Recently I spent a week on retreat with my book club. It’s a smart
and kind and diverse group of people. But one of the greatest pleasures
of their company is that only two members are Christian—and very
different Christians in terms of theology and tradition. One woman, a
psychologist, laughs out loud because she can’t believe that she has a
friend who is a pastor.
I regretted to see in the January 2 New York Times that Peter Steinfels was writing his final “Beliefs” column. I’ve rarely missed a Steinfels column over the years. They were consistently respectful and totally devoid of either simplistic advocacy or simplistic criticism. Steinfels attempted to understand and analyze the complexity of religion in contemporary America.
I began the visit with “Hello, I’m the new pastor at the Presbyterian church.” An innocent enough introduction, I thought. “Wow. But you’re so young!” came the reply.“Well, I just started. And sure, I’m on the young side,” I said, hoping to move on quickly.“No, I mean, you’re really young!”At this point it was difficult to know what to say. To be honest, I was frustrated. I hadn't gone to college plus seminary plus spent an extra year as intern only to have my lack of wrinkles and my intact hairline greeted with shock.
Tom walked into my office looking glum. He tossed his backpack on the floor, fell into a chair by my desk, sighed, and then rummaged through his bag for the registrar’s form. Tom is a first-year seminary student, and I’m his counselor. We walked through the courses he would be taking, most of them part of our core curriculum. Tom’s lack of enthusiasm was screaming at me. Finally I took the bait: “So, Tom, what’s the matter?” His hands went up in the air as he shot back, “What’s the deal with all of these required courses? When do we get to study things that are relevant?” Ah, I thought, the old “Let’s make thousands of years of inherited tradition relevant to me” argument. I’d just had a similar conversation with a woman in the congregation where I serve, who wondered why we repeat the “same old creed” each Sunday.
James Fenimore Cooper Jr. and Margaret Bendroth are rummaging through church attics and basements in the New England states, especially Massachusetts, looking for records of early American life. Some churches are reticent to part with old documents, but the two historians point out how vulnerable the documents are and offer to keep them in a climate-controlled rare book room at the Congregational Library in Boston. Among their findings: a church in Middleboro possessed an application for membership submitted in 1773 by a slave (New York Times, July 29).