This magazine has long straddled the world of religion and politics, convinced that political awareness and engagement are part of faithful Christian living. We do so knowing full well that this territory is highly contested. One of the ways we gauge success is by whether we get criticism from different ends of the political spectrum. That happens a lot.
In discussing two books on the new apocalypticism, Jason Byassee confesses that he failed as a pastor to know what his people were reading and thinking about the topic. I know what he means. I don’t read this stuff either. But a lot of people are reading it.
In Elisabeth Sifton’s The Serenity Prayer: Faith and Politics in Times of Peace and War, the author describes how Reinhold Niebuhr, her father, moved away from the pacifism that prevailed among mainline religious leaders in the years after World War I.
Along with other folks at the Christian Century, I saw The Passion of the Christ at a special screening hosted by the Chicago branch of the American Jewish Committee, whose offices are in the building next to ours in Chicago.
A good friend of mine dropped out of seminary, entered the business world, became a successful executive recruiter and migrated finally to management consulting, at which he is an expert. Big corporations retain him to help them think imaginatively about their businesses.
Several years ago I was part of a discussion of theological education which tackled two sets of questions: First, what skills does one need in order to be an effective clergyperson? What does one need to know? Second, how does one learn the skills and procure the knowledge? Where is it learned and procured? Who teaches?
References to Robert Putnam have turned up in many sermons in recent years, including my own, because of a timely observation he made, one that immediately resonated with pastors as both true and important. America, he said, was experiencing a sharp decline in “social capital,” by which he meant the tangible and intangible benefits of community involvement.
My morning reading the other day included four texts on sex and marriage that I carefully pondered: Dennis O’Brien’s thoughtful essay—which is published in this issue—expressing reservations about legalizing gay marriage; a New York Times Magazine analysis of the conflict in the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia resulting from Bishop Peter Lee’s vote in favor of the consecration of Gene Robinso
These are difficult times for people who value the unity of the church. The Network of Anglican Communion Dioceses and Parishes seems to be setting up as a rival structure to the Episcopal Church in preparation for a possible split of the denomination.
This magazine lost a good friend and strong supporter when former U.S. Senator Paul Simon died on December 9. He was a member of the Century’s board of trustees and he read each issue carefully. He regularly responded to its content in crisp notes to the editors, handwritten or typed on his manual typewriter.
The reflections on John Updike’s work in this issue sent me to my shelves in search of a particular Updike story that I read long ago and have never forgotten. I am an unabashed fan of Updike. He writes thoughtfully and provocatively about ordinary American lives. My fondness for Updike has gotten me in trouble on occasion.
My gratitude for Advent has deepened over the years. I welcome the shorter days, and love the way the angled light of late November and early December makes everything look different. It seems to transform the world into a more promising place. Details are softer, colors pastel.
The articles in this issue set me pondering the great and significant people in my life. And I recalled a remarkable lecture I heard years ago by the late Carlyle Marney. Marney was a Southern Baptist preacher from Charlotte who finished his career by directing a retreat center for broken and hurting preachers. He was a big, robust man with a great sense of humor and a contagious laugh.
An exasperated parishioner once wrote me a note explaining that my references to sports in sermons were not effective for her and, in fact, were increasingly irritating. She didn’t understand them, didn’t like competitive sports of any kind, and suspected that the American sports ethos might be responsible for the mess America makes in the world.
One of the difficult decisions, and sometimes compromises, ministers regularly make involves conducting funerals and memorial services for people who are not members of the congregation. It happens fairly often: a telephone call, sometimes from a funeral director, informs you of a death and the family’s hope that the service can be in your church and that you will preside.
At one of our church’s weekly staff meetings the youth minister said he had a problem and needed his colleagues’ advice. In the course of teaching the confirmation class, he had asked the young people to write their own statement of faith. The problem, he said, was that one of the students didn’t believe much of anything, though he was happily involved in the confirmation process.
There was a time when people lived without clocks. They awakened, ate, played, slept in a rhythm maintained by the seasons and the rising and setting of the sun. But then something happened, socially and technologically. Now we are expected to be places and do things at times designated by others, and now we must have a timepiece in order to accommodate these expectations.
A stretch of two weeks at the beach allows me to do something I’ve never able to manage during the working year: read more than one book at a time—maybe six or seven—and experience the literary and intellectual synergy that results. This year I found myself reading, more or less at the same time:
I am not a high-tech person. That’s partly due to age, partly to disposition. The very mention of my technological skills sets my colleagues and family to snickering. I never thought I’d be an anachronism and I’m not particularly proud of it. But I do find myself resisting some of the places the new technology wants to take me.
One of the ways to divide the human race, I have concluded, is between those who can tell a good joke and those who cannot. Some people are joke-telling experts. They have jokes filed away in their memory and can pull them out at just the right moment and reel them off with perfect inflection and timing. It’s a life skill.