As a pastor in New York City, I've found myself challenged to think more deeply about “stuff." I've come to believe that the truth about what we too casually name “materialism” is not so simple. It ought to be clear, after all, that God doesn’t hate stuff. Witness the creation story. God invents stuff. At the end of each of six days, God engages in self-congratulation, pronouncing serial evening benedictions on the stuff created that day: “Good!”
When A History of God hit the New York Times bestseller list, Karen Armstrong suddenly became the go-to commentator on religion. Bill Moyers calls her “one of the foremost, and most original, thinkers on religion in our modern world.” Why is she so widely read? The answer is not immediately clear. Her prose is often maddeningly dense and her points elusive. Her drive to comprehend religion leads her to be constantly comparing elements of different religious traditions, but the connections she draws are not always illuminating.
Several years ago, my daughter, who is a Methodist pastor, received an appointment to a small charge in North Carolina’s tobacco country. One day a parishioner informed her that Francis Asbury had preached at a camp meeting at a nearby lake.
When a lawyer asks Jesus about eternal life, Jesus turns the question back to the lawyer, and the lawyer answers, citing scripture (Deuteronomy and Leviticus). The lawyer circles around one more time, this time asking a question with a history of interpretation: who is one’s neighbor? Jesus responds by telling the story of the Good Samaritan.
The challenge of telling other people’s stories is an occupational hazard for journalists, historians, memoirists, conflict mediators and even preachers. Getting the facts accurate is only part of the challenge. Storytellers have to grapple with the most effective way to tell the story and what perspective to take or interpretive remarks to include.
When he’s at home, Rowan Williams, former archbishop of Canterbury, begins each day with a short meditative walk, or sometimes with some slow prostrations, followed by 30 to 40 minutes of sitting on a low stool to repeat the Jesus prayer (“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy upon me, a sinner”). Usually he repeats the words silently, saying them while breathing out. “Over the years increasing exposure to and engagement with the Buddhist world in particular has made me aware of practices not unlike the ‘Jesus Prayer’ and introduced me to disciplines that further enforce the stillness and physical focus that the prayer entails,” says Williams (New Statesman, July 8).