Dec 28, 2004
Let me tell you about Nadia, a friend and colleague in Iraq. From May 2003 until last April she worked for a newspaper in Baghdad. Then two of its reporters were killed and its editor, after receiving repeated threats, fled the country. So Nadia was out of a job. She tried to keep busy doing translation work for various foreigners, but one was assassinated and two were kidnapped. Almost all the others left the country or were afraid to leave their homes.
When award-winning documentary filmmakers Alan and Susan Raymond set out to make The Congregation, they may have imagined they were taking a respite from the hot topics of their previous films—wartime Bosnia, New York police, and homosexuality in America. But the two years they spent observing First United Methodist Church of Germantown in Philadelphia turned out to be anything but placid.
On the third day of Easter, I stood in front of the Holy Trinity Cathedral in Kiev, Ukraine. With me was a prominent scholar of American religion who was visiting Eastern Europe for the first time. We were watching a priest and his flock process around the cathedral with icons, incense and crosses. “Have you heard that more Americans are becoming Orthodox?” she asked me, smirking slightly. “Smells and bells. One more way to have someone tell you what to do and what to think.”
Think of the standard theological debates in Western Christianity: Is conversion a matter of divine grace or human free will? Are theological disputes to be arbitrated by appeals to the Bible or to church tradition? Do the church’s authority and unity cohere in the pope, in a set of bishops, or in assemblies of the faithful?
When Alfred Charles Kinsey was hired as an assistant professor of zoology at Indiana University in 1920, he began a two-decade study of the gall wasp, collecting over 1 million samples. He loved the gall wasp, he said, because each one was totally different from the others. In 1938, at the behest of curious students, he taught a course called “Marriage” that was designed to dispel the sexual myths that were confounding and frustrating young people. (“Is it true that oral sex can cause problems getting pregnant? Will excessive masturbation lead to impotence?”)
Give yourself a treat and put Jürgen Moltmann’s Theology of Hope under your Christmas tree. Moltmann published the book in German 40 years ago. After it was translated into English three years later (1967), he became an instant theological celebrity in the U.S. The book even made it to the front page of the New York Times. One of Theology of Hope’s main themes is Advent, God’s coming to the world to redeem it. In the Advent season, it may be good to remind ourselves of this extraordinarily important book.