I would love to tell you that I read psalms every morning, poetry every noon, theology every afternoon and prize-winning fiction every night. The truth is that I read largely by necessity during the school week, saving the good stuff for late nights and weekends.
Over the past year I have been speaking with different groups about biblical narrative in the age of Twitter. As more and more people find Facebook updates, text messages and 140-character tweets adequate for their communication needs, who will retain the skills to read the lengthy, complex, ancient stories that have given rise to three major world religions?
When Studs Terkel, described by Donna Seaman as “oral historian, writer of conscience and raconteur-on-a-mission,” died on Halloween in 2008, he left a tall stack of books behind him. None affected me more than one called Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do.
Deep suffering makes theologians of us all. The questions people ask about God in Sunday school rarely compare with the questions we ask while we are in the hospital. This goes for those stuck in the waiting room as well as those in the hospital beds. To love someone who is suffering is to learn the visceral definition of pathetic: affecting or exciting emotion, especially the tender emotions, as pity or sorrow; so inadequate as to be laughable or contemptible. To spend one night in real pain is to discover depths of reality that are roped off while everything is going fine.
I did not own one for ages. The first reason was personal: driving the car was a kind of Sabbath for me, with nothing to do but listen to music and watch the scenery. Why muck that up with a ringing telephone? The second reason was ecological: if I detested the microwave towers that were springing up all over the countryside, then why participate in their proliferation?
In mid-August I attended the grand opening of the new Al-Farooq Masjid in midtown Atlanta, a complex that includes gardens, fountains, a school and a 46,000-square-foot prayer hall with room for 1,800 worshipers. Along with other guests, I admired the hand-painted dome, the carved stonework, and the custom-made carpet with individual prayer spaces woven in, all pointing toward Mecca.
Like everyone else I know, I am feeling the pinch of a straitened economy. I eat out less often, I drive less far and I write fewer checks to my favorite charities. These are all middle-class concerns, I know (does anyone admit to being upper-middle class?), which is why I hesitate to mention them.
I teach a variety of courses at Piedmont College, but “Introduction to World Religions” is my favorite. I have taught it more than 20 times now, to more than 500 students. One of them tells me how different the news from Iraq sounds now that she knows the difference between Shi‘as and Sunnis. Another brings me pictures of a new Hindu temple going up in his old neighborhood, which he is able to interpret for his alarmed parents. Students who complete the class say they feel more at home in the world. They are less easily frightened by religious difference. They are more informed neighbors, better equipped to wage peace instead of war.The only place the course backfires is in the unit on Christianity. Students who have spent every Sunday of their lives in church may be able to name the books of the Bible in order, but they rarely have any idea how those books were assembled. They know they belong to Victory Baptist Church, but they do not know that this makes them Protestants.
There were 15 people in my house when the well ran dry. It was Thanksgiving, and everyone knew that they did not have to flush every time. Those who were spending the night had learned how to take navy showers: turn the water on long enough to get wet, turn it off, soap yourself, turn the water on long enough to rinse, and turn it off again. If the water ever gets really nice and hot, then you know that you have left it on too long.Everyone knew this, but we still ran out of water. When I turned the kitchen tap to fill the coffee pot after Thanksgiving dinner, all that came out was a long airy gasp. “We’re out of water!” I yelled.
Jesus talks longer to the woman at the well than he does to anyone else in all the Gospels—longer than he talks to any of his disciples, longer than he talks to any of his accusers, longer than he talks to any of his own family. She is the first person he reveals himself to in the Gospel of John. She is the first outsider to guess who he is and tell others.
A few years ago I bought a book on leadership called Getting to Yes. I think it was about moving from win-lose situations to win-win situations in which everyone involved has an easier time “getting to yes.” I cannot say for sure since I never read it, but the title alone proved worth the price. Just seeing it on my bookshelf cheered me up.
Jeremy M. Loveless. Nathanael J. Doring. Richard A. Bennett. James A. Funkhouser. J. Adan Garcia. According to a recent article in the New York Times, these are the names of the five soldiers killed in Iraq over the three-day Memorial Day weekend this year. If I had nothing else to say in this column, I would also name the 24 soldiers killed over Memorial Day weekends since the invasion of Iraq in 2003, along with the 4,000-some Americans who have died in Afghanistan and Iraq since the wars in those countries began. I wish I could also name the Afghan and Iraqi dead, but I do not know anyone who keeps track of their names.
There is nothing like writing a book called Leaving Church for discovering how many things people can make of a title like that. The church of the title is Grace-Calvary Church in Clarkesville, Georgia. Leaving is what I did in 1997 when I resigned from parish ministry. In the year since the book came out, I have received thousands of letters, most so poignant that I have to hold my heart while I read them.What I read above all is a rich mix of love and grief: love for the mainline churches that have formed the faithful, and grief that so many of those churches have run out of holy steam. The love part makes the grief part hard to articulate.
Most Christians are stubbornly fixed on being like Jesus. He is the gold standard for what it means to be fully human, in full union with the Divine. They tell me what it costs to love unconditionally, to forgive 70-times-seven, to show compassion for the poor—all essential hallmarks of Jesus’ ministry. What I hear less about is what it costs to oppose the traditions of the elders, to upset pious expectations of what a child of God should say or do, to subvert religious certainty, and to make people responsible for their own lives. Yet all of these are present in his example too.
"The man who delivers my groceries wants a Bible,” my mother said, “but he doesn’t know which one. What shall I tell him?” I should have had a ready answer for her, but I did not. It was a big question, after all. If she had asked me to recommend a life partner for her deliveryman, I could not have taken the matter more to heart. Say you have one shot at putting a Bible in someone’s hands.