Religion Feed

The Ornament of the World

The Ornament of the World: How Muslims, Jews, and Christians Created a Culture of Tolerance in Medieval SpainThe Ornament of the World: How Muslims, Jews, and Christians Created a Culture of Tolerance in Medieval Spain by MarĂ­a Rosa Menocal
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

An enjoyable read about Medieval Spain and the ways in which the three monotheistic faiths interacted with one another and created one of the world's great and most influential cultures. The approach may be a bit romanticized, but who cares. We need to highlight those positive moments in world history that give us glimpses of what is possible.

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Unglued: Making Wise Choices in the Midst of Raw Emotions

Unglued: Making Wise Choices in the Midst of Raw EmotionsUnglued: Making Wise Choices in the Midst of Raw Emotions by Lysa TerKeurst
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Recommended to me a couple of weeks ago when I was in the midst of a depression over my divorce. There are aspect of the book I had to filter. For example, it's written more for a suburban wife audience. And the piety isn't mine. But I found some really helpful discussions in it of expectations and creating a reaction plan for the types of things that normally upset one.

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Dangerous Religious Ideas

Dangerous Religious Ideas: The Deep Roots of Self-Critical Faith in Judaism, Christianity, and IslamDangerous Religious Ideas: The Deep Roots of Self-Critical Faith in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam by Rachel S. Mikva
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

My Associate Pastor Katie Miller had Rachel Mikva for a seminary class, which was my connection to finding out about this excellent volume. And excellent it is. Mikva argues that any religious idea can be dangerous. Religious ideas have great power to help and bring meaning, but they can also be used to exploit, divide, and cause violence. And it isn't just the ideas of religious extremists, even the ideas of moderates and liberals. So what to do?

We must cultivate self-critical religion. And fortunately Judaism, Christianity, and Islam have all always had self-critical aspects to the tradition. And Mikva highlights those in this book.

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Of Plymouth Plantation

Of Plymouth PlantationOf Plymouth Plantation by William Bradford
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I read my first excerpt of Bradford's book in tenth grade American Literature class. It was sitting in Mrs. Douthitt's classroom that I first heard the story of my ancestor John Howland falling off the boat and catching a halyard by which he was pulled back in. I experienced an existential moment, realizing that this story from "literature" affected whether or not I even existed.

So it is odd that I had never ventured to read Bradford's book until now. I've read a handful of other historian's books on the Mayflower and the Plymouth colony. But with this being the 400th anniversary year, I thought I should correct my lack.

But little of Bradford's account contains the vivid story like Howland falling off of the Mayflower. Huge sections of the book go into details about controversies over the later business dealings of the colony. Clearly Bradford was trying to defend the colony to the wider English reading audience, but doesn't make for riveting reading four centuries later. Other than to remind you of how much this was also a business enterprise.

There are vivid moments. like the description of how smallpox ravished Native tribes. And the book is a strong reminder of how harrowing and traumatizing the whole experience was on those original pilgrims.

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The Book of J

The Book of JThe Book of J by Harold Bloom
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I have read sections of this book over a few years as they were relevant to preparing a sermon or Bible study, and after recently using it a good deal while preaching a Genesis sermon series, I elected to read all the parts I hadn't yet.

The book is full of profound, curious, and provocative insights as Bloom develops his idea that the author of the oldest parts of the Torah must have been a woman of the royal court writing during the reign of Rehoboam. What distracts from reading the book in whole is how repetitive it is.

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Whence and Whither

Whence and Whither: On Lives and LivingWhence and Whither: On Lives and Living by Thomas Lynch
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

A collection of lectures, essays, and stories and, as such, varied in quality. There are some witty, provocative, insightful images and phrases, but not the overall substance I had hoped for.

His discussion "Red Wheel-Barrow" by William Carlos Williams is itself worth the price of the book. That discussion made me cry.

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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.