I have a recurring nightmare about the final exam on which my college graduation depends. Thinking I am prepared, I open a blue booklet only to discover that I am being tested in a language I do not know. I try to explain that there has been a terrible mistake, but the proctor is unforgiving. I am sent back to my chair to take a test that I have no hope of understanding, let alone passing.
The current spate of atheist, antitheist and antireligious books has made me ask myself whether I ought to be working, strictly pro bono, for the defense. Fortunately there are a host of reasonable and well-spoken public intellectuals like Alister McGrath, Keith Ward and John Haldane who are willing to undertake this tedious but necessary job.
Should there be a statute of limitations on youthful indiscretions? The question had me hooked, even though it was going to be discussed in one of my least favorite formats: a call-in talk radio show. I knew the conversation would give me a glimpse of popular culture’s sensibilities about forgiveness, accountability and the past.
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.
Several years ago I engaged in a public dialogue with a Roman Catholic theologian about prayers to the saints. I went into the discussion with my mind made up on the subject. We Protestants—especially we evangelicals—do not pray to anyone but God. Directing our prayers in any other direction is at best theologically confused and at worst idolatrous. I came away, though, a little less convinced that the theological case was as tightly shut as I had thought.
In 2006 Charles Roberts walked into an Amish schoolhouse in Pennsylvania, shot and killed five schoolgirls, injured another five and then took his own life. The Amish community immediately declared that it forgave Roberts for his heinous acts, and some of them reached out with compassion to Roberts’s mother. Roberts’s brother Zachary is now working on a documentary called Hope, focusing on his mother’s journey since the shootings. “How does the mother of a mass murderer move forward?” he asks. Forgiveness and faith have been the key ingredients in her life (Huffington Post, November 17).