Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Letters and Papers from Prison comes under the category of “Books to Be Read on an Annual Basis”—like Augustine’s Confessions, King Lear, or anything by Flannery O’Connor. In general, we read too many books and return to too few.
In August 1994, I was an introspective, brainy 16-year-old, fresh from a summer in Israel with a busload of other 16-year-olds. On my last morning in Jerusalem, I had watched the sun rise: cool breezes over ancient golden stones. I heard church bells ring and the Muslim call to prayer, whispering my own Hebrew dreams into fuzzy pink air. As a Jewish teen who went (reluctantly) to Israel for the Roman ruins but stayed for the prayers, when we chanted under desert stars I was suspended somewhere in between Reform Jewish teenagerhood and a future as a religious studies professor—plus my always evolving, complex relationship with Jewish adulthood.
This was when I first encountered Rodger Kamenetz’s The Jew in the Lotus: A Poet’s Rediscovery of Jewish Identity in Buddhist India.
One of the reasons I was drawn to Jimmy Carter, first as an emerging national politician in the mid-1970s and then as a biographical subject decades later, was the similarity of our backgrounds. Both of us were reared in evangelical households, he in rural southwest Georgia and I in Nebraska, Minnesota, Michigan, and Iowa. We are both the oldest in our families: Carter had three younger siblings, and I have four younger brothers. We had “born-again” experiences at an early age, Carter at age 11 and me initially at, well, three years old—but that is another story.
Not long after graduating from college, I found myself editing Christian History magazine, a richly illustrated quarterly where most of the contributing writers were academics but most of the readers were not. Honestly, I had more in common with our readers than with our authors. On my way to a B.A. in English literature, I had taken one class in Christian thought, one in Western civ, and zero in church history. I also had basically no exposure to Christian traditions other than evangelical Protestantism.
When I am not involved in matters religious or scholarly, one of my favorite escapes is science fiction and fantasy literature or media. My favorite series is The Wheel of Time by Robert Jordan.
The series focuses on the actions of four friends, pushed by circumstances from their little village into the larger world. They discover along the way that they are meant to play central roles in the coming Last Battle of the Ages.
Books change. They change us individually and collectively. Tom Paine’s direct style convinced countless colonists that it was Common Sense to become an independent nation. Henry David Thoreau lectured New England college students that they were better off hand-crafting knives than they were sitting in stuffy classrooms. He influenced Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr.
The case of Burwell v. Hobby Lobby has received extraordinary attention as a site of struggle between faith and law. The Supreme Court’s decision that businesses may refuse on principle to provide contraception coverage has not been a shining hour for religious freedom. Many observers fear that the ruling will do less to protect that freedom than to expand the power of corporations.
Hobby Lobby has overshadowed two other suits this term that offered more compelling instances of conscience in action.
Ongoing and open revelation sets the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints apart from many other religious traditions. Mormons believe there is a living prophet of God on Earth and that he has the power and authority to receive new doctrine directly from the Lord. Despite its infrequent implementation, the ninth article of faith is one of the most important tenets of Mormon doctrine: “We believe all that God has revealed, all that He does now reveal, and we believe that He will yet reveal many great and important things pertaining to the Kingdom of God.” Open revelation is at the heart of the recent excommunication of Mormon feminist Kate Kelly.
Fireworks this Friday will celebrate the signing of the Declaration of Independence almost 250 years ago. The founders' assurance "that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights; that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness" was authorized by "the Laws of Nature and Nature’s God." But the meaning of that phrase has been the subject of heated debate for some time.
Memphis is known for blues, barbecue, and kings. Elvis Presley, the "king of rock 'n' roll," shook, rattled, and rolled his way to stardom by drawing from the art of African Americans. He was, arguably, bigger than Jesus before John Lennon made that controversial claim for the Beatles in the 1960s. In that decade, Memphis became infamous for what happened to the preacher King. There to support the sanitation workers strike of 1968, Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, and the legacy of bloodshed continues to haunt the city.
Elvis and Martin are not the only kings of Memphis. There's also the king of kings.