StoryCorps has for ten years been producing an oral history of America, recording the voices of everyday people telling about their families, jobs, trials and relationships. The project records the powerful stories that people have to tell, and it shows what can be evoked by asking a simple question like “How did you meet your wife?” or “What was your father like?”
Though Nelson Mandela reportedly was guarded about his own religious convictions, he maintained close ties to church leaders and was deeply shaped by his Methodist education. When he talked of forgiving his jailers, called for racial enemies to live in peace, and in words and deeds opened up the path to national reconciliation, the echoes of the gospel were unmistakable.
Yet it should also be remembered that Mandela at one time embraced the use of violence as part of the resistance to apartheid.
Some people can’t get enough of Christmas carols. I can’t get enough of Advent hymns. “Prepare the Royal Highway,” “Creator of the Stars of Night, “On Jordan’s Banks the Baptist’s Cry,” “People, Look East,” “Comfort, Comfort, Now My People,” “Fling Wide the Door,” “Unexpected and Mysterious”—there just aren’t enough Advent Sundays to sing all the great ones.
The other day on St. Peter’s Square, Pope Francis embraced a man suffering from a disfiguring disease called neurofibromatosis, which causes tumors to grow all over the skin. The pope’s action had a stunning, parable-like clarity, evoking Gospel stories of Jesus reaching out to the sick and marginalized.
Jeffrey Gros, one of the liveliest and most penetrating ecumenical thinkers I ever encountered, died earlier this month. A conversation with Jeff was always illuminating as well as a bit disorienting, for he had the many voices of global Christianity freshly cataloged in his brain.
The Times story does a decent job summarizing the debate, in which the overarching question is posed by historian David Hollinger (interviewed by the Century last year): Did liberal Protestants of midcentury win the culture war but lose the church?
If Americans of a certain age know anything about Puritanism, it is probably because they read something by the (atheist) historian Edmund S. Morgan, the great Yale scholar who died July 8. His bookThe Puritan Dilemma—which used the life of John Winthrop to describe the Puritans’ religious and political project in America—was widely assigned in high schools and colleges.
I had the good fortune decades ago to take a graduate class from Morgan on American colonial history.
In the ancient city of Laodicea in western Turkey, site of the church reprimanded in the book of Revelation for being “neither cold nor hot,” our guide led us across the old agora to a pile of broken columns. One had a fascinating marking. A menorah had been scratched onto the stone, and next to it was inscribed a cross. What did this mean?
At a conference on theology and politics at Wheaton College earlier this month, a speaker described a world run by economic elites who pursue their own interests. These elites dominate both political parties in the United States, he noted.
In the question-and-answer period, a student at the evangelical college asked what then should be done, given such an oppressive system. The speaker advised the student not to put much hope in electoral politics.
In a recent editorial calling for same-sex marriage to be legal, the Century editors noted that if and when legalization happens at the national level, the First Amendment will protect religious groups that have their own position on the question. The government won’t, for example, be able to force a church or minister to perform a same-sex wedding against their will.
Yet as Mark Silk notes, a range of religious liberty questions will likely have to be addressed—and probably litigated.
Historians have argued for decades that the Second Amendment has nothing to do with the right to own a handgun nor even with the right to use a gun in self-defense. Nevertheless, a counternarrative—bolstered by the National Rifle Association—has triumphed in the popular mind and been codified to some extent in the Supreme Court’s ruling in District of Columbia v. Heller (2008), which said that the Second Amendment “protects an individual right to possess a firearm.”
Politicians in Washington invariably use the term “entitlements” to refer to programs like Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. On the face of it, it’s a neutral term: citizens are entitled to certain benefits if they fit a certain category of need, hence the benefits might reasonably be called “entitlements.”
Yet the word carries ideological freight—an implication that people are lazy or self-indulgent to expect these things.
President Obama’s speech in Newtown on December 17 included this pivotal question: “Are we prepared to say that such violence visited on our children year after year after year is somehow the price of our freedom?” The president is bristling here at the way our political discourse reflexively leaps to claims about individual rights and freedoms.
Algebraic preaching—that’s Frederick Buechner’s term for preaching that may make sense on some abstract level but that depends on terms like “salvation,” “atonement,” “savior” and “died for your sins” that are likely to skim over people’s heads. Until the preacher connects such words to human experiences, to the “wretched and liberating moments” of life,” wrote Buechner,