipped through the rest of the book.

Pascal is a bad thinker, overwhelmed with a religious fundamentalism and what seems either an inability or a refusal to see the wide variety of possibilities.

He is also overwhelming pessimistic, such as this line, "Men are so necessarily mad, that not to be mad would amount to another form of madness." I was surprised that he isn't more popular with the nihilists. There's this:

"When I see the blindness and the wretchedness of man, when I regard the whole silent universe, and man without light, left to himself, and as it were, lost in this corner of the universe, without knowing who has put him there, what he has come to do, what will become of him at death, and incapable of all knowledge, I become terrified, like a man who should be carried in his sleep to a dreadful desert island, and should awake without knowing where he is, and without means of escape. And thereupon I wonder how people in a condition so wretched do not fall into despair."

Egads.

I was surprised that this paragraph isn't famous:

"What a chimera then is man! What a novelty! What a monster, what a chaos, what a contradiction, what a prodigy! Judge of all things, imbecile worm of the earth; depositary of truth, a sink of uncertainty and error; the pride and refuse of the universe! Who will unravel this tangle?"

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Judges: A Commentary

Judges (2008): A CommentaryJudges (2008): A Commentary by Susan Niditch
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This autumn I've been teaching a Wednesday night Bible study on the Book of Judges. Judges is one of those texts I've done very little with in my ministry. Many of the stories are not suitable for Sunday morning preaching. But shortly after the inauguration of Donald Trump, I decided that sometime I needed to teach on Judges, as its themes resonate with our moment--a search for effective and faithful leadership, a focus on the treatment of women, increasing violence. Often this semester the topics we have been discussing in the class have corresponded with items in the national news.

This commentary by Susan Niditch is quite good and was very helpful in teaching the class. I found her comments helped to make sense of the stories and gave insights that were applicable to my teaching needs.

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Ramadan

RamadanRamadan by Hannah Eliot
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A couple of weeks ago, I was driving in the car with our son when the folks on NPR were discussing Ramadan. Our son said from the backseat, "Ramadan! I have that book." I counted that as parenting success--our son loves his book, is listening to the radio, and is learning interfaith and multicultural appreciation.

We ordered this book after one it its series on Dia de los Muertos was given to our son as a gift. This series is about holidays from around the world. The pictures are pretty and engaging and the text is a helpful introduction for young children.

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Tell It on the Mountain

Tell It on the Mountain: The Daughter of Jephthah in Judges 11Tell It on the Mountain: The Daughter of Jephthah in Judges 11 by Barbara Miller
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Browsing the local progressive Christian bookstore I saw this volume and was intrigued what an entire book on Jephthah's daughter would be like. Plus, I was about to teach that story in an adult Bible study this fall, so I grabbed the book.

This is really a textbook (though you could do an adult bible study with it) exploring various ways of reading and interpreting the Bible, using this story as the entry point. In particular Miller brings into conversation Medieval Jewish Midrash and contemporary feminist scholars, with the book introducing both methods and the variety of voices even within those traditions.

The book also introduces methods one can (and should according to the text) use when interpreting biblical narratives.

I was hoping for some more in-depth analysis, but some of my other commentaries and books asked more provocative questions of the text. That said, I still find it engaging and useful. In particular I would not have encountered the midrash in most of my sources. I'm most thankful for having here encountered a first century poem imagining the sung lament of Jephthah's daughter.

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